Pictus Catfish – A Complete Care Guide

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Are you considering adding a Pictus Catfish to your tank? If so, you’ll want to read our complete care guide first. Pictus Catfish are schooling fish and do best when kept in groups of six or more. They require larger tanks than most schooling fish and should have plenty of places to hide. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about keeping Pictus Catfish healthy and happy in your aquarium. So, whether you’re just starting out with fishkeeping or are an experienced hobbyist, read on for tips on caring for these beautiful little catfish!

Key Takeaways

  • The Pictus Catfish is one of the smallest catfish in the aquarium trade only growing to 3-4 inches in length
  • While smaller, they will eat fish that they can fit in their mouth
  • They are best for larger community tanks that can house larger active fish like Mollies or Rainbowfish
  • They have not been bred in aquariums. All Pictus Catfish are imported

A Quick Overview

Scientific NamePimelodus pictus
Common NamesPictus catfish
OriginColombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Brazil
Care LevelModerate
Lifespan5 to 10 years
Tank LevelBottom
Minimum Tank Size75 gallons
Temperature Range75 to 82° F
Water Hardness5 – 15 dKH
pH Range6.5 – 7.5
Filtration/Water FlowModerate
Water TypeFreshwater
BreedingEgg layer
Difficulty to BreedNever documented
CompatibilityLarger community tanks
OK, for Planted Tanks?With caution

What Are They?

Pictus catfish, scientifically known as Pimelodus pictus, are one of the most popular freshwater catfish species available. These catfish stay a manageable size, have beautiful colorations, and remain relatively peaceful as long as other fish in the aquarium are bigger in size or more active. Not only that but pictus catfish can readily be found at most commercial pet and fish stores for an affordable price.

Overall, the pictus catfish is an easy fish to keep in theory. That being said, not all hobby fish keepers can successfully keep them in their aquariums. Here’s why.

Do They Eat Other Fish?

Yes, pictus catfish have been known to eat other smaller fish in the aquarium.

Pictus catfish are true catfish from the Siluriformes order that live on the bottoms of waterways scouring the substrate for food. Since their natural origins are typically murky, most catfish have evolved to see more with their whisker-like barbels than their eyes. This leads them to attempt to eat anything they might come across in their travels, including smaller fish.

As we’ll see, there are plenty of safe tank mate options to keep with pictus catfish though the possibility still remains.

Are They Aggressive?

Pictus catfish are generally not aggressive. Some hobbyists have found older individuals to become more territorial with age, which is typical of many types of catfish. For the most part, these community fish are accepting of the other members in their school as well as tank mates.

However, pictus catfish can be overly active swimmers for some species of fish. This, in addition to their nonpicky appetite, can make them categorized as being aggressive, though they have very peaceful demeanors.

Origin And Habitat

Pictus catfish are a South American species of catfish, originating from the Amazon and Orinoco river basins across Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Brazil. There, they can be found in shallow and flowing rivers and tributaries. They prefer to stick to sandy and muddy bottoms where they can safely search for food.

As a species from the Amazon, the pictus catfish lives alongside many other popular freshwater aquarium fish. This can make these fish a perfect addition to a blackwater or murky biotope setup.


The pictus catfish is arguably one of the most attractive catfish–and one of the more overall beautiful freshwater fish available–that you can get for the bottom of the tank. These fish are iridescent silver with black spots covering their body from head to tail, crossing onto their fins. They have some of the longest barbels of all aquarium catfish. The exact appearance of the fish will vary depending on the area of geographic collection.

Pictus Catfish Swimming

There is some discussion as to how big pictus catfish can grow to be at mature sizes. Catfish are some of the largest freshwater fish on the planet, and most species that are kept in the aquarium need big setups. However, the pictus cat stays the perfect size, growing to be about 3 to 5 inches at mature size. Though 5 inches is described to be the average, most pictus catfish size will stay well under this upper limit.

Keep in mind that their barbels will fill up an additional couple of inches, which can definitely make this fish seem bigger than it is when it zooms back and forth across the bottom of the tank. You can see a full-grown pictus in the video below from Imperial Tropicals.

There is no observable difference between male and female pictus catfish. It is believed that females have a stockier build than males, though this is extremely difficult to see.

How Long Does It Them To Grow To Full Size?

The problem with freshwater catfish is that they’re often sold at juvenile sizes, making a monster fish seem like a reasonable decision for a nano aquarium. In little to no time, the fish outgrows the tank and is left without a home.

Luckily, this isn’t a problem for pictus catfish.

Pictus catfish stay the perfect size for a home aquarium. Though they aren’t necessarily nano-sized fish, they can be kept in reasonably-sized aquariums. That being said, the pictus cat only grow for about the first year of their life. On average, these fish will reach their mature size in about 8 to 12 months.

Remember, the absolute maximum size for pictus catfish is only about 5 inches in length, which is very reasonable for most aquarium hobbyists.

Care Guide

Like most catfish, pictus catfish are easy to care for once all aquarium requirements have been met. These fish are relatively hardy, accepting of most tank mates, and more than willing to eat any food you give them. However, there are a few considerations in regard to acclimation, aquarium setup, and stocking.

Aquarium Setup

Pictus catfish are a nocturnal fish species from the murky waters of the Amazon River throughout parts of South America. In their natural habitat, they are found on sandy and muddy bottoms which allows them to search for food without any injury. These areas usually have little to no plant life due to the turbidity of the water.

In the aquarium, these conditions should be recreated as best as possible with dimmed lighting and tannins. The substrate should be sand or silt; some hobbyists successfully use mud though this choice can be very messy.

Driftwood and rocks should be placed throughout the aquarium for shelter, though pictus cats are very active swimmers and will rarely be seen sitting in one place for long. Otherwise, these fish should be given plenty of room to swim around.

On the other hand, many hobbyists have also successfully kept these fish in a regular planted aquarium. This is usually not recommended as pictus catfish can easily uproot and displace plants that get in their way as they try to swim.

Tank Size

All in all, pictus catfish are small fish. They do not grow to be monster fish like many of their relatives. Instead, tank size is more dependent on their activity level and schooling behavior.

The minimum tank size recommended for a school of pictus catfish is 75 gallons. Some sites recommend a 50 gallon or 55 gallon tank for a singular cat, but we do not recommend this as they will only thrive when kept in a social setting that requires more room.

Many hobbyists buy larger fish with the intention of upgrading their tanks in the following months. We never recommend purchasing a fish that can’t be kept indefinitely in the current tank setup. Too many times the upgrade never happens and fish are left in an aquarium that is too small for them.

Water Parameters

Pictus catfish are pretty forgiving of less-than-ideal water parameters, but they should never be exposed to poor water quality for extended periods of time. The problem with keeping catfish is that they are very messy fish. Pictus catfish won’t hesitate to try to eat anything they come across and they surely won’t be neat about it.

Ammonia and nitrite should always remain at 0 ppm. Though pictus catfish are hardy fish, they can’t tolerate traces of ammonia or nitrite. Nitrate should also remain at moderate levels, preferably under 20 ppm if not being kept in a planted aquarium.

The Amazon River is known for having soft and acidic water, but pictus cats prefer neutral water conditions with pH between 6.5 – 7.5 and a water hardness between 5 – 15 dKH. They are a tropical species and require a constant water temperature between 75 – 82° F.

Filtration and Aeration

Freshwater catfish require heavy filtration. They are messy eaters and create a lot of waste in return.

In general, an aquarium filter should be rated for 2x the size of the aquarium. For catfish, it’s recommended to pick a filter that is rated for at least 3-4x the size of the aquarium. Because of this, many hobbyists choose to use a canister filter instead of a hang-on-the-back filter due to size and space.

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Additional aeration is not required as long as there is adequate water flow in the aquarium. Pictus catfish are strong swimmers that can and will happily swim against a strong current. While good water flow will help remove wastes it can also disturb a sand substrate. In these cases, an air stone may be added to the bottom of the aquarium to help improve water circulation without causing too much disruption.


As mentioned before, pictus catfish are a nocturnal species and definitely appreciate their darkness. These fish need dimmed lighting either due to light settings or with botanical tannins.

Dimmed lighting will encourage your fish to come out during the day. If the lighting is too strong, they may seek refuge under the shade of wood and rocks, making them difficult to see.

Aquatic Plants And Decorations

Pictus catfish can be kept in a planted aquarium, though your options will be limited. These fish need a lot of space to swim and won’t hesitate to uproot any plants that get in their way.

Plant species are limited due to the dimmed lighting. It is best to go with low-light species that can also tolerate being bumped into every now and then. Some of the best plants will be Anubias and Java fern (Microsorum pteropus).

Otherwise, driftwood, branches, and rocks may be used to help make your pictus catfish feel at home. Make sure that these structures are secured as these fish will sometimes try to burrow underneath them.


Once in the aquarium, keeping pictus cats is easy and they will thrive. However, they’re a little more challenging to introduce and acclimate to the aquarium than other freshwater fish.

One important thing to consider is that these fish have serrated fins with sharp spines that can easily get caught on netting. Because of this, it’s strongly recommended to use a bowl or other container to transfer the fish between the fish store bag and the aquarium.

Another thing to consider is that these scaleless fish don’t adapt to new water parameters very easily. Some hobbyists have struggled to make the transition from aquarium store water to their home aquarium due to differing parameters. To help avoid this, make sure to give plenty of time for acclimation, preferably in a quarantine tank.

It’s best to perform a 1 to 2 hour long drip acclimation process after water temperature acclimation, all while closely monitoring behavior during the process. Keep in mind that if you purchase a fish from an online retailer, that drip acclimation cannot be down as the ammonia in the bag will be released as soon as you expose it to air.

Community Tank Mates

Pictus catfish are generally peaceful fish that leave other fish species unharmed. However, they have poor eyesight and their curious attitudes may lead them to unintentionally eat a fellow tank mate or two. To help prevent this from happening, choose larger or more active fish that can’t easily fit into the mouth of your catfish.

Some of the best pictus cat community tank mates include:

They should not be kept with smaller or less active fish like:

Some hobbyists like to keep other bottom-dwellers alongside pictus catfish, but we do not recommend this pairing. Pictus catfish are extremely active and can quickly stress out other bottom tank mates. It is best to only fill the bottom of the tank with other pictus.

Do They Need To Be In Groups?

Yes, pictus catfish do best when kept in groups. These are highly sociable fish and will be much more willing to be in the front of the tank when kept in groups of at least 4 or more.

Pictus catfish have been kept on their own before, but they become very shy and reclusive.

Food and Diet

Pictus catfish will eat anything and everything they can fit in their mouths (and maybe a thing or two that’s bigger). They are highly active fish, so they need a high-quality diet that keeps up with their fast metabolism.

The ideal pictus cat diet will be full of both meat- and plant-based foods. A variety of live, freeze-dried, and frozen foods may be given every other day, like brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, and insect larvae. Larger pieces of mollusk and fish may also be given from time to time.

It’s important to remember that these feedings can become very messy over time and should be given in moderation. Any leftover food should be removed immediately to help maintain water parameters.

The staple of the diet should be a sinking pellet. This will help your fish find the food without letting other fish get to it first. An algae wafer and blanched vegetables may also be given from time to time.

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As of yet, breeding pictus catfish has not been achieved in the aquarium hobby. These fish are near impossible to sex and breeding them can only be done in a large setting with pristine conditions.

They are a known egg layer. If by rare chance you do find pictus catfish eggs in your aquarium, immediately remove them or the adult fish and maintain water quality.

Final Thoughts

Pictus catfish are one of the most desirable species of catfish. They have beautiful colorations, stay relatively small, and can be kept in a semi-community tank. These community fish are highly active and hungry fish that are fun to watch and feed. They are nocturnal so they won’t be as visible during the day, but keeping pictus catfish in small schools will help promote visibility.

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