Hopefully, if you’re reading this, it’s because you’re doing some research before embarking on a cichlid keeping journey. Also, I hope you’re not just now beginning with fish keeping. If you’ve SUCCESSFULLY kept tropical freshwater fish before, keep reading. If you’re brand new to fish keeping, you know very little about them, and you’ve already purchased some cichlids, keep reading and you’ll understand why you’ve made your first mistake.
Okay, you haven’t bought any cichlids yet? GREAT, because I’m going to save you some real pain and grief.
Cichlids aren’t goldfish. They aren’t guppies. And they aren’t bettas. These are fish that actually demand some forethought about water conditions, tank size, filtration, tankmates, etc. Also, as a rule, cichlids are more expensive than your average tropical fresh water fish. If you don’t know what you’re doing and you try to “wing it,” odds are you’re going to kill some fish, which means you going to waste some money. Could you get lucky and have no problems? Absolutely. I could get lucky and win the lottery tomorrow or get lucky and find out one of my long, lost relatives just passed away and left me with a fortune. However, I’m not going to make any decisions or change my behavior based on either of those scenarios happening. See where I’m going with this?
Below are my steps, in order, for deciding whether to buy cichlids and how to decide which ones to buy.
(1) Understand the type of water you have at your home and intend to use for your tank(s). This is called your source water. Are you on well water, municipal water, etc? Test your water before you do anything. What is the pH, the total hardness, the calcium hardness, etc? Don’t be overwhelmed by any of that. Aquarium test kits are available to answer all of those questions. Buy one. The type of water you have can be crucial to your success or failure as a cichlid keeper.
(2) Research the cichlids that do best in the water you plan to provide them. Some cichlids do best in soft, slightly acidic water. Others do best in hard, alkaline water. Many do fine in between. To maximize your success, match your water with cichlids that are most appropriate for it. DON’T try to make your water fit the cichlids that you want. As a rule, Central and South American cichlids typically do best in softer, more acidic water. There are MANY exceptions to that, however. Also as a rule, most African cichlids do best in harder, more alkaline water. There are also MANY exceptions to that.
(3) Once you determine the cichlids that match your water, see how large they grow in captivity. The maximum size of the cichlids you are interested in should then be used to determine the optimal tank size. Some cichlids get very large (2 feet or more), while others stay quite small (2 inches or less). Large fish require large tanks. Notice I mentioned maximum size. Yeah, that Oscar (Astronotus ocellatus) you saw in the tank at your LFS (local fish store) that you think you want might be three inches long now, but in a suitable tank containing suitable water, it will grow to be well over a foot long in a few years. Unless you think spending the rest of your own life in a square box 8′ x 8′ is a good thing, you should know that your foot long Oscar probably won’t enjoy living its life in a 3′ long tank. If you could care less about this, it’s a good idea if you stop reading right here and find another hobby. Oh, and that rule of 1″ of fish per 1 gallon of water nonsense that you’ve read? Ignore that.
(4) You now have a list of cichlids you would like to keep and which match your water. What’s your budget? If you have ideal water to support a fish that will get two feet long, can you afford both the fish and equipment to keep it (them) successfully? Large tanks cost more money. So do the filters and heaters required to maintain large tanks. You’ll also need something for your tank to sit on, like a tank stand. It’s also a good idea to have a tank light. You might also want gravel, sand, or both as substrate in your tank. All of this can vary greatly in price, and there are numerous options for tanks and accessories.
(5) How large of a space do you have for the size tank you can afford and that will house the cichlid(s) you want? Large tanks take up large spaces. Also, large tanks are heavy – much heavier when full of water. Freshwater generally weighs ~9 pounds per gallon. So, in addition to the overall size of the tank, consider its total weight when full of water, substrate, and accessories (e.g., rocks, ornaments).
(6) Last thing to do before you actually buy any fish is to know something about the fish you’re planning besides how big it gets and what kind of water it requires. Some cichlids are more difficult to keep than others. Some are more sensitive to water changes than others. Some cichlids are simply intolerant of not just their own species but others too. Understand the behavior of the cichlids you are interested in and how difficult they are to keep. And don’t presume a smaller cichlid is easier to keep than a larger one. I keep mostly dwarf cichlids and, ounce for ounce, some of them are as vicious as their larger cousins. You shouldn’t just keep any cichlid with any other cichlid. Understand compatibility.
(7) Finally, be prepared to take care of the fish. The tasks required to care for them properly once you bring them home are a post for another day.
It’s okay to be new. If you think about all of the above before you buy the first fish, I guarantee that your chances of success are much greater. I have said many times that the two factors most responsible for cichlid deaths in home aquaria are poor water and fish incompatibility. Welcome to the hobby and best of luck!