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Care Guide for Freshwater Angelfish – The Feisty Angel of the Aquarium

Angelfish are a very popular fish because of their long and majestic fins, spirited personalities, and ease of breeding. To learn more about this unique cichlid, we sat down with master breeder Dean, who has successfully kept them for the past 40 to 50 years and produces high-end strains to sell at the Aquarium Co-Op fish store. This article reveals his real-world experiences and answers to the most frequently asked questions about keeping freshwater angelfish.

What are Angelfish?

There can be some confusion about the term “angelfish” since the saltwater aquarium hobby has marine angelfish, so we are specifically referring to the angelfish cichlids of the Pterophyllum genus that have long, wing-like fins and come from freshwater rivers in South America. The three known species of angelfish include P. altum (the largest species), P. leopoldi (the rarest species to find in fish stores), and P. scalare (the most available species found in pet stores).

What are the different angelfish types and colors? New colors and patterns of angelfish are constantly being developed, but some of the most well-known varieties include silver (or wild type), veil, koi, zebra, marble, albino, leopard, and platinum.

How big do angelfish get? These fish get to the size of a small saucer, so be prepared to give them plenty of space. The common P. scalare angelfish has a body length of up to 6 inches (15 cm) and a height (including their fins) of 8 inches (20 cm). Altum angelfish (P. altum) can grow up to 7 inches (18 cm) long and 10-13 inches (25-33 cm) high.

altum angelfish

Altum angelfish are the majestic giants of the angelfish world.

How long do angelfish live? If given a clean environment with minimal stress and high-quality foods, angelfish can live up to 8 to 12 years long.

How much do angelfish cost? Depending on the size of the fish and rareness of its color variety, the price can range between $5 to $20 and upwards.

Are angelfish aggressive? Many pet stores label angelfish as “semi-aggressive” because they are known to chase each other in the aquarium. This territorial behavior is primarily due to breeding. Males spar with one another to win their favorite female, and parents often defend their eggs and fry from being eaten by other fish. However, compared to other cichlids, angelfish are relatively peaceful and can be kept in a community aquarium with the right set of tank mates (see below for specifics).

How Do You Pick Healthy Angelfish?

When buying angelfish at a store, look for ones that are the size of a U.S. nickel, quarter, or half-dollar coin (0.8-1.2 inches or 2-3 cm). Half the fun of fish keeping is watching your fish grow from a young age to full adulthood. While angelfish are a relatively slender fish, don’t pick ones that are overly thin. Look for young, strong fish with a thicker head and meaty body. If possible, ask the store to feed them so you can select the most aggressive eaters. Also, avoid any fish with cloudy or damaged eyes. Bring home the healthiest ones possible for the best chance of success.

How Do You Set up an Angelfish Aquarium?

Angelfish can be kept in a wide variety of setups – such as bare tanks, community tanks, and planted tanks. Try adding a few beginner-friendly aquatic plants to help consume toxic waste compounds and add a beautiful slice of nature to your aquarium. For example, java fern provides tall, textured leaves for your angelfish to swim around, and it only needs some low light and a few squirts of Easy Green all-in-one fertilizer to stay alive.

angelfish and java fern

Java fern grows tall, broad leaves that provide cover and enrichment for angelfish.

As for water parameters, angelfish tend to prefer warmer temperatures between 78-86°F. (Dean keeps his tanks around 82°F for breeding and raising fry.) They are not very picky about pH and can live in a wide range from 6.0 to 8.0 (although closer to the middle is always better). Water hardness may matter a little more since many captive-bred angelfish in the United States come from Florida, which is known for having hard water or high GH levels. Angelfish can usually adapt to soft water with no problems, but you can also look for a local breeder who has similar water parameters as your own.

What size tank do angelfish need? The aquarium size depends on how many fish you plan to have. For a 29-gallon community tank, keep no more than four adult angelfish with other tank mates. For a 55-gallon tank, start with five or six juvenile angelfish and be prepared to remove some in the future if they get too territorial. If the angelfish are kept in overcrowded conditions, make sure to increase the frequency of your water changes to keep the water quality high.

Can angelfish be kept alone? In our experience, keeping a single angelfish does not seem to adversely affect their well-being. While they do shoal or swim together in the wild, having just one as the centerpiece fish in your aquarium seems to make them much more easygoing and docile overall.

single angelfish with tank mates

If aggression is a problem, consider keeping a single angelfish as a centerpiece fish amongst other community fish.

What fish can be kept with angelfish? Because of their long, gorgeous fins, stay away from any fin nippers or fast-swimming fish that will outcompete your angelfish during mealtimes. Also, given how large they can grow, don’t buy any nano fish or small creatures that can be eaten by your angelfish (like microrasboras or dwarf shrimp). We’ve had good luck with black skirt tetras, adult cardinal tetras, and cory catfish.

Guppies are on the “maybe” list for tank mates because of their smaller size, so you may want to try a larger type of livebearer if you’re worried about them. (Certainly, the angelfish will help keep any livebearer population under control by going after their fry.) Betta fish are another species in the “maybe” category. The angelfish may try to attack the betta fish, so consider choosing a giant betta or regular betta with shorter fins to increase their swimming speed.

What Is the Best Food for Angelfish?

Angelfish are easy to feed and will take all sorts of fish foods, floating or sinking. Some favorites include krill flakes, freeze-dried bloodworms and tubifex worms, and Hikari Vibra Bites. If you want to fatten up the adults to condition them for breeding, frozen bloodworms are a must-have.

For the fry, hatching out live baby brine shrimp is the best way to ensure fast growth and maximum survival rate. The yolk sacs of newly-hatched brine shrimp are very nutritious for baby fish, and their jerky swimming motions trigger the babies’ feeding responses and encourage them to fill up their bellies. As for prepared foods, Dean likes to feed his angelfish fry Hikari First Bites, Easy Fry food, and Fluval Bug Bites. Make sure you provide both the adults and their young a wide variety of foods to ensure they get all the essential nutrients needed for healthy growth. 

feeding frozen bloodworms to angelfish

Frozen bloodworms are the perfect food for quickly inducing adults to spawn.

What Do Angelfish Need to Breed?

Unless you’re an experienced angelfish keeper, it can be hard to spot the differences between males and females. Therefore, the easiest method of getting a breeding couple is to buy at least 6 juvenile angelfish, raise them to adulthood, and let them pair off naturally. Pick the best-looking pair and move them to their own aquarium for spawning. (A 20-gallon high breeding tank is a good size, since it has plenty of height for their fins to fully extend.) Once they breed, you can easily determine the sex since the female is the one laying the eggs. Afterwards, you can mix up the pairs if you want to match up two specific fish with desirable qualities.

How often do angelfish lay eggs? Angelfish readily breed and can lay hundreds of eggs every one to two weeks if the eggs are removed or eaten. (The first couple of spawns often fail because the new parents can end up consuming them.) However, with the right conditions and a little patience, your angelfish can successfully raise their own offspring. The eggs are typically laid on vertical surfaces like a stiff leaf, filter pipe, or a section of aquarium wall. Depending on the tank temperature, the eggs will hatch in two to three days, and the parents may move the newly hatched wigglers (fry that cannot swim freely yet) around the aquarium with their mouths. In another three to four days, the fry become free-swimming, and the parents will protectively keep their cloud of babies between them. At this time, start off the fry with tiny, nutritious foods like baby brine shrimp and Hikari First Bites powder.

angelfish guarding or laying eggs

Even if there is no male present, female angelfish can still lay unfertilized eggs.

How many eggs do angelfish lay? Each successful spawn can produce up to 1000 eggs that can yield 300 to 600 fry. Unfortunately, they won’t all make it to adulthood, and the survival rate tends to be lower for the first few spawns. Also, you may notice some deformities in the offspring, such as missing pectoral fins, twisted spines, or malformed tails. These defects may be caused by poor genetics or by the parents accidentally harming the eggs or fry when moving them. One of the toughest parts of being a fish breeder is culling fry and not passing on damaged fish to other hobbyists.

The reason Dean keeps breeding angelfish after so many years is because they are a very popular fish that stores always seem to have a demand for. Just a couple pairs of angelfish can entirely fund the cost of running a small fish room. If you’ve never kept them before, you can’t go wrong with this fun and colorful fish. For more suggestions on the best aquarium fish for beginners, check out our top 10 list:

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