Care Guide for Plecos – The Mighty Armored Catfish
Are you looking for a suckerfish to keep your aquarium clean? Many people mistakenly think plecostomus catfish, or plecos, will clean their aquarium of all fish poop and debris. Before you buy, let’s talk about the amazing pleco, their care requirements and whether or not they are the right fish for your pet.
What are Plecos and how do they work?
Plecostomus is the common name given to the Loricariidae family of armored suckermouth catfish that come from Central and South America. Common pleco (Hypostomus pilostomus) is often found in pet shops as a cheap cleaner fish. However, this 3-inch baby eventually grows up to be a nearly 2-foot beast with a surprisingly large appetite (and matching waste load). If you don’t have the finances to keep monster fish for their entire lives, we strongly advise against it. They are difficult to rehome. Your common pleco should not be released into the wild. They are an invasive species that can cause significant damage to the ecosystem.
Thankfully, there are much smaller plecos that are better suited for the average home aquarium. All three types of clown plecos, including rubber lip and bristlenose, are beautiful catfish. They can grow to about 4 to 6 inches long. While they may be a bit more expensive than the common pleco, their size and low food cost will compensate.
Plecos are famous for their distinctive suckermouths and armored bodies.
Plecos are easy to maintain
Their water parameters are similar to those of other tropical fish. They prefer a heated aquarium around 74 to 80degF (23 to 27degC), and they can live a broad pH range of 6.5 to 7.8. Pelegros love to be covered and protected from the elements, as they are usually nocturnal. You also need to do regular tank maintenance to keep the nitrate levels at 40 ppm or below. (If you’re not sure what nitrates are, read our article on the aquarium nitrogen cycle.)
As for tank size, the 4- to 6-inch plecos we mentioned previously can be housed in 20 to 29 gallons of water or more. Common plecos should start in 75-gallon tanks and grow to 150 or 500 gallons. These enormous aquariums are not feasible for the average fish keeper, which is why we strongly recommend the smaller species.
Columbian zebra plecos (Hypancistrus debilittera) have a striking pattern and only grow to 4 inches long.
What Do Pleco Fish Eat?
While plecos can be described as cleaner fishes, scavengers, or algae eaters they still need to be fed a healthy diet of high-quality fish foods. It’s like having a pet dog. Yes, the dog will eat any scraps that fall to the ground, but they should still have daily meals consisting of actual dog food.
In the same way, these catfish need proper foods that adequately meet their dietary requirements. While many people tend to give plecos algae wafers, most prefer them to eat a variety of food, including Repashy gel food and frozen bloodworms. Because not all plecos like the same food, it is worth doing some research. Some prefer to graze on vegetation and algae, while others like to rip on driftwood. Others crave more protein. (While many plecos are safe for plants, bristlenose plecos are known to sometimes snack on sword plants.) Since the majority of plecos are nocturnal, a good practice is to feed them when the lights are off so that they get a chance to feed while the other fish are less active.
One of the most common complaints we hear from pleco owners is “I don’t understand why my fish died.” I gave it one algae wafer every night.” Let’s go back to our pet dog analogy. You can feed your puppy one cup every day. However, when he turns adulthood, he will probably need more. Similarly, your adult pleco needs more food than a juvenile to support its larger body. It is a good rule of thumb to have a slightly rotund stomach. Increase the food intake if the abdomen is feeling sunken or the fish is not gaining weight. It could be constipated or eating too much from too many leftover foods. You should vacuum your aquarium regularly if you notice a lot of stringy pleco poop. This could indicate that nitrates are building up and may be toxic. (Download our guide to water changes to figure out how often you should clean your aquarium.)
Observe the roundness of your pleco’s belly, and adjust its food portion size accordingly to maintain a healthy weight.
Do Plecos Eat Fish Poop?
Although plecos have different food preferences, none of them rely on feces. While they may occasionally eat some while scavenging in the substrate, there is not enough sustenance in the fish waste for them to survive. Remember, plecos can be cleaners, but they are still living animals that need proper nourishment.
What fish can be kept with plecos?
Plecos can eat almost any peaceful, communal fish that aren’t large enough for them to eat. Also, don’t add fish smaller than the pleco can swallow. Usually, these catfish are scavengers and won’t eat other animals unless they have already passed away. Some plecos have been known to chew on the slime of another fish, but this usually happens with larger plecos that don’t get enough food. Keep a smaller pleco, feed it well, and you shouldn’t have this problem.
Many smaller plecos can live together with other peaceful community fish like neon tetras.
Is it possible to keep two or more plecos in one tank? It depends. Some species, especially the males, can be territorial towards other bottom dwellers or their own species. Research their behavior and ask hobbyists about their experiences. Smaller species like the bristlenose pleco can be kept in multiples as long as you aim for more females than males and provide plenty of caves and hides for everyone to choose their favorite.
Bottom line: buy the right pleco that will, even at adult size, fit the size of your aquarium. To learn more about their care and requirements, visit online forums and social media sites. While you ultimately have to clean your fish tank, we recommend that you read this popular article on the top 10 cleaning crew members.