Freshwater Angelfish Care Guide, Facts, and FAQ
Angelfish are among the most beautiful and popular fish for the home freshwater tropical aquarium. They’re bred in many different varieties, from the graceful veil angel to the sharp zebra to the stunning koi. This is a centerpiece fish that you will want to build your tank around, and an adult angel in a large planted aquarium is truly a sight to behold.
But like many of the most sought-after fish, they can be a little tough to manage, especially for beginners. They have specific tank requirements, and they grow much larger than most people realize. With the wrong tank mates an angelfish can be the terror of your aquarium, and you might wonder why you ever thought it was a good idea to stock them.
The intent of this article is to provide an overview of angelfish care needs and behaviors so you stand a better chance of succeeding with this unique fish. You’ll find a general profile as well as more specific facts and information on important issues such as ideal water parameters, tank mates, and tank size.
I’ll be as thorough as I can but if I miss something or if you have a question please feel free to ask in the comments section.
Freshwater Angelfish Facts
Freshwater angelfish are new-world cichlids of the genus Pterophyllum. In the wild they inhabit the rivers and streams of the Amazon River Basin and other tropical regions of South America. This fish thrives in flooded forests and dense vegetation, which can be replicated in the home aquarium.
The species most often kept in the home aquarium is likely bred from Pterophyllum scalare. More exotic members of the genus sometimes found in the aquarium trade include Pterophyllum altum (altum angelfish) and Pterophyllum leopoldi (dwarf angelfish).
Nearly all freshwater angels in the aquarium trade are captive-bred, leading to a wide range of colors and fin attributes that set commercial fish apart from their wild relatives.
Angelfish Profile at a Glance
Pterophyllum scalare, Pterophyllum altum, Pterophyllum leopoldi
Amazon River Basin
Easy to Moderate
6-10 Inches Tall
Up to 10 Years
Minimum Tank Size:
Flakes, Pellets, Worms, Shrimp, Veggies
Large semi-aggressive fish; schooling fish too large to eat
Tank Size and Setup
Juvenile angelfish can be kept in tanks as small as ten gallons, as long as there is a plan in place to re-house them as they grow. From the top of the dorsal fin to the bottom of the ventral fin an adult angelfish may measure six or eight inches tall, with some specimens growing much larger. For this reason, adult angelfish need plenty of space. Though some fish keepers recommend smaller, in my opinion a 30-gallon tank is acceptable for adults, though I would prefer 55-gallons or larger.
When aquascaping, consider replicating the angel’s natural environment by including plenty of live plants and large pieces of driftwood. Commonly available aquarium plants that are native to the Amazon River Basin include:
- Amazon Sword
- Brazilian Pennywort
- Water Stargrass
- Water Milfoil
- Amazon Grass
- Melon Sword
If live plants are unavailable or impractical consider natural-looking artificial plants and decorations.
Regular aquarium gravel is fine for the substrate, and you may wish to include smooth river rocks and pebbles. When choosing decorations for your tank always purchase items intended for aquarium use. Those intended for other purposes, and even those you pluck from the wild, may include unwanted paints, additives, pesticides and even parasites.
Ideal Water Parameters
Nitrates: < 20 ppm
Interactions between individual angelfish can be a little complex, and for that reason some fish keepers (me included) prefer to keep one angel at a time. There are a few things to think about if you intend to keep more than one.
Angels can become aggressive toward each other as they age, and a situation where several angels are in one tank can become frustrating to manage. If you have a pair of angels one may begin to bully the other, and in that situation the fish will need to be separated. Stress is one of the biggest reasons aquarium fish die too soon.
On the other side of the coin, if you have a male and female pair they might spawn in your tank. Males and females are notoriously difficult to tell apart, and breeding angelfish is best left to experienced fish keepers who know what they are doing, and have a plan for the fry. However, if you’d like to do some research on identifying male and female angelfish and feel you can confidently choose one of each, you may end up with a healthy pair of fish for a very long time. Angelfish mate for life!
Because it is so difficult to tell males from females, some people choose to stock five or six angels. This is a common tactic with aggressive fish, as more fish in the tank means the aggression with be spread around and not put upon one fish. Unfortunately, the problem then is that a breeding pair may form among the five or six fish, and as they come closer to spawning the pair will become very aggressive toward the other fish.
Angelfish Tank Mates
When a choosing tank mates for angelfish there are a few important things to think about. The first is the rule we must consider any time we stock large fish:
Big fish eat little fish.
A planted tank stocked with angelfish and neon tetras is absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, in that environment the neons are not long for this world. The same goes for other small fish like zebra danios, guppies and otos.
It’s also a good idea to avoid fin nippers such as barbs that may harass the angels and their flowing fins.
Better choices for angelfish tank mates include large peaceful and semi-aggressive fish like:
- Dwarf Gourami
- African Leaf Fish
- Rubbernose Pleco
- Silver Dollar
As well as smaller community fish that are too large to eat such as:
- Cory Catfish
- German Ram
- Larger tetras
Remember when choosing tank mates to consider the needs of all the fish you are stocking as a whole. For example, silver dollars are native to the same region as angels and make great tank mates, but they are large, schooling fish that require a large tank.
Be sure to research the needs of every fish you intend to stock!
List of Angelfish Varieties
Commercially available angelfish are bred to exhibit a wide range of colors and designs. Here is a partial list of the types of angelfish you might encounter in the live fish store.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about freshwater angelfish. If you have a question that is not addressed here feel free to ask in the comments section and I will help if I can.
What do freshwater angelfish eat?
Wild angels are ambush predators with a diet largely based on foods such as worms, prawns and juvenile fish. In the home aquarium a quality flake or pellet food makes a good staple, supplemented by richer foods such as blood and tubifex worms and krill. Live, freeze-dried and frozen foods are acceptable. Angelfish are omnivores, and it is a good idea to include algae waters and veggies as well.
Do angelfish eat snails?
Maybe. They are known to eat baby pest snails, and knock pond snails from the glass and attack them as they fall to the gravel. They may attack or harass pet snails such as apple and mystery snails as well. How a fish reacts to snails is dependent on the individual, and as with any snail-eating fish you should not stock them simply to solve a snail problem.
Do angelfish eat plants?
Even though angelfish are omnivores, your plants are probably safe. However, plant eating and/or destruction is not unheard of. There are a few reasons they may do this, such as to remove debris from a spawning site, stress, or because they aren’t getting everything they need from their diet. If you angelfish is eating plants you may try feeding more algae wafers, or raw veggies such as lettuce. If the plant destruction is accompanied by other behaviors such as glass surfing you will need to consider ways to better manage stress in your aquarium.
Do angelfish eat aquarium shrimp?
Invertebrates such as ghost shrimp, glass shrimp and cherry shrimp are not a great choice as tank mates. In the wild they would be seen as prey, and many angelfish will instinctually recognize them as food in the home aquarium. They may harass them, or even eat them.
Are freshwater angels aggressive?
They are considered semi-aggressive fish. That means in some circumstance they can be extremely aggressive, but under the correct conditions they can be docile. Angels may fight with each other, or attack other fish if they are feeling stressed or threatened. They also grow big enough to eat smaller fish. You can greatly reduce the chances of aggression by choosing the correct tank mates, and making sure their living conditions are optimal.
Do angelfish need a filter?
Yes! Nearly all freshwater tropical tanks require a filter. A filter not only keeps the water clean by trapping debris, but also provides an area for healthy bacteria to thrive and circulates the water to keep it well oxygenated. Do not skip this important piece of equipment.
Do angels need a heater?
Probably. Tropical fish require water temperatures between 75 and 80 degrees, with 78 being ideal in most circumstances. If your home is 78 degrees at all times, and you can maintain water temperature of 78 degrees, even at night, you can get by without a heater. But those situations are very rare, and the vast majority of aquarium owners require a heater to keep the water at the right temp.
Are angelfish community fish?
Even though they are considered semi-aggressive, under the right circumstances angels can get along fine in a community tank. Be sure there are no small fish the angel can eat, and no fin nippers that will harass them. Choose a tank that is large enough and practice good aquarium management to reduce stress and aggression.
Are freshwater angelfish hardy?
In my experience, this highly depends on the stock. These fish are heavily commercialized and there is a certain amount of inbreeding that has occurred. Some breeders seem to produce strong, hardy fish, but in other cases fish don’t survive long after the trip home. You can minimize your chances of purchasing a weak fish by choosing angels that are a bit larger than the tiny quarter-sized ones that are often available in pet stores.
Are angels schooling fish?
Schooling and shoaling fish are those that are best kept in numbers of six or more in the aquarium. If not, they tend to exhibit higher levels of stress behaviors and may even die prematurely. Angels do not fit into that category, and can be kept as single fish, as a breeding pair, or as a group.
Can freshwater angelfish live in saltwater?
No, they are strictly freshwater fish. However, there are other angelfish in the aquarium world from the family Pomacanthidae. These are marine fish that live in saltwater tanks, and they should not be confused with their distant freshwater relatives.
Do angelfish sleep?
Most fish sleep, and angels are no different. But fish sleep isn’t quite the same as human sleep. Instead, fish experience periods of reduced metabolism, while they still remain alert to danger. If you peek into your tank at night you might catch your angelfish sleeping!
The freshwater angelfish is one of the most beautiful keep you can keep. But, as you can see from this article, they have some very precise care requirements. They are also very common in the aquarium industry, and many a newbie has brought home an angel or two only to find them belly-up the next morning.
I can recall the 10-gallon tank my family had when I was a child almost forty years ago. Going by the advice of the local fish store we stuffed an angelfish in there along with a bunch of other fish, and it grew enormous for that small, crowded setting. It seemed very cool at the time, but now I know it was a horrible environment for those fish.
These days pet store employees are arguably better educated, but you still shouldn’t completely rely on them to give you the best advice on fish care, nor should you completely rely on articles such as this one. Consider all of the available advice, but always do your own research, and learn from the mistakes you will inevitably make.
If you combine your research with good aquarium maintenance practices your angelfish can live a long, happy life. Hopefully this article got you started on the right track. Good luck, and feel free to ask questions in the comments section.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.