The Beginner's Guide to Keeping Freshwater Puffers

Puffers Can Make Great Aquarium Pets!

Freshwater puffers are a relatively misunderstood and under-represented fish in the aquarium trade. There are very few factually correct guides that detail the care of these fish. Also, many of the fish sold as puffers are not freshwater fish at all. However, the true freshwater puffers are a wonderful specialist fish and they are very rewarding to keep as pets, provided that their basic needs are met.

Can I Put My Puffer in With Other Fish?

Puffers Aren't a Community Fish

Northern Puffer (Sphoeroides maculatus)
Northern Puffer (Sphoeroides maculatus) | Source

In most cases, freshwater puffers don't do well in a community tank setting. They will either eat the other fish, nip at their fins, or starve because they aren't fast enough to compete for the food. There is no way to make sure all the fish are getting their fair share without overfeeding your tank, which will cause an ammonia spike, eventually leading to dead fish.

  • Some species, like the dwarf puffer (Carinotetraodon travancoricus), can be kept in a species tank, which is a tank that only houses fish of the same species. However, this doesn't always work out because all puffers have individual personalities and what works for one aquarium may not work for yours.
  • Other puffers, including any of the lurker or ambush species, cannot be safely housed in a tank with other fish because they will eat them. They are predators by nature, and you cannot change that.

How Large of a Tank Does My Puffer Need?

Puffers Excrete a Lot of Ammonia in Their Waste

All puffers are very messy eaters that eat a very protein-rich diet. In turn, this means that they release a lot of ammonia into the water through their waste.

  • The minimum tank size for most of the smaller ones is 30 gallons, while some of the larger freshwater species need tanks as large as 1,000 gallons.
  • Freshwater puffers also require double filtration. External canister filters work well.
  • The more active species need a bigger tank, even though they could technically fit into a 30 gallon, because they need extra swimming space to prevent boredom. A bored puffer will constantly pace the glass, up and down. You can fix this by adding more decorations and hiding places in their tank for it to explore.

What Do I Feed My Freshwater Puffer?

Feeder Goldfish Are Not a Healthy Diet

Puffers need to eat hard food like snails
Puffers need to eat hard food like snails

Unlike most aquarium fish, freshwater puffers weren't built to graze constantly throughout the day. Most of them only require two to three meals per week, depending on age and species.

However, there are some that require frequent feedings, like the dwarf puffer (Carinotetraodon travancoricus), so make sure you do your research before you cut back on feeding!

  • Hard-shelled foods. They all need a consistent diet of hard-shelled foods to help prevent their "beaks" (which are actually four fused bony plates, or teeth) from overgrowing. If their teeth grow too long, your puffers will end up starving because they can't eat anymore.
  • Snails and shrimp. Snails, especially Ramshorn and common pond snails, are a wonderful food source for a smaller puffer. You can also use whole shrimp with the shells still on, as well as frozen fish food, like blood worms.

How to Feed Your Fish Live Food

One of the most important things to remember about feeding puffers is that all live foods have to be quarantined. You cannot get around this, and to ignore the quarantine period for live feeder items can result in a very sick puffer. This even includes prey items such as snails.

What Kind of Fish Tank Should I Get?

You Must Have a Fully Cycled Fish Tank

If you want to succeed in keeping a freshwater puffer, then you should ideally wait to purchase one until you have some experience with keeping tropical fish tanks. A puffer does not make a good impulse purchase.

The reason why is that a fish tank does not only need a double filtration system, heat, and light—it also needs bacteria to keep the water's chemicals in order. Fish produce ammonia, which is toxic. In nature, water would wash away the ammonia, but in your fish tank, it will build up, killing or stressing the fish. However, if ammonia spikes, your population of ammonia-eating bacteria will increase. These bacteria exist naturally in the air, and will colonize your filter bed to turn ammonia into nitrite. Unfortunately, while nitrite is less toxic than ammonia, it is still toxic. Fortunately, when nitrite spikes, the population of nitrite-eating bacteria will increase.

So you simply have to add a source of ammonia, and with time the ammonia and nitrates will go down to zero—you can measure these with a test kit (the type where you drop a solution into a vial of the aquarium's water is often more accurate than the test strips). Only then will your fish tank be "fully cycled," or safe for fish.

It's very important to make sure you have a fully cycled tank before you bring a puffer fish home because they are especially sensitive to their environment. They don't have scales, which makes them more susceptible to elevated levels of ammonia and nitrite. You will also want to periodically change your water to keep the nitrate level down (the safe level is debatable, but many say below 50 mg/l).

I know that it's very easy to fall in love with their chubby faces and helicopter antics. But waiting until you have a proper tank set up means the difference between enjoying your new puffer for years to come and the loss of your new addition.

How to Cycle a New Tank

What Are Common Types of Freshwater Puffers?

Amazonian Puffer (Colomesus Asellus)

These fish, sometimes simply known as Amazon, South American, Brazilian, or Bee puffers, have distinctive stripes and grow to be about three inches long. They are more peaceful than other puffers and can sometimes be kept with fast-moving community fish, though every puffer has its own personality.

Fahaka Puffer (Tetraodon Lineatus)

This fish is sometimes known as a lined, striped, or band puffer because of its stripes. They get quite large, about 18 inches long, and therefore will require a large tank.

Avocado Puffer (Auriglobus Modestus)

These iridescent fish are sometimes known as golden or bronze puffers for their coloration. They differ from other puffers in that they are on the smaller side (reaching about four inches) and they look less doglike. In fact, their sleek build allows them to swim quickly, making tank mates easier targets for aggression.

Dwarf Puffer (Carinotetraodon Travancoricus)

Dwarf puffers, also known as pea or Indian Malabar puffers, are the smallest type you will find, reaching one inch in length. They do require more frequent feedings than other puffers. Although they are small, they can still kill much-larger fish, so it is still important to take care if you choose to introduce tank mates.

PIgnose Puffer (Tetraodon Suvattii)

Also known as an arrowhead or Mekong puffer, this is an ambush species of puffer. It is less active than other species, preferring to stay relatively still or even burrow under the sand until a meal wanders by. Because of this, it is not a good fish for community tanks—it is a hunter by nature. Pignose puffers can reach up to six inches in length.

Spotted Green Puffers Are NOT Freshwater Puffers

Spotted green puffers are not freshwater fish.
Spotted green puffers are not freshwater fish. | Source

You may see spotted green puffers labeled as freshwater fish. However, although they can live in fresh water while they are young, as they get older they will gradually require more and more brackish water. Consequently, these are complicated fish to maintain.

Guestbook Comments 4 comments

Kylyssa profile image

Kylyssa 3 weeks ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

That white spotted puffer in your first photo is a saltwater fish endemic to the Indo-Pacific region. Notice the clownfish in the background? I'll bet your reader traffic will go up dramatically if you switch it out for a freshwater pufferfish photo because it's your article's thumbnail!

Tanya 6 months ago

This looks like a good quite, however you mention green spotted puffers are complicated to keep due to their need to graduate to brackish water. I don't find this complicated and just add a tablespoon of marine salt once a month (until brackish water level is reached) during a partial water change. I hope this is correct! My puffer appears quite happy at the moment, I bought a young one about six weeks ago and introduced him from freshwater to barely salted. So far so good as far as I can tell. Interesting to know about the nitrates.

crazy anna profile image

crazy anna 4 years ago

Great guide! It tells you what you need to succeed. Great job!

anonymous 5 years ago

Neat little fish and what they need to survive. Glad I browsed upon your lens! If you like to browse lens as I do, mine has a great educational topic with poll questions for my readers to enjoy.

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