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. Let’s discuss this incredible animal and their care needs before you decide to buy them.
What are Plecos?
Plecostomus is the common title for the Loricariidae, a family of armored suckermouth cats that hail from Central and South America. Common pleco (Hypostomus pilostomus) is often found in pet shops as a cheap cleaner fish. The 3-inch baby grows to nearly 2 feet and has a huge appetite. Monster fish are almost impossible to rehome and we strongly recommend against getting them. 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. The beautiful clown, rubber, and bristlenose pleco catfishes range in size from 4 to 6 inches. While they may be a bit more expensive than the common pleco, their size and low food cost will compensate.
Plecos are well-known for their armored bodies, distinctive suckermouths, and unique sexes.
Are Plecos Easy to Keep?
They are generally similar to other tropical fish in terms of water parameters. 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. Regular tank maintenance is necessary to maintain a nitrate level of 40 ppm. (If you’re not sure what nitrates are, read our article on the aquarium nitrogen cycle.)
For the 4 to 6 inch plecos, 20 to 29 gallon water is sufficient. The common pleco will start in a 75 gallon tank, and then move on to 180 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. Think of it like having a pet dog. The dog can eat whatever is left on the ground but should still eat regular meals of dog food.
These catfish also require proper food that meets their nutritional requirements. People tend to only give them algae wafers, but most plecos prefer well-balanced meals consisting of a wide variety of foods, such as frozen bloodworms and Repashy gel food. Do some research on your particular species because not all plecos eat the same thing. 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.) Plucking plecos at night is a good idea. This allows them to get enough food to eat while other fish are sleeping.
One of the most common complaints we hear from pleco owners is “I don’t understand why my fish died.” It was given one algae wafer each night.” Let’s return to the pet dog analogy. Your puppy will need more food than you give him when he grows up. Similarly, your adult pleco needs more food than a juvenile to support its larger body. The best rule of thumb is to aim to achieve a slightly rotund abdomen. 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 that plecos are not just cleaners but also living animals that require proper nourishment.
What fish can be kept with plecos?
Plecos will be fine with almost any peaceful, community fish that isn’t big enough to eat them. Likewise, do not add any fish that are small enough to fit in the pleco’s mouth. 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. If you keep a smaller pleco, make sure to feed it well.
Many smaller plecos can co-exist with peaceful community fish such as neon tetras.
Are there any rules regarding keeping more than one pleco in the same 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. Bristlenose plecos, which are smaller in size than the bristlenose, can be kept in multiples if you keep enough hides and caves available for all species.
Bottom line: buy the right pleco that will, even at adult size, fit the size of your aquarium. Read online articles and visit social media groups to research their care and diet requirements. You are ultimately responsible for cleaning the fish tank. However, if you need some help, read our popular article about top 10 clean up crew members.