Redtail Catfish Overview, Care & Breeding Guide

If you’re an experienced aquarist and are ready to invest in a challenging aquatic pet, the redtail catfish might be perfect for you!

The solitary freshwater catfish is pretty sturdy and a no-fuss eater. Especially if you get a baby specimen, you can even keep it in a community tank for a while.

What is a Redtail Catfish?

OriginAmazon, Orinoco River basins, South America
Scientific NamePhractocephalus hemioliopterus
Common NamesSouth American red-tailed catfish, banana catfish, cajaro, pirarara
IUCN Red List StatusLeast Concern
AppearanceArrow-shaped body, dark back, yellow sides, black and white bottom, reddish-orange tail, reddish-orange tipped dorsal fin
Size (Adult)Usually around 60 cm (23.6 in); Max: 135 cm (53.2 in)
LifespanUsually 10-20 years
TemperamentTerritorial, predator, aggressive, solitary
Tank LevelBottom and middle dwellers
Water Temperature68-79 °F (20-26 °C)
pH Level5.5-7.5
Water HardnessUp to 12 dGH
Care LevelHard
Minimum Tank Size1500 gallons for one
Tank EnvironmentPlenty of space, minimal decor, sand substrate
DietOmnivorous with carnivorous preferences
Tank MatesSimilar-sized aggressive or predator species, not other Pimelodiss

Where is Redtail Catfish found?

The redtail catfish is mainly spotted throughout the Amazon, Orinoco, and Essequibo River basins of South America. It’s also found in large freshwater rivers, streams, lakes, and flooded forests.

In terms of nations, it inhabits:

  • Bolivia
  • Brazil (Acre, Amazonas, Goias, Mato Grosso, Para, Rondonia, Roraima, Tocantins)
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • Guyana
  • Peru
  • Suriname
  • Venezuela

Through aquarium releases, this fish is also introduced to the US, and anglers have reported spotting it in:

  • Florida
  • Indiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Tennessee
  • Texas

It’s an invasive species in the Perak and Pahang Rivers, Malaysia.

As per the 2020 assessment of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, it’s labeled Least Concern.

Which family does Redtail Catfish belong?

The catfish belongs to the Pimelodidae family under the Siluriformes order.

While its binomial name is Phractocephalus hemioliopterus, it’s known worldwide as redtail catfish and South American red-tailed catfish. It also has some local names like cajaro in Venezuela, banana catfish in Guyana, and pirarara in Brazil.

It’s a popular game fish for anglers, but it’s not eaten due to its black flesh.

Fun Fact: Redtail catfish and other species like tiger shovelnose catfish are hybridized using hormones to create viable food fish like tiger redtail catfish. Sometimes, the hybrids are also introduced in the aquarium.

How does a Redtail Catfish look?

Red tail catfish

If you’re curious about the large fin buddy’s looks and temperament, let’s familiarize yourself with everything you need to know here…

What is the Size of Redtail Catfish?

The redtail catfish is generally 60 cm (23.6 in) long. However, the maximum length reported is 135 cm (53.2 in), and the maximum published weight is 80 kg (176.4 lbs).

What is the Color of Redtail Catfish?

The redtail catfish has a dark brown or black back, yellow sides, a reddish-orange tail, and a reddish-orange tipped dorsal fin. Some specimens may also have complete red dorsal, anal, and pelvic fins.

It is white underneath from the mouth to the tail. In the juvenile fish, this white shade is continuous, but in adults, it may have brown/black/grey shades.

Some specimens have red tails, while others have orange or pinkish tails. Some of them have a black or grey head, while others have a dark-spotted head. These color changes may be due to diet and mood.

What are the Features of Redtail Catfish?

Redtail catfish have a cylindrical, arrow-shaped body, flat belly, laterally compressed tail, broad head, and shovel-shaped, semi-depressed, and broad mouth.

There are eyes on each side of the head and unusually long barbels – a pair of barbels on the upper jaw and two pairs of barbels on the lower jaw.

The sensitive and long barbels have chemical receptor cells that help the fish smell.

How can you differentiate between a male and a female Redtail Catfish?

No known way to differentiate the male and female redtail catfish sexually.

How does the Redtail Catfish behave in the fish tank?

The redtail catfish is an opportunistic predator and may feed on smaller fish. The diurnal species is territorial and can’t stand fish of its own type or own family in captivity.

It doesn’t stand intrusion of other species in its water column – bottom and middle levels. Though big, the fish is harmless to humans. When it senses danger, it makes a clicking sound to warn others about it.

What is the Lifespan of Redtail Catfish?

In captivity, the redtail catfish lives up to 10-20 years.

Author’s Note: The redtail catfish is the only existing species of its genus Phractocephalus. Besides this, there are other fossil remains of P. nassi (described in 2003) from Urumaco, Venezuela, and P. acreornatus from Acre, Brazil.

How to take care of Redtail Catfish?

Redtail catfish pair

If you have complete confidence in your skills and equipment to take care of the fish and insist on bringing this big baby home, let’s create the perfect home for it…

What should be the Tank Size for Redtail Catfish?

The redtail catfish is quite large, so it needs at least a 1500-gallon tank or pond for it alone.

Some suggest 1000-gallon tanks for the regular-sized specimens and 1500-gallon for the bigger ones. However, in my experience, more space will increase the chances of your pet fish’s growth.

On the other hand, the bigger ones need about a 2800-gallon tank.

What should be the Water Chemistry for Redtail Catfish?

This catfish can become severely stressed and sick if the water chemistry is not perfect. So, ensure that your tank water always follows these parameters.

  • pH Levels: 5.5-7.5
  • Water Temperature: 68-79 °F (20-26 °C)
  • Water Hardness: Up to 12 dGH
  • Ammonia: 0 ppm
  • Nitrite: 0 ppm
  • Nitrate: Less than 30 ppm

What should be the Tank Environment for Redtail Catfish?

Your next responsibility is to create the perfect ambiance to make your pet catfish feel secure and at home. So, let’s start here…

Which Substrate to use for Redtail Catfish?

The choice of substrate is a tricky part of raising this fish. If you use gravels – despite how big you get them, the redtail may swallow them or get them stuck in their sensitive gills.

You may use sand, but the redtail will definitely play around with it. So, the sand won’t stay in the same place. Alternatively, some go for large (enough to not fit the fish’s mouth) and smooth pebbles.

Your last choice is to keep the bottom bare. It’ll be a great choice as you can clean the tank easily.

Which Plants to use for Redtail Catfish?

Some say that the fish is plant-safe. However, it also tries to eat anything and everything. So, it might try to uproot or eat your plants. Use sturdy and inexpensive plants if you plan to use them at all. You can also choose not to add plants.

Which Lighting to use for Redtail Catfish?

The redtail may get stressed from intense direct lights. So, use dim lighting in your tank. You can also add some floating plants to disperse the light.

Which Décor to use for Redtail Catfish?

The fish tries to eat everything, so don’t add decor like gravel, rocks, or driftwood or, it might choke on them.

If you have juveniles, add chunky driftwood, root tangles, branches, pipes, and caves that are too heavy to move for them. If the decor isn’t too heavy, stick them with aquarium-safe glue in their place.

But don’t add too many decorative elements. Keep an open space for the fish to swim around.

Which Filter to use for Redtail Catfish?

Use a large biological filter to efficiently deal with the huge bioload of the fish. It’s best to use a sump-type filter. In this, most of the equipment stays outside of the aquarium. The system will be protected from the fish’s attacks. Perform 30% weekly water changes.

Incorporate a pump to create water movement and facilitate gas exchange.

What should be the Water Flow Rate for Redtail Catfish?

The redtail catfish appreciates medium to slow currents. You can achieve this with the sump-type filter alone.

Caution: The redtail is a strong jumper. So make sure there’s a heavy lid on your tank.

What does Redtail Catfish eat?

Redtail is an omnivore with a preference for carnivorous feed. It’s an opportunistic and voracious eater in the wild. Some great options are frozen and live food in captivity, like:

  • Bloodworm
  • Earthworm
  • Crab
  • Crayfish
  • Shrimp
  • Prawn
  • Mussel
  • Cockle
  • Lancefish
  • Catfish stick
  • Pieces of meaty white fish
  • High-quality flake, tablet, and large pellet
  • Variety of fruits and vegetables

Here are a few items to avoid:

  • Small feeder fish like goldfish or livebearers: It might introduce potential diseases to your pet.
  • Mammal flesh like beef heart or chicken: The fish can’t completely metabolize the lipids in these meats. It may lead to excess fat deposition and organ degeneration.

Always provide it with a varied diet. Otherwise, your fish may grow accustomed to one type of diet and refuse other feeds.

Predatory species are gluttonous, so be cautious about overfeeding. Otherwise, your pet might become overweight and sick.

For baby/fry redtail catfish, provide meals twice a day regularly. For the juvenile (bigger than fry but not adult) fish, feed it big meals every alternate day.

Feed the adult catfish a huge portion once a week. If the fish seems sluggish even after a week of the last meal, don’t feed it again. Wait until it becomes active again.

What are the Tank Mates of Redtail Catfish?

A 1500-gallon tank is safe for only one redtail catfish alone. It’s not recommended to add more fish to your tank. However, if you build something about the size of a public aquarium, you can get some tank buddies.

Some options are other similar-sized or larger species (similar-sized Doradids, Characins, and Cyprinids), semi-aggressive, and predatory species. Here’s a list of the most compatible tank mates for this fish:

  • Ripsaw catfish
  • Granulated catfish
  • Pacu
  • Pleco
  • Silver Arowana
  • Bichir
  • Large cichlids
  • Gar
  • Large freshwater stingray
  • Large datnoid
  • Iridescent shark
  • Peacock bass

You can house young redtail with the following species.

  • Freshwater angelfish
  • Gourami
  • Silver dollar
  • Tiger barb

However, once it outgrows them, rehouse them in another tank.

Which Tank Mates to Avoid for Redtail Catfish?

Never house your redtail catfish with the following types of species:

  • Other large Pimelodids: The redtail will get in territorial fights.
  • Smaller fish and invertebrates: They’ll get eaten by your cat in no time.

Namely, here’s a list of fish to avoid

  • Other redtail
  • Goldfish
  • Koi
  • Small cichlid
  • Tetras
  • Cory catfish
  • Oscar
  • Shrimp
  • Prawn
  • Snail
  • Crab

What are the Common Diseases in Redtail Catfish?

The redtail catfish is pretty hardy, but it’s susceptible to common freshwater diseases, like ich, fin rot, and columnaris. Besides that, it also suffers from the following diseases…

Disease NameCausesSymptomsTreatment
DropsyInfection, stress, poor water qualityBloated belly, scale protrusion, redness near fins and vents, ulcersQuarantine, improve diet, regular partial water changes, and medication
VelvetParasitic infectionFlashing, color loss, labored breathing, clamped fin, fatigue, appetite loss, yellowness of skin, skin peelingImprove water temperature, dim lights, add medicine containing malachite green or aldehyde
Skin and Gill FlukesParasitic infectionRed spots and sores around gills, excess mucus, labored breathing, flashing, hazy skin, missing scales, appetite loss, tirednessImprove water quality and diet, administer medicine orally, through baths, or injections Prevention: Avoid store-bought live feed, quarantine new fish
Nitrite PoisoningHigh nitrite/nitrate concentration in waterLabored breathing, inactivity, swimming on aquarium top, not eating30% water change, feed less frequently

Quick Tip: Notice if the redtail catfish often comes to the surface looking for air. This signifies that water conditions are poor, and you must pay attention to it ASAP.

How to Breed Redtail Catfish?

Till now, nobody has achieved reproducing redtails in captivity – neither in tanks nor in ponds – due to aggression and space requirements. Here are some facts about the process:

Sexual Maturity: The fish reaches adulthood at 2-4 years of age and reproduces annually.

Spawning: The female fish is an egg scatterer, and the male fish externally fertilizes eggs. Preferred breeding temperature: 75-80 °F (24-27 °C).

Incubation: Eggs hatch within 3 days (depending on water parameters). Larvae swim freely within the next few days.

Fry Rearing: The omnivorous, fast-growing fry accepts all sorts of food. However, the necessary water chemistry to sustain them is unknown.

How to Buy Redtail Catfish?

Get a redtail only if you:

  • Are well-experienced in fishkeeping in large tanks
  • Have an appropriately sized tank
  • Are connected with public aquarium facilities that’ll accept adult fish

Some sellers may sell small specimens for as low as $20-30. Enthusiasts buy them, but when the fish grows too big, they donate them to public aquaria.

When public aquaria refuse this species as donations, they dump the fish in natural waterbodies – where they die or become invasive species.

This fish has unpredictable space and water needs. If you can’t meet those, it may:

  • Get stressed
  • Have stunted growth
  • Won’t grow pathogens
  • Shorten its lifespan

A word from FishInAquarium

With the right equipment, skills, and above all, space, raising a redtail catfish is a rewarding endeavor. The giant baby will not only be your best friend for years to come, but it’ll also be no less than a trophy and conversation starter!

If you found this guide helpful, share it with your friends. Let them know about your new pet and go gaga about it. Have some questions? Drop us an email and we’ll help you out!

Minnie B Miller - Professional aquarist and owner of FishInAquarium

About Minnie B Miller

Minnie B. Miller, a professional aquarist and owner of FishInAquarium, has over 8 years of expertise in fish breeding and care, gained through her roles at AquaticTX and Sea Lion Landing. Having honed her skills with various aquatic species, she is dedicated to empowering fellow enthusiasts by sharing her knowledge and experience.