The Plecostomus, also known as the Pleco fish, is an omnivorous fish that belongs to the Loricariidae family – the largest catfish family in the world. This complete Plecostomus care guide will give you all the information you need on keeping Pleco fish successfully in your aquarium.
These incredible creatures have armored plates on their bodies and their pectoral and anal fins extend horizontally from their body instead of vertically; this allows them to latch easily onto plants and algae without losing any mobility. Their sucker-shaped mouths on the underside of their body and flat ventral region allows them to consume any food on horizontal or flat surfaces whilst breaking it down in order to consume the foods.
- Plecostomus Care Summary
- Complete Plecostomus Care Guide
- Plecostomus water conditions and temperature
- Pleco feeding and diet
- Plecostomus tank mates
- Pleco breeding
- Common health issues seen in Plecostomus fish
- Are Plecos the right fish for you?
Plecostomus Care Summary
Plecostomus Care Summary
|Size||Up to 24 inches|
|Color||Brown or grey|
|Minimum tank size||30 gallons|
|pH levels||7 – 8|
|Temperature range||74 – 80|
|Compatibility||Dependent on the species, can be housed with other peaceful fish|
|Tank set up||Freshwater with driftwood, caves and plants|
Complete Plecostomus Care Guide
Plecos mainly feeds on plant matter; however, in the wild they are known to consume animal particles from a carcass and crustaceans. These fish are bottom feeders, that are usually seen as the bottom or sides of the tank consuming algae and other plant matter. Bottom feeders are an important part of an aquarium ecosystem, they can be carnivorous, herbivorous, omnivorous or limnivores.
There are more than 150 different species of pleco in the family, all ranging from small to large and peaceful to aggressive catfish. Found in freshwater streams and rivers in South America, the common pleco is the most popular pleco homed by fish owners; this pleco is referred to the Hypostomus Plecostomus, a specific member of the family.
Other popular pleco species include the Bristlenose, Gold Nugget, Zebra, Clown, Sailfin, Snowball and Royal Plecostomus. The majority of species are native to South America along with the common pleco; however some can be found in Panama and Costa Rica. They are found in a wide range of habitats usually in fast flowing rivers or streams, some however can be found in more acidic waters.
Male bristlenose plecos are identified by their large spikes on their head and around their mouths, whilst females have spikes around their mouth only, and are smaller in size.
An important fact about plecos to take into consideration when looking to own one, is that they are nocturnal. In the day they will hide away in plants or on driftwood and you will not see much activity at all; during the night when they are active, they will move across the bottom of the aquarium on the substrate, or move along the side of the glass to consume and algae that is there. Being bottom dwellers, you will never find your pleco near the top of the tank, and they will always be attached to a surface.
Like all aquarium animals, plecos will need to be housed in a tank that replicates their natural habitat in some way. Native to South America, plecos can survive in a range of environments, the majority of pleco species are found in streams and rivers that have a textured and rocky substrate with fast flowing water – so do not worry about your aquarium substrate irritating your pleco’s body when they move along the bottom of the tank, as they have evolved to withstand those conditions.
As there are so many species of pleco, no two have the same housing requirements or the same habitat, therefore this article will tell you exactly how to care for each species. Smaller plecos can survive in a 10 gallon tank, and larger plecos like the bristlenose will require a 25 gallon tank; the common pleco will need a minimum of 150 gallons due to the large size of 15 inches.
Here is a summary of the minimum tank requirements for the most common pleco species:
|Species||Minimum tank size (for adults)|
|Common Plecostomus||150 gallons|
|Bristlenose Plecostomus||25 gallons|
|Gold Nugget Plecostomus||50 gallons|
|Clown Plecostomus||30 gallons|
|Zebra Plecostomus||30 gallons|
|Sailfin Plecostomus||125 gallons|
|Royal Plecostomus||125 gallons|
|Snowball Plecostomus||30 gallons|
Regarding housing and setting your tank up to home a pleco, all pleco species require a similar environment. All species will benefit from a large planted aquarium that includes driftwood, various live plants and rocky substrate, or normal substrate with some sort of litter on top. However, plecos will also happily live with a soft or fine sand substrate as this will allow them to filter through the substrate more easily to find food debris within it.
If you are a new pleco owner or a fish enthusiast just starting out, you may want to look at our article on the Top 10 Best Gravel Suggestions for Aquarium Plants to help decide on which gravel type will be best for your aquarium.
A plecos enclosure should be densely planted and they all thrive off of broad-leaf species that are fast growing such as Java Fern and Java Moss, these plants will ensure that your pleco can feed off the algae on the surface of the leaves. Plecos will also thrive off rock formations and small spaces to hide in, as most pleco species are shy and will need the option to be hidden.
As plecos prefer more subtle lighting in their enclosure, adding floating plants into the tank can help with this without adjusting any lights themselves. This will replicate their natural environment as rivers and streams will often have plants densely packed together floating on the top of the water. This will also contribute to ensuring your pleco feels safe and not exposed.
The common pleco is the largest in the family and requires the largest aquarium. When a common pleco is first bought as a juvenile they are only around 2-4 inches long, so at that size they don’t require a 150-gallon tank. Common plecos can grow very quickly and up to a very large size, therefore these plecos are more suitable for experienced owners that can accommodate for their large size and rapid growth. When they are young and only small, their minimum tank size is around 80 gallons, and as they grow they will need to be upgraded into at least a 150-gallon tank.
Plecostomus water conditions and temperature
The majority of Plecostomus species are found in areas that contain soft water with a fairly low pH, however they are seen to tolerate and live happily in aquariums that have a wider range of water parameters in captivity. Most captive bred species require a pH between 6.5 and 8, temperatures between 74°F and 80°F, and alkalinity between 3 and 10. Plecos are hardy fish and can tolerate fluctuations in the parameters, so getting the correct levels aren’t as critical as other fish.
In order to maintain your aquarium’s environment for your pleco, the most important factor is to ensure the water current is kept strong and that the aquarium is well filtered. This can be done by ensuring your aquarium has a good quality filter fitted either inside or outside (an internal or external filter), and that it is cleaned monthly or weekly to prevent any problems with the water flow, cleaning the filter will also keep the water clean.
See our articles on setting up your aquarium including the Best Aquarium Filter Media Reviews, Best Aquarium Heaters, and Best Aquarium Wave Makers to find the pieces of equipment best suited to you and your species. Plecos should get a 10% water change once a week or 25% every two weeks in order to maintain the correct water conditions, taking out too much water can disturb the environment and can actually make the water unsuitable.
Here are the water parameters for the most common Plecostomus species:
|Species||Temperature||pH levels||Water hardness|
|Common Plecostomus||72°F – 86°F||6.5 – 7.5||Up to 25 dGH|
|Bristlenose Plecostomus||60℉ – 80℉ (15 – 26 ℃)||6.5 – 7.5||20 – 30|
|Gold Nugget Plecostomus||77℉– 84℉||6.5 – 7.5||2 – 15 dGH|
|Clown Plecostomus||73℉– 82℉||6.6 – 7.8||dH10|
|Zebra Plecostomus||79℉ – 88℉ (22.5-27.6 °C)||6.5 – 7.0||2 – 6 KH|
|Sailfin Plecostomus||73°F – 85°F||6.5 – 7.4||6 – 10 KH|
|Royal Plecostomus||72°F – 78°F||6.6 – 7.5||5 – 15 dH|
|Snowball Plecostomus||72°F – 86°F||5.0 – 7.6||6 – 10 dKH|
Even when your aquarium is being cleaned and maintained regularly, the water can still develop unwanted substances or levels of usual substances can rise or fall without any signs. Therefore, it is important to check your water at least once every 1-2 months to ensure the levels in the water remain safe for your aquatic species, this includes plecos.
However, as plecos can withstand several variations in the water conditions it could be checked around every 2-3 months, whereas other sensitive fish will require a check 1-2 times a month. This can be done using aquarium test strips or an aquarium chemical master test kit, which is more time consuming but may give you better results.
Below are our recommended aquarium test strips, suitable for freshwater aquariums that house your pleco so you can undertake sufficient Plecostomus care.
Aquarium test strips
These water test strips are a quick and easy alternative to the master test chemical kits, complete with four strips and a chemical chart. One of these strips is to be placed into the water for a short amount of time and the colors on the strip should then be compared to the color chart – this will then accurately tell you the levels of pH, nitrite, nitrate, carbonate and general water hardness.
Master test kit
This master kit is a more advanced alternative to the testing strips, with 7 bottles of testing solutions, 1 color card and 4 glass tubes. This kit will measure the PH, high range PH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, this kit may give you a more accurate result, however there is more of a risk of disrupting the process by putting too many or too little drops in the test tubes
Pleco feeding and diet
All plecos are omnivorous fish that live off both plant matter and small fish, invertebrates and crustaceans in the wild; this diet can be replicated in captivity through the use of several kinds of pleco food. Most plecos are sold as ‘algae eaters’ due to their behavior of constantly consuming algae from the glass and plants in their aquarium. Even though this provides them with nutrients, you should also provide them with pleco food to supplement the nutrients that they don’t get from eating algae alone.
A common misconception is that plecos survive on the algae that is produced in the tank. However this doesn’t provide them with enough nutrition and will lead to a malnourished pleco. Regardless of the species of Plecostomus fish you have, they should all be provided with a range of foods to replicate their natural diet; this includes wafers/pellets, algae, vegetables and occasional live food. Even though plecos are omnivores and do eat meat, they do not purposefully hunt for it, they will just consume it whilst foraging for any food matter on the bottom.
We always recommend a high quality wafer food or a pellet form, that is formulated for plecos, see our article on the best foods to feed your tropical fish here, to find the top 5 foods for bottom feeders, for a list of appropriate foods to give your pleco.
As well as packaged, shop bought foods such as wafers or pellets, plecos can be given a range of vegetables that they will find on the bottom of the aquarium. Some of the vegetables that they can eat include lettuce, zucchini, spinach, shelled peas and cucumbers, feeding your pleco vegetables gives them the fibre that they require high levels of.
Plecos can also be given live food as a supplement including bloodworms, earthworms, crustaceans, and larvae; worms are the best option to give your pleco if they are housed in a community tank. As they sink quickly and will stay on the substrate, this gives the pleco a chance to find the food without the other fish in the tank consuming it first. Plecos can be fed 1-2 times a week to enhance their algae-based diet.
To supplement their diet, plecos should also be given driftwood to aid with their digestion. As plecos are nocturnal they are best to feed in the evening when they are more active, especially when they are in a community tank with other fish as their food may be eaten by the other fish if they are fed in the day.
Plecostomus tank mates
When adding a pleco to your aquarium or starting out with a pleco as your first inhibitor, you need to ensure that any species you already have or know you will be adding will not cause any issues with your pleco. An important thing to bear in mind when housing a pleco is that they are all nocturnal, therefore they get along with many species due to them being inactive in the day when they other species are, and vice versa.
Plecos live peacefully with common community fish such as guppies, mollys, tetras and bettas, as well as cichlids and gouramis; they also live well with various loaches and other bottom feeders. Plecos live well alone and do not require being housed with other plecos, this would also take up a lot of space in your aquarium, particularly when keeping large plecos such as the common pleco.
Discus and angelfish should be avoided when housing a pleco as they are more aggressive and are known to nip at plecos. Fish small enough to fit into a pleco’s mouth should also be avoided as the pleco is likely to eat any tiny fish that they run into whilst foraging. As well as this, very large fish could also attempt to eat a young or small pleco, which could result in the pleco getting stuck in the fish’s throat; so, the best tank mates for any pleco are small/medium sized community fish.
Plecos aren’t particularly sociable fish and don’t require much stimulation to suit their needs, however there are enrichment methods to keep them interested and active. As plecos love foraging through plants and consuming algae off surfaces, the most important pieces of enrichment to include in your pleco enclosure are rocks, driftwood, plants and hides.
Not only do these provide surfaces for algae production, they also provide hiding areas for plecos, as they do not like to be too exposed in their environment. Real plants such as Java Fern and Java Moss provide a good hiding spot for plecos, as well as an algae source, as well as any large leaved plants. Fake plants can also be put in the aquarium but ensure that they are not too harsh and spikey, as they could harm a captive pleco; fake plants with large leaves are the best option for plecos.
Environmental enrichment is one of the most simplest ways to introduce enrichment to your pleco, it can include slightly adjusting the lighting intensity every few days or depending on the season to give a different atmosphere; or periodic changes to the exhibit such as putting in new logs, hides and plants to allow them to hide in new areas and experience different textures (this also prevents them from experiencing the same layout every single day).
There are some health and safety considerations when putting objects inside the aquarium – fake plants or decorations shouldn’t have any loose parts to them such as flowers or small objects that may come loose, or should be durable enough to ensure this doesn’t happen, as your pleco could accidently ingest these parts when searching for food.
Ensure that any fake plants used do not contain any harmful chemicals that may contaminate the water, and lastly each and every item must be thoroughly washed before introducing them into the aquarium to remove any particles that may be on the item.
Here are some examples of what to include in your pleco tank:
Breeding Plecostomus fish is known to be very difficult in captivity. Not much is known about the process both in the wild and in captivity. What is known however, is that they are egg layers which the male carries until they hatch.
They generally spawn in caves or small, dark and segregated spaces; and lay their eggs in large volumes on a flat surface. The male guards the eggs until they have hatched and the young plecos require large amounts of protein once hatched.
The recently hatched fish can be fed on micro worms, brine shrimp nauplii, sinking tablets or disc-type foods to provide a high level of protein.
When attempting to breed your Plecostomus, a separate aquarium should be set up and the breeders should be fed live or frozen foods for several weeks. This increase in individual Plecostomus care should get them as healthy as possible and therefore most likely to breed.
Common health issues seen in Plecostomus fish
Plecos are not sensitive fish and can survive in a range of conditions, making them an easy species to keep. However, they are still susceptible to a range of diseases found in tropical fish; the most common issues are White Spot Disease, fin and tail rot, fish fungus, pop-eye and ‘hole in the head’.
See our articles on White Spot Disease and Fin Rot to find out more information on the causes and treatments:
Fish fungus is a fairly common disease caused by water molds, it causes fungal growths on the body usually white or grey in color, resembling cotton balls. This disease usually occurs due to another skin issue rather than occurring by itself. For example such as from a wound that provides a place for an infection to occur and fungus to grow.
Low water temperatures and bad water conditions overall encourages fungus to grow. This disease requires medical treatment as it can spread very quickly.
- White/grey growths on the body
- Can also cause reddened ulcers on the body
- Frayed fins
- Clear agitation – rubbing themselves on rocks or along the substrate
- Observe their behavior to ensure no other tank mates are harming or disturbing your pleco, as this might encourage the disease to spread or become worse
- If available, place the pleco in a separate tank, or quarantine tank until the disease is cured
- Carry out a water change before putting the pleco back into the tank
- Use a fungal treatment, we recommend the following treatments:
Pop-eye is a bacterial infection that causes protruding eyes, it is caused by fluid leaking into the area behind the eye. The eye can be cloudy or discolored if the cornea was ruptured, or it can be bloodstained.
- Water changes
- Providing vitamin-supplemented food
- Using bacterial infection treatments, we recommend:
Hole in the head
Hole in the head is quite literally small indentations and holes in the fish’s head. This disease however has no known cause. But some indications of what may cause it or add to it are presence of parasites, poor water quality, insufficient nutrition and exposure to activated carbon.
Activated carbon can remove useful nutrients from the water which can cause deficiencies in fish.
- Removing all activated carbon by carrying out large percentage water changes (90%)
- Using a treatment, we recommend API Powder General Cure and Waterlife Octozin. These are parasite medications which should remove any fish parasites.
Are Plecos the right fish for you?
Plecos are the perfect bottom dweller for experienced fish owners due to their large size as adults, particularly the common, sailfin and royal pleco. However, other smaller species of pleco such as the bristlenose, zebra, gold nugget, clown and snowball pleco can be kept in smaller tanks and are therefore more suitable for beginners. However, some species can be slightly more aggressive than others, so ensure you research your pleco species thoroughly before introducing one into your aquarium.
The majority of plecos are peaceful and independent, making them a great addition to a community tank; their ability to adapt to different environments make them pretty easy to care for, as long as their tanks are kept clean.