Red Tail Catfish (Phractocephalus Hemioliopterus): Care Guide

Common Name(s)Red Tail Catfish
Scientific NamePhractocephalus Hemioliopterus
OriginSouth America
Temperature68-79°F (20-26°C)
SizeOver 5 feet
Minimum Tank Size1500-2000 gallons
Food & DietOmnivorous
LifespanOver 15 years
Water pH6.0–7.0
Tank MatesOther Red Tail Catfish, Gars, and Freshwater Stingrays
DiseaseMay be susceptible to fin rot.
Red Tail Catfish (Phractocephalus Hemioliopterus)
Red Tail Catfish (Phractocephalus Hemioliopterus)

Red Tail Catfish Facts

  • The largest redtail catfish was found in the amazon river in 2010. It weighed 123 pounds and measured over 5 feet in length!
  • Redtail catfish are remarkably hard to breed in captivity as there is no way to tell their sexes apart.
  • The bite of the redtail catfish is enormous; they’ll try to eat anything that fits into their mouth.
  • Redtail catfish are also sometimes referred to as banana catfish because of the yellow banana-like stripe on them.

Red Tail Catfish Care

Red tail catfish are one of the most challenging species to keep in any tank. They grow to such extreme lengths, and their aggression makes them a questionable choice for a novice. Just the tank size required for them makes you genuinely consider whether they’re worth it. If you genuinely want to keep a redtail catfish, you have to ask yourself a few questions beforehand.

Are you prepared for their rapid growth and needs? Do you have the room required for their massive tanks? But most importantly, can you give them the best life possible? If you answered no to any of those questions, you aren’t fit to own and care for a redtail catfish.

Are Red Tail Catfish Hardy?

Redtail catfish are an extremely hardy species. They can adapt to most environments and survive in nearly any water condition. But despite that, they still have preferred elements. Elements that should become necessities if you plan on keeping them. You need to be able to provide them with the best life possible. Make sure their water is at its preferred pH level and temperature. It’s also necessary to provide them with enrichment, such as a sparse or empty tank to help replicate their home environment.

Red Tail Catfish Temperature

Despite being such a hardy and adaptable fish, Redtail Catfish still have requirements that should be met. Meeting these conditions will help them live a long, fulfilling life. The optimum temperature for Redtail Catfish is between 68-79°F (20-26°C).

Juvenile fish that are kept in tanks can be maintained with ordinary aquarium heaters. However, as the fish grows, a larger tank or pond will be required. For larger bodies of water, different heating solutions such as pond heaters will be required. Keep in mind that these heating solutions can be costly to maintain.

Can Red Tail Catfish live in cold water?

Despite the hardiness of the redtail catfish and their origins in lakes and ponds, they cannot survive in cold water. Their natural habitats are large rivers, streams, and lakes in South America; their natural habitats never get cold, so they aren’t prepared for it. If you keep your redtail catfish outdoors in a pond and live in an area with colder winters, you need to move them before the weather turns and the temperature drops.

Red Tail Catfish Water pH

Redtail catfish require an enormous tank to survive and thrive in. Because of this, maintaining the tank at the appropriate temperature and pH levels will not be easy, and it’s not a task that a novice should embark on. Redtail catfish require a pH level of 6.0–7.0. Keeping it in that range is important as it will help the redtail catfish grow, stay healthy, and avoid illness or infection.

Red Tail Catfish Size

Simply put, redtail catfish are enormous. They outsize nearly every other fish you could own at home. Despite that, their beginnings are small. They can be found at a young age measuring only 5 centimeters. That size increases rapidly, sometimes gaining an inch a week when they’re young. Some people believe that redtail catfish only grow up to a foot when inside of an aquarium. That is a false and potentially dangerous rumor.

Most redtail catfish reach 2 feet in length in their first year of life. They can reach up to 4 feet when held in captivity. That number gets even more significant in the wild; the largest redtail catfish ever recorded was 63 inches, over 5 feet, and weighed 123 pounds!

Red Tail Catfish Growth Rate

Redtail catfish are quick growers. In captivity, they can grow upwards of an inch a week in their juvenile stage. That is even more true in the wild, where they seem to grow unregulated or uninhibited. The largest redtail catfish ever recorded was over 5 feet. When contained in an aquarium or tank, they don’t seem to grow as large, usually only reaching about 4 feet. Their rapid growth and final length can be devastating to unprepared owners.

That is why it is imperative to have a tank large enough to accommodate a fully grown redtail catfish before buying one. Most people tell themselves that they’ll get a new tank in a few years when the redtail catfish needs it, but it rarely happens. The catfish then quickly outgrow their home and has to be rehomed; if you’re lucky, a zoo or local aquarium will take them off your hands.

Red Tail Catfish (Phractocephalus Hemioliopterus)
Red Tail Catfish (Phractocephalus Hemioliopterus)

How fast do Red Tail Catfish juveniles grow?

Redtail catfish have a rapid growth rate when they’re young. This species of fish can grow at rates averaging around 1 inch per week. This rapid growth causes them to outgrow most home aquariums in their first year; for most red tail catfish, that first year ends with them over 2 feet in length.  This is why it’s imperative to have a tank large to accommodate them at their fully grown size. Redtail catfish need enormous tanks, the likes of which most home aquarists do not own. That is why redtail catfish are usually housed in public zoos or aquariums.

How Big is the Biggest Red Tail Catfish?

While owned as a pet and in captivity in home aquariums, redtail catfish can reach upwards of 4 feet, usually reaching over two feet in their first year. As is true with most aquarium fish, species tend to grow more prominent in the wild, in their natural environment. This is especially true of redtail catfish. The largest redtail catfish ever recorded was found in 2010, and it reached lengths of over 5 feet, measuring 63 inches in length. But not only was it long, but it was also a big find weighing in at a whopping 123 pounds.

Red Tail Catfish Tank Size

Redtail catfish are known as rapid growers; they can gain up to an inch in length per week when they’re young. They will need a tank large enough to give them space for their growth. Their rapid growth and massive size when fully grown means they need a much larger tank than average aquarists are used to.

Redtail catfish require a tank between 1500 and 2000 gallons, according to most experts.  That massive tank gives them room to grow while in their juvenile stage; it also accommodates their fully grown size, giving them enough space to be comfortable, explore and be at home.

Red Tail Catfish Food & Diet

Redtail catfish are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat both plants and meat. When it comes to red tail catfish, they’ll eat anything put near their mouth. Despite that, it doesn’t mean you should feed them anything. They still require a balanced and healthy diet to help them stay strong and lively.

You can start with pellets or frozen food as a base, but pellets have to be the sinking kind because red tail catfish are bottom feeders. In addition to pellets or frozen food, they should be fed some fresh food, preferably meat, shrimp, or worm are good options, as well as small fish. Redtail catfish will feed on fish, crustaceans, or fallen fruit in their natural environment.

Red Tail Catfish Lifespan

As with any fish or pet, maintaining a healthy diet and a safe and secure environment is key to a long, fulfilling life. When kept in captivity, redtail catfish average a long life of about 15 years. They’ve also been known to survive longer in the wild, but it’s not easy to track. Unfortunately, the lives of many red tail catfish are cut short by unprepared owners.

They need enough room to grow and particular conditions to be met to ensure they’re both happy and healthy. Not many aquarists, regardless of skill level or experienced, are exceptionally equipped to provide that, which has a significantly negative impact on the lifespan of any red tail catfish held in captivity.


Redtail Catfish Tank Mates

Due to the massive size of redtail catfish and their voracious appetite, finding a suitable tank mate can be difficult. They will eat or attempt to eat anything smaller than them, which is most other freshwater fish since they grow to be around 4 feet. While most owners tend to house their red tail catfish alone, there are some possibilities for tankmates.

Gars are an exciting and standard option; they’re a bony, freshwater fish that grows up to 30 inches and can make the perfect tank mate for a redtail catfish. If you’re housing them in a pond instead of a tank, you could consider freshwater stingrays. They’re not easy to take care of, but they’re large enough to coexist with redtail catfish.

Compatible Tank Mates

  • Redtail Catfish – The most appropriate tank mate for a redtail catfish is more of its species. They won’t eat their own, and they’ll grow to be a similar size. Keep in mind that the chances of breeding are minimal, but it may happen, mainly because it’s impossible to tell their sex at a young age. However, redtail catfish can sometimes get territorial and aggressive with others of the same species.
  • Gars – They’re freshwater, bony fish. Gars grow up to 30 inches in length and shouldn’t become lunch for redtail catfish because of their size.
  • Freshwater Stingrays – This option is contingent upon the size of the home for your red tail catfish, and it should only really be considered if they’re housed in a pond as opposed to a tank.

Incompatible Tank Mates

  • Any freshwater fish that is smaller than a fully grown redtail catfish is incompatible with being a tank mate. Their massive size of nearly 4 feet in length makes the list of incompatible tank mates extremely long.
  • Goldfish – Goldfish can grow to be up to 18 inches. But even despite that length, they would still quickly become a food source for a redtail catfish.
  • Koi – You may be tempted to add Koi to a pond that already contains redtail catfish, but it should be avoided. They’re both aggressive fish. But your redtail catfish will likely attempt to eat your Koi, which could be dangerous for both of them. The Koi may be too large for the redtail catfish to eat, causing them to choke and die.

Red Tail Catfish and Oscar Fish

Oscar fish are a type of cichlid native to South America. They tend to be aggressive species of fish but also develop bonds with their owners. Those bonds sometimes cause them to wag their tails, earning them the nickname “River Dogs.” Unfortunately, Oscar and redtail catfish won’t get along well if contained in the same tank or pond. Redtail catfish grow rapidly and will try to eat the Oscar as soon as it’s large enough.

Redtail Catfish and Arowana

Arowana is one of the only species that can live peacefully with red tail catfish. But that peace is entirely dependent on the growth rate of your Arowana. It would help if you bought both your redtail catfish and Arowana at the same time when they’re young but be sure to watch them grow carefully. They both grow rapidly but should your redtail catfish outgrow your Arowana; it will likely try to eat it. But in most cases, your Arowana will grow large enough to avoid becoming dinner for your redtail catfish.  

Redtail Catfish and Goldfish

Goldfish are probably the most popular fish in the aquarium hobby. It stands to reason that most people want to include them in their tanks or setups. If you’re going to keep a goldfish in a community tank, you need to be sure that it can coexist with the other species contained in the tank. Redtail catfish and goldfish will not be able to coexist in the same tank. Despite goldfish growing relatively large, red tail catfish still easily outmeasure them. That size disparity will make goldfish an easy dinner for your redtail catfish to eat.

Redtail Catfish and Koi

Koi fish are gorgeous and bring beauty to any pond or tank they call home. They’re usually kept alone with others of the same species. But some may want to house them as a part of a community. This isn’t recommended as Koi can be a highly aggressive species of fish. It would help if you didn’t keep Koi and redtail catfish together; their respective temperaments don’t make them a good fit. Redtail catfish are also gluttons, so they’ll try to eat the Koi, which can very likely lead to the death of the redtail catfish. This is because Koi aren’t very small, and catfish may choke on them.

Redtail Catfish and Cichlid

Redtail Catfish will eat anything that can fit into its mouth. In the aquarium hobby, that’s every freshwater fish, including cichlids. That means you should avoid keeping redtail catfish and any species of cichlids together unless you plan on feeding them to the redtail catfish.  Due to the voracious nature of redtail catfish, the best tank mate for them is others of their kind; they likely won’t try eating them because of their size.

Are Red Tail Catfish aggressive?

Redtail catfish are considered to be a very aggressive species. They’re very opportunistic and will prey on anything small enough to eat that gets too close to them. Those predatory instincts make them seem very aggressive. As such, keeping redtail catfish anywhere near smaller fish should be avoided unless they are being fed to it.

Can Red Tail Catfish bite?

Redtail catfish can sometimes bite. Their bite is very noticeable. It is not a small bite; it is designed to gulp down their prey in a single motion. This is likely why redtail catfish don’t have teeth; they don’t need them with their large bite size.

Red Tail Catfish Tank Setup

The size of the tank required to give a redtail catfish a comfortable home and life is enormous. Most experts recommend a tank between 1500 – 2000 gallons; that is not a typo. That size alone is a significant reason why more aquarists can’t keep a redtail catfish.

Two thousand gallons isn’t a tank size that you can buy on a whim; as for the interior of the tank, the less, the better. Redtail catfish will eat anything that fits into their mouth, including gravel, driftwood, and even rocks. With that in mind, their tank should be primarily barren, as they don’t need decorations or hiding spots. Decorations will only hurt your redtail catfish in the long run.

Red Tail Catfish in a Pond

A pond is the best place to house a redtail catfish. It’s easier to replicate their natural environment in a pond, and if placed there early in life, they won’t have to be rehomed, granted the pond is big enough to accommodate them. As with tanks, though, the pond’s bottom should be barren, so the redtail catfish doesn’t have anything that would fit into its mouth.

Red Tail Catfish Breeding

Breeding redtail catfish is extremely difficult; this is for a few reasons. It’s tough to sex a redtail catfish, as they have no discernable differences between the males and the females. Another reason is that redtail catfish can be highly territorial, meaning you likely can’t house them safely together, even for breeding. Should you get lucky and get redtail catfish that breed, the female will lay her eggs among rocks and weeds, usually somewhere between a few hundred eggs to tens of thousands. The male will then fertilize the eggs by spraying them with sperm, and about ten days later, the eggs will hatch.

How to Breed Red Tail Catfish

Breeding redtail catfish in captivity is extremely hard and requires several tanks that reach over 1000 gallons.  Carefully is the only way to breed redtail catfish. You have to house them together and hope they don’t get territorial. You also have to hope that you’ve housed a male and a female together since there is no way to tell them apart. If you get lucky with those two conditions, you have to ensure the water is the proper temperature to breed, as female redtail catfish will only lay their eggs when the water is between 75 oF -80oF.

How to raise baby Red Tail Catfish and what to feed them?

Baby redtail catfish should be kept away from any bigger species, as they may get eaten. They rapidly grow upwards of an inch a week so that it won’t be a problem for long. Redtail catfish are also omnivores, meaning they’ll eat just about anything. Redtail catfish should be fed every other day when they’re young, but as they mature and get larger, they’ll only need to eat once a week.

Red Tail Catfish Disease

Despite being such a hardy species of fish, redtail catfish aren’t immune to everything. They can suffer from several debilitating illnesses and infections that can affect their quality of life and even shorten their lifespan. Fin rot is a common infection that can infect many different types of freshwater fish. It’s noticeable because the edges of the fins of the affected fish will start to eat away. If not treated, this infection can spread to other body parts besides their fins.

Red pest disease is another illness that can impact redtail catfish. It’s a bacterium that targets a fish’s circulatory system; it causes internal bleeding. Due to the voracious nature of redtail catfish, they can also commonly suffer from constipation, which might make them lethargic and erratic.

Redtail Catfish Sale and Price

Unfortunately, most pet and aquarium stores will sell redtail catfish to unsuspecting owners. They can also be found for sale on several different websites online. A juvenile redtail catfish usually sells for just over $20, but that price can be deceptive. It doesn’t consider how much you’ll have to pay for a tank large enough to house them once they’re fully grown.

Owning a redtail catfish isn’t a task you should take on lightly. They are significant and aggressive, which means they can’t be housed with nearly any other fish. Their massive size when fully grown means you need to have a tank that can accommodate them, which isn’t something that a majority of people have. It’s recommended to avoid purchasing a redtail catfish unless you have the space and equipment necessary.

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