Pictus Catfish: Size, Care and Tank Mates

The Pictus Catfish is an unmistakable fish and is hugely popular amongst hobby fish keepers.

Its popping colors and energetic personality all make for delightful characteristics.

Whilst it can be challenging for novice keepers to keep healthy, its unique characteristics makes the challenge worthwhile.

In our complete care guide to the Pictus Catfish we will cover everything you need to know including:  its size, care guide, ideal tank mates and conditions, dietary requirements and much more.

First let’s look at a brief overview of the species before we go into more detail.

Exclusive Freebie: The Pictus Catfish eBook. A complete guide to caring for the Pictus Catfish including diet and tank mates.

Category Rating
 Care Level: Easy
 Temperament: Peaceful
 Color Form: Black, White
 Lifespan: 8+ Years
 Size: Up to 5″
 Diet: Omnivore
 Family: Pimelodidae
 Minimum Tank Size: 55 Gallons
 Tank Set-Up: Freshwater: Driftwood and Caves
 Compatibility: N.A.

Pictus Catfish Overview

The Pictus Catfish (Pimelodus Pictus) also known as Pictus Cat and Angel Cat, is a member of the Pimelodidae family. It is one of the most popular catfish within the aquarium trade and can be a standout in any tank.

It was first described by Franz Steindachner an Austrian zoologist in 1876 and was found in the warm rivers throughout South America.

They have an unmistakable white body highlighted with black spots and huge barbels which reach all the way down to their caudal fin.

You will notice it is a very active and fast fish and does well in larger aquariums (100+ gallon tanks).

As a word of caution, it should be noted that their pectoral fins are extremely sharp, so when transporting you need to be very careful. Don’t use a regular fish net as they will get their fins stuck and this can cause significant damage. Instead you should use a plastic container.

Appearance of Pictus Catfish
© Claire H

Appearance of Pictus Catfish

This catfish is silver colored with lots of black spots. It has transparent fins and white barbels. Its body is long and slender and in captivity it will generally grow to 5 inches in length.

One of the most distinguishing features of the Pictus Catfish is its ‘whiskers’. They are actually called barbels and all catfish have them. These barbels can reach all the way down to the caudal fin. In the wild catfish use their barbels to help navigate in muddy waters.

They are also known for having sharp spines and fins which have been known to damage other fish. Similar to most Catfish the Pictus also has a forked tail, and a large, downturned mouth.

The differences between male and female are incredibly slight, with females being slightly larger and rounder when they reach sexual maturity.

Finally, they are often confused with Angelicus Catfish. Angelicus Catfish are in fact a separate species of upside-down catfish and tend to have much shorter barbels.

Pictus Catfish Habitat and Tank Requirements

As always, we recommend your aquarium should as closely as possible match the natural conditions of your species.

Pictus are found in the warm rivers and streams of South America; generally in sandy riverbeds.

So to start with you should use a sandy substrate. You should also try to emulate the flow of river water, so use a good quality hang-on-back filter. This will be able to create an adequate amount of current to keep your Catfish healthy. The filtration system is crucially important with Pictus Catfish because they create a lot of waste. So a healthy amount of filtration helps keep water parameters stable as they are extremely sensitive towards nitrates.

Next up is plants and ornaments. As Pictus Catfish are found in dense rivers throughout the South America forests, you should include lots of hiding places for them such as driftwood, river rocks and caves. In addition it will also need large open spaces to swim and exercise in.

As this Catfish is primarily nocturnal, its’ tank should be dimly lit. In addition because of their low light requirements you can include live plants such as Hornwort and Java Moss.

Pictus Catfish
© Clinton

Tank Conditions

In the wild you will find Pictus Catfish in shoals so bear this in mind when planning your aquarium. If you plan to keep a shoal you should have at least a 150 gallon tank; this will support 3-4 Pictus Catfish.

If you’re planning to keep a single specimen then a 55 gallon tank is the minimum size required.

Ultimately though they are an active swimmer so the more space they have the healthier and happier they will be.

As they are a scale-less fish, they are more vulnerable to common aquarium diseases, so you need to pay strict attention to the water parameters.

As for water temperature, you should keep the water between 75-81°F, and the pH should be between 7.0 to 7.5.

Pictus Catfish Diet and Feeding

You will find in the wild that Pictus Catfish are scavengers and will eat pretty much anything that they can find. By nature they are omnivorous, so they will eat both meat and plant matter.

In the warm waters of South America they will be found eating insects (dragonfly larvae), snails, small fish and algae.

This makes keeping and feeding Catfish very easy. They will consume pretty much everything you put into the aquarium.

As always the core of your Catfishes diet should be a high quality pellet. In the behavior section you will remember we said that catfish spend large periods of their time in hidden areas, near the bottom of the tank. For this reason you should make sure to use sinking pellets. To provide them with some variety you can always use food such as:

  • Fresh Foods (Brine Shrimp and Beef Heart)
  • Frozen Foods (Bloodworms and Blackworms)
  • Vegetables

They will also spend some periods of time foraging in the substrate of your aquarium, so you can leave any algae growing because your Pictus will eat it.

As a rule they will ignore most top dwelling live food as they don’t like to venture away from the bottom of the tank.

Finally, it should be repeated that they have a large appetite. You should ensure you keep them full to prevent aggressive behavior to smaller fish in the tank. In addition, because they produce a lot of waste, you should ensure you do at least bi-weekly water changes (25%).

Compatibility with other Fish

Pictus Catfish Swimming
© Chem

Whilst the Pictus Catfish is known for being both non-aggressive and not territorial, there are still several things you need to know about keeping them with other fish:

  • Firstly, they will eat much smaller fish if they get hungry. If you read the diet section above you will know this happens a lot. So make sure not to keep them with fish small enough to fit inside their mouth.
  • Second, Pictus are known for being a very active fish; they are fast and energetic swimmers. For this reason you should avoid adding slow swimming fish (such as cichlids) into your tank as the Pictus can irritate them and cause damage to them with their sharp barbels.
  • Third, they are occasionally sold as bottom dweller community fish, this is wrong.If your community tank is full of popular community fish like, guppies and neons then avoid this fish.
  • Fourth, as a general rule you should make sure that the Pictus is the smallest fish in your tank. Ultimately it is a peaceful fish but it is still a predatory species.

If you keep in mind these points, you will have no problems when introducing other fish species into your tank.

Now as for which species make a good tank mate with the Catfish you can include strong, energetic species fish such as:

  • Giant Danios
  • Opaline Gourami
  • Other Catfish (Loricariid, Doradidae such as Striped Raphael Catfish)

Keeping Pictus Catfish Together

It isn’t uncommon for people to keep Pictus Catfish as a single specimen; they will survive on their own with no problem.

However most people who keep them, do so in a shoal, as they are a shoaling species by nature.

The advantage of keeping a shoal is they are much more active and will be more outgoing. They do well in a group of 3-4 but in general you can keep up to 6 at once; just make sure your aquarium is large enough. We would recommend a tank of at least 150 gallons when keeping a shoal.

Breeding Pictus Catfish

Similarly to other freshwater fish we’ve discussed, the Pictus Catfish is also exceptionally difficult to breed in a home aquarium.

The reason for this is because typical home aquariums aren’t big enough for them to reach sexual maturity; in order to reach sexual maturity they need lots of space. Ideally you should be aiming for a tank at least 200 gallons, anything less than this and the chance your Catfish reaches sexual maturity is slim to nil.

From our research we couldn’t find any examples of people breeding them in home aquariums; in fact only a handful of people have reported certain breeding behaviors let alone actual breeding.

Not much is known in general about the breeding characteristics of Pictus Catfish. In the wild Pictus are egg laying, which means that first the female lays eggs and then the male will fertilize them.

Is the Pictus Catfish Right For Your Aquarium? (Summary)

After reading our complete guide to the Pictus Catfish I hope you can now decide if it’s the right fish to add to your Aquarium.

It is a fantastic fish that would make a great addition to most aquariums. Just make sure you can provide the space requirements needed to keep them healthy.

Whilst some people claim Pictus Catfish aren’t beginner friendly we would disagree and with the correct planning and care, even beginners can successfully keep them.

They have an energetic and entertaining personally and offer community traits that not many other catfish do.

Do you keep Pictus Catfish? Let us know your experience with them in the comments section below…

Robert Woods Portrait
Robert Woods is the creator of FishKeeping World, a third generation fish keeper and a graduate in animal welfare and behavior. He is also a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America and the Nature Conservancy.

29 Comments

  1. I just bought two Pictus Catfish and one albino pleco. I put them into a 28 gal aquarium. They are all about 2-2 1/2 inches and they are all to grow to about 4-5 inches. Will this work or is this tank not big enough? Second, if this isn’t going to work I have a 100 gal aquarium with turtles could they work in that tank?

    • Hi Scott,
      The 28 gallon is definitely not big enough for them, we recommend a 55 gallon tank for just a single Pictus. I also wouldn’t advise keeping your turtles and fish together. Turtles need cooler water than most topical fish, most turtle tanks need plenty of space to bask, and most people achieve this by making half their tank land-like – this is obviously not ideal for the Pictus. It’s a lot harder to create a vivarium setting than keeping them separately. Good luck with finding a solution. The most ideal solution is to buy a new 75 gallon tank for the Pictus.
      Robert

    • I kept 2 pictus cats in a community 20 gallon for almost 2 years. Not ideal but I was good about weekly water changes and they grew and did well. They actually seemed quite happy. It was after I added some mopani wood that I had problems and ended up losing one:( (wood even when purchased through a pet store will lower you pH)
      I’ve since upraded to a 55 gallon and my one pictus is will doing well and thriving. I have always fed him pellets (that sink) at night since he’s nocturnal. I’ve never seen him anywhere other than the bottom of the tank. He doesn’t bother any of the other community fish that occupy the middle and upper portions of the tank.

  2. I was told they would work fine with other fish in a 5 gal tank. ha! The pictus already killed all the other fish except the plecto. Now I have it in a 10 gallon tank because that is all I can afford and fit into my house. I don’t know what to do.

    • Hi April, thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, a lot of local fish stores will tell you anything to make a quick buck! I recommend getting a larger tank of at least 55 gallons. Robert

  3. I have a tall octagon tank. But its taller than wide and my pictures is swimming in the middle……is he ok? He seems confused or something. I’m worried he isnt eating foods off the bottom. I cant be watching all time as I sleep and work. Is he sick? Because I have another in the tank and he seems to be normal at the bottom.

    • These fish do best kept in a shoal so that may be why he is stressed. What is the width of the tank? These guys grow to 5″ long so need quite a wide tank to swim around in. Thanks, Robert

  4. I have two pictus catfish, and since I have cleared the water with algae fix they have become more stressed, swimming around the tank very fast. Could this be a reaction to the algae fix or is it just that the water is clear now and they can see better?

    • The fish are used to having algae around so they may well be stressed due to a change in their environment. It’s always better to get to the root of the problem rather than try to cure it with chemicals, this will only mask the problem and the algae will likely come back. Is the tank in direct sunlight, are your water parameters right, do you have excessive nutrients in the water? Thanks, Robert

  5. I love my pictus! I have had him for at least 6 years. I have him housed with several other types of catfish, a couple blood parrots, angelfish, two large leaf fish, a black gohstknife and albino dinosaur bichir. I may have forgotten someone… but they are all in a 125 and are doing great!

    • Hi Dori, A Pictus will eat whatever it can fit in it’s mouth so I wouldn’t advise keeping them with Mollies or Guppies. Thanks, Robert

  6. I have two tanks, one that has about 55gal water 3 painted turtle boys and a large 6in pleco algae eater. The smaller is maybe 5 gal and is overcrowded. A 4in goldfish, a 2in goldfish, 2 small guppie type fish and a pictus catfish, who is about 3 inches. I want to put the pictus in with my turtles and the big pleco, is this a good idea? Temp is kept at 78°, constantly flowing water that runs through at least a 5 gal filter system. Turtles have floating basking platform, a huge driftwood log that the big pleco hangs out under and a little hidey spot tank. Is this ok?

  7. Hi, so I just got my Pictus Catfish it is kept in a 75 gallon tank with 12 mollies and 4 plattys and a Raphael catfish. I am worried that in the future the pictus might eat the mollies do u think this is a possibility

    • Hi Keaton, we always recommend that the Pictus should be the smallest fish in the tank. Even though they are a peaceful species, they are still predatory and will eat smaller fish if they’re feeling peckish. Thanks, Robert

  8. I have a pictus cat . so far he is doing well. just need more spaces to hide. he is in with a pair of jack dempsey,s. one time i had a pictus cat and he jumped out of the tank. i enjoy this fish very much. no problems yet.

  9. Nice to find an active feed on this subject. I bought a 55 gallon yesterday and plan to have it set up within the week, then give it another few weeks after setup, prior to fish (but, planing to purchase in the next few days and have them held). I realize you state in the article that I should only have one Pictus, but I was planning on three. Even though from your article this in not ideal, would you view this as exceptable? The fish setup I was planing is : 5 scissortail rasboras (3”), 5 cherry barbs (2”), 3 Pictus cats. I want some middle tank swimmer and would prefer 3”+,but most larger fish seem too aggrisive. What would you recommend (this build is centered around having catfish)?

    • Hi Brian, thanks for your message. We recommend you keep them in small groups, so 3 is actually ideal. Have you thought about adding other catfish or some giant danios? Thanks, Robert

  10. These guys are great, I’ve got 3 of them in a 45 gal tank and the refuse to sit still. I’ve had them for over a year and they all exceed 4 inches. I’ve also got them with a pleco and a 7 inch sun catfish(who sits in a log all day but is very active at night). I do have a question, should I get a power head for them because they like to swim so much?

    • Hi Joey, yes you can use a powerhead if you filer isn’t creating enough of a current. Their natural habitat is rivers and streams so they are used to a medium water flow. Thanks, Robert

  11. I have two pictus cat fish in a 45 gallon pentagon tank with three plecos and a rainbow shark and two angle I added a third one that was a bit smaller and the big guy started a fight so I took him out and put him in a different tank

  12. Hi I have a 55 gallon with some plants and rocks and my catfish loves it occasionally he will swim around the bottom of the tank even to the middle en return back to his cave beautiful fish and I have him for about 6 months now.

  13. Hi. I have a 4 line catfish and a pictus catfish. I know they say the pictus will get up to 5 inches. My 4 line catfish is already that. My pictus is about 3.5 inches. I’m wondering how big my 4 line is going to get. When I Google it I get 9-14 inches. I already had to start feeding him red worms. The carnivore pellets aren’t enough for him. Anybody have any ideas?

    • Hi Sean, yes, he is likely to grow up to 14 inches. They aren’t very fussy and will eat most meaty foods. You can give him a mix of live and fresh foods as well as a small amount of plant based foods. Thanks, Robert

  14. Hi! I have 2 Pictus Cats one is large and one is much smaller, big guy was staying in cave for months, this last week he has been going up and down in the tank and the little cat is hanging in the big cave, I tested my water last night and even did a water change thinking I had an Ammonia issue but all came out great in test. I’m worried as he is never out during the day. Could it be a parasite? I see no marks on him, gills look great. I am baffled.

    • Hi Joann, it’s possible he is stressed, are they new to the tank? Have you seen the larger one bullying him at all? Thanks, Robert

  15. I have a Pictus in a 125 gallon community tank and the vast majority of the fish are MUCH smaller. I have cherry barbs, checker barbs, rummy nose tetras, scissortail rasboras and have had no problems. There are also Yoyo loaches, an upside-down cat, a Raphael and some bushy nose plecos. I keep lots of ghost shrimp in the tank at all times and the upside-down and the pictus love them! I had one in a 55 gallon tank for about 8 years before it died but I hardly ever saw it. My 125 gallon has really nice LED lights which have a natural daylight program and at night it has a moonlight cycle which is great because the pictus comes out and you can actually see it! I have had this one for 3 years and it is such a cool fish! It may seem like a lot of fish for a 125 gallon tank but I built my own canister filter out of 6″ PVC that holds 20 gallons of filter media. There is a nice current and lots of plants and driftwood so there are tons of hiding places. I also give it algea wafers, cucumber, flake food and blood worms.

  16. I have a Pictus in one of my 190g tank with my African Cichlids…. He holds his own, well, among them as they are passive and peaceful/territorial and aggressive. He’s also quite the talker and he spends his time traveling the entire tank… Top and Bottom. He loves large open rock caves (dual entry) that has a flat stone with sandy bottom. He’s also quite the character as they all have a unique personality! The only Cichlid way to aggressive for him, and everyone else, was the Auratus. Hense “was”… Note, these fish including my Pictus require large tanks, 100+ gal with heavy filtration if you want happy healthy 🐠 they also like mixed zones including the type of light to no light… ex: 190 gal tank with different lighting on the ends with no lights used in mid section. They love it.

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