6 Best Small Cichlids for 20 Gallon Tank

Cichlids are a diverse family of fish, most of which are native to Africa. They are specialized feeders, allowing them to live together with other species without any meaningful competition-based incidents. Cichlids are also known for their aggressive nature. Nevertheless, you can create a harmonious ambiance if you choose the right species for your tank.

As a beginner aquarist, getting a few dwarf cichlids can gently onboard you into the world of fish keeping. Dwarf cichlids are a peculiar breed, possess awe-striking characteristics for such small fish, and are ideal for tropical community tanks.

With over 1600 types of cichlids in existence, finding a species exhibiting beautiful colors, easy-going behavior, and intriguing personalities shouldn’t be too difficult. Experts in the aquarium trade say there is a cichlid for everyone. Let us dive in to find yours:

1. Julidochromis

Julidochromis, also known as A Masked Julie, is one of the cutste little cichlids from Lake Tanganyika, Africa. It is the smallest of its genus measuring not more than 2.7 inches. It is less than half the size of its cousins and enjoys a dimly lit small tank.

– Requirements

A masked Julie can be shy and generally chooses to stay in the rocks placed at the back of an aquarium. These fish do well in a community cichlid tank, and it is not mandatory to keep a masked Julie in pairs. While they can strive singly, keeping them in groups can be a visual treat.

The Masked Julie gets along with other Tanganyika cichlids, provided they are the same size. Invest in a 20-gallon tank with plenty of rockwork to keep a pair of Julidochromis, since such a setup mimics their natural environment perfectly. I recommend that you house conspecific varieties and similar species separately to prevent hybrid stains.

– Care

This family of fish is easy to care for but require weekly water changes. Its tiny size and hardy nature make them a viable option for a beginning fish keeper.

Just provide your masked Julie with a sandy or fine gravel substrate with lots of rocks to help them feel safer and more comfortable. You may also add a few aquatic plants to your tank, as it will provide cover for the hatched fry.

– Feeding

The Masked Julie is an omnivorous fish and enjoys a good balance of high-quality flake food every day. Feed them with small pellet cyclops, water fleas, and brine shrimp. Do not feed them more than 2 to 5 small pinches of food a day, as they prefer to eat in smaller amounts. Besides, overfeeding can deteriorate water quality and cause the fish digestive problems along the way.

The masked Julie are peaceful toward those of the same species but can get aggressive with their offspring. However, they tolerate fish and offspring belonging to a different genus. The masked Julies will breed in your tank if they find enough crevices.

If you have a pair, house them in a 20-gallon tank as they like to protect their brood from intruders.

2. German Blue Ram

The German Blue Ram is a brilliant addition to any community tank. Unlike other cichlids, the German Blue Ram is more peaceful and easygoing. Although, these fish are not for the faint-hearted due to their strict water quality requirements.

The German Blue Ram also goes by the name Ram cichlid and German Blue and grows up to 3 inches in size. These fish live for up to 3 years and are native to South American waters.

– Requirements

They require a minimum aquarium size of at least 20 gallons and prefer a water pH of 5.0 to 7.0. German Blue thrives well in water temperatures of 74 to 82 °F. The German Blue is a peaceful fish and does well when you house them with other cichlid species.

Some examples of viable tankmates for the German Blue Ram include the Blood Parrot Cichlid, Kribensis Cichlid, etc.

However, I recommend that you do not house this genus with more aggressive cichlid species. A German blue ram is only for advanced hobbyists as they can have strict water quality requirements.

You must make it a point to maintain good water quality to keep your German blue alive and healthy. Practice a regular maintenance schedule religiously and do not fail to test your water quality regularly.

– Care

In addition to pristine water quality, German blue like to have plants around them. They enjoy hiding in caves and prefer to lay their eggs on flat stones. While too many plants can be an obstacle for your fish to swim freely, not providing enough hiding places can cause unnecessary competition between the different cichlid species.

Any aquarist should strike the perfect balance in creating an ideal environment that allows the fish to swim freely and hide safely.

– Feeding

Like most other cichlids, the German blue is also an omnivore. They enjoy a balanced cichlid pellet diet. You may also provide them occasional frozen, fresh, or dried diet supplements. Make sure to feed them carnivore treats 2-3 times per week, depending on their preferences and appetite.

With a general life expectancy of up to 3 years, The German Blue Ram can add beauty, charm, and color to your community tank with its distinctive and vivid blue accents. Their base body color is gold/silver, and they have black markings over the head and spots on the dorsal side-body, making them an absolute thing of beauty.

3. Dwarf Flag Cichlid

A dwarf flag cichlid is an ideal species for small to mid-sized aquariums, and these fish come in vibrant colors. The dwarf flag cichlid can elevate the beauty and appeal of any aquarium and make your tank the focal attraction point of your house.

Some of the advantages of keeping a dwarf flag cichlid include easy long-term maintenance and a relatively low level of care.

– Requirements

The dwarf acara fish is native to the Amazon River basin. An ideal tank for this fish should mimic their natural conditions. The dark sand substrate can make your fish look more vibrant and attractive. You may also add objects like caves, holes, and driftwood to create hiding spaces for your cichlid.

A dwarf flag cichlid’s natural habitat encompasses dense vegetation. Create the same ambiance for the fish in your community tank by adding more dense plants.

The dwarf flag fish prefers soft lighting and a dimmer tank. If you have a brightly lit tank, add some floating plants to reduce the light intensity inside the aquarium. This genus likes the tank water to be gentle and slow. Hence, make sure not to add a strong filter as it can disrupt the water flow in your tank.

Maintaining good quality water can keep your fish in good health and looking vibrant. Also, changing the 20% of the water two times a week can minimize the level of nitrate inside your aquarium.

– Care

You must follow the water parameters and keep the pH levels between 5.5 to 7.5, the temperature between 72 to 80 °F, and the DH level around 5-12. Dwarf acara enjoy soft acidic water and lead a healthier life in clean water conditions. Dwarf acara is generally peaceful, indifferent to its tank mates, and usually is in a good mood, provided it has a healthy tank.

They can get aggressive when breeding, caring for their fry, or ill. Snails make great tank mates for this genus. They also bode well with other varieties like hatchet fish, Tetras, Corydoras catfish, and Suckermouth catfish.

Provide your fish with dark sand substrate and plenty of hiding spots with driftwood, caves, and dense planting. Keep the tank light dim and fix an efficient water filter system to provide your fish with gentle water movement. Make it a point to change the water frequently to keep the nitrate at a minimum.

– Feeding

You may offer live and frozen foods like vitamin/Spirulina-enriched brine shrimp, white mosquito larvae, bloodworm, Mysis, daphnia, flake, green flake, crisps, pellets, etc. Make sure to chop large food items into coarse sizes to help your dwarf acara feed easy.

Getting these vibrant and astonishing multi-colored fish for your aquarium can elevate the beauty of your tank. They are easy to keep and have a unique personality that you will adore.

4. Rainbow Kribs

Kribensis is a colorful fish, and its Latin name means beautiful belly. It is one of the easy fish to care for, and the female Kribensis sports a cherry-red colored attractive belly.

Native to the African waters, they prefer shallow water with thick vegetation. However, they are tolerant to different levels of water hardness. An adult Kribensis can grow up to 4 inches in size and lives for up to 5 years.

– Requirements

You will need a fish tank of at least 20-gallon capacity, and the water pH should be 6.5. They prefer a temperature of 75 to 77 °F. You need to be careful with choosing the tankmates for Kribensis. While these are predominantly peaceful, they may nip the fins of slow-moving fish like angels.

If you wish to house them with other cichlids, choose a species that does not dwell on the aquarium bed, or Kribensis can get competitive and aggressive as they are territorial. You should also avoid housing them with other cave-dwelling species as Kribensis can get over-protective about their caves.

– Care

Place a couple of caves, stable rock formations, and flowerpots in your tank, as these fish like to have several hiding spots when they spawn. You want to ensure that the edges of these tank decor are smooth to safeguard your fish from hurting themselves.

Your Kribensis will also like to have enough space for open swimming. So, make sure to house them in a large tank. One of the advantages of keeping Kribensis is that they are an undemanding fish and do not demand pristine water quality.

– Feeding

Kribensis are omnivorous. They prey on flake, pellet foods, frozen brine shrimp, and freshly hatched brine shrimp. You may also feed them other live foods like daphnia, mosquito larvae, and bloodworms. We recommend you provide a variety of foods to your fish to help them stay healthy and lead a long life.

Since Kribensis are bottom dwellers, you want to provide them with foods that can sink. Make sure to buy sinking pellets. If you plan on letting your fish breed, nourish them with plenty of live foods.

5. Apistogramma

Apistogramma is one of the many types of dwarf Cichlids and is a popular freshwater species. They are stunning to gaze at and have such a unique personality, size, and temperament from other cichlid species. Also known as Apistos, this fish genus is excellent for any community tank. They love to live at the bottom of the tank and do well with almost any species.

However, you do not want to house them with a breed that takes a lot of floor space as Apistos can get territorial. Some of the ideal tank mates for Apistos include tetras, pencil fish, and other species that like to swim in the tank’s middle area.

– Requirements

They are generally small in size. Hence you don’t have to invest in a large-sized tank. A 20-gallon tank is more than enough for a pair of Apistos as long as they have the space to call their own. Now, the tricky part with an Apistogramma is managing their water conditions.

They can be picky and sensitive to pH levels and temperature shift. Make sure to mimic the water conditions of their natural habitat, the Amazon basin. They enjoy the warm water and a neutral pH balance. You may create some hiding spots for your little friend with natural tank decorations.

– Care

Cover the tank bed with a fine sandy substrate, and consider a handful of live aquatic plants, as they are a must for any Apistogramma setup. They enjoy having lush vegetation in their environment and even feed on the plants from time to time.

These plants also become their hiding places at times when they need protection. Place natural tropical plants like Java moss, Java fern, and Cryptocoryne in your tank alongside some rocks and driftwood to help them catch a break from the tank light.

Providing your Apistos with some caves and artificial housing options may also come in handy during the breeding seasons.

– Feeding

Apistos are omnivores and enjoy preying on algae and plant leaves. They also like their proteins and love to devour insect larvae, small invertebrates, fish fry, and worms.

Make sure to keep more than one Apistos in your tank. Getting more females than males may be ideal as males can be more aggressive. We recommend doing a harem grouping with multiple females to one male.

6. Multies Cichlids

We save the best one for last. It is none other than Neolamprologus Multifasciatus, also known as Multies. It is a small shell-dwelling cichlid native to Lake Tanganyika in Africa. The males grow up to 2 inches in length, while the females stop at 1 inch.

The Multies are the smallest cichlid species in the world. Their natural habitat is the shell beds of Lake Tanganyika. Now that we have covered the details about their unique habitat, it may surprise you to know that they also possess an intriguing behavior.

These fascinating little fish belong to the family of cichlids known as shell dwellers. They not only make homes in shells, but they also breed in them. One of the unique facts about these fish is that they are sexually monomorphic, making it impossible for the males to mate with the females based on external appearance alone.

– Requirements

An ideal home for multies would mimic their natural habitat as closely as possible in the tank. For one pair of multies, a 20-gallon water tank should suffice. The critical thing here is to keep the water conditions similar to those of Lake Tanganyika.

Maintain a pH between 7.5 and 8.5 and a carbonate hardness of 15 dKH to keep your multies healthy and active.

– Care

Multies are moderately popular amongst aquarists. Fill your tank with a sandy substrate so that you multies can burrow into them. You must place at least one shell per fish.

– Feeding

Multies eat anything from powder food to nano or small pellets. They enjoy the occasional treats of brine shrimp or frozen daphnia.

Multies appreciate living in groups, although you should make sure that they have enough shells to prevent them from fighting with one another. You will find your female laying her eggs inside the shell not before too long. The males then fertilize them after 24 hours, and the fry begins to swim around within 7 days.


There is no cookie-cutter approach when it comes to keeping a cichlid aquarium. Do your fair share of research before buying cichlids and choose the species that best suits your space constraints and aquarium setup at home.

You cannot assume that your new cichlid fish will adapt to whatever you already have in your house. That’s now how the cichlids like to roll. These species have strict water quality, diet, and aquarium setup requirements.

Housing them in a tank that does not match their demands can lead to disease and possible death down the line. A little planning ahead and a careful setup can help you have cichlids as pets for the longest time.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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