10 Tips to Keep African Cichlid Healthy

African cichlids have grown in popularity drastically over the past several years, and for good reasons. These flashy and exotic fish are only found in 3 major lakes in Africa, namely Tanganyika, Victoria, and Malawi, and consist of several species, different in behavior and environmental requirements.

Even more than that, African cichlids are different than cichlids in general, so whatever applies to the latter might not apply to the former. This can cause cichlid keepers problems in the long-term, with their cichlids experiencing health issues over time. Cases of sudden death among African cichlids have also been reported among many owners.

This being said, what should you do to keep your African cichlids safe and healthy over the years? Here are 10 tips to consider:

1. Start with Quality Fish and Good Genetics

I would advise avoiding commercial African cichlids. If you really want the best material available regular fish shops probably make for the worst marketplaces available for several reasons. These include:

  • The risk of genetic faults – Fish shops tend to breed cichlids indiscriminately with no consideration for their genetical prowess. This can lead to genetically weaker cichlids, showing increased predisposition towards disease and coming with genetic faults along the way. Not all of these genetic-related issues are visible at first, especially from the perspective of a novice cichlid owner. They will become obvious later on, as your cichlid falls sick or even dies without any warning. These cichlids are also bound to produce faulty fry with similar or worse genetic conditions and weaknesses.
  • Improper conditions – Fish shops won’t keep African cichlids in the best conditions, increasing the chance of you buying an already sick fish. Many cichlid keepers have reported getting fish infected with parasites or various other conditions that turned deadly later on. Getting an already sick cichlid can lead to generalized death among your cichlid population.
  • Unsafe transportation – Unfit conditions during transportation are the most common cause of death among African cichlids. Unexpected delays and temperature fluctuations can kill cichlids before even reaching their keepers or soon after arrival. This risk can never be eliminated, but it’s worth noting that it’s significantly higher when purchasing your cichlids from regular fish shops.

But where should you get your African cichlids then? I would recommend looking for expert cichlid breeders who specialize in selective or even commercial breeding. This provides you with more warranties regarding your cichlids’ genetic makeup and minimize the risks associated with faulty transportation.

2. Choose the Right Tank Size

The necessary tank size depends on how many cichlids you have and of which species. Typically, African cichlids are territorial creatures, with some species displaying more aggression than others.

It’s also worth noting that African cichlids, Malawi-sourced ones especially, live closer to the substrate and will rarely go near the water’s surface. This means that the cichlids’ environment needs a lot of horizontal space, especially since African cichlids prefer to live in larger groups.

If you’re ready to invest in African cichlids, you should consider 3 core points:

  • African cichlids need each other’s company – In essence, the more cichlids live in the same environment, the less impactful their aggressive behavior will be. So, you need more space for your African cichlids because you will need more cichlids, to begin with.
  • Make room for decorative elements – African cichlids are rock-dwelling creatures, especially Malawi-born ones. With a population of 6 or more cichlids, you need a lot of space to accommodate them, at least 40 gallons. The extra space is necessary to fit the various rocks that will create the cichlids’ environment. That need grows for tank equipment like heaters, a filtering system, or even plants if you feel courageous enough.
  • Territorial predisposition – African cichlids, males especially, are notoriously territorial. They will fight other male cichlids and any other fish species around them, sometimes to the death. Hence, the need for more space, more rocks, and fewer males to fuel the aggression.

Settling for the right tank size comes down to assessing your cichlids’ needs. Depending on the species they belong to, cichlids will vary in size between 2 to 12 inches. For instance, one 6-inch large cichlid requires 30 gallons for itself. You should then add around 5 gallons or so of water for any additional cichlid going into the tank.

3. Setup the Right Filtration System

African cichlids require stable and adequate water parameters to remain healthy moving forward. As hard as African cichlids are, they can’t really cope with fluctuating water parameters, primarily ammonia levels and temperature. Without investing in a reliable filtering system, you can’t really build a sustainable cichlid setting.

The ideal filter for your cichlids needs to ensure:

  • Mechanical filtration – Removing large, medium, and small water particles like food residues, dirt, sand, or organic matter. This will keep the water cleaner and clearer long-term, providing African cichlids with a more stable environment.
  • Biological filtration – The filter promotes the growth and flourishment of billions of beneficial bacteria that consume ammonia and nitrites. These organisms are essential to any stable aquatic setting, and the filter will provide them with the ideal conditions to thrive.
  • Chemical filtration – The full package has to include chemical filtration, which is necessary to eliminate any harmful chemicals that the other 2 methods can’t. This includes chlorine and chloramines, ammonia, heavy metals, and various viruses and bacteria that could infect your fish.

Make sure you invest in a filtering system that comes with all 3. I would recommend a canister filter since it’s ideal for African cichlids. It goes outside the tank and only requires cleaning and maintenance every 3-4 months.

4. Feed Only High-Quality Food

Most African cichlids are omnivorous, and they require a stable and nutritious diet in the long run. They love green foods and vegetables like spinach and kale and have a predilection towards animal-sourced protein as well.

Just make sure you don’t overdo the protein part. African cichlids have notoriously ineffective digestive systems and hard-to-digest animal protein can cause compaction, among other issues.

I suggest using sinking pellets and flakes, since these cichlids will rarely go to the water’s surface to feed. That’s especially true for Malawi cichlids like the Mbuna.

Also, never feed your cichlids more than 2 times per day and only provide a limited amount of food. Cichlids should only consume as much food as they can within 2-3 minutes. Anything beyond that will turn into leftovers that will sink in the substrate and decay, poisoning the water as a result.

5. Make Regular Water Changes

How frequent water changes should be depends on a variety of factors. These include:

  • The tank’s size
  • The cichlids’ size
  • How many cichlids you have
  • Whether you have a reliable filtering system or not
  • How much waste your fish produce
  • How your cichlid diet looks like, etc.

In essence, you should perform 15% water changes up to 2 times per week. You probably can get away with 1 water change per week, but don’t push it. Cichlids are notoriously messy and will poison their water fast. Regular water changes are necessary to remove excess ammonia, eliminate algae overgrowth, and refresh the water.

6. Perform Regular Substrate Cleaning

Substrate vacuuming is necessary for most African cichlids regularly due to how much poop these cichlids can produce. There’s also the problem of cichlids burying themselves in the substrate occasionally or disturbing it during playful chases and fights.

This can lead to the excess food and fish waste sinking deeper into the substrate, decaying and increasing the water’s ammonia content dramatically.

Performing regular substrate vacuuming can prevent this issue long-term. You should probably cleanse your cichlids’ substrate once every 3-4 weeks, depending on how messy your cichlids are. Just try to do it without disturbing your cichlids too much. They don’t like any intrusion into their territory, which includes human hands and equipment.

7. Regular Filter Cleaning is Crucial

How often you should clean the cichlid filter depends primarily on the type of filter you’re using. Submerged filters require more frequent cleaning, typically once every 2-3 weeks, depending on how dirty they get and how fast. These filters are generally more prone to algae invasions and dirt accumulation due to having direct contact with the water.

If you’re not fond of cleaning the filter, I suggest investing in a canister type. These filters will hang outside of the tank and require minimal maintenance in the long run. You’ll only need to clean them every 3-4 months on average, and the cleaning process is way simpler and easier compared to other types.

Canister filters are also preferable due to the maintenance work no longer disturbing the fish.

They do require cleaning, however, since they can clog or accumulate too much algae and too much dirt, dropping their functionality significantly. When cleaning the filter, keep in mind never to:

  • Use any sterilizing chemicals – These will kill off the beneficial bacteria inhabiting the filter, affecting your cichlids’ environment as a result. Not to mention, those chemicals might leave trace particles that could poison and kill your cichlids as a result.
  • Be careful when using tap water – Tap water contains chlorine which, again, is harmful to both bacteria and fish. If you are using tap water to clean the filter, at least dechlorinate it first. You can do so by using a dechlorinating solution, boiling the water, or simply leaving it in a wide container to breathe for 48 hours. The chlorine and its compounds will dissipate naturally in contact with air.
  • Use tank water – I suggest using tap water when cleaning the filter. This is the perfect resource since it contains no harmful chemicals, and it allows you to use the filter immediately after cleaning it.

As a plus, don’t be too thorough about the cleaning process. Remove excess dirt, algae, and visible deposits of organic matter, but don’t go any further than that. Excessive scrubbing and cleaning will eliminate the denitrifying bacteria inhabiting the equipment.

8. Try to Reduce Aggression

This is every cichlid owner’s underlying goal since African cichlids can be quite aggressive and territorial at times. And when I say ‘at times,’ I mean ‘always.’ Male cichlids, especially, have an innate predisposition towards territorial, food, and female-related violence and will often fight to the death among each other. Which isn’t a fun prospect to consider.

That being said, you can reduce aggression in African cichlids, provided you use the right tools. These include:

  • Limit the number of males – I wouldn’t keep more than one male in an African cichlid tank. Males are extremely territorial and will fight any cichlid male over tank supremacy in combat sessions that sometimes turn deadly. A 30-40-gallon tank should only contain 1 male, along with a bunch of females, depending how large the cichlids are and how much space they need. If you insist on having more than 1 male, at least provide your cichlids with many hiding areas to limit their aggression.
  • Rearrange their environment – This is a clever aggression-reducing strategy that not many people are aware of. The measure refers to rearranging the rock formation in the cichlid tank to confuse the cichlids and keep them occupied. This may seem like a peculiar strategy, but it makes sense once you learn how male cichlids function. Male African cichlids rely on environmental reference points to establish their territory’s borders. Rearranging the stones will confuse them and limit their aggression temporarily as they figure out the next territorial conformation. Try to change the rocks’ positions once a week and see how your cichlids react to it. You should adjust your approach depending on your situation.
  • Avoid similar-looking fish – Cichlids have a unique ‘are you challenging me?’ sense that ignites whenever spotting fish that look like them. In the cichlids’ minds, those are food and territory competitors, looking to invade their space and steal their resources. Such a situation will immediately trigger the cichlids’ aggressive response, leading to fighting, bullying, and even death. If you’re going to build a cichlid population, choose cichlids of different colors to mitigate their aggressive responses.
  • More cichlids in a larger space – Unlike most fish species, cichlids are more comfortable and less aggressive in larger, even overcrowded groups. That’s because they will spread out their aggression, decreasing the risk of 1 or 2 fish being targeted constantly. Just remember that the more cichlids you have, the larger the tank needs to be, and the more fish waste they will produce. This will require more regular tank maintenance, but it’s worth it, so long as it contributes to a more peaceful and stable cichlid community.
  • Stable water parameters – Cichlids will become stressed and even aggressive in fluctuating temperatures and improper water conditions. Invest in a filter, perform weekly water changes, and clean your cichlids’ environment as is necessary to prevent that. The frequency of the maintenance work will vary from case to case, depending on the tank’s size, the cichlid species, how many fish you have, etc.

These strategies will reduce your cichlid aggression, but don’t expect to drop it to 0. African cichlids will remain true to their nature, as they display aggressive territoriality and adhere to a strict hierarchical order. Cichlids will still fight, but at least you can lower their aggression levels for a change.

9. Provide Enough Hiding Places

African cichlids are rock dwellers, especially Malawi-born species with a predilection for rocky environments. Victoria and Tanganyika-born cichlids will go into open spaces more often than the former. That being said, all African cichlids require a varied environment, rich in hiding places, caves, tunnels, and rocks.

Having a multitude of hiding spots will keep your cichlids more cool-headed in the long run. It’s also a must-have situation during the mating phase when females will go into hiding before laying their eggs.

And finally, cichlids need a place to retreat to when the situation gets too heated up. This is bound to happen in any cichlid community, as these fish will fight over food, females, territory, and hierarchical ranks regularly.

In this sense, choosing the right rocks for the cichlid tank is ideal. You want porous rocks, preferably rich in calcium, that will increase the water’s pH and serve as building blocks for generations of beneficial bacteria.

Some of the most relevant options include limestone, volcanic rock, river rocks, sandstone, and live rocks. I recommend the former, however, thanks to their porosity, intricate structures, and the ability to house a lot of organic matter and numerous microorganisms. Hence, the name.

10. Discover and Treat Diseases Quickly

African cichlids don’t have any species-specific disorders. They will fall victims to the same old fish diseases like Ich, swim bladder disease, hole in the head, mouth fungus, and other bacteria and parasites. The problem is that many of these issues are contagious and deadly, which is why immediate treatment is necessary to improve your cichlids’ recovery rate.

No matter the condition we’re talking about, quarantining the sick fish should be the first step in the treatment process. Move the cichlid into a treatment tank with identical water parameters where you can treat the fish in a safe and comfortable environment. 15% water changes are necessary daily to keep the fish’s habitat clean and free of ammonia and nitrites.

When it comes to the actual treatment, it all depends on the disorder’s profile. I recommend speaking to a fish or cichlid professional to get first-hand advice on how to treat them with minimal risks.


Reading this article makes it seem like caring for African cichlids is a real headache. But that’s because I went into detail on how to provide your cichlids with optimal living conditions.

It doesn’t mean that skipping any of these points or applying them at a different scale will kill your cichlids. But they will decrease their quality of life over time. Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the changes.

As a general rule, I recommend sticking to the recommendations and providing your cichlids with the ideal environmental conditions. This will keep them healthier, happier, less aggressive and will increase their lifespan by a least a couple of years, if not more.

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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