Taking care of discus fish can be an overwhelming task for the beginner aquarium hobbyist. It is often recommended that you get in a few years of general aquarium experience before diving in head first with Discus. Mistakes can be costly for a rookie, often times Discus fish can sell for $40 to $50 and prices skyrocket when dealing with rare strains or breeding pairs. So, you want to know what you're doing before you just plunge in. Below is a quick guide to get a better understanding of what it takes to take care of your Discus fish.
Discus fish, also known as pompadour fish, is sometimes called the "King of Aquarium". True to its name, the discus fish is flat and shaped like a disc and comes in a variety of beautiful colors. Discus fish is a popular pick among aquarists because of its elegance and sophisticated appearance. Coming in several colors and patterns, breeders have been very successful at establishing strong new strains of Discus fish.
However, despite all the progress in developing stronger discus fish, there is still a lot of work required, sometimes at expert levels due to the specific environmental conditions discus fish need to survive. Really, it's the main reason why discus fish is not recommended for beginners.
Here is a quick list of weekly, even daily chores you will have to consider when keeping Discus fish:
WATER: With discus you can't just plop them in and forget about it, genetically they come from the Amazon. Requiring softer water that is slightly acidic. Many hobbyists make the mistake of relying on chemicals to achieve water conditions required by Discus fish. Mastering the mixing of RO water based on your local water conditions is key to keeping Discus happy and healthy.
FOOD: Don't think you will develop strong discus fish feeding only flake food. Local Amazonians don't walk along the rivers and sprinkle in flake food. No, Discus fish require protein-rich food, even live food if it is available to you. They are larger fish, in order for them to thrive, closer attention to food is required.
ENVIRONMENT: Amazonian rivers are rich in organic growth and plenty of places for Discus to hide. Dropping a discus fish in a tank with super bright LED lights and hot pink gravel is not going to be ideal and will stress out your discus fish. Discus requires a larger tank to swim about and plenty of places to hide, preferably with live plants.
The Ideal Discus Aquarium Tank Size
Discus fish can grow quite big in size. On an average, both male and female can grow up to 6 to 8 inches over two years time. They can grow at a rate of half an inch to about 1 inch after every two months. Largely based on water changes and protein-rich food, discus will thrive in a larger tank, given the ability to swim larger areas.
Discus fish are both vertical and horizontal swimmers. They can dart about very fast if spooked, given only a tall tank, discus can jump out of the tank when spooked. If keeping a community tank, the minimum tank size would be a 60-gallon tall tank. It would easily give you discus fish the space needed to swim horizontally and vertically. A tank hood is still very much recommended, you don't want to find your discus on the floor, they will jump out if nothing is above them to keep them inside your tank.
Only when breeding discus fish, should you consider a smaller 20 to 30-gallon tank. Discus fish will love to swim in groups of six or more from side to side. Given enough space, you will experience schooling behavior and can enjoy the site of your discus fish growing to maturity, eventually pairing off and mating.
Creating a Discus Fish Environment
The natural habitat of the discus fish is the low-lying areas of the Amazon river. They are used to dense vegetation with darker surroundings. To create the ideal environment, driftwood can be used to make it look more natural and add beauty to the aquarium. Be careful to select driftwood that does not have any jagged edges or sharp points that stick out. Discus can be spooked and injury to your discus fish can happen. Select driftwood that is round and the ends return back into the gravel to avoid accidental scratches or cuts.
Broad-leaved plants such as amazon sword plant can be added to provide hiding spots and soften the bright aquarium lights. LED lights can be intense and the broad leaves of the amazon sword plant will help your discus feel a bit safer. Discus fish have been known to select the leaves of amazon sword plants to lay their eggs on when breeding. It's a great plant and highly recommended for your discus fish tank.
Discus fish should be housed in the cleanest environment possible, which why most aquarists recommended to have a bare bottom tank. Bare bottom tanks are not aesthetically pleasing if placed in the living room. But a bare bottom tank helps keep the water clean because of ease of cleaning the tank. You can spot waste or leftover food right away and clean it up.
However, for an aesthetically pleasant set-up, small pebbles or plant substrate with smooth surfaces can be added. Also, discus fish like to swim along the bottom in search of food. When planting your tank, care should be taken in keeping spacing for the fish to swim around freely. Tightly planted tanks can easily accumulate waste and food that can lead to dirty water and toxic build up.
Ideal Discus Water Parameter Requirements
Discus fish are very sensitive to changing water conditions. A change in their ideal temperature, an imbalance in pH, or ammonia spikes can cause stress, spark diseases even lead to the death of your prized discus fish.
The ideal water temperature for discus fish is between 78 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Any temperature above or below that will make them uncomfortable. If too cold, Discus fish metabolism will slow down, they can get sick due to not eating and the onset of sickness can occur. If the water is too hot, discus fish metabolism speeds up, combined with less oxygen in the water can lead to erratic behavior and a drop in the functionality of the discus fish immune system. All this being said, slight momentary fluctuations are not harmful, it's prolonged repetitive dips and peaks in temperature that will cause problems. It is best to position your tank away from drafty windows or doors to help regulate the temperature of the tank water.
In the case of water pH, discus fish prefer a slightly acidic environment. The ideal pH is 6.5, but the range can be between 6 and 7. Surprisingly, local breeders can develop strains much more tolerant of higher pH values, surviving in pH as high as 7.8. Discus fish prefer to live in softer waters with less dissolved solids and particulates. This is where the use of a good RO unit comes in handy. An RO unit will remove much of the minerals and debris found in water that is not visible by the naked eye.
The levels of nitrite, nitrate, and ammonia should be kept in minimum. The nitrite level should be kept at 0ppm since discus fish is highly sensitive to even a slight increase in nitrite level. Ammonia should also be kept at 0ppm. A slight change in ammonia is known to cause discoloration and heavy breathing. The level of nitrate can be kept under 20ppm. Having a good freshwater test kit and doing regular testing can help you avoid disaster.
Water changes are very important in keeping discus fish. Some discus fish keepers have been known to do several 100% water changes in one day! It's up to you if you want to do that much, it is recommended that you at least do a 25% to 50% weekly and replace the water with soft RO water that has been aged. You can typically do this by generating the needed RO water ahead of time and storing it in a container with an air stone in it to help stabilize and prevent pH swings. Pre-aging the water and checking it's parameters is much more stable than straight from the tap water.
Discus Fish Food
Discus fish are basically omnivores and can eat a wide variety of foods such as algae, live worms, small crustaceans and so on. Both frozen and live foods can be given alternately to ensure a healthy diet. Most breeders prefer to feed them, beef heart or live foods such as California Blackworms.
Discus fish require protein-rich food to grow out from fry to juvenile and ultimately into a giant adult. Feeding flake and engineered colored bits is not really recommended for growth. Nutritionally, you can include flake and pellet food inside of homemade discus fish food. Using a food processor you can blend shrimp, fish, and flake to create your own discus fish food. You can store it in small ziplock bags in your freezer then simply break off a piece for feeding times.
Discus fish do not do well with other aggressive eating fish like Angelfish who will out-compete discus for the food. Also reduce the amount of current in the tank, to avoid food getting pushed around the tank and sucked up through the filter. Ideally, the food will float for a bit, allowing discus fish to eat it as it thaws and falls to the bottom of the tank.
In the case of live blackworms or frozen bloodworms, you should use a floating worm feeder. Worm feeders are great because they hold the food in one place long enough for the discus fish to eat most if not all of the worms. Worms and small foods like brine shrimp tend to dissolve into the water and scatter all around before discus have a chance to eat them. Using a worm feeder resolves this issue by holding everything in one place allowing your discus to eat at their own pace.
Overfeeding is not recommended as this can cause your discus fish to experience constipation, bloat or death. Feeding amount will take some time to figure out. Be ready to clean up any excess food in the tank to keep the water clean.
Perfect Tankmates for Discus Fish
Discus fish are usually calm and peaceful, but they can be aggressive especially with each. There will always be one dominant discus fish in the pack. When buying discus, you must decide to either buy one or several. Buying discus in three's is not recommended as the two others will pick on the one. It is better to purchase 4 to 6 discus fish or more for a tank.
If you are looking for smaller fish to accompany our discus fish, you should experience great results with neon tetras, cory cats, and rummy-nosed tetras. Smaller fish that swim in schools are great as they are less aggressive and are very out-sized by your discus fish.
Avoid other cichlids such as Angelfish as they will out compete for food and be aggressive towards your discus fish. Your discus fish should clearly be the largest fish in your tank. Other small fish such as raspborras tend to fin nip and can cause injury to your discus fish.
Discus Fish Behavior
Discus fish are very social in nature since they like to live in groups. It is only during spawning season, they become territorial and attack each other, often protecting the spawning site. They are calm in nature and can easily get restless and stressed with a lot of activity around them. Avoid placing your discus fish tank in a high traffic area. Care should be taken not to flash bright lights in the aquarium or knock the aquarium glass. This can make the fish feel insecure and disturbed.
Discus go through their own version of a pecking order, often times the smallest can be dominant, there are no clear rules. This is why several discus should be kept in order to replicate schooling behavior. Otherwise, smaller numbers will create stress with one clearly dominate discus.
Interestingly enough, discus fish can recognize their owners, perhaps its the fact they understand someone feeds them or maybe the can recognize facial features. Some discus have been taught to eat from their keeper's hand.
As mentioned, discus fish kept in groups will eventually get old enough to pair up and mate. You will often see two discus fish swim next to each other and shimmy shake. It looks like they are shivering because they are cold, in fact, they are signaling to the group that they are ready to mate. Another interesting behavior, when two discus decide to choose each other for mating, they will swim toward each other and suddenly slow down and dip their heads down, looking like they are bowing to each other. If you begin to notice these behaviors, congratulation, your discus fish are signaling they are ready to begin breeding.
Breeding Discus Fish
Breeding a discus can be a difficult task, forcing it is not recommended, it is always best to allow this to naturally happen as mentioned above. Starting with a larger group of fry or juveniles, allowing for natural selection and mating rituals to happen creates a stronger bond between the two discus fish.
The water conditions should mimic the natural environment very closely. The temperature should stay warm and stable, with a minimum level of nitrites or ammonia. The pH should be close to 6.5, and the water TDS ( total dissolved solids ) should be monitored to allow for the best chances of egg fertilization. There should be an upturned discus breeding cone or clay pot positioned in the middle of the tank for them to lay eggs. Discus lay their eggs on vertical surfaces, so you will want to provide an obvious one. Discus ultimately choose where to place their eggs, despite all your efforts. So don't get frustrated, they will eventually figure it out.
The environment around the hatching area should be very clean to avoid contamination and bacteria. The female lays eggs every couple of weeks, so if the first time they lay eggs, they don't end up fertilized, don't worry, sometimes it takes them a few times to get it right. If the eggs are fertilized they hatch 48 to 72 hours after being laid. The fry are called wrigglers and are attached by their heads to the area, they do not need to be fed at this time. Wrigglers survive off a yolk sac that provides nutrition until they are strong enough to swim on their own. Parents can be seen blowing water at them, keeping them clean of debris.
Once the wrigglers become free swimmers, parents often try to catch them with their mouths and put them back. Eventually, more of them become free swimmers and the parent give up. Small free swimming fry should be left with their parents. The fry will eat from the parent's slime coat, pecking at their sides and swimming alongside them. Parents will often switch off, quickly swimming towards one another and with a quick flick, transfer the fry to each other, giving one of the parent's rest time. Fry can stay with the parents for several weeks, until becoming the size of a dime and are observed to be eating baby brine shrimp. At this point, the small dime-sized fry can be moved to a larger grow out tank, giving the parents time to rest and breed again.
Keeping discus fish is not easy, but possibly one of the most rewarding experiences in the hobby. Discus are amazing in size, color, intelligence, and personality. Yes, of course, it's a chore to keep everything as required by the discus and the Amazon. That is exactly what draws so many to the challenging task of not only keeping but breeding discus fish. You will learn a lot, suffer heartbreaks and experience amazing behaviors. If lucky enough, you will create the perfect environment for your discus fish to reproduce and observe first hand what amazing parents discus fish can be. Keeping discus fish is not easy, but highly recommended if you are up to the challenge.