The 7 Best Dwarf Cichlids for Your Aquarium [complete guide]

The 7 Best Dwarf Cichlids for Your Aquarium [complete guide]

Dwarf cichlids have big character for such tiny fish. They do well in a tropical community tank. While some species do well alone, others do best in trios or couples.

Cichlids are a group of fish that fish enthusiasts misunderstand as aggressive and territorial. This idea is why some hobbyists often do not prefer them. Cichlids are also blamed for digging up gravel and plants. Because of this, they are not as fashionable as their other fish counterparts.

Fortunately, the Dwarf Cichlids are quite different from their larger Cichlid cousins. These fish species are much less aggressive and will live harmoniously with other fish species in the same aquarium.

Another great attribute of the Dwarf Cichlids is that they do not need much care, so long as you keep them in larger aquariums. Dwarves add interest to the aquarium with their colors and character, giving hobbyists great satisfaction. Keeping and breeding the fish is an easy task.

Types of Dwarf Cichlids

There are two main kinds of Dwarf Cichlids: the African Dwarf Cichlids and the South American Dwarf Cichlids. It must be noted that these two species of fish usually require different water parameters. The African Dwarf Cichlid are generally good community fish. However, the South American Dwarf Cichlids prefer to be alone in their environment.

There are more than 90 different species of Dwarf Cichlids! In this article we have selected six of the best South American Dwarf Cichlids and one from Africa that we think are a definitely worth considering for your aquarium.

The 7 Best Dwarf Cichlids for Your Aquarium- Butterfly Cichlid

Dwarf Cichlid Color Varieties

Some of the most popular South American Dwarf Cichlids kept by hobbyists include Blue Rams, Bolivian Rams and various species of Apistogramma. Whist some species are thought to be challenging to keep, captive bred Cichlid strains are becoming more available and are well suited to aquarium life. New and appealing color morphs continue to be established by breeders.

Captive bred Cichlids have quite diverse characteristics even within the same species, featuring innumerable colors and patterns. Male Cichlids will generally have quite different color variations to females.

Cockatoos with their long striking orange and black fins and Blue Rams with blue hues and unique patterns- these will liven up your tank. Then there are the Dwarves that have gentle colors and patterns that will blend into the landscape.

Dwarf Cichlids

How Long Do Dwarf Cichlids Live?

Although the lifespan of Dwarf Cichlids can vary slightly between species, the typical life prospect of most is up to five years. However, many fish keepers report their cichlids live longer than that, with some fish living ten or more years if given optimal care and a high-quality diet.

What Do They Eat?

Feed your cichlid flakes or pelleted food. They are omnivores and thrive on a nutritious balanced fish food such as Aqueon Tropical Flakes, Shrimp pellets and foods specifically formulated for Cichlids.

Time how much food your fish eats in 3 minutes, then and feed them that quantity twice daily. Offer frozen or freeze-dried brine shrimp or bloodworms as treats.

Wild caught Cichlids can be fussy eaters and may require live foods to begin with, but eventually they will accept frozen and dry foods.

Nannacaraanomala (Golden Dwarf Cichlid)

Dwarf Cichlids

Golden Dwarf Cichlids are lovely little fish with a golden and blue colors. Their hardiness and suitability for a peaceful community tank make them an ideal choice. They should be housed in tanks of at least 20 gallons.

The male is easy to tell from the female. He will be larger with brighter colors.

Captive bred Golden Dwarf will accept just about any tropical fish food. It is important that they are given a rich nutritionally balanced food. They enjoy frozen food and freeze-dried foods too.

The Golden Dwarf Cichlid has been bred in captivity for many years. Due to them being well acclimatized to captive breeding, they are a fish that breeds readily for hobbyists.

They prefer slightly acidic water and a slightly higher temperature (than usual) when breeding. The female does become aggressive when she lays her eggs, chasing off other fish including the male Dwarf Cichlids. If in a small tank, the male should be removed.

Ensure the tank has places for the female to lay her eggs, such as caves. The eggs hatch after a few days and can be fed on newly hatched brine shrimp.


Egyptian Mouthbrooder (Pseudocrenilabrus multicolor)

Dwarf Cichlids

This species has been bred in captivity for over a century. They are very hardy fish and a great dwarf cichlid for beginners.

Egyptian Mouthbrooder Dwarf Cichlids accept most foods. A quality cichlid pellet/flake can be fed as staple. They also require variety, so the inclusion of live and frozen foods will keep them at their best.

This species can be aggressive towards other fish that live in the lower parts of the aquarium. If keeping them with other dwarf cichlids, catfish, and loaches, you’ll require a larger tank so they can all have territory.

In smaller aquariums, they do well with fish that inhabit the upper reaches of the tank; fish such as African tetras, hatchetfish, danios and barbs. Males are very aggressive towards each another and only one should be kept with one or more females.

Males are usually larger and more colorful than females.

The Egyptian Mouthbrooder Dwarf Cichlid is easy to breed. Being a mouth-brooder, it is enjoyable to watch them breed. Leading up to breeding feed your fish a high-quality diet of frozen and live foods. This gets them into prime breeding condition.

Ensure there are secluded areas in the aquarium for the fish to breed. When in condition, the male will dig-out a shallow pit in the gravel. He will then attempt to entice the females to spawn with him. He does this by displaying and sometimes forcefully ‘encouraging’ the females.

When willing, the female and male will tightly circle one another, and the eggs will be released. The female picks them up in her mouth. She will hold 5-100 eggs in her buccal cavity.

After ten days the brood will hatch. The free swimming fry are released by the female and can be fed on newly hatched brine shrimp, microworm and powdered dried foods.

Neolamprologus multifasciatus

Dwarf Cichlids

These attractive small fish have an enormously interesting trait; they tend to establish small territories (6” across) around large snail shells that they will defend vigorously. They will even nip fingers that get too close!

This smallest of the dwarfs, is a highly recommended species because they will entertain you with their unique territorial behaviors.

They require at least a 10 gallon (40 L) tank is needed for a colony. In their natural environment they seek out large open areas of sandy substrate where there are numerous empty shells. By replicating this, the colony will happily set up their territory in amongst these shells. The fish will landscape the area, so ensure the substrate is deep enough.

They generally accept dried foods, however, live and frozen foods will ensure they thrive and it brings them into breeding condition.

Due to their territorial aggressive manner, it is best to house a colony of these cichlids with fish that like to inhabit other areas in the aquarium.

To maintain cohesion with the colony, make sure you provide more shells than fish and keep many more females than males. Males and females look similar. Males will have a more intense color and a reddish tint to the top part of the dorsal fin.

Breeding these little fish is easy. They may breed in the community tank, but it will be more successful in a separate tank. Make sure there are plenty of shells, as the female will lay her eggs in these. They like a hard and alkaline water with a high pH of 8 to 8.5. The temperature should be 77-80°F.

Keep several females per male and space the shells out to reduce territorial aggression between the males.
Females will display in front of their shells to gain the attention of males. The female will lay her eggs in the shell, which will then be fertilized by the male.

After spawning the male plays no further role and the female will see him off. The eggs hatch after a day and become free swimming fry within a week. As the fry grow they will venture further away from the shell and eventually being chased off by the female.

Feed fry on newly hatched brine shrimp or microworm.

A colony of Neolamprologus Multifasciatus is a must for hobbyists interested in this little fish’s unusual habits.

Cockatoo Dwarf (Apistogramma cacatuoides)

Dwarf Cichlids

Being one of the most popular of the dwarf cichlids, Apistogramma Cacatuoides  are a perfect starter cichlid for beginners. They may be small in stature, but by no means small in personality. These species gets its name from their stunning cockatoo-crest-like dorsal fins.

Hobbyists have been breeding Cockatoo Dwarfs for many years and have been able to fix several different color variants.

Male and female fish are quite different in looks. The males develops an enlarged head once sexually mature. This seems to continue to enlarge throughout its life. They have huge mouths that they gape to threaten other males in their territory.

A very hardy fish that can take most water types. Heaters are even optional so long as the room doesn’t get overly cold (not below 60°F). This is not the case with their Cichlid cousins, that prefer warmer water.

Cockatoo dwarfs dwell at the bottom of aquariums. Having a longer aquarium with lots of floor area with 20+ gallons of water would suit best.

Cockatoo Dwarfs are not very picky when it comes to foods. Feed live food daily and supplement with flakes, pellet food, freeze-dried and frozen food.

To bring them into breeding condition, feed live food such as blackworm and brine shrimp.

Cockatoos are cave spawners. Ensure there are many caves in the aquarium, at least one for each female. Openings should face away from one another providing privacy.

The males will battle it out for dominance. Only the dominant males will get to breed. The dominant male will be the brightest colored of the colony and he will be proudly dancing around out in the open to impress the girls! It is best to remove the sub-dominant males from the tank during breeding, unless there is plenty of space for them to hide.

Aggressive males have been known to kill rival males. Each male should have a harem of about four females.
After courting the female lays her eggs on the inner walls of her cave. The male will then fertilize them. The caves need to be large enough to accommodate the male.

When the eggs hatch the female takes charge and herds the fry around the tank foraging for food.

The Cockatoo Dwarf are an addictive starter cichlid. You’ll be hooked by their colors and intriguing behaviors as they go about their lives in a colony.

ApistosApistogramma Trifasciata 

Dwarf Cichlids

Apistogramma trifasciata (Apistos) are small, brightly colored striped fish with a quiet nature, making them very suitable for a community aquarium. The Three Striped Dwarf Cichlid is one of the most brightly colored of this species.

This cichlid is not considered a fish for beginners. A tank of at least 25 gallons is recommended to keep a colony of these fish. It needs to be well planted as the Apistos requires places to hide and to establish their colony.

They require well filtered not too hard (0-12 dH) water, with a temperature of between 71-86F and pH of 5-7. With these conditions, along with a quality diet, Apistos will live five to ten years.

With a preference to inhabit the bottom of the tank, these fish do best with fish that don’t share their lower tank space. Avoid aggressive fish species, as Apistos may become their targets. The best tank mates include: Cardinal Tetras, Otocinclus Catfish, Lemon Tetras, Neon Tetras, Pygmy Corydoras and Rasboras.

Apistos are easy to breed if all their conditions are met. They like the water warm with very little flow. Like most cichlids, these fish are very protective of their eggs and fry. The females defend their nests and the male the territory.

Success with breeding will increase when using a separate breeding tank as opposed to a community tank.

Either breed in pairs, or one male with several females. Two males will fight. The female will coax the male into the breeding area where she spawns, and he fertilizes the eggs.

Once hatched the fry will eat primarily algae.

Apistogramma trifasciata are omnivores and require a balanced diet of plant based foods and protein from live foods or freeze dried foods (brine shrimp, insect larva, worms, fish fry). The food needs to be able to sink to the bottom where they live.

With a little attention to water parameters, these intriguing quiet-natured cichlids make a great addition to the aquarium.

Rainbow Krib – Pelvicachromis Pulcher

Dwarf Cichlids

We selected the Rainbow Krib, or Kribensis, to be one of our best dwarf cichlids picks. This one is not a South American species, but rather from Africa, inhabiting the shallow weedy waters of Southern Nigeria and Cameroon.

The colors on these fish are enhanced during spawning. During breeding time the female sports a striking cherry-red colored belly. Even when not spawning they are attractive fish with many colors.

Rainbow Kribs do well in community tanks, however, their tank mates need to be carefully considered. Although generally peaceful, the Rainbow Krib may nip the fins of slow moving long finned tropical fish. Being bottom dwellers, it is best to house with fish that inhabit other areas of the tank, especially other species of cichlid.

Provide several caves in the tank for the fish to select as their own. The caves should have a single entry, be dark and stable. Half ceramic flower pots and coconut shells make great caves. Being territorial, these fish will compete with other fish seeking caves.

A well planted aquarium with some open spaces is ideal for them. They like to burrow and may uproot plants. Rainbow Kibs can tolerate a wide range of water conditions.

Rainbow Kribs are omnivorous and will happily eat flake or pellet food. Supplement their diet with live or freeze dried foods of shrimp, brine shrimp, daphnia, mosquito lava and bloodworms.

Females are smaller than males and develop the bright red spot on their stomachs when in breeding condition. Males are longer and thinner and less colored.

If you decide to breed this species, it is best to do so with them in their own tank. Males become very aggressive whilst spawning and when caring for the fry. Offer several caves for breeding and make sure the substrate gravel is fine (under 3mm). Fry and eggs get lost in larger gravel.

Condition the pair of cichlids with a generous diet that includes live foods. The female will display her red-cherry abdomen when she is ready to spawn. She will embark on an enticing courtship display. She may become aggressive as well during this time.

The pair will dig the gravel beneath the cave when preparing to spawn. 200-300 eggs will be laid. The female will stay in the cave with eggs, then fry until the fry are free swimming. The male will defend the territory. When leaving the cave, the fry will stick to their parents closely.

Feed free swimming fry newly hatched brine shrimp and finely crumbled flake food. The parents (or may only be one parent as they may begin to fight) will remain with the fry for 2-4 weeks.

Maybe this hardy African dwarf cichlid is the one for you. Easy to keep and breed and fun to watch!

Yellow Dwarf – Apistogramma borellii

Dwarf Cichlids


Apistogramma borellii or Yellow Dwarf Cichlid (Umbrella Cichlid) enjoys a well-planted aquarium with good depths and plenty of caves. They are peaceful, hardy and are tolerant to a wide range of water conditions. The Yellow Dwarf are an ideal choice for beginners due to their peaceful nature, hardiness and easy mix within a community tank.

Males grow to around 3 inches, and females 2 inches. Being mostly carnivorous, they require a diet rich in live and freeze-dried foods.

These small fish are compatible with most non-aggressive fish. Great tank mates include barbs, danios, tetras, live bearers.

They can take a wide range of water conditions, however, to be ideal a temperature of 75 – 81F, a pH of 5.0 – 7.0 and a water harness of between 1 – 10 dGH.

The female is more colorful than the male, yet the finnage of the male is somewhat more spectacular.

This species dwells near the bottom of the tank, requiring a substrate they can sift through and burrow into. Hobbyists will enjoy watching them excavating their territories using their mouths. The downside is they tend to dig up plants (use deep rooted plants and weighted stones and driftwood to hold them down). They like the shade of floating leaves and are used to tannins in creeks and rivers. So floating Indian Almond Leaves helps with providing a natural environment for them.

The Yellow Dwarf Cichlid is a harem species where several females live in a colony with one male. They make excellent parents to a brood of fry. The female will tend to the brood, whilst the male protects them and defends the territory.

During breeding the male becomes very territorial. 50-100 eggs will be laid in a line on flat shale, rocks or within the cave. The male will follow behind her and fertilize the eggs. The eggs hatch in about two days and the fry free swimming in about 5 days. Feed newly hatched brine shrimp.

The fry can be left with their mother for two to three weeks before being removed to their own tank.

Turn down water pumps to reduce water flow in the tank during breeding.

When buying your first Yellow Dwarf Cichlids by a group of about six. It is unlikely you’ll be able to sex young fish. They will sort themselves out over time.

Live Cichlids For Sale Comparison Table

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Appropriate Feeding for South American Cichlids

In nature, South American Cichlids have a preference for insect larvae, small worms and other invertebrates. In aquariums they readily accept commercial flake or pellet food. It is important to offer them live or freeze-dried high protein foods, especially leading up to breeding time. South American cichlids are mostly carnivores. Check individual species for their dietary requirements.

Correct Maintenance for South American Cichlids

South American Dwarf cichlids are quite resilient and can live within wide water parameters. Periodic partial water changes are an important component of maintenance, as well as cleaning of the substrate and filters. With efficient biological filters and an aquarium that is not over stoked, water changes are not as important.

Many cichlids come from ‘backwater’ creeks and drains and live in amongst decaying leaves and weeds. The water can be quite acidic containing tannin. Keeping this in mind, it may be a good idea that these fish have access to plant material both living and dead. Dead leaves (of sea almond, beech oak or walnut), Alder cones, Indian Almond or peat. With some species, this will entice fish to breed.


Oak leaves that sit on the bottom of the tank are great since they remain stiff while wet. Dwarf cichlids love to swim through the labyrinth of leaves and to live in leafy habitats. You need plenty of rockwork, caves, passages, flower pots, coconut shells, driftwood and/or other ornaments.


Some species of Dwarf cichlids live in environments where the substrates are mostly mud or sand. Many species enjoy sifting through sand to find food or to excavate their ‘dens’. Having a layer of gravel an inch or more deep will provide plenty of substrate for digging. If breeding cichlids, it is better to have a small diameter substrate (less than 3mm) as fry and eggs can be lost in the amongst the gravel. Certain species of cichlid prefer dark gravel, and others light.


Dwarf cichlids do not eat or damage aquatic plants, so you can use pretty much any species of plant that tolerate water levels. Some Dwarf cichlids will uproot plants when digging. Use plants with good roots and pin them down with stones.  Floating plants replicate the wild, providing shade and shelter from predator fish. These may be a good addition.

Final Thoughts

There are plenty of Dwarf cichlids that are suitable for a peaceful community aquarium. Always do your research and parry up your new cichlids with other aquatic creatures that enjoy the same water parameters as them. If you introduce Dwarf Cichlids to your aquarium it is certain that you’ll be entertained and the decision won’t be regrettable, in fact it is highly likely that you become addicted to this quirky species!