Pictus Catfish: Complete Care Guide, Size and More…

When algae builds up in your aquarium it can be difficult to manage.

Fortunately, there are plenty of algae eaters around who can help out.

The Pictus Catfish is one of the best algae eaters.

Their spotty color pattern and algae eating ability has made them one of the most popular catfish species. However they can be a bit of a challenge for beginners to keep.

If you are interested in adding this fun little fish to your aquarium then keep reading to learn everything you need to know about them…

Pictus Catfish

Pictus Catfish
Other Common Names: Angel Cat
Scientific Name: Pimelodus pictus
Family Name: Pimelodidae
Distribution: Venezuela to Peru
Size: 5 inches
Color: Black and white
Care Level: Moderate
Temperament: Semi-aggressive
Lifespan: 8-10 years
Minimum Tank Size: 55 gallons
Tank Mate Compatibility: Medium sized fast moving fish

Pictus Catfish Overview

Pimelodus pictus

The Pictus Catfish (Pimelodus pictus) is a bottom dwelling fish from the Amazon and Orinoco rivers.

They come from the Pimelodidae family of long-whiskered catfish and can live for 8 to 10 years in an aquarium.

Their popularity comes from their appearance and also their ability to clean up algae and detritus. While the Pictus is one of the most well-loved catfish species, they are also quite a challenge for new keepers to manage.

This is because they have no scales and are more susceptible to injury and illness than other fish (more on this later).

Pictus Catfish will cost anywhere from $10-$20 for a high quality specimen.

Key Facts:

  • Experience Required: Cichlid keeping, aggressive species.
  • Nicknames: Angel Cat.
  • Color Forms: Black and white.
  • Size: 5 inches.
  • Tank Size: Minimum 55+ gallon.
  • Tank Temperature: 72°F to 80°F.

Pros and Cons

  • Exceptionally good algae cleaners.
  • Can live in low light habitats.
  • A favorite of aquascapers.
  • Compatible with other similar fish.
  • Can inflict a venomous sting.
  • Scaleless and susceptible to illness.
  • Cannot breed in captivity.

Pictus Catfish Appearance

A Pictus Catfish Swimming

The Pictus Cat is absolutely adorable.

When you look at one the first thing you will notice is their whiskers.

These are called barbels and they are found on most bottom dwelling fish that live in murky conditions. Barbels act as sensory organs that help the fish detect movement and vibrations in areas where it can be difficult to see prey or predators.

Pictus Catfish have a long body with a thin abdomen and wide snout.

They have a beautiful black polka dot pattern over a white or light grey body.

Instead of scales they have a protective mucus coating that makes them look slimy.

In total they have 7 fins including: a primary and secondary dorsal fin, paired pectoral fins, a single anal and pelvic fin, and a homocercal caudal fin.

The pectoral and primary dorsal fin contain sharp venomous spines that can be extended for defense.

Telling the difference between males and females is very difficult to do in captivity. The fish must reach sexual maturity before you can tell its gender.

The female’s abdomen will be slightly distended in preparation for carrying eggs, while the male’s will be completely flat.

Color Varieties

There are two different varieties of this species:

  • Colombian: Fish that come from the upper end of their range have a uniform pattern of small pepper spots across their entire body.
  • Peruvian: Fish that come from the lower tributaries have large spots across their body and smaller spots across their head and snout.

5 Fun Facts About Pictus Catfish

  1. Fish in the Pimelodidae family are often referred to as Pims and the Pictus is the most popular Pim.
  2. Because they are so elusive not very much is known about their wild behavior or breeding.
  3. They are often mislabeled as the Angelicus Catfish. However the Angelicus Catfish are black with white spots, as opposed to white with black.
  4. Pictus Catfish are venomous and a sting from one of their sharp spines feels similar to a wasp sting.
  5. When they are not active they are usually asleep at the bottom of the tank. A sleeping Catfish is completely still with their eyes wide open.

Breeding Pictus Catfish

Pictus Catfish Together

Unfortunately you cannot breed Pictus Catfish in home aquariums.

Even with a backyard pond you will struggle to meet the specific conditions that are needed to breed these catfish. Nearly all of the Pictus Catfish you find for sale will come from commercial fish farms.

There are several reasons why it is not viable to breed these catfish at home:

  1. Their wild breeding conditions are extremely difficult to replicate. They need completely open water with strong currents and a high dissolved oxygen content.
  2. Most Pictus never reach full maturity in an aquarium and true sexual maturity can only be achieved in an open water environment.
  3. Artificial insemination is not one hundred percent effective as the sperm is only viable for less than a minute.
  4. These fish do not produce breeding pheromones in captivity so you would need to purchase artificial ones (they are very difficult to find).
  5. Their sexual dimorphism is so vague that determining the genders can be too difficult. Both specimens must be sexually mature in order to successfully determine their genders.

At these commercial farms the fertilization is performed externally after the female lays the eggs.

The exact gestation period and clutch size is unknown, however they are known to be egg layers that spawn during the warmer months.

Juveniles will normally reach maturity in about 2 months.

History and First Sighting

Because of their elusive behavior in the wild very little is known about the Pictus Catfish.

We do know that they were first discovered by Franz Steindachner in 1876.

The interest in this fish comes from the aquarium community rather than the scientific one. It was first introduced to the pet trade in the late 1990s. By the mid 2000s breeding for the aquarium trade was reduced to specialized fish farms in the face of population decline.

Habitat loss, overfishing and pollution have all led to the decrease of this species’ wild populations.

Captive rearing and aquarium keeping are how we get to know about this fish’s behavior and temperament. Today, it is the most popular Catfish in the Pimelodus genus.

Natural Habitat and Tank Conditions

Group of Pictus Catfish

These fish inhabit the Amazon and Orinoco river basins from Venezuela to Peru.

However because of their elusive behavior in the wild not much is known about their population dynamics.

They are known to be very active swimmers that enjoy riding fast currents. We also know that they usually stay very low to the riverbed and take shelter under plants and overturned logs.

Waterfalls and fast inflowing water from the river generate a strong current and create a highly oxygenated environment for these fish.

So to replicate their natural wild environment you will need a heavily planted tank with high flow and added oxygen.

Aquarium Set Up

Your tropical aquarium heater should maintain water temperatures between 72-80°F. The pH can range between 6.5-7.5 with the salinities ranging between 4-15 dGH.

Layer the bottom of your tank with soft sand under smooth medium sized pebbles. You should never use rough substrate with a scaleless bottom dweller.

Because this fish enjoys a strong current you will need to use an external filter for larger setups. Those of you using a smaller 55 gallon tank will be able to use a hang on back filter. Dissolved oxygen is also very important and can be increased by using an air pump. You can also use a waterfall filter to add some flow and oxygen.

If you use a moderate light intensity for the rest of your tank then keep the bottom levels heavily shaded. However if possible it is best to run low light if you can.

Large rocks and rocky structures make the best hideouts for Pictus Catfish. Logs, driftwood and bogwood will work as well though.

You can use low light plants such as Java Moss, Anubias, floating Hornwort, and both Amazon Sword plants.

Tank Parameter Requirement
Minimum Tank Size 55 Gallons
Tank Type Planted Freshwater
Temperature 72-80°F
pH 6.5-7.5
Hardness 4-15 dGH
Flow Medium to Heavy
Substrate Soft sand and pebbles

What Size Aquarium Do They Need?

A Pictus Catfish will need at least a 55 gallon aquarium.

However, it is not advisable to keep only one. These fish are happiest in shoals of 4 or 5 – to keep a shoal of this size you will need a 150 gallon tank.

Pictus Catfish Tank Mates

Any fish which you keep as a tank mate should be large enough to avoid being eaten.

It should also be quick enough to evade a sting from the Catfish’s sharp spines.

The best tank mates are other medium sized Catfish including most Plecos. Common, Bristlenose and Clown Plecos are safe if you can give them enough space.

You can also include larger Glass Catfish and Striped Raphael Cat.

Fast-moving Barbs such as Tiger Barbs are safe on account of their schooling and their rambunctious swimming. Giant Danios are also safe, though the smaller Zebra Danios are not.

Rainbow Sharks work because they live in a different level of the tank than the Pictus. However their cousin the Red Tail is not a good pick.

While most Loaches should be avoided the Clown Loach is fine because they are a fast swimmer. If you would like to include Gouramis then consider the Three-Spot, Blue and Opaline.

Invertebrates will not last long in a tank with a Pictus and there are plenty of fish species that should be avoided too.

Tetras, Rasboras, Guppies, and other nano-sized fish will be dinner in a matter of minutes. But there are also some larger fish that are incompatible.

Cichlids are too slow moving and risk being pricked by the Catfish’s spines. Plus the more aggressive species will compete for territory.

Other territorial bottom dwellers should be kept away.

Keeping With Cichlids

You may have read that some people keep keep Pictus Catfish with peaceful Cichlids however it is actually better not to keep them with any Cichlids at all.

Angelfish, Dwarf Cichlids and other more peaceful species are not likely to pick a fight. However these slow moving Cichlids are likely to be stung if they bump into the Catfish by mistake.

Even Cichlids that spend most of their time in the middle levels can cause trouble if a scavenging Catfish wanders too far away from their home.

You are better off leaving them out.

Keeping Them Together

This species’ best tank mate is their own kind.

They are happiest in groups of about 4 or 5.

While you can keep them on their own they will be less active and more anxious without the security of others.

Pictus Catfish Tank Mates

Pictus Catfish Care Guide

This scaleless fish needs more care than standard fish.

Because they have no scales they are more likely to get injury or have parasitic infections.

A scaleless fish cannot be given the same kind of medications as other fish. If ich or another infection occurs you will need to use other methods.

You can temporarily raise the tank temperature above 82°F which can kill off ich and other parasites.

If medication must be given then it should be at half the dosage that you would give to a scaled fish. Do not use medications that contain copper, zinc or other metals.

However the best way to combat illness is to prevent it.

You should keep the tank very clean and make sure not to overcrowd it with plants or other decorations.

Perform a 25% water change every 2 weeks and watch for the buildup of waste and detritus. Make sure your filters are always working at full capacity.


This extreme scavenger will eat anything they find at the bottom of the tank.

In the wild this can be anything from algae to small fish.

Although they will eat everything, this does not mean that they should. You are responsible for providing a healthy and balanced diet.

Pictus Catfish need a mix of both protein and greens, and the flakes that you give them should reflect that. You can also supplement high protein fish flakes with algae wafers and tablets. Your flakes must be quick sinking and able to reach the bottom without being gobbled up by other greedy tank mates.

This fish also likes garden vegetables. Try cooking up some blanched cucumbers, peas, lettuce, or spinach. You can also offer it a bit of cooked beef as an occasional treat.

There are many different things that you can feed this opportunistic catfish, including:

  • Daphnia
  • Moina
  • Brine shrimp
  • Fish flakes
  • Algae tablets
  • Bloodworms
  • Insect larvae
  • Peas
  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Beef
  • Algae
  • Detritus

Because they are nocturnal the best times to feed your catfish are in the early morning hours just before dawn, and in the evening just after sunset.

At least two feedings a day will be necessary to curb aggressive behavior.


This fish is timid but also very active.

You won’t usually see them until the sun goes down and then they come out of hiding.

When you do spot them moving they will try to blend in with their surroundings and hide in very conspicuous spots.

They can be spotted rapidly darting around the tank and sometimes making their way up to the middle levels.

In a large enough tank they will travel in small groups. They are peaceful with their own kind and fish that inhabit the higher levels, but can be quite pushy with other bottom dwellers.

While they are not afraid to pick a fight with fish their own size or smaller, they tend to back off quickly when faced with a larger rival. The rest of their time they will spend sleeping. A sleeping Catfish lies completely still at the bottom of the tank.

Alternatives To Pictus Catfish (Summary)

If you are not quite ready to commit to a Pictus Catfish then there are plenty of similar catfish out there. Here are a few other species to consider:

  • Oto Catfish: The Oto is a nano-friendly algae eater. They fill the same role as the Pictus on a smaller scale, and even looks quite similar. Otos are non-predatory, easy to keep in communities, and make a great starter Catfish for first timers.
  • Pleco Catfish: They come in all shapes and sizes with the smaller ones being more beginner friendly. These Catfish make excellent custodians and there is one for just about every tank setup.
  • Striped Raphael Catfish: The Striped Raphael is an attractive alternative to the Pictus. While the care requirements are about the same, this species is hardier and more able to stand up to pushy tank mates.
  • Cory Catfish: Corydoras are great beginner Catfish. They come in several different species and some are also venomous.

However, with the proper tank conditions a Pictus Catfish is a delightful addition to a freshwater aquarium.

They can be kept alone or in a group but they will feel much safer among their own kind.

Though it can be a bit of a challenge to care for one, the benefits of keeping this cool little Catfish are very clear.

Let us know how many are in your shoal in the comments section below…