Redtail Catfish Care: No, You Shouldn’t Own One

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I’m not going to sugar coat any of this… if you’re searching “how to take care of a redtail catfish” to see if you should own one, the answer is no, you shouldn’t. And if you’re looking into it because of an impulse-buy, rehome it now. Do not pass go, do not collect $100 or whatever – get on the phone today and rehome it while it’s still small. Because if you were ready to own a fish capable of eating a small dog – and following through with it if given the chance – you’d know it.

Still skeptical? How does a 2,600-gallon tank as a minimum for one catfish sound? And we’re not talking tall and thin. We’re talking about a tank the size of a large SUV plopped right in your house, with a food, water, and electric bill that would make a $900 car payment for five years look reasonable. Because, hey, you’ll be paying more than that every month for its 15+ year lifespan.

redtail cats get huge

If you’re still here, I’m betting you’re either a die-hard monster fish keeper who’s determined to have a fish they can sacrifice the neighborhood kids to… or you bought one and don’t know what to do with it now.

In either case, I strongly advise you to reconsider because there’s only a handful of fish keepers that can correctly take care of these beasts. Seriously, a fraction of a fraction of a percentage and you’re probably not one of them. But I’ll tell you everything you need to know about keeping redtail cats anyway – including how to rehome them.

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Should I Own A Redtail Catfish?

If you’re still not convinced, here’s the prerequisite breakdown for you:

  • Do you currently have a 2,600+ gallon pool you don’t ever want to swim in (for some weird reason)?
  • Does the pool have a filter capable of handling 10,000+ gallons per hour?
  • Do you have a way to keep the pool between 68 – 80F every day, year-round?
  • Is there at least $900 a month that you can spend on your catfish because you have nothing else you’d want to spend that on anytime in the next 15 years?
  • Will you move any time in the next 15 – 20 years? Because it’s a pain to move an almost 200lb catfish. Nevermind the water with the catfish.
  • Do you want to feed farm animals to a giant fish?
  • Do you have the time and money to change 700+ gallons of water (or more) every week?
  • Are you capable of protecting dogs, cats, and other roaming animals or small humans from your fish?
  • Are you going to keep this fish no matter how big it gets?
  • Do you care if you stunt your catfish?
  • Do you want an ugly fish pool?
  • Have you kept giant fish to adulthood without stunting them? And, before you answer, let me point out that oscars aren’t giants. We’re talking 2′ – 10′ fish.
  • Do you want your redtail catfish to be the only fish in the pool?

And the results are…

nope gif

If you answered no to a single question, no, you shouldn’t own a redtail. If you honestly answered yes to every question the answer is probably still nope. This isn’t a short-term commitment. It’s a 15-year-long commitment to everything above. And novelty is a fleeting thing, my crazy little friend.

You are taking on raising a finned-child you feed farm animals to. There are no “days off” or “I don’t feel like it today” or even the spontaneous trip off for the weekend without someone to feed your human-sized fish. So if that sounds like something you don’t want to deal with for the next 15 years of your life… or more if you do it properly, the answer is still no.

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How To Rehome Redtail Catfish

Listen, because even if you want a redtail and you’re prepared for a redtail, this might become the reality someday. Because shit happens, ‘kay? Maybe you lose your house, maybe it eats your neighbor’s cat and they threaten to sue you, maybe you get sick. Hopefully none of that, but be prepared. And if you’re in the other camp? Well…

Don’t think for a second you’ll be able to give it back to the pet store or sell a large fish. Frankly, if – and that’s a big if – you manage to find someone to take your redtail, you’ll likely have to pay them to do it. Do not – under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES – buy a redtail cat thinking, “Oh, I’ll just rehome it when…” no. The answer is just no.

There’s also no reason to go dumping your catfish in the wild. Not only is that disastrous for the ecosystem and everyone involved – but there’s also a massive fine and some potential jail time involved. Because a 5′ long catfish that can eat a friggin’ dog isn’t easy to transport and isn’t going to go unnoticed.

Not even full-grown

Who Do I Call If I Can’t Keep My Redtail Catfish?

Alright. Stepping off my high horse and moving forward under the assumption that you’re a smart, responsible, and reasonable person. If you can’t take care of your catfish anymore – for whatever reason – you need to start working on it the second you realize that’s the inevitable outcome. Because they grow fast and this process is long. And the bigger they are, the harder they are to rehome.

You can call local pet stores if you have any, but you probably won’t get far in most cases. You can also call public aquariums, which would get you a bit farther. Or you can call your local fish and game (yeah, really) to get some help. There are also some big fish rescues out there that might be able to take them. And – worst-case scenario – call the local police department and explain the situation. I know the last one is odd, but most large(ish) departments would rather you call them than dump your catfish.

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Redtail Catfish Classification

IUCN Status: Not listed

Class: Actinopterygii are ray-finned fishes, which is a subcategory of boney fishes. These fish are characterized by the bony structures that support their webbed fins. This group makes up nearly half of all living vertebrates.

Order: Siluriformes is a suborder of ray-finned fishes that is exclusive to catfish. This order includes both naked and armored catfish.

Family: Pimelodidae is a family commonly known as “long whiskered” catfish.

Genus: Phractocephalus, the only living member of the genus being the redtailed catfish.

Species: Phractocephalus hemioliopterus

What does Phractocephalus hemioliopterus mean?

 Phractocephalus comes from the Greek “phraktos” meaning fenced in. Cephalus references the unusual, but well-developed dermal bones.

Hemioliopterus is a bit harder to track down, but it appears to come from hemi- meaning half or semi-, and -opterus meaning “wing.”

Distribution & Natural Habitat

Redtail catfish live throughout much of the Amazon and Rio Orinoco basins in Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. However, there are a few invasive populations in Asia, as well as in the United States in a few states as a result of aquarists who are unable to keep them or rehome them releasing them into the wild.

orinoco - redtail catfish habitat
Rio Orinoco

They’re unpicky when it comes to their habitats, from white water to black water, sediment rich and fast-moving to barely moving at all, they’ll happily live anywhere that has ample food to support their massive size. In some areas, they’re thought to have been the culprit responsible for drowned and missing children.

Aquarium Care

Difficulty: Expert
Size: 53″ & ~180lb (134 cm ~82kg)
Lifespan: 15+ years
Tank Size: 2,600 gallons (9,840 liters)
Diet: Ominvore – opportunistic predator
Temperature: 68 – 80 F (20 – 26 C)

pH6.0 – 7.5
Hardness: 2 – 12  dKH
Temperament: Peaceful, but always hungry
Breeding: Not yet done in private aquarium
Swimming: Everywhere
Availability: Way more common than they should be

Tank Specs

A pool is your best bet. If you have the basement that’ll fit a large (preferably rectangular) pool, all the better. You’ll save a decent amount on heating if you can heat the room instead. You’ll definitely want to insulate the room the prevent molding in your basement from all the water.

If you live in an area where it stays above 68F (20C) year-round, then they’ll be okay outside without a heater. As long as the pool is somewhere where it won’t get above 80F (26C) in the summer you’re good to go without a heater, most likely. But might still want one if it gets close to 68F in the winter, just to be safe.

You’ll also want to be aware that they can jump and throw their weight around. Without a lid, there’s a chance they could jump out of the pool, but I’ve also heard of people reporting they’ve broken through (yeah, through) polycarbonate lids. But, lid or no lid, they can throw themselves hard enough to break down a pool wall.

pool breaking gif

Which is… not ideal.

And since we’re talking about pool-sized “aquariums”, you’re going to want a pool heater, not an aquarium heater. Because it would be basically useless and prohibitively expensive.


One redtail catfish by itself would probably be the best since they’re not above a little cannibalism. However, there are a few people that report they do okay with their own kind – but for each redtail you add, you should add an additional 1,000 gallons to the base 2,600-gallon recommendation. So for two, you’re looking at 3,600; for three, 4,600; etc.

They’re also territoriality aggressive with their own kind as well as other Pimelodids.

redtail catfish aquarium

And if you go that route, you should get them all together as young and small as possible. Hopefully the same size as well and try to make sure they grow at the same rate – which can be tough. But it should be noted that there is a small chance they may breed. Which – I promise – you don’t want to have happen.


You should probably avoid putting anything in the tank – pool, pond? Whatever. Redtails will eat fish, plants, rocks, sand, wood, plastic, and anything that can fit inside their huge mouth.

Extremely large items like half-ton rocks and large logs would probably be okay so long as they can’t fit it in their mouth in any way. Sand doesn’t seem to bother them too much when ingested, but be aware that they may eat it and it would cost a small fortune to put even pool filter sand in a tank that size.

Nevermind how long it would take to rinse – literally – tons of sand. Something in the range of 3,700 pounds upwards should cover it.

Best Plants For Redtail Catfish

I hate to be all negative Nelly on you (okay, maybe I don’t hate it…) but plants aren’t going to work. They’ll just eat them. No, it doesn’t matter what kind of plants you put in there. They’ll just be gone.

womp womp

Lighting & Filtration

Lighting isn’t super important, even ambient light or a regular house lamp would be okay. Where this gets particularly tricky is filtration. First, you’re going to want a massive sump or lots of big pond filters.

For a sump, you’re going to want at least 700 gallons of water, not accounting for overflow, with 2″ – 2.5″ pipes, wider if you don’t want to fully pressurize the plumbing. Depending on the level and distance of plumbing you’re going to run, you’re going to want to work in the 850-gallon+ range to account for the overflow.

Or you can opt for a few badass filters. To get an idea of what this setup looks like, here’s a video on Joey’s 2,000-gallon tank. Which is just awesome, by the way, but bear in mind you’ll need to go about 25% larger for one – yes, really, one – redtail catfish.

Water Care

So first the fun bit: you’ll need to change 30% of your water every week. It’ll need to be the right temp, so you might want to hook it up to your water heater, and you need to dechlorinate your water – about 700 gallons per week if you were wondering.

So normal tiny bottles of dechlorinator probably aren’t going to cut it and you’ll need to buy dechloinator by the gallon, which will last you about 6 months to a year depending on what you buy. And if you’ve never maintained a tank this large, the way you have to backwash and siphon the tank – or even clean the glass (if you’re lucky enough to afford a tank with glass) might surprise you a bit.

The same thing, more or less, goes for meds. Anything you need, you’ll need to buy by the pound. And if you were wondering how much it costs to buy something like API General Cure by the pound… it ain’t cheap (somewhere to the tune of $140 per 30 oz bottle.) Which only doses 3,720 gallons. Once. So you’d need three – or more – of them for a whole treatment.

Feeding Redtail Catfish

Feeding redtail catfish is easy. When they’re younger, they need to be fed large amounts of food every day ranging from large catfish pellets to prawns, mussels, cockle, lancefish, chicken, anchovies, earthworms, crabs, lobsters, squid, beef heart, or anything else that’s decently high in protein.

Just be careful not to overfeed them and be aware they can quickly become obese if fed only high-protein items, so include some plant material. Plenty of owners report they start refusing food if they’re only fed a handful of items, so be sure to mix it up to prevent this from happening.

Once they’re full-grown, they only need to be fed once or twice a week, but again, in large quantities.

Redtail Catfish Diseases

Redtail catfish can come with plenty of issues. The big one people seem to run into is deformities from stunting. While that’s not a disease, and it’s completely preventable, it’s worth a mention here. In any case, it comes from inadequate room to swim, but also from improper nutrition, and bad water quality.

Aside from that, they have a few issues that seem to pop up pretty often.


Obesity in fish is pretty straightforward. But, to be honest, it can be hard to diagnose if you’re not incredibly familiar with the way the fish is supposed to look. It can also be difficult to know in females if she’s full of eggs or just fat. Could even be both.


  • Acts normal, just fat


  • Fatty foods
  • Not enough swimming space
  • Too much food
  • All of the above

Skin & Gill Flukes

skin and gill fluke

Skin and gill flukes are worm-like parasites that embed into your fish. Since they’re so small, they’re almost invisible to the naked eye and incredibly difficult to diagnose. 

Before you freak out, flukes are present in almost every tank and are harmless under normal conditions.


  • Excess mucus on skin
  • Redness in gills and on skin
  • Itchiness
  • Scratching
  • Labored breathing (if in gills)


  • Generally, stress
  • Previous illness
  • Overcrowding
  • Wrong water parameters



Tapeworms are small rice-like worms that can drop out of your fish’s anus with or without passing poop with it. Due to the small size of the segments these worms break into, it can be incredibly hard to diagnose in fish.


  • Sunken stomach
  • Inability to grow
  • Generally not thriving


  • Infected by another fish

Bacterial Infection

bacterial infection

Bacterial infection is a broad term, the bacteria family can cause a wide range of symptoms and come from varying causes. Generally, you can treat them with a broad spectrum antibacterial regardless of the particular bacteria at hand. It’s diagnosing that’s usually the hard part.

Making matters even more difficult, fish can have an internal or external bacterial infection.


  • Red streaks
  • Red ulcers
  • Fuzzy growths
  • Pop eye
  • Bloating


  •  Poor water quality
  • Food that’s gone bad
  • Keeping fish in inappropriate water parameters
  • Stress

Swim Bladder Disease (SBD)

Swim Bladder Disease (SBD)

If your fish is swimming oddly, is having trouble swimming, or seems to be unable to control the direction it’s going in – it likely has a swimbladder issue. 

There are numerous reasons why fish develop this (and not all of them are understood) so treating SBD can be hit-or-miss depending on why it got it in the first place.


  • Floating upside down
  • Sinking to the bottom of the tank
  • Standing on their head
  • Inability to keep upright


  • Bacterial infection
  • Cysts
  • Fatty liver tissue
  • Egg bound (females)
  • Parasites
  • Diet-related issues

Hole In The Head (HITH) or Head & Lateral Line Erosion (HLLE)

(HITH) Hole in the head

Treating hole in the head is difficult for a few reasons, the most obvious being that we don’t know for sure what causes it – but we do know some factors. Adding to the matter, it’s hard to diagnose in its early stages and often only recognized once it’s pronounced and, you know, eating your fish’s face. 


  • Blotches/eroded patches on the head or around the lateral line


  • Use of carbon in filtration
  • Lack of key nutrients in diet
  • Stress
  • Poor water quality
  • Stray electrical currents
  • Pathogens – certainly present, but are they the culprits?

Redtail Catfish Tank Mates

These guys do best by themselves, preferably as the only redtail because it makes everything easier and cheaper. They aren’t aggressive, though they can be territorial with similar-looking or closely-related species as well as their own kind once they’re full-grown.

For the most part, the biggest issue is that they’re always hungry, so whatever they can try to eat, they will try to eat.

If you want to add tankmates, you’ll likely need a tank in the range of 5,000+ gallons, but you can look at other massive-sized tankbusters like full-grown pacu, arapaima, or Oxydoras niger or Pterodoras granulosus.

Breeding Redtail Catfish

Not thought to be done yet in private aquariums, but is done often in a commercial breeder setting through the use of hormones. It is, however, thought that when they spawn they produce a few thousand eggs.

Further Reading & Resources

If you want to know what you can do to help stop the spread of tank busters into unsuspecting homes, check out The Big Fish Campaign and INJAF’s website.

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