The Importance of a Varied Diet for Freshwater Fish (Part 1)

Part of the fun of the aquarium hobby is that Tropical fish come in many different shapes, sizes and attitudes. Included in these differences should be feeding requirements. In freshwater, there are carnivorous (meat eating) mid-water tetras, or bottom feeding catfish, top feeding hatchetfish and Killifish which are different in size and temperament from top feeding cichlids and arowanas. Feeding omnivorous (meat and plant eating) barbs is different from feeding herbivorous (plant eating) mbuna and plecos.  In saltwater aquariums, there is a big difference between feeding carnivorous clownfish, butterflyfish and pipefish or feeding herbivorous Tangs.  Lionfish have a different type of feeding pattern than a dwarf or large Angelfish species.  It is amazing that there are still hobbyists out there that try the one-type diet for multiple species in an aquarium, let alone the fact that there are many trying out over several tanks or even a fishroom.  Some will say "this has always worked for me" but then wonder why their fish loss is higher than their friend's or why they can't seem to breed their favorite fish.  Others think of it as an added expense. Yes, it will cost you a little more up front, but if you are feeding the same amounts of food per day, no matter the type of food, the cost per day doesn't really go up (providing the foods are similarly priced).

In the wild, most fish are very specific with what they eat!  Fortunately, many flake or pelleted foods will do okay for the long-term care of freshwater fish.  It isn't thriving, though.  Think about it, would your kids thrive eating only the same bowl of cereal for every meal starting at age two and throughout their adulthood?  Do you think they will reach their potential, physically or mentally?  What about reproduction?  The reality is that if you want your aquarium to thrive or if you want to eventually breed your favorite fish, a varied diet (for most fish) is going to be key.  Obviously take the time to know what your fish eat, and it wouldn't hurt to read the ingredient labels of your fish foods. Many of us already scrutinize ingredient labels for our families and the same mentality has increased tremendously in recent years for dogs and cats as well.  For a general mixed freshwater community tank, it is not uncommon to have a good staple flake and/or pellet, a sinking veggie wafer for your Bristlenose Pleco, sinking carnivore pellets for corys or loaches and a couple types of frozen foods such as Hikari Brine ShrimpDaphnia or Bloodworms for every one.  A normal American Cichlid dominated tank would use Hikari Staple Pellets for the cichlids, Sinking Pellets for catfish, Frozen Jumbo Bloodworms and Plankton or Krill depending on cichlid size would be normal. While we are not fond of feeding live fish to other fish due to transmission of diseases, a few ghost shrimp or even crickets would be a fun treat for most larger American cichlids.

An African Rift Lake Cichlid tank would be a bit more toned down with types of foods.  Keep in mind in Lake Malawi the wild non-predatory cichlids generally don't grow as large as their aquarium counterparts.  On a visit to Blue Fish Aquarium by Ad Koning, the African Cichlid guru, Ad told us that there simply is not enough quantity nor protein in the food that the wild mbuna eat to make them grow like they do in our aquariums.  When we feed Malawi Cichlids at Blue Fish Aquarium, we will typically use our proprietary blend of bulk flakes, Cobalt Spirulina Flakes or Sera Flora Veggie Flakesif the fish are small to medium sized.  When they are medium to large sized we will use Dainichi Cichlid Veggie Deluxe Pellets, Sera or  Hikari Cichlid Excel When it is time to breed mbuna, we typically will add enough frozen brine shrimp or plankton for every fish to get two or three shrimp each, up to two times weekly.  Remember their stomachs cannot handle a great deal of animal matter or they will begin to bloat and may soon die thereafter.  When it comes to Aulonocara or peacocks and haplochromines, a little carnivore food will do them wonders, especially if it is the two aforementioned frozen foods, but this can be a balancing act if housed with mbuna.  Cichlids from Lake Tanganyika are all over the board with what they eat due to the larger diversity in species, making this lake almost need an article of its own.  For the Tanganyikan fish found more often in pet stores, the rock dwelling fish tend to be carnivorous although any fish from the genus Tropheus would soon die with this diet!

Obviously, this article could go on and on, but one last way to illustrate the needs to do your homework on your fishes' dietary needs is to chat about fish in the family Loricariidae, or Armored Suckermouth Catfish.  When most people think of plecos they think of the large Common Pleco that eats algae that is often housed with large American cichlids.  Other people think of the smaller Bristlenose pleco types that eat algae as well.  While both of these fish should be fed primarily vegetarian types of foods, they would benefit from a little meat in their diets as well.  Most local folks around here presume that all suckermouth catfish should be fed the same way and all will be effective algae eaters.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Fish from the genus Hypancistrus (think Zebra Pleco) actually have teeth and require a more carnivorous diet of bloodworms and brine shrimp.  Fish in this genus are generally carnivorous although some species are listed as omnivorous too.  Plecos such as Royal Plecos and Clown Plecos have bacteria in their stomachs that helps break down wood fiber, so guess what they need in their diet besides algae wafers?  Yes, you got it - wood!  There are actually a few brands of fish food that now contain wood in them, such as Repashy Wood Formula Diet and Sera Catfish Chips as the two top selling brands.
All in all, a varied diet for freshwater fish is of high importance if you want them to grow to their highest potential. Just like humans, fish need variation in what they eat. Think about it - if we ate the same thing every day, such as spaghetti, we wouldn't be getting the nutrients we need to develop and thrive as we live and grow. We require a balanced diet including all kinds of different vitamins and nutrients that aid in our growth as mammals. Fish need that same kind of feeding for their health. Remember to pick up a few different kinds of the aforementioned foods the next time you stop at Blue Fish!

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