The Ultimate Discus Fish Guide – Types, Tank Mates, Food, Breeding

By Nadine Oraby | 2020 Update

Often referred to as the “King of the Aquarium”, the discus fish has won the heart of many aquarists for displaying a beautiful array of patterns and color combinations.

However, their personalities hold true to their nickname and unfortunately, care for discus is not as easy as other aquarium fish such as goldfish, platies, and bettas. In fact, experts don’t recommend the discus for beginners as these species of fish require precise attention to each detail of their home, diet, and companions.

Luckily, we are here to help make the undertaking easier for those who are fascinated by this popular freshwater fish.

In this guide, we have covered all the required information for the maintenance of your discus fish so you can enjoy your aqua-friend without compromising too much on your time, effort, and even money.


Discus Fish Care Guide FOR BEGINNERS (Video)

So, without wasting much time, let’s dive in to The Discus Fish Ultimate Guide.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Discus Fish

Native to the Amazon River basin in South America and its tributaries, the discus is a type of fish belonging to the Cichlids family. They are inhabitants of still or slow-moving water and prefer their environment to be deeply sheltered with plenty of tree roots and rocks.

Although, a very friendly creature with like-minded tank mates – the discus is also very sensitive to sudden noise, light, and aggressive conditions. If proper care is not exhibited, the discus can stress which might lead to life-threatening conditions.

History of Discus Fish

The discus was first introduced by Dr.Heckel in 1840. It was first imported in the United States and the Europe in 1930 and 1940 respectively.

Fishbase- the largest online database of aquatic dwellers has recognized three species of the freshwater discus. These include:

  • Symphysodon aequifasciatus – Blue discus or the brown discus
  • Symphysodon discus – Heckle or red discus
  • Symphysodon tarzoo – Green discus

Interesting fact:Today, the discus is listed as a threatened species in its natural habitat. This means that the population of discus is rapidly decreasing in the wild due to unsuitable water conditions and if the situation does not improve, this aesthetically appealing fish will soon face the threat of extinction.

Body Structure/Anatomy

Boasting a disc-like body, the discus is a medium-sized fish that normally can grow up to 22 cm in length and 250 grams in weight. Discus has a small mouth and round-shaped, bright red eyes with large extended fins.

All juvenile discus have rounded dorsal fins. However, as they grow to adult size, the male discus will exhibit pointed dorsal fins while the female will maintain her round ones.

Anal fins will be rounded with a long base with the caudal fin indented and the pelvic fins will be saber-shaped.

Color and Pattern

The body of a discus portrays nine dark and vertical stripes along with blotches of pigmentation in black, yellow, and red. It is believed that these stripes come handy when camouflaging and to communicate with the members of their fish school.

Originally, the discus was only available in three-color variants according to their species: green, brown, and blue. However, with the advancement in research and breeding techniques, the fish is now available in almost any color imaginable.

Interestingly, as the male discus transitions into adulthood, its color becomes duller but more patterned than its female counterpart. Additionally, experts claim that the colors of both – male and female discus can be influenced depending upon their health, water conditions, and overall diet.

Behavior of Discus Fish

In nature, the discus is social yet a shy freshwater fish. They enjoy being in large groups of peaceful discus and if you are planning to keep them, consider buying at least four for company.

Similar to any other species, the discus fish can become aggressive when mating and it is recommended that aquarists separate the pair in a spawning tank – away from the community.

It is also possible to keep discus with other tank mates such as cardinal tetras, rummynose tetras, neons, and clown loaches. In fact, any fish that is non-aggressive and can tolerate an aquarium containing water with high temperatures and low pH/hardness that the discus is accustomed to would do great with discus (read more about the tank requirement of the discus below).

Chapter 2: Types of Discus Fish

As we mentioned above, only three species have been approved by the Fishbase publication even though several varieties have been proposed as a result of selective breeding techniques.

Here, let’s discuss the most common types which are bred.

Heckle Discus

The heckle or the symphysodon discus is the first kind to be discovered by Doctor Heckle in 1840 – hence its name.

The fish is easily distinguishable from other types of discus by the ‘Heckle Bars’ it exhibits. One bar runs through the eye, the other through the caudal fin, and the most predominant one runs down the center of the body.

Heckle discus are the most delicate species of all three and require extra care. Since they are difficult to breed, they are usually available in wild caught form.

If you are planning to breed the heckle discus, remember that they prefer extra warm water than the other types of symphysodon. Habitats of the lower amazon region, your hackle discus will thrive in an aquarium with dense plantation and subdued lightning along with light substrate of rocks and rocks.

Brown Discus

The brown discus is another calm and peaceful species from the family of discus. Generally, these fish boast a brownish-yellow body with nine vertical stripes. However, in most cases, the lines are very distinct or can even be faded – depending upon the age of fish.

Expert aquarists have also discovered that when the brown discus is kept in optimal conditions, the body can develop different color combinations including red, orange, and even blue around the head, dorsal fin, and the tail fin.

At the time of purchasing a brown discus, the color is also a vital representative of its wellbeing. For example, a brown discus with colorful orange markings may be getting a diet high in carotene – the same stuff carrots are made of.

However, if you notice the fish losing its orange coloring or looking dull – try feeding them again with carotene rich food such as shrimp eggs.

Overall, the brown discus is a sensitive creature and stress easily from changes in water conditions. Even traces of pollution can harm the Symphysodon aequifasciatus and prefers their owners to partially clean the aquarium regularly.

Nevertheless, when compared to others in the discus family, the brown discus is the most easy to care for.

Green Discus

Last but not the least is the green discus or the Symphysodon tarzoo. Native to the West Amazon upriver from the Purus arch, the green variety of discus are the most bred and kept by aquarists all over the world.

To the general public, the green discus from the wild appears as an unattractive variety of fish. However, when bred in the right condition by expert aquarists, the symphysodon tarzoo reveals hues of turquoise and metallic green. For this reason, the tank-kept green discus fish are often called the ‘royal blues’ or the ‘royal greens.’

They possess a friendly nature and are peaceful when provided with a warm, acidic environment with little or no hardness. If you are planning to keep the green discus, make sure you use a large aquarium (50 gallons) with dense plantation and plenty of driftwood.

The Wild Discus

Besides the bred and kept variety of discus, experts can also go for the wild discus.

As the name suggests, the wild discus has been caught from the wild or bred from a wild discus. These species are more valued than the aquarium variety and if you are planning to breed discus for sale later on, we advise keeping the wild and the aquarium discus separate.

It should also be remembered that making the transition from the wild to an aquarium environment may be difficult for both – the fish and the breeder and might not be a task suitable for novice aquarists.

Chapter 3: Feeding the Discus Fish

Feeding is another important aspect of discus care. Besides proper housing conditions, the discus, just like any other ‘water dweller’, or animal for the matter, requires adequate amount of healthy food.

Variety works best when feeding discus so they don’t remain deprive of certain nutrition. Similar to us humans, they also need a balanced diet that enables them to grow, remain healthy, and spawn at the right time.

Here, let’s take a look at the feeding requirements of discus along with the quantity.

Diet of Discus in the Wild

Due to the compressed structure of their bodies, the discus search for food throughout the day in the wild rivers of Amazon instead of eating large portions at one time.

In their natural captivity, the discus mainly feeds on plant matters and small fish along with larvae and other aquatic insects and invertebrates such as worms.

The discus is also bottom grazers and is usually found foraging in the extreme end looking for food and even detritus or waste material.

Discus Fish Nutritional Requirements in the Aquarium

The discus are omnivorous feeders. This means that they desire to eat a combination of both – plant and animal foods. Due to their sensitive nature, aquarists have found them to be picky eaters when in aquarium.

In fact, novice aquarists find feeding the discus as challenging as meeting its housing requirements. This is because each fish has its own personality and has a preference for different food according to their unique taste buds.

Providing them with a combination of live frozen and dried foods is the key to keeping a healthy discus that grows and spawns at the right age.

How Often to Feed Discus Per Day?

One of the biggest mistakes made by beginner fish keepers is to overfeed their aquatic pets. Overfeeding can lead to obesity (yes, in fish too), create health issues, and result in a very dirty tank.

Moreover, the internet contains several conflicting statements regarding discus feed that confuses the novice aquarists.

Generally, it is a good idea to feed them about 3% of their normal body weight. For example, if your adult discus is around 75 Gms, feed those 2.25 Gms of food, twice daily.

On the other hand, young discus requires constant feeding and usually eats faster than their adult counterparts.

Here is the successful protocol I have been following for the past few years with my discus:

  • Discus under three months of age – eight to ten feeds per day
  • three to twelve months of age – feed up to five times per day
  • adult discus over twelve months – feed two to three times per day

Overfeeding Equals to a Messy Aquarium

Discus have grinders in their jaws instead of teeth. Because of this, they have an interesting eating habit that results in increased mess for the caretaker.

When given feed, the discus first mouths the food, spits it out, and then again recaptures it before swallowing. They will also pick up any food that floats upwards before swimming to the bottom to search for leftovers.

A general rule of thumb followed by most fish keepers is to feed the fish as much as they can in fifteen minutes.

Once the time is up, the leftover food should be removed from the tank to avoid contamination in water – something that the discus is significantly sensitive to.

An Ideal Meal for the Discus

As we mentioned above, the diet for a discus should be varied in order to meet all its nutritional requirements.

One of the most favorite foods of discus fish is bloodworms. They are rich in protein, fiber, and fats thus providing the fish necessary nutrients for proper functioning.

The bloodworms can be administered live or frozen. However, we strictly recommend going for the frozen version as live tubifex worms contain the risk of parasites and food poisoning.

White worms are another popular food for the discus. They are full of proteins and even the fussy eaters enjoy them. They also make a good diet for the breeding discus, as they are high in proteins and allow the fish to quickly add size and mass.

The white worms can be easily cultivated at home using a non-transparent plastic container and a layer of peat soil. You can feed the white worms anything from rice flour and bread soaked in water to pasta and scraps of non-citrus fruits and vegetables.

Once you meet all the requirements of cultivating white worms, they will be ready for harvest in about two months. Make sure to rinse them with water before putting them in your tank to avoid pollution.

Brine Shrimp is another excellent food for the discus, especially the juveniles. They are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals and are available for purchase in both – live and frozen form.

They are also an ideal food for strengthening the color of the fish as they contain beta-carotene.

Before administering them in your tank, makes sure to defrost and wash them thoroughly to remove any salt.

Some hobbyists also give their fish cow’s heart. They are beneficial for the discus, especially baby fry as they quickly add mass and make them bigger.

On the other hand, beef heart contains more than 18% saturated fat and if administered in large quantity, can cause digestive issues and other ailments.

They also dirty the water quickly so if you decide to give your discus beef heart, make sure to clean up afterwards and of course – add in limited quantity on occasional basis.

Besides these, an assortment of commercial flakes, pellets, and other dry food products are easily available at your local pet store and online vendors.

Feeding the Breeding Pair

If you are planning to set up a spawning tank for your discus pair, make sure to provide the couple with plenty of nutrition for successful breeding.

Ensure that your fish is healthy and give them plenty of protein-rich food such as brine shrimp, black worms, and beef heart flakes along with vitamins supplements.

A word of caution: Parents, especially the inexperienced and young discus couple might eat the eggs that they lay. To protect the eggs from being the food of adult discus, put a mesh or screen around them to conceal them from parents and other fish present in the tank.  (Read more breeding tips below)

What about the Baby Fry?

The fry, for the first five days will attach to its parents and eat the mucus secreted from the mother’s body. Within five days, however, they would start free-swimming and this would be the time to introduce them to actual fish food.

Start off with baby brine shrimp four to five times a day and once they are freely swimming, gradually introduce other foods to their diet such as flakes and heart flakes. The juvenile fish should be given bloodworms after they reach approximately one inch in size.

Chapter 4: Tank Mates and Requirements

Discus fish aren’t exactly aggressive but you need to be careful with whom you place them with in a tank. There are two reasons for this precaution:

  • Discus fish aren’t too social
  • Discus fish are too sensitive

Your discus wouldn’t show aggression towards a mate they don’t like but it can cause them stress. Moreover, some fish can carry certain diseases and bacteria that may not harm the carrier but will harm your discus.

The first thing to keep in mind when choosing discus tank mate is that it is a schooling fish. This means a group of 6 to 8 discus is the best way to populate a tank. Introducing more discus would be your best bet. Think of introducing more species only if you are still left with enough space.

Key Considerations and Requirements

I can’t stress this enough – discus fish are sensitive.

They require very specific tank conditions to live in. I have discussed those requirements in great details but let’s have an overview.

Discus fish live in warm, acidic, and soft water. You need to recreate the environment of their natural habitat. The best way to do that is to use a Reverse Osmosis water. pH should be between 6.0 to 6.5. The water temperature should be between 82 degrees to 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The hardness level should be between 0 to 3 dH.

The plantation is quite heavy in the Amazon but it is best to keep it minimal for two reasons:

  • Some plants can disrupt water conditions in the tank
  • Plants make it difficult to clean the tank

You should only consider heavy plantation if you can commit to a more frequent cleaning and maintenance. While it does give them a home-like environment and they do enjoy playing around plants, the risk aren’t always worth it.

Is your Tank big Enough?

Did you know that one discus fish requires a 50-gallon tank?

But no one really keeps one discus fish, nor do I recommend it. The idea number is six to eight discus fish per tank. However, that doesn’t mean you should go for 50 gallons for each fish. Just add 5 to 10 gallons for each additional discus, and you will be fine.

Of course, you will need more water for other fish as well. You will have to factor in their needs. For instance, if you have six discus fish and a community of other fish, let’s say of tetras, 100-gallon is the most reasonable capacity.

Best Mates: Cardinal Tetras

There are any reasons as to why cardinal tetras are the perfect companions for your discus fish. They are just as beautiful as discus and their aquarium requirements are close to that of the discus fish. But the most important reason to keep them with discus is the calming effect they can have on their tank mates.

While most fish can cause stress in a discus tank, cardinal tetras are dither fish i.e. they have a strong calming effect. This effect is caused by their movement in the tank. Their open and free movement can give a sense of security to their tank mates. I’d be honest, even I feel that effect just watching these beautiful creature swim back and forth.

You will notice that the presence of Cardinal tetras actually encourages discus fish to come out and move around more often. Otherwise, they tend to quite skittish and shy. Most of them stay in the hiding and rarely come out.

That’s one strong reason to add a school of tetras to a tank of discus.

Speaking of tetras, glow light tetras and rosy tetras are also great companions for discus fish.

Helpful Mates: Corydoras Catfish

Corydoras catfish are good companions, mainly because they can help with the tank maintenance. They are always on the hunt for some food. Discus, on the other hand, tends to create a lot of leftover. Corydoras catfish will clean that up for you.

A cleaner tank will definitely keep the stress level down. Seems like a natural pairing.

However, there is one issue you need to consider. Corys aren’t used to water as warm as discus prefer. You need to adjust it to something that works for both of them. I would recommend keeping it at 82 degrees Fahrenheit. It will keep both of them happy.

Three to four corys are enough for a school of six discus fish.

Suitable Mates: Ancistrus

Ancistrus is another fish who will do half your job for you. They keep the tank clean and eat leftovers and algae that grows in the aquarium. They are okay with the warm water environment as well.

It is a good idea to put a small piece of driftwood in the tank. Like discus, Ancistrus would appreciate its presence. It can keep them healthy and happy.

One thing to keep in mind about Ancistrus is that they are territorial. More than two of them in a tank of discus isn’t really a good idea.

Mates to Avoid

The first rule for maintaining any aquarium:

Don’t put prey and predator together, unless you really mean to use the prey ones as food.

Any aggressive or large fish should be banned from the aquarium. That includes Oscars, sverums, pirhanas, and angelfish.

I’ve seen many people make the mistake of putting angelfish in a discus tank. They can be extremely aggressive at times and that gets stressful for the poor discus. Plus, they eat too fast and can leave your slow-eating discus starving.

Species that swim too fast or are fin nippers are also bad companions for discus. They make them skittish and send them into hiding. Also, fin nipping can expose discus to various infections and diseases. Tinfoil barbs, tiger barbs, and danios aren’t peaceful mates for your discus fish.

Another mistake people make in this regard is that they think all tetras make for a good mate for discus. That isn’t true. Some tetras, such as the neon tetras, prefer cooler water and do not do well in a discus aquarium. Any fish that doesn’t prefer warm and acidic water is a bad choice for your discus fish aquarium.

Chapter 5: Breeding Discus Fish

There are fish that would do anything to breed; that even includes changing their sex in the absence of a mate just like (reportedly) many swordtail fish do! They will start breeding the moment they are mature enough. And then there are fish like discus.

They aren’t easy to breed. The process can get too frustrating for the owner. If you are one of those people, let me tell you this – once you’ve succeeded in breeding your discus, you will find it the most rewarding experience of all.

The easiest way to ensure breeding is to select a well-conditioned and proven breeding pair that has spawned successfully in the past.

Select a Breeding Pair of Discus

Discus don’t breed for life but a breeding pair will breed again and again. If you have a trusted retailer, they will help you choose a proven pair. In my personal experience, some discuses breed better than others. For instance, virgin reds or Turquoise ones have a better chance than albino discus.

If you don’t want an easy route and wish to start with juveniles, buy at least six of them and wait till they mature. If you are lucky, you will see at least one pair forming out of that school. While it is a matter of luck to great extent, there is a reason I often recommend this route despite the uncertainty:

It is a great way for beginner to learn how to take care of discus. That prepares you to take better care of the fry as well.

Important Note: Always ensure that the selected pair is healthy and well-fed.

When will my Discus Mature?

Generally, it is nine to twelve months for a female and a few months more for a male. It is important to be able a discus fish by the time they have matured. There is no sure-shot way but the breeding tube is generally a reliable distinction.

You can sex a discus by looking at the breeding tube:

  • A large and blunt ovipositor means it’s a female
  • A smaller and pointed one means it’s a male

Ensure Perfect Breeding Conditions

While all discus are sensitive to water conditions, a breeding pair is even more sensitive. Maintaining the softness is extremely crucial for successful breeding. It is why I recommend RO water because tap water is seldom soft enough. Why take the risk?

The hard water can calcify or harden the outer layer of a discus egg and that would suffocate the baby. It interferes with the fertilization process as well. It is best to get a TDS meter to keep a check the water quality and hardness. Ideally, 80 ppm is a good start. I’ve never seen that rating with tap water. So, RO is your best bet.

However, heating the RO water may reduce the TDS to 8 ppm. You can use a buffering product to bring it back to 80. A lower TDS can cause a pH crash and that too can interfere with breeding.

Note: If the pair isn’t breeding at 80 ppm, try reducing it to 60. Meanwhile, keep a check on pH.

Let me summarize the water condition checklist for you. Aside from the temperature, you need to ensure the following:

  • A TDS between 60 to 80 ppm
  • pH between 6.5 to 7.0
  • Minimal possible level of calcium and magnesium

Courting Behavior

Discus fish have interesting pre-spawn rituals. There are several moves and dances. They behave in a certain way. Here are some specific acts to watch out for:

  • The Bow– It is a discus fish courting dance. Both the mates will swim towards the bottom. Then they will face each other and then swim upwards simultaneously, usually at a 45-degree angle towards each other. Once they meet at a point, they will swim back to the point the started.
  • The Cleaning – A courting couple also starts cleaning surfaces for breeding. They will take turns and peck the surface to clean it so that the eggs can easily stick to the surface.

Once you are sure that you have the “couple”, it is a good idea to move them to a breeding tank. However, I always suggest waiting for a few days so that a strong bond is between. Otherwise, they might start fighting when moved to a breeding tank.

The Breeding Tank

The chances of successful breeding in a different tank is much higher than your discuses breeding in the main aquarium with other fish. It is best not to wait till you see the eggs.

A 20-gallon tank is appropriate for a breeding couple. Here is how you should set up a basic breeding tank for discus fish:

Adjust the temperature and water conditions

  • Place the tank away from direct sunlight
  • Set up a sponge filter
  • Keep the lighting dim
  • Add a spawning surface (breeding cones, clay pots, etc)

You should ensure 50 percent water change every day.

Don’t expect the couple to spawn right away. It is normal for them to go off-cycle for week or two after the transfer. They might take some time to adjust to the new environment.

The Spawn

As the spawn nears, the fish start to tremble. If you notice them shivering, it means a spawn is close. Don’t be discouraged if the spawn isn’t successful. A breeding couple is likely to spawn again within a week.

Once they have adjusted, the rituals will begin. You will notice a number of dry runs over the breeding surface. It is normal. Don’t panic. It won’t be long before the female start depositing eggs on the surface. The male might wait for the female to make a few runs before he does. This act can continue for hours. You can rest assured that your discus is now breeding.

Note: Some parent will eat their eggs right away. It’s not common but it can happen. See if it happens repeatedly, and place a hatching screen to protect the eggs.

That’s just an uncommon scenario. Most discus parents bond will with their eggs and try to protect them.

The Hatch

It takes around 50 to 56 hours for a discus spawn to hatch. The fry are tiny little wrigglers and are stuck to the breeding surface. They will detach and start to swim after around 48 hours. If you see the parents running after the fry, that’s not because they want to eat them. That’s because they would want to spit them back on the surface.

Don’t worry, the parents will give up soon. The fry will swim close to the parent to eat the slime off their bodies.

Note: At this point, you should remove the sponge filter or cover it with a light colored coat. Otherwise, some fry might mistake it for a parent and starve to death.

Taking care of the discus fry

Here are a two things to keep in mind when caring for discus fry:

  • The fry are sensitive to too much light. Dim it down a notch or block direct light with a cardboard or any other obstacle.
  • Lower the water level.
  • Avoid too much activity in the tank. Stressed parents will eat their fry.

Start feeding the fry after three days of free swimming. Feed them freshly hatched brine shrimp. Once they start eating on their own, you can separate them from their parents. You can leave them be for a while longer but if there is any sign of parents spawning again, that is when you need to pull them immediately.

In four weeks, you can start feeding fry flakes and pellets. That’s when you slowly transition them towards whatever their parents eat.

Quality Amazon Products for your Discus Fish

Discus Breeding Cones

Discus fish need a clean breeding surface where they can lay their eggs. Lack of such a surface can disrupt breeding. These ceramic cones are your best bet. They attract discus and makes them feel safer and more comfortable to breed in the tank. The best thing about this product is that it can be easily placed and removed as desired.

3-in-1 TDS Meter

A TDS meter is a must-have for any aquarium enthusiast. It is especially useful when you are trying to breed discus fish or any other fish that requires very specific water conditions. This one is a 3-in-1 product that includes a TDS meter, temperature meter, and an EC meter.

Bio Sponge Filter

If you are looking for a high quality sponge filter, this one is a clear winner. It is a bio-chemical bio sponge filter that is perfect for your discus breeding tank. It is easy to set up and install. It can work for 20 to 40 gallon tanks. It will also reduce the number of water changes required for your discus aquarium.

Related Questions

Do discus breed for life? Contrary to popular belief, discus do not breed for life. It is possible for you change the breeding partner of your discus. If your breeding couple isn’t successfully breeding, changing their partner might help in some cases.

Are discus fish aggressive? No, they are not. Discus is generally a non-aggressive breed but a school of discus will show territorial behavior. If a discus is showing signs of aggression, there can be a n underlying reasons such as a disease or stress.

Can discus fish change color? There can be a slight change in color due to various reasons. It can change color to blend in the environment. A change of light or food can cause a slight yet noticeable difference. Stress can make your discus seem darker. There are a number of artificial methods vendors use to drastically change the color.

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