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Discus Fish Care Guide: Feeding, Breeding & Behavior

Sarah Psaradelis

By Sarah Psaradelis

Discus fish in aquarium

The colorful and peaceful Discus are elegant and peaceful freshwater fish that are named after their slim bodies that resemble a disc. They are popular with intermediate and advanced fish keepers as their care is slightly more challenging than other species of fish.

These fish add color to any aquarium, and their array of colors and patterns make them prized fish to keep as a pet. Discus fish can make a good pet for keepers who can meet this fish’s specific care needs while having experience caring for tropical fish.

These fish have specific care requirements that need to be met for them to thrive, and this article is a great place to start learning about discus care.

Quick Facts about Discus Fish

Species Name: Symphysodon
Family: Cichlidae
Care Level: Difficult
Temperature: 82⁰F–88⁰F (28⁰C–31⁰C)
Temperament: Peaceful and shy
Color Form: Red, blue, orange, white, green, silver, white, yellow, and brown
Lifespan: 10–15 years
Size: 4.5–9 inches
Diet: Omnivore
Minimum Tank Size: 20 gallons or 55 gallons for a group
Tank Set-Up: Planted, sandy substrate, tropical, freshwater aquarium
Compatibility: Other tropical and peaceful fish

Discus Fish Overview

Discus fish originate from South America in the Amazon River basin where they inhabit the flood plains and tributaries. These bodies of water span from the Putumayo River located in Rio Negro and Peru. Here they can be found in slow-moving, tropical waters with cleaner water.

The waters consist of streams, creeks, pools, and blackwater lakes that are typically “small” in size, but nowhere near as small as the average aquarium. The waters are rich in tannins from decaying leaves and branches, with plenty of vegetation and shade for the discus to take shelter.

The first traces of discus fish in history can be traced back to the 1800s when a team of people was exploring parts of Brazil. Somewhere between 1831 to 1834, a discus fish was caught in a net and brought back to Austria with specimens of plants and animals. This was a heckle discus, which was named after a scientist who was working on the discus collection.

Soon discus fish were found in Asia, which led to these fish being bought back from Brazil waters to breed with the discus in Asia to create new strains of discus. This was the beginning of discus in captivity, and soon many different types of discus fish had been bred to create the fascinating fish we see today.

school of red and yellow discus
Photo Credit: HamsterMan, Shutterstock

How Much Do Discus Fish Cost?

The price of a discus fish varies depending on the size, type, and how rare the fish is. Certain types of discus cost more than others, with the rare varieties with unique colors and patterns costing up to $400. Most small discus fish with more basic colors are sold for $20 to $50 depending on where you buy them from.

Typical Behavior & Temperament

The discus fish is known for being a peaceful, intelligent, and seemingly shy species of fish that has a desirable temperament. Breeding season is the time when discus will start guarding their territory, which can cause them to become semi-aggressive, much like other types of cichlids do. However, discus fish are generally quite calm and will keep to themselves in an aquarium.

Discus fish are social fish, so you will need to keep them in a group instead of alone or in pairs, as they rely on each other to feel safe and secure in an aquarium. You should ideally keep them in a group of at least six, as this allows them to form a school like they would in the wild.

fineline discus
Image Credit: Andrej Jakubik, Shutterstock

Appearance & Varieties

Out of all the freshwater aquarium fish in the hobby, discus seems to have a range of colors and patterns that we don’t commonly see in freshwater fish. Their colors and patterns are so unique and diverse that they are often confused with marine fish, and there are over 50 different types of discus available.

There are four main strains of discus which are all from the Symphysodon genus. This includes the heckle discus (S. Heckel), brown discus (S. Aequifasciata Axelrodi), green discus (S. Aequifasciata Aequifasciata), and blue discus (S. Aequifasciata Haraldi).

When it comes to the colors that discus is available in, they are found in reds, oranges, blues, silvers, whites, greens, browns, albino, and turquoise, or a mixture of the colors. The patterns that discus are grouped into include solid colors, mildly patterned, or strongly patterned.

Some of the most common discus colors include the blue diamond discus or the red turquoise discus, with rarer varieties of discus being the alenquer red or the albino solid gold discus.

When it comes to the discus fish’s physical appearance, their body is a thin and disc-like shape, hence their name. They can reach a size of 4.5 to 9 inches, typically growing larger in captivity than in the wild. They have distinctive fins that frame their body, and a set of eyes on either side of their face.

The male discus has a larger body with pointed fins and more patterns on the body, but both male and female discus have long ventral fins.

How to Take Care of Discus Fish

Habitat, Tank Conditions & Setup

It is important to keep the discus in the correct setup as a pet, otherwise, you will find it difficult to keep your discus alive and healthy. These fish have very specific care requirements and tank conditions that make them challenging to keep for beginners. Replicating the discus fish’s natural habitat is recommended if you want to raise healthy discus, and it starts by ensuring that the water is freshwater.

two colorful discus fish in tank
Image Credit: Andrey Armyagov, Shutterstock

Tank Size

Discus requires a large aquarium, and as a large fish that should be kept in a group of 4 to 6, the aquarium should be at least 55 gallons. Each time you add another discus fish, the aquarium needs to be upgraded by 10 gallons per discus. Starting with a large aquarium is better than having to continuously upgrade your tank.

Water Quality & Conditions

Discus requires higher temperatures than other species of fish, and they are strictly tropical freshwater fish. They need a heater in the aquarium set to a temperature between 82⁰F and 88⁰F (28⁰C–31⁰C), which is quite warm. Discus does not do well in cooler waters, and they can easily become sick if the temperature drops below a comfortable temperature.

Discus are sensitive to ammonia and nitrate in the water, so ensuring that the water is kept clean, the ammonia is at 0 ppm (parts per million), and the nitrate is under 15 ppm is essential.

discuss fish in aquarium
Image Credit: Piqsels


In the wild, discus lives on a sandy substrate littered with decomposing leaves. When kept in an aquarium, you should keep your discus on a sandy gravel substrate and avoid bright and colorful gravel. The substrate should be a neutral tan, white, or black color and ideally be a good growing medium for aquatic plants if you plan to keep like plants in your discus aquarium.


As a fish that is native to the warm South American waters, discus like having natural vegetation in the water, along with branches from driftwood to resemble the type of environment they experience in the wild. Since tannins occur naturally in the discus’s natural habitat from fallen leaves and wood, you can add tannins into the aquarium with safe leaves and driftwood.

Discus will appreciate having live plants in their aquarium that can create a natural environment and give them a place to take shelter. Plants such as amazon swords are also a good breeding ground for discus.

discus fish in aquarium
Image Credit: Piqsels


Discus fish are not fond of bright lighting in the aquarium as they stay in shady areas in the wild. However, you should still use an aquarium light for your discus so that they are not kept in the dark. Lighting is also important for any live plants you have in your discus aquarium.

Using bright lighting in your discus aquarium can make your fish feel stressed because they feel vulnerable to predators, even though there are no predators when they are kept in the safety of an aquarium. A low-lit aquarium with plants, and dark tannin water will work well for your discus aquarium.


Like all fish, discus should have a filtration system in the aquarium to keep the water moving and clean, although they do not need a strong flow since their natural habitat is slow-moving waters. The filter will help keep the aquarium clean and help remove debris while hosting beneficial bacteria to convert ammonia into a less toxic form known as nitrate.

Colorful Symphysodon discus parts fish in the aquarium
Image Credit: Przemek Iciak, Shutterstock

Are Discus Fish Good Tank Mates?

Discus are not the best tank mates or community fish, and they do best when kept in a species-specific aquarium. If you were to keep discus in a community aquarium, you will need to ensure that the aquarium is large enough to support all the inhabitants. Since discus requires a higher temperature than the average fish, you will need to ensure that the tank mate you choose to pair with your group of discus can tolerate warm temperatures.

As a peaceful fish, discus can be kept with other tropical freshwater schooling fish like the neon tetra or even the German blue ram cichlid. You should avoid keeping cold water fish such as goldfish, or aggressive species of fish with discus as they will not get along. The temperature differences between discus and cold-water fish are too vast for both species to live comfortably.

What to Feed Your Discus Fish

Discus fish are omnivores, and they eat both plant and animal-based matter in their diet. In the wild, discus primarily eats a variety of insects, plankton, and small invertebrates. You can offer your discus a granular or pellet food as a staple, and it should be formulated specifically for the nutritional requirements of the discus.

Their diet should also be supplemented with freeze-dried or live foods such as shrimp or worms, which provide your discus with added protein to help with growth.

Avoid overfeeding discus, and rather break up their daily meals into two portions instead. Overfeeding can cause water quality issues, which is not good for discus and can lead to health problems.

cobalt blue disc eating
Image Credit: Ivan Roth, Shutterstock

Keeping Your Discus Fish Healthy

It is extremely important to ensure that the discus is kept in pristine water conditions. Even the slightest fluctuation in ammonia can be deadly to discus, so monitoring the water parameters is essential for the health of your fish.

The discus fish’s wild habitat experiences a lot of flooding and rain, which means that their water is continuously being replaced with fresh water. In an aquarium, you can replicate these conditions by doing frequent partial water changes.

Temperature plays an important role in the health of the discus and maintaining a higher temperature in the aquarium using a heater can help keep the aquarium’s temperature comfortable and prevent illnesses related to incorrect water temperatures.


It is difficult to breed discus in an aquarium, and they require specific conditions to breed. You will also need to ensure that there are enough plants and coverage in the aquarium, so your discus feels safe enough to spawn. Discus will only be able to breed when they are mature, at around 9 to 12 months of age. When breeding season arrives, discus will act more aggressively toward each other and other tank mates.

They will spend more time with their mate and protecting their territory. Keeping a large group of discus in an appropriately sized aquarium makes you more likely to have a good male-to-female ratio that can breed with each other.

Changing the aquarium water frequently not only helps to keep the water clean and the ammonia low but also mimics the water conditions that discus would experience during the breeding season.

Are Discus Fish Suitable for Your Aquarium?

Discus can make a great addition to the right aquarium, but you will need previous experience in caring for tropical fish and maintaining aquariums before getting a discus. If you have a large aquarium that is more than 55 gallons in size, with a good filtration system, live plants, driftwood, and a sandy substrate, then discus can work for your aquarium.

You will need to be prepared to do frequent water changes and maintain good water parameters after the aquarium has undergone the nitrogen cycle, which can be difficult for beginners.

Featured Image Credit: Juan Carlos Palau Díaz, Pixabay

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