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Freshwater puffer fish | 5 true freshwater puffers!

October 23, 2016
freshwater puffer fish

Puffer fish are gaining popularity in the aquarium hobby, and for good reason: they are very intelligent and incredibly fun to keep. Unfortunately there is still quite a bit of confusion out there about which puffers belong in freshwater and which only do well in brackish aquariums, which can result in sick or dead fish and a lot of disappointment.

To help prevent you from choosing the wrong puffer fish species, here’s a list of puffers that are 100% suitable for freshwater aquariums!

Dwarf puffer (Carinotetraodon travancoricus & Carinotetraodon imitator)

Probably the most popular and also the easiest puffer fish to keep in your freshwater aquarium are dwarf puffers (pictured above), also sometimes known as pea puffers or Malabar puffers. With an adult size of around an inch (~2.5 cm) they are the smallest puffers available in the hobby and can be kept in densely planted aquariums of at least 15.5″/40cm. They are less aggressive than their larger cousins and don’t have constantly growing teeth that need regular care, which makes them a good choice for beginning puffer keepers.

Although choices are still limited due to (fin-)nipping tendencies, dwarf puffers can do well in some community aquariums as long as tankmates are carefully chosen. Like all puffers they are very sensitive and water quality should be kept at perfect levels at all times.

You can find a full dwarf puffer caresheet on Aquariadise here.

Red eye puffer (Carinotetraodon lorteti, salivator, borneensis, irrubesco)

Red eye puffers are a group of four different small puffer species in the same genus. They all look relatively similar and are easily recognized by their striking red eye color. While not as easy to keep and notably more aggressive than their dwarf puffer cousins, red eye puffers are definitely not the most difficult species as long as care requirements are met.

Because of their aggression level, it’s best to keep these puffers on their own in a single-species setup (although two or more females can supposedly succesfully be kept together). Despite their small size of around 1.8 inch/4.5 cm, recommended tank size is around 31.5″/80cm for one red eye puffer. This is due to the fact that these fish, like all puffers, are easily bored and produce a lot of waste. Break the sight lines using plenty of tall plants like Amazon sword.

Feed your red eye puffer crustaceans like live snails and shrimp or frozen foods like mosquito larvae. They are most active during and after sunset so try feeding with the lights off. Setting up a separate snail breeding tank is a good idea and very easy. Instructions can be found here!

South American puffer/Amazon puffer (Colomesus asellus)

One of the only puffer species that actually lives in groups in the wild, the South American puffer (also known as Amazon puffer) is not easy to keep and not the best choice for beginning puffer keepers. If you’re up to the challenge, though, a group of these gold and black striped fish is a joy to see.

South American puffers are very active and love to swim, which means a large aquarium is in order. For a small group a rectangular tank of at least 47″/120 cm with heavy filtration, strong water flow and dense planting is recommended. Because they quickly end up with overgrown teeth crustaceans like large snails (you can breed ramshorn snails yourself), crabs and mussels should be offered at every feeding. Even then you might have to clip their teeth regularly yourself. Postponing this for too long can result in a puffer unable to feed.

As with all puffer species a cycled aquarium, regular water changes and perfect water values are a must. Quick tankmates like tetra or Corydoras are somewhat of a possibility as long as your aquarium is large enough.

You can find a full caresheet for this puffer here.

Fahaka puffer/Nile puffer (Tetraodon lineatus)

If you’re serious about puffer keeping, are looking for a puffer that gets very large that you can really bond with and happen to have an aquarium of at least around 60″/150cm as well as some large filters lying around, look no further! Fahaka puffers grow to a massive size of up to 40 cm (~15.7 inch) and are very aggressive. This makes them a fish recommended only for experienced aquarists but a good alternative to the even larger Mbu puffer.

Fahaka puffers sold in aquarium stores are usually juveniles but unfortunately this doesn’t mean you can start out with a small tank and upgrade them later, as they grow incredibly fast. Feed them a diet consisting of crustaceans like snails, mussels, crayfish and cockles. Watch out for your hands while doing so, because although fakahas can be trained to hand feed they are still predatory fish that react very strongly to food. You can use aquarium planting tongs to safely feed large puffers such as these.

A fahaka tank should consist of a sand substrate and decorations like plants and driftwood for the fish to hide behind to prevent stress from feeling exposed and bored. Avoid anything sharp, though, as these fish are clumsy! Tankmates are not recommended due to the fahaka’s aggression level.

Note: the video below shows a fahaka feeding on a live crayfish and can be considered graphic.

Target puffer (Tetraodon turgidus/Pao turgidus)

A little different than most puffer types, target puffers are not very popular in the aquarium hobby as of now. Tetraodon turgidus seems to be most commonly available but care requirements are largely the same for all target puffer species. They grow to a size of around 6 inches (15 cm) and are not very active, which means they don’t need large tanks: a 35.5″/90cm setup should be fine for a single specimen. Filtration should be heavy and strong water flow is appreciated.

Like red eye puffers, target puffers are nocturnal hunters that become active after nightfall. If you want to see your target puffer in its active state try installing a moonlight in your tank that comes on for a few hours after the normal lights go off.

Target puffers are not completely carnivorous and require some plant matter in their diet. Feed a varied diet of snails, mussels and other crustaceans as well as plant matter like peas.

If you have any more questions about keeping these freshwater puffers or want to share your own experiences, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

Cover photo: Carinotetraodon travancoricus (dwarf puffer) by linkinsim.

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  • Reply Cole November 10, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    Love your site! I’ve had dwarf puffers in the past and have been thinking about trying a red eye but haven’t had any luck finding any. Just wondering if you had any leads as to where to find one?

    • Reply Mari November 14, 2016 at 10:36 am

      I don’t, unfortunately! I’m from The Netherlands so I’m not sure about finding them in other countries. Trying to look around online might be an option! I’m interested in keeping red eyes as well so if you go through with it, be sure to let me know how things go. 🙂

  • Reply chris October 31, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    okay great! they’ve disappeared at this time, but I spotted one earlier, and he seemed fat and happy

  • Reply chris October 30, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    a trio of baby dwarf puffers ≈.5 cm long appeared in my bag of shrimp ( dont ask me how; i think they were tangled up in the java moss when that was added) , would it be okay to add them to my 70 gallon community tank populated by corydoras and tetras (specifically cardinal and swegles)?
    thanks and love your site,

    • Reply Mari October 30, 2016 at 5:26 pm

      Haha, that’s an odd coincidence! Lucky you. I think that would work. Dwarf puffers are usually not that aggressive as long as tankmates are fast and have short fins. They have been succesfully kept with both these species. Just keep a close eye on everyone’s fins – if bites are regularly taken out of them, you may have to move the puffers after all.

      Good luck!

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