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. Dwarf puffer fish 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 and don’t forget to use a powerful filter to deal with the red eye’s messy feeding habits.
Feed your red eye puffer crustaceans like live snails and shrimp or frozen foods like mosquito larvae. This species are most active during and after sunset so try feeding with the lights off if you’re having trouble getting yours to take foods. Setting up a separate snail breeding tank is a good idea and very easy. Instructions for starting your own snail ‘farm’ 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 with plenty of hard foods being offered you might have to clip their teeth regularly yourself. Postponing this for too long can result in a puffer that’s unable to feed and permanently lopsided teeth, so choose another species if you’re not prepared to do puffer fish dentistry.
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 reasonable alternative to the even larger Mbu puffer, which is only really suitable for public aquariums.
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 feeding a puffer of this size. Although fakahas can be trained to hand feed they are still predatory fish that react very strongly to food and will not hesitate to go for your fingers. 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 this species is clumsy! Tankmates are not recommended due to the fahaka’s aggression level.
Note: the video below shows a fahaka puffer fish 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 at this point, but don’t worry if you happen to come across another variety. Care requirements are largely the same for all target puffer species.
Target puffer fish grow to a size of around 6 inches (15 cm) and are not very active, which means they don’t need large tanks like many of their cousins do. 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. The blue light will be enough to allow you to see your target puffer hunt without distracting it.
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.
Ocellated pufferfish (Tetraodon cutcutia)
A rather uncommon but fascinating pufferfish is Tetraodon cutcutia, naturally found in the Ganges river and commonly known as the ocellated pufferfish. Not a species you’ll encounter in your local aquarium store very often, but definitely one worth searching for.
The main reason Tetraodon cutcutia is so fascinating is that it is known to have been bred in captivity. The video below shows a male Tetraodon cutcutia guarding its eggs. If that isn’t an unusual breeding project I don’t know what is!
Contrary to many other puffer fish, Tetraodon cutcutia doesn’t strictly have to be kept alone. If you can obtain a pair they can be kept together without too much difficulty. A large aquarium isn’t needed for this species: 20 gallons (75L) should be enough for a single puffer.
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!
PS: Want to read more about puffer fish? Click here to browse through the entire list of puffer-related articles.