Rainbow Cichlid: Our Care Guide for These Colorful Fish

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton


Rainbow Cichlid

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Cichlids are some of the most beautiful, intelligent, and exotic freshwater fish in the world, but it can be frustrating how many species are also highly aggressive fish.

Not so with the rainbow cichlid. These colorful dwarf cichlids are so peaceful they can be kept in a community tank with other medium-sized species.

Let’s take a closer look at these well-behaved cichlids to find out why they’re becoming more and more popular in the aquarium trade.

Rainbow Cichlid at a Glance

Rainbow Cichlid Info
Scientific NamesHerotilapia multispinosa, Archocentrus multispinosus
Care LevelEasy
Maximum Size3 to 5 inches
Minimum Tank Size30 gallons
Lifespan7-9 years
DietOmnivore. Likes plant material
Water pH6.8 – 7.8
Water Hardness8 to 20 dGH
Water Temperature75 - 78°F
TemperamentMostly peaceful. More territorial during breeding.

Species Overview

Origin and Background

Rainbow cichlids are a peaceful dwarf cichlid from Central America. Their small size, bright colors, and ability to live in a community aquarium have made them a fairly popular cichlid in recent years.

Rainbow cichlids originally hail from the warm, tropical waters of Central America. Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua all host wild populations of these fish, who tend to inhabit fairly stagnant, shallow, and often muddy waters of rivers and lakes in the region.

Because of the shallow waters they come from, rainbow cichlids can tolerate exceptionally warm water temperatures. Various sources cite that this fish has been recorded living in water up to 100°F!

Their preferred range is certainly less than this, and amazingly, rainbow cichlids have been successfully introduced to Lake Hévíz in Hungary, the largest natural thermal lake in the world.

Size and Appearance

Rainbow cichlids earn their name from their bright colors which can change according to their age, mood, and breeding condition.

Mature adults typically have golden bodies with long black stripes running from their eyes to their tails.

Fins sometimes have turquoise tinting, and eyes can be either red or black.

Male rainbow cichlids have slightly brighter colors than females and may display especially bright colors when defending their territory from other males.

Both sexes can change color dramatically at breeding time when the entire lower half of the body can turn black. Mature rainbow cichlids typically grow to between 3.5 and 5 inches long, with males growing slightly bigger than females.

Rainbow Cichlid Care Guide

Tank Size

A pair of rainbow cichlids need a 3-foot-long tank of at least 30 gallons to be happy. A group of 4-6 rainbow cichlids do best in larger tanks of at least 55-75 gallons, especially where there is more than one male in the mix.

Tank Environment

Rainbow Cichlid

Rainbow cichlids will be happiest when you replicate their natural habitat within your fish tank.

In the wild, these fish come from warm, shallow waters that are often stained an amber color by the presence of tannins.

Rocks, plants, and pieces of driftwood would also be typical features of their daily setting in Central America, so you can help them feel at home by providing these in your aquarium.

While some sources declare rainbow cichlids as plant-safe, several reports from aquarium owners reveal that they can sometimes eat live plants! In other cases, they may uproot aquarium plants when digging pits at breeding time.

The most robust aquarium plants are going to be the safest bet. Try easy plants like Java fern, Java moss, Amazon Sword, Anacharis, Anubias, Crypts, Anacharis, and Vallisneria


In the native habitat, rainbow cichlids generally inhabit waters with muddy bottoms. Since a mud substrate isn’t practical in home aquariums, sand is the next best option.

Sand, however, has its drawbacks. It’s more difficult to vacuum than gravel, and can also become compacted, lacking enough oxygen for healthy plant growth.

In a species-only tank, you could consider keeping rainbow cichlids on a sand substrate. In my opinion, fine gravel should also suffice in community tanks.

Water Temperature

As mentioned at the start, Rainbow cichlids have a reputation for withstanding incredibly warm waters in their natural habitat.

But water above 90°F wouldn’t be their norm, and prolonged exposure to high temperatures can often decrease a fish’s lifespan.

The ideal temperature range for rainbow cichlids is between 75 and 82°F, so they’re actually quite compatible with most tropical aquarium fish species.

Like other tropical species, rainbow cichlids won’t enjoy sudden changes in water temperature, so acclimatizing them properly in a new tank and avoiding temperature fluctuations is essential to avoid thermal shock.

Water Parameters

Rainbow cichlids aren’t overly fussy when it comes to water parameters, but prefer water that has a pH of between 6.8-7.8, and a dGH of between 8-20.


Rainbow cichlids demand high water quality to remain happy and healthy. As with keeping any fish, an efficient aquarium filter is essential.

Hang-on-back filters (HOB), and internal power filters are good options for medium-sized tanks, but for tanks over 75 gallons, consider a canister filter.

Because they come from slow-moving rivers and lakes, rainbow cichlids can get stressed by strong filter flow but still need a high water turnover to retain high water quality.

A good way to reduce the water current without weakening the filter is by using an aquarium spray bar or lily pipe.


Rainbow cichlids are omnivorous fish with a penchant for plenty of vegetable matter! In the wild, they’re said to eat detritus and hair algae. In captivity, some fish keepers have reported that they’re quite effective at removing hair algae – a nuisance weed in some fish tanks!

If you don’t have hair algae growing in your tank, make sure that your rainbow cichlids still get plenty of greens in their diet by offering them dandelion leaves, blanched nettles, organic spinach or lettuce, nori flakes, algae wafers, and spirulina sinking wafers. Regular feeding of vegetable matter may also help to reduce them from eating aquarium plants!

As a staple daily food, cichlid pellets and flake foods are fine for rainbow cichlids. But dried fish should always be supplemented with fresh and frozen meaty foods such as bloodworms, tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, Mysis shrimp, or white mosquito larvae, twice per week or so.

As usual, feed your fish twice a day, with no more than they can eat in 2 minutes.


Rainbow cichlids are generally peaceful fish. Their docile nature and small size make them one of the best cichlids for community tanks, but caution is still advised when keeping them with very small fish!

As with most cichlids, male rainbow cichlids can still become a little feisty at breeding time, especially towards other male cichlids and bottom-dwelling fish who could be perceived as a threat to their eggs and young.

Should You Keep Rainbow Cichlid Alone or in a School?

While some people have kept a single rainbow cichlid in a community tank, I feel that this intelligent, sociable fish will benefit from the company of its own kind.

Keeping both male and female rainbow cichlids will normally result in them pairing off and breeding, which can present aggression problems in a community tank.

Some hobbyists have circumvented the issue by keeping two male or two female rainbow cichlids, but it’s also been known for them to change sex to produce a breeding pair anyway!

A 75-gallon tank or larger could host six or more rainbow cichlids alongside other peaceful cichlids and medium-sized community fish.

Compatible Tank Mates

There are mixed opinions about which fish rainbow cichlids can live with, so I’ve dug deep into aquarium forums to gather real-life reports.

Schooling fish such as neon tetras, cardinal tetras, rummy noses, and harlequin rasboras may sometimes live peacefully alongside rainbow cichlids, but other times, large males may simply see them as a source of food! Tiny or very delicate fish and invertebrates like ember tetra, guppies, medaka rice fish, betta fish, and cherry shrimp should always be avoided.

Medium-sized mid-water and surface-dwelling fish like barbs, rainbow fish, giant danios, scissortail rasboras, black skirt tetra, and dwarf gouramis make for more suitable tank mates.

Some aquarists have kept rainbow cichlids successfully with more aggressive Central American cichlids like firemouth cichlids and Jack Dempsey cichlids, but this should only be attempted by experienced hobbyists. Other peaceful cichlids like keyhole cichlids, ram cichlids, and blue acaras make for a more harmonious mix.

Curiously, even fairly peaceful cichlids are often adverse to small bottom-dwelling fish such as corydoras catfish. ‘Cories’ can be rather ethereal fish that will often drift into another fish’s territories without realizing it. Although they mean no harm, a breeding pair of rainbow cichlids will see them as a threat and might scold them severely.

A better choice for a bottom-dweller would be bristlenose plecos, although a breeding pair of rainbow cichlids may appreciate their own tank so they can raise their fry undisturbed.

Health and Disease

Rainbow cichlids need clean, well-oxygenated water to thrive. If water conditions worsen, they can be susceptible to the same host of diseases and health problems that other tropical fish suffer from.

Immune deficiencies also worsen when fish are feeling stressed, so keeping rainbow cichlids in a tank with peaceful tank mates and plenty of hiding places will also contribute to their good health.

Ich, velvet, and flukes are all common parasitic diseases that can lie dormant in an aquarium for years until a weakened fish or very poor water quality offers them a chance to strike.

Similarly, bacterial and fungal infections like columnaris, fin rot, and water molds only tend to affect fish that are already in a vulnerable state.

Keeping them in clean water in an aquarium that’s well maintained, with a healthy, varied diet is the best way to keep rainbow cichlids feeling relaxed, happy, and healthy for the long run.

Sexual Dimorphism

The difference between female and male rainbow cichlids is less pronounced than in many other types of cichlids, especially when they’re juvenile.

Mature male rainbow cichlids are typically bigger than females and may exhibit slightly more pointed dorsal fins and anal fins, and marginally brighter colors.

When young, however, it can be almost impossible to sex rainbow cichlids. When they’re 3 inches long, they may simply start breeding before you’ve identified them!


Rainbow Cichlid

Rainbow cichlids are fairly easy to breed and could make a suitable subject for those looking to breed their first cichlids.

Like most cichlids, rainbows are monogamous (aka. pair-bonded), and may stay together with their mate for several years, or even a lifetime.

Because they can become more stressed and aggressive during breeding, it can be a good idea to offer them their own designated breeding tank for reproduction, especially if you want to raise the fry.

How To Breed Rainbow Cichlid

  • Look for signs that a pair has bonded and are preparing to spawn. The male may chase the female around prior to spawning, and the pair will usually begin to darken in color below the horizontal black line (although sometimes only one of the parents will change color).
  • Place the pair into a 30-gallon breeding tank with at least one sponge filter, some hiding places, and some flat rocks or slates at the bottom of the tank for them to spawn onto.
  • During spawning the female will lay up to 1500 eggs in multiple lines, followed closely behind by the male who fertilizes them. Both parents will then fan the eggs, with the male also patrolling the surrounding area for any signs of danger.
  • Rainbow cichlid eggs usually hatch within 48 hours and the fry are free swimming within a week. Parents may move the young around to various spawning pits that they’ve dug beforehand.
  • Feed the fry on microworms, baby brine shrimp, finely powdered flake foods, or specially formulated fry foods. The parents will continue to care for their young for about 4 weeks, after which they fend for themselves.
  • If you’re considering breeding rainbow cichlids, I highly recommend watching this excellent video detailing the various stages from spawning to rearing the young.


Like most cichlids, rainbow cichlids are relatively long-lived fish, so 7-9 years is a good age to aim for.

For rainbow cichlids to reach their maximum lifespan, their water quality, diet, and quality of care must be of the highest order.

Tank Maintenance

Some top tips for keeping your rainbow cichlids in tip-top condition!

Fun Fact: Rainbow Cichlids Can Talk!

Not many people seem to know a bizarre, hidden secret about rainbow cichlids. Like some species of catfish and gourami, rainbow cichlids can emit underwater sounds to communicate with one another!

Scientists believe these ‘thumps’, ‘growls’, and ‘whoofs’ come from their swim bladders and have been theorized to indicate antagonistic behavior, courtship, and a call for peace. Incredible!

Buying Guide

Rainbow cichlids are increasingly popular and are now seen in pet stores more often than ever. While smaller, local aquarium stores may not stock them, you should be able to find them at larger stores or those specializing in cichlids.

Only choose active individuals with bright colors, shiny eyes, and healthy-looking fins. If you’re buying online, always check reviews to ensure the site’s integrity.

The price for rainbow cichlids varies wildly, from $5-$50 per fish in 2023!

Final Thoughts

Rainbow cichlids have a lot going for them. Not only are they fairly friendly fish that can be kept in community tanks, they also exhibit bright, changing colors and fascinating behavior.

While rainbow cichlids are one of the easier cichlids to keep, I’d still advise that novices get some experience with keeping beginner fish like tetras, danios, and rasboras before attempting to keep any member of the cichlid family.

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