Discus (Symphysodon) – Basic Guide For Beginners

The Discus Fish (symphysodon) is often, and deservedly, referred to as the ‘king of the aquarium’ due to its majestic and regal appearance. They are stunningly beautiful, carry themselves with immense grace, and every fish keeper, beginner and experienced alike, should have some! In this article ‘ Basic guide for beginners” we’ll look at all the general aspects of keeping these amazing fish. 

It may surprise you that I said ‘beginner’ when I mentioned who should be keeping this species. After all, they are difficult to care for right? And only experienced fish keepers should attempt them? Well, no, actually neither of those things are true, they’re just myths that have become accepted over time.


It is true that the Discus has some specific care requirements, but let’s be honest what fish species doesn’t? It is also true that without fulfilling the Discus specific care requirements they will suffer, but again, what fish species wouldn’t? To put it simply Discus are no different from other species of fish in needing proper care, they are no more difficult.

In order to prove that Discus fish are easy to keep here is our guide for beginners, starting with some basic useful information……

  • Scientific Name: Symphysodon
  • Common Name: Discus, Pompadour Fish
  • Family: Cichlidae
  • Origin: South America (wild) Asia (most captive bred)
  • Lifespan: 10 years plus
  • Sociability: Peaceful
  • Growth: Up to 6 inches (wild) Up to 8 inches (captive bred)
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Minimum Tank Size: 55 gallons or 208 liters
  • Tank Level: All over
  • Care Level: Easy-Moderate
  • Water Parameters: 82-86℉ or 28-30℃, kH 1-3, pH 6.1-7.5
  • Cost: $30-$400

Getting To Know The Discus

Before we discuss the main care requirements of the Discus, any potential keeper should be sure that they are the right species for them. To help with that here are the things every potential Discus fanatic should know.

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The Discus originates from the freshwaters of the Amazon river basin in South America where they can be found congregating near fallen trees along the shore. This ‘congregation’ is unusual amongst cichlids, who usually prefer to be more solitary. Shoals of discus found together can number into the multiples of dozens.

In their natural habitats, Discus feed upon algae, invertebrates, other plant material, and detritus (dead particulate organic material). How much they eat of each of these foods is dictated by the time of year. 38% of their diet is made up of invertebrates in the high-water season and in the low-water season, this percentage falls.

Few wild Discus are sold on the aquatic market and those that are, though they are still stunning, certainly aren’t as colorful as their more commonly available captive raised relatives. The aquaculture of Discus is a huge business in Asian countries with most Discus we purchase unless from private breeders, being raised there.

discus fish-a basic guide for beginners

Discus Behavior

Behavior wise the Discus can be very timid when first added to an aquarium and will never be the most personality-filled, interesting fish species you could own. They are, however, incredibly graceful swimmers that look so attractive with their shoaling behavior. They are definite eye candy with moments of interest such as feeding time and social interaction.

You will need to be aware that Discus do not like loud sounds, sudden movement, or knocking on their glass, so they should be placed somewhere fairly quiet. They are also not destructive like other cichlid species so will not dig up or rearrange their home. Being also not predatory they are suitable tank mates for many other fish including Corydoras, Plecostomus, Rasbora, Rainbow Fish, Tetras, Swordtails, and Platies. It should be noted, however, that Discus can be reluctant to feed in a community aquarium.

Looks and Variants

The Discus has a laterally compressed body with no extended fins. This gives them their distinctive cylindrical appearance that they have been named for. In their natural habitat they grow up to around 6 inches in size, whilst their captive counterparts can top out 10 inches. 8 inches, however, is usually the norm.

There are over 100 different varieties of Discus, most of which are only found captive bred. This is due to different natural variants breeding together and creating hybrids. Just a few of the popular species include:

  • Red TurquoiseA blue strain of Discus with a highly visible maze-like red pattern.
  • Blue DiamondA brilliant blue coloration with distinguishing small white markings all over its body.
  • Red MarlboroA vibrant red body with a yellow face and electric blue stripes on the anal and dorsal fin.
  • SnakeskinA mottled blue coloration against a red background.

Breeding Discus

There are no special requirements when it comes to breeding the Discus, you just simply leave them to it! They become sexually mature at around 1-year-old and there are no decisive ways to tell the female and male apart. Rough guides to sexual difference, however, can be that males are usually bigger than females, and in solid red Discus, the female is often redder.

When breeding, the mating pair of Discus will move away from the rest of the shoal. It is believed that this is to avoid other members of the group predating on their young. Once the larvae are born, care for them is brooding, with both parents playing their part. First-time parents, however, may not be successful and may eat their young.

Interestingly, Discus are one of only approximately 30 species of cichlid that feed their larvae from secretions through their skin. They do this for the first four weeks with the first two being spent with parents and larvae inseparable. During the last two weeks, the parents start to swim away from their young, returning to feed them, in an attempt to wean them off.

blue discus

Taking Care Of The Essentials

There is a lot of information out there regarding the care of the Discus making it very difficult to see the forest for the trees. They are portrayed as one of the more, maybe even most, difficult species to look after, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Having said that, however, they do have three essential care requirements which cannot be ignored. These are:

  1. The correct size aquarium
  2. The correct water parameters
  3. The correct nutritional diet

Aquarium Size

The minimum aquarium size for a small group of Discus, around six to eight, is 55 gallons or 208 liters. Every additional Discus you choose to keep will need an extra, approximately 5 gallons or 20 liters. This is based on the keeper of the Discus providing good husbandry.

It is worth mentioning here that with Discus, the bigger the aquarium, the better. This is due to larger aquariums with greater volumes of water being easier to maintain in regard to water parameters. Put simply, harmful toxins take longer to build up in larger amounts of water.

This does not mean, however, that aquarium maintenance and water changes are needed any less often because there is more water. Rather it just equates to there being less chance of water parameter problems developing.


Water Parameters

The Discus prefers their aquarium temperature a little warmer than most tropical fish species with somewhere between 82-86℉ or 28-30℃ being the optimum. They also need a kH of between 1-3, a pH of 6.1-7.5, and exceptional water cleanliness. To ensure you have the correct water conditions you need to use a reliable freshwater water test kit like the one we found on Amazon.

Whilst the above water parameters are important it is more vital to the Discus that they remain constant with as little fluctuation as possible. It is rapid changes in kH, pH, and temperature that will cause you a whole world of pain with this species.

Regarding water cleanliness, Discus will not be able to tolerate ammonia or nitrite in their aquariums for long. They are a little more tolerant of nitrates but you should still keep them as low as you can. This means performing excellent husbandry with water changes of at least 25% and maintenance on a weekly basis.

Please note that when buying Discus you should discuss with the breeder or supplier the water parameters that they have been raised in and match them as closely as possible.

discus fish

Nutritional Diet

Discus requires a nutritional and varied diet to be healthy and achieve optimum growth. It may be worth mentioning here that unlike humans, fish do not eat for pleasure, rather to survive alone. Discus enjoy any food that floats, foods which sink, with some being happy to feed from your hand.

Foods suitable for your Discus include high protein flake, frozen bloodworm, beef heart, tetra bits, live brine shrimp, mussel, and white worm. The rumor that Discus will only accept red foods is not true, rather it was found through scientific research that red food is easier to see than other colors, and hence eaten quicker.

Unlike some other cichlids, Discus do not have teeth, they have grinders in their jaws instead. These they use to mouth their food before spitting it out and then recapturing it and swallowing it. Any food that they miss and that falls to the bottom will be cleared up later by the Discus. They do this by dispelling water at the food on the bottom and then picking it up as it floats upwards.

Discus should be fed only the amount that they can consume within five minutes. Up to three months old they should be fed several times a day with 10-12 feedings being the optimum. At three to twelve months you can lower the number of feedings to around 5 per day. Over twelve months and 2-3 feedings per day will suffice.

Additional Care Tips

The following are some handy care tips for the first time Discus owner that you may find useful:

  • Discus are best bought together in a group of the amount you want to keep.
  • Ensure you buy healthy specimens that look clean, bright, are actively swimming, and eat well.
  • Be aware that if you buy Discus under 4 inches in size, they will change as they grow. Anything over 4 inches, pretty much what you see, is what you get.
  • A bare-bottomed aquarium may be preferential as they are easier to remove waste from and ensure cleanliness.
  • If you choose to place decor in your Discus aquarium, they enjoy tall objects such as vertically placed driftwood and broadleaf plants.
  • Not all live plants are suitable for the higher temperatures of a Discus aquarium. Research individual plant needs before investing.
  • Discus are susceptible to saltwater diseases such as flicking, nitrite poisoning, Popeye, hole in the head, and fin rot. Research possible diseases, their telltale signs, and treatments.


Final Thought

Contrary to belief Discus fish are not solely for the expert fishkeeper as many people say. They are often put off by inexperienced aquarists that really have never kept Discus before saying ‘ Don’t buy them they are too hard to keep’. This is untrue! Like all fish kept in the home aquarium if you supply them with good quality water changed regularly and give them top quality food, then you can’t go wrong.

Yes, they are sensitive fish and susceptible to certain tropical fish diseases, but so are hundreds of other fish. The title of this article Discus – A Basic Guide For Beginners, doesn’t mean these fish are perfect for fishkeeping beginners. It’s a basic guide for people wanting to keep discus for the first time but for people who already have some basic tropical fish knowledge. 

These peaceful and colorful fish will look amazing in the correct size aquarium and their colors will shine through if you feed them the right foods.

So don’t be put off and try keeping these amazing fish for the first time. Just remember some of the helpful discus keeping tips we have mentioned above.