Loaches: The Ultimate Guide - Care, Species, and More
You recently went to a pet store and became utterly fascinated with a species of fish known as the loach. You already have some fish at home, and you’re thinking about how wonderful it would be to add the beautiful loach to your fish collection. How do you care for a loach?
The pillars of loach care are as follows:
- Loaches always need sand or another substrate in their tank
- You must buy a small group of loaches (around six) for the wellbeing of all
- Although some loaches are bottom-feeders, these fish still need to be actively fed, often several times a day
- Loaches get along with many tankmate species, including shrimp, tetra, catfish, barb, and more
- It’s not easy to breed loaches, so you might not want to try
In today’s in-depth guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about loach care in more detail. From elaborating on the above care tips to discussing many major loach species, by the time you’re done reading, you’ll be ready to find the right loach for you.
Let’s get started.
What Are the Different Species of Loaches?
Not every loach is the same. The following overview of loach species should help you determine which one you might be interested in.
The first species that might catch your eye is the adequately-named zebra loach. Scientifically known as the Botia striata, the zebra loach earned its nickname due to its white body and black vertical stripes across, much like a zebra’s.
These are smaller loaches, with adults reaching lengths of about 3.5 inches. To care for a zebra loach, you need water with a pH of between 6.0 and 7.5 that remains at a consistent temperature of 70 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit.
As bottom feeders, zebra loaches don’t get along with most other bottom-feeding fish species such as Corydoras. Otherwise, these loaches have a rather peaceful, quiet demeanor. When you buy one zebra loach, you have to commit to buying their friends as well. In groups of less than five loaches, the fish’s stress levels get too high. That’s the case with many loach species in differing numbers.
Zebra loaches enjoy having hiding spots during the day, and they eat small shrimp and snails as well as live blackworms.
The true loach or Cobitidae is classified as a freshwater fish species from the Old World. Found natively in Morocco and Eurasia, the true loach usually lives in riverine ecosystems if not kept as pets.
The worm-like body of the true loach is known as being vermiform. True loaches, despite their name, lack scales unlike other loaches. They also have barbels, much like a catfish does, between three and six pairs.
Like the zebra loach, true loaches also bottom-feeders, but they don’t care what they eat. These loaches will consume organic detritus, tiny invertebrates, insects, and aquatic crustaceans.
Next is the spined loach or Cobitis taenia, a European-based loach species that lives in freshwaters. You may also see the spined loach being referred to as a spotted weather loach at some pet stores, but either way, it’s the same fish.
Spined loaches are a little bigger than zebra loaches, growing 3.1 to 3.9 inches when they reach adulthood. The females can get bigger than the males, reaching 4.7 inches. These fish are lightweight, weighing 2.1 ounces at most.
You can tell these loaches apart from others due to their brownish-yellow hue, especially along their back. Their spinal ridge features scales with brown and/or gray details. On the other side of the fish’s body, the spined loach has an orange or light-yellow belly. Since they’re a type of true loach, spined loaches’ faces also feature barbels, six in all.
The spined loach will hide during the day, going underneath the water to a dug-out bed. You can see their tail and head when they’re underneath the substrate like this. Then, at dark, the spined loach will begin sucking up the sandy riverbed, eating organic materials and tiny creatures as it does so. If any sand is left in what it eats, the spined loach can pass the sand through their gills.
This loach species can also do something called intestinal breathing. With this, they can survive in oxygen-poor waters.
You’ve heard of a clownfish, but are you familiar with the clown loach? The Chromobotia macracanthus is also referred to as the tiger botia, mostly because the fish is orange/yellow with black in patches throughout its body. Also, the loach’s fins and tail are darker orange.
Hailing from Borneo and Sumatra’s waters in Indonesia, the clown loach is the only one in the Chromobotia genus. It’s significantly bigger than the other loaches we’ve discussed so far, growing to 7.9 inches long on the smaller end and 11.8 inches on the higher end. Average adult clown loaches are 5.9 inches to 7.9 inches in length.
The clown loach features lateral compression in its body as well as a ventral surface that’s flat and a dorsal surface that’s arched. This fish has a big head with a downward-facing mouth. It also has barbels, but only four, and some of these are on its lower jaw. That makes the barbels there even less noticeable.
If you ever hear your clown loach making what sounds like a clicking noise, this can be a good or a bad thing depending on the context. If the fish is around others, then it may be trying to mate with a female or warn off a male clown loach. On its own, a clicking clown loach is a happy fish.
One of the more popular loaches is the Kuhli loach or pangio kuhli. This Cobitidae family member is a freshwater species with a long body much like an eel. It’s mostly white with thick black stripes, which sounds like the zebra loach, but the two are distinguishable enough. You can easily tell the Kuhli loach apart because its lean body is more like a snake than a fish.
The Kuhli loach is also a bit shy and doesn’t hesitate to hide. When it does so, the fish will go underneath the sand or look for a tank ornament to swim behind. As nocturnal fish, you won’t see them much during the day.
This loach too has barbels, four of them, as well as tiny fins and compression on either side of the body. Kuhli loaches can reach four inches in length at most, but they have quite a long lifespan. While some loaches live for only three to five years, the Kuhli loach may stick around for upwards of 14 years. That explains why they’re such a beloved pet choice.
Preparing a Loach’s Tank: What Should Go in There?
After reading more about the above types of loaches, at least one probably caught your attention. If you’re thinking of bringing a loach home soon, the first thing you need to do is prepare their tank. Here’s what you need to know about choosing the right tank for your loach.
You may or may not be able to use the current fish tank(s) you have at home for your loaches depending on their size. If you want a loach species such as the clown loach, then you need a tank that’s at least 75 gallons since this loach is huge.
For a Kuhli loach, you can easily get away with a 15-gallon tank if you’ll add only one or two loaches. If you plan on bringing in a third or even a fourth Kuhli loach, then you must add three to five gallons per fish.
What to Put in the Tank
You did some measurements and found a tank suitable for the species of loach you wish to keep. Now you need to figure out what goes in the tank. Should you just fill it with water and put the loaches right in?
Certainly not. As we covered in the last section, many loach species are a bit shy and appreciate having a place to hide if they’re spooked. Others need to dig away from the daylight, so leaving the loach with nothing in their tank but water is a very bad idea.
Instead, fill the bottom of the tank with a substrate, either fine gravel or sand. If your loach species is accustomed to streams in the wild, then putting rocks and pebbles in the tank will recreate their natural habitat. Do make sure you can get water flow within their tank, keeping this flow moderately strong.
The water should have a pH of 6.0 to 8.0. Maintain a water alkalinity of 50 to 175 particles per million (PPM) or between three and 10 degrees. The water should be well-oxygenated, even if some loach species can survive in water with lower oxygen.
Some loach species, the Kuhli loach among them, sometimes try to swim into an aquarium filter’s inlet tube. Make sure you cover the tube with fine mesh or your poor loach could end up getting sucked right into the filter. This could very easily lead to the fish’s death.
What Do Loaches Eat? How Often Should You Feed Them?
Bottom-feeding loach species will suck up whatever’s edible on the water’s floor while others like to munch on small crustaceans and insects. Should you try to copy that diet when caring for your loach?
If you can get your hands on crustaceans and insects, then yes. Otherwise, in most instances, commercial pet food should suffice. You might buy sinking wafers and dry fish flakes or pellets. You can also find plenty of foods that loaches appreciate that are freeze-dried and ready to feed. These include brine shrimp, clams, daphnia, and bloodworms.
If you’re caring for a Kuhli loach specifically, the sinking wafers and other sinking foods are highly recommended because this species of loach is a bottom feeder. That said, don’t just assume the Kuhli loach will eat only what’s on the floor and that that should suffice. You need to put time into feeding the fish daily.
In some instances, other fish in your tank might get to the food before the Kuhli loach can. In that case, then before you turn out the lights on the tank for the evening, feed the loach then. He/she will quite appreciate it.
As for the clown loach, you can mix live food with dry food like pellets or flakes. This loach species quite loves live worms, such as earthworms. You don’t necessarily need to go to your pet supply store to buy earthworms either.
Rather, head out to your garden and dig through the soil to see what you find. Do make sure you haven’t fertilized or otherwise chemically treated your soil recently. If you’re not sure of the condition of the soil, then look for earthworms somewhere else.
To maintain their considerable size, clown loaches need feeding several times on any given day. Keep consistent the size of these meals so your clown loach doesn’t grow too big and take over the other fish in the rest of the tank!
Should Your Loach Live Alone? With Other Loaches or Different Tank Mates?
Considering you have to bring a few loach buddies with the purchase of one loach, you should plan to add at least several fish to your tank at once. Is it a good idea to combine your loaches with other loach species? What about other fish that aren’t loaches?
If loach species are in the same family, they should get along well enough because they share many of the same behavioral traits. As for other species of fish, well, that depends on which loach we’re talking about. Here’s an overview for suitable tankmates for the zebra loach, clown loach, and Kuhli loach.
Zebra Loach Tankmates
The zebra loach is considered one of the friendlier loach species, so it can hang out with many different species of fish, including the following:
- Ember tetra: The ember tetra is a characin family member that has a playful streak but shouldn’t get too aggressive. This tetra lives in freshwater.
- Celestial pearl danio: The Danio margaritatus or celestial pearl danio is a species of fish known as a cyprinid. It has a very striking body that’s green with yellow/white spots throughout and neon red details along the fins and tail. The danio can handle pH and temperature changes with ease.
- Odessa barb: A second colorful tankmate of the zebra loach is the Odessa barb. As another cyprinid, the Odessa barb has a golden-white body with green fins, orangey-red streaks spread horizontally, and black vertical marks. This fish is known for its peaceful demeanor.
- Neon tetra: The neon tetra is also a characin family member. Unlike the ember tetra though, it lives in clearwater and blackwater, not freshwater. This species of fish does well in a school of 15 to 20.
- Clown loach: Yes, that’s right, the zebra loach and clown loach can survive in unison in one tank.
- Cherry barb: Named after its brilliant red coloring throughout, the cherry barb in the Cyprinidae family is another good choice to put with your zebra loach. These kind fish may grow to about two inches.
- Cory catfish: The Corydoras or cory catfish is a natural addition to a tank with a zebra loach or several. This bottom feeder will even keep your tank clean!
Do keep in mind that the zebra loach is prone to Ich. No, we don’t mean itch, but Ich, a parasitic condition that will lead to white spots across your zebra loach’s body. If left untreated, Ich could possibly be deadly.
If your zebra loach isn’t getting along with another fish in your tank, you’ll want to do something about that sooner than later. Should this species of loach get cut during a fight with another fish, loach or otherwise, their cuts are more likely to get infected.
Clown Loach Tankmates
Do you have a sizable clown loach or several in your tank? Stick to the following tankmates:
- Barbs: The above barb species are fine sharing a tank with a clown loach. So too is the Sumatra barb, also known as the tiger barb due to its light orange/white base with dark black horizontal stripes and neon orange fins, including the tail. Make sure you have at least six tiger barbs together to reduce aggression in this fish species.
- Gourami: The gourami is an anabantiform fish species in the Osphronemidae family. These freshwater fish are nice to other fish species, but not each other. For that reason, buy one gourami only. It’ll live for about five years.
- Rasbora: Another smart pick for a clown loach tankmate is the rasbora, also known as the Seluang fish. A Cyprinidae family member, the rasbora comes from Southeast Asia’s freshwaters. If you want to put a rasbora in a tank with a clown loach, then it must be big.
- Rainbowfish: Beautiful in any tank, the rainbowfish has all the wealth of colors its name would suggest. Even better is the friendly personality of this fish species, which does well with other non-aggressive fish.
- Tetras: The tetras listed above suffice when sharing a tank with a clown loach, as does the black widow tetra. This dark-colored tetra may have an ominous-sounding name, but it’ll be fine with the clown loach.
- Clown loaches: Clown loaches also get along very well with other clown loaches.
Like the zebra loach, the clown loach can also develop Ich, especially when kept in a community tank. If you notice several other sick fish, then the clown loach will likely soon follow. Make sure you quarantine the sick fish to prevent the spread of infection to other healthy fish.
Kuhli Loach Tankmates
If you have the ever-popular Kuhli loach in your tank, try adding these mates to the equation:
- Cory catfish
You can also try these other fish species we haven’t yet discussed:
- Cherry shrimp: The Neocaridina davidi or cherry shrimp comes from Taiwan. This freshwater shrimp species has a green-brown hue, but it may also be a very distinct fire-engine red as well as black, violet, blue, orange, or yellow. These shrimps are not aggressive, so they won’t attack your Kuhli loach.
- Oto catfish: The oto catfish or dwarf sucker is a catfish genius in the Loricariidae family. These small, slim fish do well in groups of six if your tank is 10 to 15 gallons and more than six in tanks of over 20 gallons.
- White Cloud Mountain minnows: You can also try mixing the White Cloud Mountain minnow with the Kuhli loach. This hardy freshwater fish species can survive in cold 45-degree waters.
Kuhli loaches are susceptible to diseases, and, since they have no scales, treating this loach species with medication can be tough. The Kuhli will be more sensitive to many treatments, so it’s best to prevent disease rather than treat it.
Can You Breed Loaches?
You’re very happy with your loaches, but if one died off, then you’ll want a new one to add to the group quickly. Otherwise, the whole balance of your loaches could be thrown off.
Instead of buying another loach, you have the idea to breed them yourself. If that’s the route you want to take, it is possible, but it won’t be easy. You may be able to encourage Kuhli loaches to breed if you dim the lights in their environment and reduce how much water is in the tank. Also, add to the vegetation in the tank, as the female fish will lay their eggs here. Further, adjust the water pH so it’s 6.5.
The more Kuhli loaches you have, the greater chances of successful breeding, especially if they’ve lived in your aquarium for a while and they’re happy there.
If breeding fails, which it often will, you can always go shopping at the pet store for more loaches.
Loaches are a species of fish that are very sought-after in many tanks. Whether you like the appealing zebra loach, the colorful clown loach, or the popular Kuhli loach, now you know what kind of tank to provide, what to feed these fish, and which tankmates are most highly recommended.
Enjoy your new loaches!