In the dark, murky waters of the Amazon, wild discus fish typically feed on small worms, crustaceans, plant matter, insects, and detritus that gets flushed out of the surrounding forests by rainfall. In aquariums as pets, however, discus fish are much more picky eaters, as each fish, with its own individual personality, will prefer different types of foods. The topic of discus feeding and nutrition is one that many novice aquarists find to be quite challenging. One discus fish in the aquarium might eat flake food the second it touches the water, while another discus fish would rather starve to death than eat the flake food. Using the right combination of live, frozen, and freeze-dried food, however, is the key to maintaining healthy, well fed discus.
One of the biggest mistakes made by beginners is that they simply overfeed their discus fish. Overfeeding can lead to fish obesity, which comes with a whole list of health issues, and a dirty tank. A general rule of thumb used by many discus keepers is to feed them about 3% of their body weight per feeding. For example, an adult discus weighing 75 grams should be fed approximately 2.25 grams of food per twice daily feeding. Smaller discus will feed much faster than larger ones. If food is not consumed within 15 minutes of administering, then the food should be removed to maintain proper water cleanliness, something that discus fish are especially sensitive to. Live food should be administered as clumps directly into the tank, while flakes and freeze-dried food should be sprinkled on the surface of the water.
In the natural habitat of the Amazon, discus fish are carnivores, so those kept in aquariums should be fed a diet that meets the same nutritional needs as their relatives in the wild. Mature discus fish should be fed a diet that consists of about 35-45% protein, while younger and newly hatched fry and juveniles should be fed a diet containing up to 50% protein in order to accelerate their growth. It is important to note that their entire diet is not protein, however, and must be supplemented by both fats and vitamins. In order to obtain all of the correct ratios of protein to fat, fat to vitamins, etc., a combination of live food, frozen food, and freeze-dried food must be used. It is highly practical to have live food on hand, as newly born and recovering discus fish will most likely prefer to eat live food than freeze-dried flakes or frozen food right away.
Discus fish, like every other living organism, require certain vitamins in order to maintain their nutritional needs. Vitamins do not provide a source of energy, but instead provide the necessary building blocks for proper functioning, immune, reproductive, and digestive systems, especially for the production of enzymes within the body. Some of the best sources of vitamins for discus fish are crustaceans, vegetables, and algae.
Bloodworms, which are actually the larval stage of the mosquito are a very popular food type for discus fish. Bloodworms are rich in protein and can be administered live, frozen, and/or freeze-dried. Tubifex worms, which were a staple of the discus diet by breeders in the past, are another food source that is still used today, but much less often. Tubifex worms naturally feed on feces, so feeding a contaminated tubifex worm to your discus fish could result in food poisoning. Unlike humans, who are sick for a few days and recover, discus fish, when they consume contaminated food, will turn a blackish color and then die shortle after. Some people have had no problems and still use tubifex worms as a main food source, but others choose not to use them at all as a precautionary measure. White worms are another very popular live food to feed discus fish. White worms are stock full of proteins and are especially good for picky discus. At only half an inch in length, this protein packed discus superfood is easy for owners to cultivate home using just a plastic container and layer of peat soil. By feeding the worms a diet of bread, oats, and raw sausage mixed with water, one can easily establish their own breeding colony of white worms to serve as food for their discus fish. White worms are also especially beneficial for stimulating the conditioning and breeding of discus fish as they are also high in fat, allowing the fish to quickly add size and mass.
Another popular food type among discus keepers is beef heart, which is typically frozen. Discus beef heart, however, is not as easily attainable as the above-mentioned food types. Typically, to obtain beef heart, one must contact their local butcher days in advance and specifically ordered for. Beef heart must be used with caution, however, as it is not a normal part of the discus diet in the wild. Containing upwards of 18% saturated fat per serving, too much beef heart can lead to digestive issues and other related illnesses, but when administered in small, carefully regulated amounts, it can be highly beneficial to the fish. Countless discus breeders use beef heart to fill out smaller discus as it quickly adds size to make discus fish look bigger and stronger. It is also a quick way to raise baby fry. Some discus keepers choose to add combinations of different vegetables such as peas, carrots, cabbage, and red peppers to create a beef heart mixture that can be scooped into small spheres and placed at the bottom of the tank or to the sides. Chicken, turkey, and mutton hearts are also commonly used and mixed in with the beef heart to provide a variety of tastes to the finicky discus fish.
In addition to protein, discus fish also need an ample amount of fats in their diet in order to maintain optimum health. In addition to the live white worms mentioned above, crustacean oil is also an excellent source of fats necessary for the nutritional needs of the discus fish. Crustacean oil is typically omitted from flake foods so what many discus breeders choose to use are brine shrimp. High in both protein and fats, brine shrimp are an ideal food source, especially for young fry and juvenile discus. Like the white worms, brine shrimp can also be cultured at home, however it is slightly more difficult. The best method for cultivating brine shrimp seems to be using a large glass jar with thick walls and slowly producing enough algal growth to support the brine shrimp. By maintaining an ample amount of algae for the brine shrimp and keeping the salinity and oxygen levels at the appropriate parameters, the brine shrimp will be able to grow and eventually reproduce, a process that normally takes a relatively long amount of time in comparison to the rearing of live white worms.
Chris Ingham, author of the book Discus World: A Complete Manual for the Discus Keeper, has many years of experience in the art of discus keeping, and has developed his own line of discus food that features a combination of the above food sources as well as additional vitamins and nutrients that meet the nutritional need of discus fish. Discus Delights, is a popular option as it contains seven packets of food, one for each day of the week, that does not need to be frozen or refrigerated. Containing a mixture of beef heart, brine shrimp, granules, earthworm, and tropical flake medley, these packets offer discus keepers an easy and convenient way to properly administer the correct combination of protein, fats, vitamins, and nutrients that are essential to both growing out and maintaining discus fish.
When it comes to providing the proper nutrition and diet for your discus fish, it is important to invest the appropriate amount of time, money, and energy. Cutting corners, and not being fully invested into providing your discus fish with the optimum amount of care, will result in an unsuccessful and unhealthy discus tank.
Make sure to read our previous article on discus fish origin & history!