When it comes to discus fish keeping, there seems to be a negative stigma regarding the difficulty and hassle of ensuring these fish remain healthy. Regarded as “advanced” in difficulty for keeping, many (unsuccessful) discus keepers claim that the level of difficulty results in nothing but wasted money. With the proper knowledge and dedication to your discus fish, however, even the novice aquarist can successfully keep discus.
When choosing a location for your aquarium/tank, vertical placement is an important factor to take into consideration. The tank should typically be placed between 1 and 1.2 meters above the ground. Placing the tank to high up has been to known to alter the behavior of the discus fish, and properly placing the tank provides a sense of security for the fish that will only benefit in the long run.
There are many different tank options available on the market, however when it comes to keeping discus fish, the shape of the tank should be one that promotes optimum filtration while also reducing the amount of water movement within the tank. Typically, tanks that are long and narrow should be avoided. If a tank that is too long is selected, pockets of water that are slightly cooler than the surrounding area may form. While a slight difference of 1 or 2 degrees may not seem significant, this can be troublesome, especially for newly hatched fry. Once the fry reach a size large enough to leave the side of their parents and begin exploring and foraging within the tank, running into these cold pockets can lead to sickness and even death.
With regards to water depth, your tank should be at least 18 inches deep, but typically no more than 24 inches. Keep in mind, that as tank shape is both tall as well as wide, water displacement is a lot greater than what one might expect from a typical home aquarium. This is where the actual dimensions of the tank itself become of importance. Glass thickness should scale appropriately to the volumetric measurements of the tank. It is important to use a thickness that is strong enough to withstand the elevated level of pressure exerted by the water within the tank. Pilkington Glass is a popular brand of aquarium glass used by many discus keepers. If you choose to make your own aquarium, it is important to ensure that the use of silicone sealers is avoided at all costs. Many, if not all, silicone sealers contain fungus curing agents that will release fungicides into the water once the aquarium is put together. This fungicide will essentially poison your discus fish as it infects both their gill membranes and eyes.
Choosing the right filtration system is one of the most important components in maintaining a healthy discus aquarium. Many factors need to be taken into consideration when selecting a filter for your tank, including, water quality, bacterial medium, circulation, oxygen deliverance, and whether or not baby fry will get sucked up into the filter (think Finding Nemo). In their natural environment of the Amazon, water is constantly being flushed through the system, so maximizing circulation is a crucial component. The most popular and most effective method of tank filtration is the use of a system that uses a sponge. This method provides both a surface for fry to feed upon and protects them from being sucked up into the filter. Bio Foam is one of the more popular brands of sponges used for tank filtration.
With the use of a sponge for a filtration medium, it is important to ensure that a healthy bacteria colony is able to thrive on the sponge. When people hear the word “bacteria”, other words such as disease, infection, and illness often come to mind. In this case, bacteria are both essential and required for establishing a healthy environment for your discus fish. The chemical compound ammonia is the reason that bacteria are needed on the filter medium. When excess waste and food begins to build up inside of the tank, ammonia is released into the water. If there is one thing that discus fish simply cannot tolerate, it is ammonia. Ammonia essentially burns the gills of discus fish, and there are many stories by some discus keepers of their fish actually leaping out of the water to escape the unrelenting discomfort brought on by ammonia build up in the water. The discus fish simply cannot tolerate it. This is why these bacteria are so important to maintaining tank health, as they will essentially fixate excess ammonia in the water into nitrite and subsequently the harmless compound nitrate, which has no effect on the discus fish. In order for these bacteria to carry out this chemical process, however, a readily available supply of oxygen should be present, so it is important to select a filter that will not only promote circulation, but also maximize oxygen deliverance. At Myrtle Beach Discus, we will actively fast our discus fish approximately 24 hours before shipping so that waste and therefore ammonia build up is at a minimum.
A popular quote known by many aquarists, “look after the water and the fish will look after themselves”, is one that especially holds true for discus fish. Water quality is the key to keeping your discus fish alive and healthy. The Amazon contains very few minerals, so when discus fish are kept in aquariums at home, it is important to keep this in mind, as most people’s tap water will contain excess amount of minerals. With this in mind, discus fish are much better off in aquariums with soft water. Typically, a reverse osmosis filter is used to remove excess minerals from tap water, but finding the right combination of tap water and reverse osmosis water is key. Water temperature should sit at approximately 86 degrees Fahrenheit with a pH level between 6.5 and 7. This seems odd because in the wild, temperatures fluctuate between 78-84 degrees Fahrenheit with a pH between 4.2 and 6.
Now that you know the basics, the aquarium can finally be set up, a process that should be approached with much patience. Before adding any fish to the tank, ensure that all of the tank’s components (filter, lighting, heater, etc.) are working properly. Within 6 to 8 weeks of the tank functioning properly, with little to no fluctuation in temperature or other parameters, fish that are suitable to kept with discus fish can be introduced into the tank. Typically, neon or cardinal tetras are introduced first, as they are much hardier than the discus fish, and can withstand any imperfections that still need to be worked out. If these fish are able to remain healthy for another 6 to 8-week period, and if all of the parameters are holding steady, you can finally add your discus fish to the tank. What many keepers choose to do is add relatively smaller discus fish in a group of at least 6 to the tank in order to acclimate the bacteria on the filter to the new workload.
In general, it is important to provide a sufficient amount of cover such as plants and root wood to make the discus fish feel more at home. Once the discus are settled into their home, and the tank becomes mature, water changes need to be implemented. At the bare minimum, water changes of at least 25% should be done at least twice a week. Keep in mind this is a bare minimum, and that you should not skimp on water changes. Here at Myrtle Beach Discus, we do two 100% water changes each day in order to maintain the highest quality of living for our discus fish until they are bought and shipped to their forever home in a different aquarium.
A recurring theme for discus keeping seems to be quality over everything, meaning that you should be ready to spend as much money as possible in selecting the best equipment for maintaining your tank. Cutting corners and taking the “cheap route”, are things that just can’t be done when it comes to discus keeping, so it is important that one understand the level of time, money, and commitment it takes in keeping these colorful fish well and healthy.