Firemouth Cichlid Care Guide

Can Firemouth Cichlids Be Kept With Smaller Cichlids?

Firemouth Cichlid Care Guide7 mins read

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Tal Halperin
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Firemouth Cichlid Care Guide
Image from Flickr

The Firemouth Cichlid is a brightly colored species from Central America, however, make no mistake, this is not a fish species for beginners.

In general, Cichlids are not that easy to care for. Whilst some species could be considered beginner-friendly, the Firemouth has a high need for activity and stimulation. However, these same qualities make them interactive species that can form a bond with their owners, so read on for a guide on keeping this spectacular fish.

Breed Overview

OriginYucatan peninsula, central America
LifespanUp to 15 years if well cared for
Size6 inches or 12.7 cm
ColorsRed, blue;  grey, and brown stripes
Water TypeFreshwater
Tank SizeMinimum 55 gallons (250 liters)
Temperamentlively, can be aggressive
Water Temperature75  – 82 F / 24 – 28 C
Water pH6.5 – 7.5


The Firemouth Cichlid has a pronounced dorsal fin along its back, an angular profile, and a greyish body that is striped with a darker brownish black. Most striking are the red patches on the underside of its mouth near its gills.

These dark stripes are predominantly caused by melanin. However, with the Firemouth Cichlid, the other colors become more vivid if you feed your fish a diet high in carotenoids.

Author’s Note: It’s not always easy to tell male and female Firemouth Cichlids apart until you see them mating! However, this species does exhibit a level of sexual dimorphism. Generally, the females have slightly less vivid colors than the males.

How Does The Firemouth Cichlid Get Its Name?

You’d be correct in thinking that the Firemouth Cichlid gets its name from this feature. However, this species also has a distinctive habit. When other fish threaten it, it flares its cheeks. This makes the bright red patches stand out strikingly and quickly scare off any attacker or rival fish.

Firemouth Cichlid Size

In general, firemouth cichlid size can be misleading. Their dramatic colors may lead you to think they are much larger than in reality. And, combined with their impressive fins, they can be the star of any tank. However, these are actually medium-sized cichlids with relatively bold behavior.

How Big Is A Full Grown Firemouth Cichlid?

A full-grown firemouth cichlid is 6 inches or 12.7 cm. This may not sound like much but with their large fins and their temperament, many fish don’t mess with them. Indeed, they can easily prey on smaller fish as well as cohabit successfully with larger cichlids.

While these fish may look small and appear shy when you first get them, bear in mind they will not only grow but become much bolder.

Tank Setup And Maintenance

Tank Setup And Maintenance of Firemouth Cichlid
If you plan on keeping just one fish, a tank of a minimum of 55 gallons (250 liters) is recommended. Image from Flickr

Setting up a Cichlid tank is important to do correctly, as like with any species, they will get aggressive if their needs aren’t met correctly.

Filtration, Heating, And Mechanics

Firemouth Cichlids need quite a lot of territory. Likewise, some of the best firemouth cichlid tank mates  are on the larger side as well. Thus, you may need a similarly large tank for them:

  • If you plan on keeping just one fish, a tank of a minimum of 55 gallons (250 liters) is recommended. However, these fish always do better with tankmates so you may find your tank reaching over 125 gallons (568 Liters) or more.
  • Using a strong filter is very important. Cichlids are large fish and as a result, they produce a lot of waste. This can quickly build up as ammonia and nitrates to a much greater extent than with smaller species. As a result, the poor water quality can make your fish more aggressive. Prevent this by using a canister filter, which is generally more vigorous than a HOB or sponge filter. Choose one that is capable of filtering 4x the tank capacity per hour. These fish need lots of filtration, but the rivers they live in are relatively slow-moving.

Author’s Note: Cichlids are tropical fish. As a result, you can’t keep them without a heater, no matter how many people sometimes keep tanks without filters or heaters for smaller fish. This can sometimes just about work but the larger a tank is, the longer it will take the water to heat up. So, with a Cichlid tank, it’s simply not an option.


As a rule of thumb, you can grow any common fast-growing plants that you would put in any other tropical tank, in a Cichlid tank. It’s important to create environments for fish that mimic what they would experience in the wild. Driftwood and other rocks and ornaments can also be a good idea for your Firemouth Cichlid or any tankmates.

Good plants include:

  • Cabomba
  • Amazon frogbit
  • Brazilian pennywort
  • Java moss
  • Java fern
  • Amazon sword
  • Marimo moss balls
  • Water wisteria
  • Guppy grass (and other plants that can grow on rocks)

Firemouth Cichlid Tank Mates

As this fish can get aggressive towards smaller tankmates and fish that don’t respect or need territories, it is best to only keep them with similar-sized Cichlids that have a similar temperament. A sample of great firemouth cichlid tank mates might include:

  • Blood Parrot Cichlids
  • Jack Dempsey Cichlids
  • Oscar Fish
  • Red Devil Cichlids
  • Convict Cichlids
  • Clown Loach
  • Salvini Cichlids
  • Severum Fish
  • Blue Acaras

However, if you want more unusual tankmates many species of algae eater, especially in the Pleco family such as the Royal Pleco, are large enough that they won’t fall prey to your Firemouth. They also occupy a completely different area of the tank. As a result, there is very little competition between them and your Cichlids. They don’t even eat the same food!


Feeding for Firemouth Cichlid
Although Cichlid foods are balanced, even amongst Cichlids there is a varying need for protein, and Firemouths and other large Cichlids need it more than smaller ones might. Image from Flickr

Feeding a Firemouth Cichlid isn’t too much different from any other large Cichlid, and it’s always possible to use commercial Cichlid food as the base of their diet. However, like any fish, they always do better when their diet is enriched.

What To Feed Your Firemouth Cichlid?

As stated above, it’s important you use good quality Cichlid food as the base of your Firemouth Cichlid’s diet.

However, feeding only pellet food can cause constipation and alternatively may give fish nutritional imbalances. In the wild, these guys are used to fresh, live prey including fish and crustaceans. The Firemouth Cichlid has a definite carnivorous tendency. This is why if you keep them with snails or shrimps you may find that they end up munching on their companions, so this is never recommended.

As crustaceans comprise the biggest part of your fish’s diet in the wild you can offer the following alternatives:

  • Brine shrimps
  • Daphnia
  • bloodworms
  • Tubifex worms
  • Glass worms

You can buy these from all good aquarium stores and purchase them fresh or frozen. Never try and collect them from the wild or you will find that your fish can easily succumb to parasites and diseases.

Do Firemouth Cichlids Need Protein?

Absolutely, without protein your fish is likely to be more aggressive, less able to fend off diseases, and generally won’t thrive like it could otherwise.

Although Cichlid foods are balanced, even amongst Cichlids there is a varying need for protein. Firemouths and other large Cichlids need it more than smaller ones might.

A good source of additional protein is earthworms. You can buy these from pet stores as they are food for a variety of other animals, and you can chop them up and drop a piece at a time into the tank. However, only do this once or twice a week!

Behavior And Temperament

Behavior and temperament of Firemouth Cichlid
You may also see your fish hiding in rocky crevasses or between plants. Image from Flickr

The Firemouth Cichlid is social and will end up recognizing you, especially if you feed yours on a regular schedule.

Apart from that, their sensitive and reactive behavior is quite important to understand. These fish may feel the need to defend for the following reasons:

  • Other fish in their territory
  • Feeling like they don’t have enough places to hide within the tank
  • Competition over food
  • Guarding eggs or fry

The rest of the article has specific details on how to minimize this in the relevant circumstances, such as when your fish are breeding. However, remember that although these fish can defend themselves, these are only medium-sized Cichlids.

Author’s Note: You may also see your fish hiding in rocky crevasses or between plants. Compared to smaller fish, they take a while to emerge. Furthermore, the presence of tankmates can make them shyer.

What Triggers The Flare Response In The Firemouth Cichlid?

As well as simply the color, the Firemouth Cichlid gets its name from the flare response when it puffs out its cheeks when threatened. The trigger for this is generally competition or a threat such as another larger fish, or a larger Firemouth Cichlid competing for a mate.

A carotenoid-rich diet can improve the coloration of this part of your fish’s body. In scientific studies, this helped male fish win more of these contests, possibly indicating a connection to their perceived dominance. However, it’s best not to allow your fish to threaten each other.

Pests And Diseases

Pests and diseases of Firemouth Cichlid
Hole in Head can be common in Cichlids and in larger freshwater tropical fish and is caused by a parasite called hexamita. Healthy Cichlids should have smooth scales with no indentations, like the one pictured. Image from Flickr

Firemouth Cichlids are prone to all of the same common diseases that affect any freshwater tropical fish. Here are some of the most common:

1. Ich

Ich is a parasite that causes little white spots to form on your fish’s body. Unfortunately, it can be relatively common and once one fish has caught it, it may infect many others.

If you are worried your fish is losing color in general, these cichlids change color for many of the same reasons as other fish such as angelfish, so take a look at this article on ‘why is my angelfish losing color (turning black or white)?’

2. Hole In Head

Hole in Head can be common in Cichlids and in larger freshwater tropical fish. This disease comes from a parasite called hexamita. True to its name, it leaves unpleasant-looking holes in your fish’s skin, so it’s best to treat it sooner rather than later. Use a saltwater bath like you would with any other parasite. Always be sure to quarantine your fish from tankmates first before treatment.

3. Infections

Bacterial infections such as fin rot can happen if you keep your fish in substandard conditions. They generally come from dirty water and in their most common form, fin rot, they manifest as ragged-looking patches on your fish’s beautiful fins.

Treat with over-the-counter antibacterial medication but remember to always quarantine your fish first.


What’s great about breeding Firemouth Cichlids is that they can be really hands-on parents! You may have heard some conflicting information about them eating their eggs or young. However, this only arises in poor and overcrowded tank conditions when the parents feel the young may not survive. Read on to find out more about the mating process and how to ensure the best conditions.

  • How To Breed Firemouth Cichlids

A full grown firemouth cichlid will mate readily when around six inches in size. However, because these species stick with their eggs and can also compete for mates, it’s best to keep them in a separate breeding tank. Fortunately, they breed pretty easily. You don’t have to do anything special to get them to mate.

  • Laying Eggs

Firemouth Cichlids will lay eggs in stages. They will fertilize them successively in the following process – the female will lay her eggs in a secluded spot such as on a flat slab of rock, underneath some plants, or near some driftwood or a small cave.

The male will swim over them while he sprays his milt, which can happen up to four times. Firemouth Cichlids are attentive and will guard the eggs until the fry hatch, at which point the most impressive part happens.

  • Caring For The Fry

Once the fry have hatched, the parent fish carry them gently to a nest that they dig in the sand. Here, they guard the fry until they have absorbed all the yolk from their egg sacs. Fish do this for several reasons but the primary one is that this ensures that the fish fry are strong enough and healthy enough to survive on their own before their parents leave them.

Are Firemouth Cichlids Aggressive When Breeding?

Firemouth Cichlids are not necessarily aggressive, as this is the wrong word to describe defensive behavior. Nonetheless, they can attack intruders. However, this is because they want to guard and protect their eggs and fry.

As a result, when you breed them, it’s best to use a separate breeding tank unless your tank is very large. Alternatively, if you aren’t able to use a separate tank for whatever reason, you can use a tank divider.

Final Thoughts

Do Firemouth Cichlids Eat Smaller Fish?
The Firemouth Cichlid is a great Cichlid to have in a mixed larger Cichlid tank providing you know how to care for it. Image from Flickr

The Firemouth Cichlid is a great Cichlid to have in a mixed larger Cichlid tank providing you know how to care for it. Although you can’t keep them with smaller South and Central American species, they are very social with their owners. In fact, you will even find that you form a bond with them as they recognize you and when it is time to be fed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Firemouth Cichlid Males Fight Each Other?
You might be forgiven for thinking that Firemouth Cichlids are similar to betta fish, due to their gill flaring mechanism. However, the males of these species are not explicitly aggressive to each other in the same way betta fish males are - in that the fighting is not an explicit art of the fish’s behavior.
Can Firemouth Cichlids Be Kept With Smaller Cichlids?
Firemouth Cichlids can be kept with some smaller Cichlids depending on the Cichlids in question. However, they can not be kept with all smaller Cichlids. The factors that influence whether a species is a good Firemouth tankmate are how easily it can withstand aggression and defend territory in the tank. Therefore peaceful Cichlid species like Blue Ram Cichlids, other Rams, Apistogramma Cichlids, Discus, Angelfish, and some other smaller Cichlids do not make good matches.
Do Firemouth Cichlids Eat Smaller Fish?
Firemouth Cichlids can indeed eat smaller fish, as they are predators and small fish make up a proportion of their diet in the wild. This is the kind of behavior that often gets them labeled as aggressive, however, when you understand that some species simply do and don’t mix you will quickly be able to set up a peaceful Cichlid tank, avoiding small dither fish that may become prey.
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Sydney Perry

Sydney Perry has loved fish since she was a child and has enjoyed keeping many varieties over the years, ranging from black moors and shubunkins to betta fish. As a lover of nature and of Japanese culture, her dream tank is an Iwagumi aquascape, combining fish with carefully crafted aquatic landscapes in miniature.