Red Zebra Cichlid Care Guide

Red Zebra Cichlid

Red Zebra Cichlid Care Guide7 mins read

Fact checked by
Tal Halperin
Reading Time: 9 minutes
Red zebra cichlid care guide
Image From Flickr

The red zebra cichlid is a common and popular Malawi cichlid that you may already have seen in aquaria without knowing its name. As it’s such a great choice for beginners this guide will answer some common questions, such as whether you should get a red zebra cichlid male or female, how to set up a tank for a full grown red zebra cichlid, and what to feed these remarkable fish.

Furthermore, you will learn about common pests and diseases of these fish, how to keep them entertained and enrich their environment, and much more, so read on for a closer look.

Breed Overview

OriginLake Malawi, South East Africa
Lifespan8-12 years depending on care
Size4-5 inches
Water TypeAlkaline Freshwater
Tank Size60 Gallons
TemperamentTerritorial but generally peaceful
Water Temperature72 – 84 F
Water pH7.5-8.5


The red zebra cichlid is generally one of the smaller mbuna cichlids. Their size ranges from 4 to 7 inches depending on sex and age. If you’ve seen other mbuna cichlids, that will give you a rough idea of the body shape and size of this fish. However, they aren’t always labeled with their name in pet stores due to an intriguing quirk of their appearance.

These fish can be flecked with blue scales, giving them a slightly dappled appearance. They also don’t always have stripes, which are very dependent on the individual fish. As a result, not all the qualities that have given them their name are always present all the time.

Apart from this, they have a roughly triangular dorsal and tail fin with a caudal fin that is a slightly thinner isosceles triangle. Their vivid orange-red coloring makes them a great fish to bring some joy and excitement to your tank.

Author’s Note: Don’t confuse them with the red devil cichlid! These fish might have similar names, but they have very different personalities and needs!

Red Zebra Cichlid Male Or Female?

Want to know whether you should get a red zebra cichlid male or female? And whether it’s even possible to tell the two apart?

One thing lets you tell whether you have a red zebra cichlid male or female very easily. This is color, the male is usually an orange color with greenish-blue blotches or stripes. Meanwhile, the female is a brilliant blue.

Both males and females have egg spots on their bodies. These are pearly blue spots that are designed to ward off. The female with have anything from 0-3 whilst the male will have anything from 4 up to 7!

For cichlids in general, bright colors are very important for mate selection. So these not only give your aquarium a lovely look, you will see them influence your fish’s behavior too.

Tank Setup And Maintenance

Tank Setup and Maintenance for Red Zebra Cichlids
Tank should be a minimum of 55 gallons with 60 being ideal.

Setting up a Malawi cichlid tank is no easy matter! The red zebra cichlid is indeed a Malawi cichlid, and a full grown red zebra cichlid will need an environment that it can grow into that will meet all its needs even when it’s full size. Therefore, your tank should be a minimum of 55 gallons with 60 being ideal.

Lake Malawi is a very unique environment and its rocks and minerals give it a high concentration of alkaline salts in the water. You can keep these fish just with freshwater, but it’s better to go an extra step.

Many aquarium stores sell alkaline salts specifically for Lake Malawi cichlids. You can buy these and add them to the tank, or you can order them online. Bear in mind if you do, you have committed to a Malawi cichlid tank and the environment won’t be that ideal for fish that can’t tolerate alkalinity.

Substrate And Plants:

Planting a tank can be fun, but even a full grown red zebra cichlid won’t need that many plants. In the wild, the habitats they live in are generally rocky with very large amounts of pebbles and other rock formations. They will therefore prefer a nice open space to swim in, without too much vegetation. If you do want to keep plants in your tank, you can confine them to the outskirts or edges and leave the middle bare.

Author’s Note: Lava soil can help raise the pH of your tank. In addition, you can still create an interesting landscape by using flat, smooth pebbles to create a naturalistic interior.

Tankmates And Companions:

Because of their similar water requirements, the red zebra cichlid gets on well with other cichlids that hail from lake Malawi. However, don’t throw them in with just any fish. You will also have to take their size and temperament into account.

For the red zebra cichlid by itself you will need a group of one male and three or four females. This is to give them companionship but prevent territorial disputes between males! Therefore, you need a tank that is a minimum of 55 gallons (250 liters) or ideally 60-70 gallons (272 to 318 liters). Then you can add the quantities required for any tankmates.

Some malawi cichlids can get quite large and aggressive and they may prey upon or even hurt the smaller red zebra cichlid. Therefore, stick to malawi cichlids that are the same size with a similar temperament, such as the bumblebee cichlid.


Feeding Red Zebra Cichlids
They will spend their time swimming along rock walls scavenging for algae on the surface of the rocks there. Image from Flickr

Like other malawi cichlids, the red zebra cichlid is an omnivore. However, it’s advisable not to feed them too much protein in one go as the bulk of their diet is actually formed by algae in the wild. They will spend their time swimming along rock walls scavenging for algae on the surface of the rocks there. This is a feature you can set up with an aquascape, if you know how to do this.

However, the basis of your fish’s diet should be a good quality algae based Malawi cichlid pellet food that you purchase from a fish store or other pet shop. You can then enrich your fish’s diet with algae wafers and little bits of protein such as daphnia, bloodworms, tubifex worms, and other free swimming invertebrates, but not too much.

Author’s Note: the bright coloration of these fish is one thing that makes them very popular. Did you know that you can actually enhance this with diet? By feeding foods rich in spirulina, you can help your red zebra cichlid maintain its splendid colors.

Behavior And Temperament

The red zebra cichlid is territorial, but it is never aggressive. What does this look like in your tank? If you have created a rock wall for your fish, they will often hang around here and may even see it as their territory or preferred hunting or foraging ground for algae on the rocks and small invertebrates that swim nearby. You can prevent aggression simply by ensuring your tank is large enough.

Apart from that, these are active and curious fish that love to explore. They are fast swimming and often have bursts of energy. As a result, they need a lot of open space, so set your tank up accordingly.

Pests And Diseases

Pests and Diseases Affecting Red Zebra Cichlids
Malawi bloat is a serious disease that occurs in cichlids from lake Malawi. Image from Flickr

These fish are susceptible to many of the common freshwater fish diseases such as fin rot and swim bladder disease. However, you’ll be pleased to know the odds of them contracting these are much less due to the alkaline nature of their tank water. If you have used specialist alkaline salts for Malawi cichlids, this has the beneficial side effect of creating an environment where it is difficult for bacteria to breed.

However, there are two diseases that cichlids in particular can fall prey to, so read on to find out what you can do about them.

Malawi Bloat

Malawi bloat is a serious disease that occurs in cichlids from lake Malawi. Even professional aquarists are still unsure what causes it. Generally, it starts with your fish losing appetite. However, you may not realize that your fish is sick, as loss of appetite can mean many things. Here are the specific symptoms of this disease to look out for:

  • Sucking in food and spitting it out
  • Swollen, bloated abdomen,
  • Scales sticking out
  • Discolored, white faeces
  • Reddening around the anal vent
  • Ulcerations on the skin.

As soon as you see these, take note! However, fish lethargy in general is an early indicator of disease. Therefore before your fish reach the stage above, you should already:

  • Change about 50% of the tank water as opposed to the usual 1/3rd, and replace it with fresh.
  • If the problem persists, check your water parameters such as nitrite, nitrate, pH, and ammonia levels.

If your fish is still sick, you want to prevent your other fish from getting sick too. Therefore you should remove it to a separate quarantine tank where you can do daily water changes until it hopefully recovers.


Hexamita, or hole in head disease, is caused by a parasite called oodinium. It causes a network of small hole and pitted areas to appear in your fish’s flesh, especially around its head. This is as unpleasant for the fish as it looks for the owner, and indeed, it can be very painful. It’s best to treat this disease with a saltwater bath as is best for many other parasitic infections.

To do this, you’ll have to set up a quarantine tank first. This is so the treatment you use doesn’t upset the delicate balance of alkaline salts in your main tank.


Red Zebra Cichlid Breeding
Red zebra cichlids are great parents, and fascinating to watch while breeding. Image from Flickr

Red zebra cichlids are great parents, and fascinating to watch while breeding. Read on for more info on this process in captivity.

How Do Red Zebra Cichlids Mate?

The maternal mouthbrooding process of these fish makes their mating process slightly different. The courtship ritual is similar to many other varieties, however, afterwards the process is subtly different.

  1. Firstly the male and female will court, showing behavior such as chasing that indicate they are interested in each other.
  2. Next, the female, once she is interested and in the mood to mate, will drop her eggs. However, the male won’t fertilise them just yet.
  3. The female will now pick the eggs up in her mouth and the male will spray his milt into it. This ensures that all the milt reaches the eggs and one is lost as it would be if she picked them up after.

Red Zebra Cichlid Mouthbrooding Behavior

What happens next is generally similar to other mouthbrooding cichlids. The only difference is the red zebra cichlid is a maternal mouthbrooder. Therefore, it is the female who carries the eggs, as opposed to the male, as in some other species.

  1. The female carries the eggs in her mouth for two to three weeks. This allows her to keep them safe from predators. During this period, she must be very careful, and even manages to eat food without swallowing the fry or eggs.
  2. Next, the eggs will hatch into fry. Depending on how safe the female feels and the tank conditions, the fry then remain in her mouth for a remarkably long period. This can be as long as two weeks more while they absorb their egg sacs. During this time, they get all the nutrition they need from the egg sacs. You won’t need to feed them on any specialist fry food until the female finally spits them out.
  3. Lastly, the female spits out the fry. They should be able to start swimming immediately. They will now eat infusoria – a mixture of microscopic invertebrates that form the basis of fish fry diets in the wild. You can buy commercial versions from all good aquatics and pet stores.

How To Look After The Fry

At this stage of the red zebra cichlid breeding cycle, you must take the following steps to ensure the fry and adult fish remain healthy and safe:

  1. Clean the tank regularly and feed a high-protein diet. The mating and breeding process can deplete the energy of your fish. However, you are generally able to mitigate this by ensuring you feed a high protein diet such as daphnia, bloodworms, and so on. This gives your fish all the nutrients they need for a successful breeding cycle.
  2. At this stage, you have a choice whether to keep the adults in the tank, or whether to remove them. The red zebra mbuna does not eat its young, unlike some species. Instead, it is a very good parent. The female will guard the free swimming fry from danger. However, in captivity, it’s best to be safe than sorry. Therefore, a happy medium is to remove the male and leave the female to guard her fry for one week or so more. Then you can remove them to a separate tank. Alternatively, you can just remove both parents immediately.

Final Thoughts

Red zebra cichlids are a common species that you may have already seen as we say in the introduction. They are popular for a reason, and it’s easy enough to set up a tank for them.

This handy guide should have taught you all that you need to get started. However, they are fascinating fish and you will undoubtedly learn more about them as the years go by.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can red zebra cichlids live with other mbuna cichlids?
Absolutely! Red zebra cichlids make great tankmates for Bumblebee cichlids and other lake malawi cichlids. And as mbuna cichlids, a word which means ‘rockfish’ in local languages, they will appreciate a rocky wall and other mbuna tankmates with a similar temperament to hang out with.
Do red zebra cichlids eat their young?
No! Not only do these fish NOT eat their young, they are actually fantastic parents. However, the female carries both the eggs and the fry in her mouth for a maximum of one month to protect them. Even after she has spat out the fry, she will guard them and keep an eye on them to keep them safe from predators.
Are red zebra cichlids aggressive?
Red zebra cichlids are generally not aggressive, but they are territorial. As a result, you can easily prevent aggression simply by having a big enough tank for them. It’s also important to note the difference between a territorial fish and an aggressive one. A territorial fish will generally act defensively in response to intruders on its territory. However, an aggressive fish will establish a hierarchy and chase after other fish without provocation.
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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.