By Tammy Dore
Even before my husband and I started our aquarist hobby, I had always been fascinated with the puffer fish species. Since we had never seriously considered setting up a saltwater tank due to the initial set up cost and time requirements, I assumed that we wouldn’t be owners of my favorite fish species. So, you can only imagine the joy I experienced when I saw my very first freshwater puffer at The Pet Works in Longview, Washington. This puffer was a Fahaka and extremely large. We were still early into the hobby, and the size of tank required was larger than I thought we had room for, but seeing that puffer got me curious about other puffers that may be able to be kept in a freshwater tank. I have also worked with several customers who, like me, had no idea there were many freshwater puffers available. I love being able to educate our customers on fish they may have not seen, as well as show off pictures of my puffers. We have kept several species of puffers, in over twenty tanks in our home at one time.
Most puffer species cannot be housed with other fish, or even other puffers of the same species. Of course, there are some exceptions to that rule, but in this case not many. One of these exceptions is the Dwarf Puffer/Pea Puffer, but this species isn’t a true freshwater puffer, and they are happier in a brackish water tank. Most puffers are hunters and aggressive by nature, and this isn’t something that can be changed. Puffer fish also require a larger sized tank than their size generally indicates. They are messy eaters, and since they require a high protein diet they also produce waste higher in ammonia. The combination of their uneaten food and the ammonia in their waste can change the water quality quickly. Additional gallons of water in a tank help slow down this change in water chemistry, along with a strict tank maintenance schedule and a double filtration system. Puffers also thrive in a larger tank because it gives them with plenty of room to swim around and explore their surroundings. If they aren’t provided with this, they can easily grow bored. A sign of boredom is swimming at the glass and “pacing” up and down the glass. In addition to plenty of water to swim around in, they also need plants and caves to feel safe. The substrate they require is a smaller gravel or high quality sand as some species, like the Congo puffer, are an ambush predator and burrow in the sand to catch their prey.
I don’t recommend a puffer for a new hobbyist as they require knowledge of water chemistry and absolute dedication to tank maintenance. Freshwater puffers are very sensitive to poor water conditions and they have interesting dietary requirements that can vary from one species to another. When deciding to keep a puffer fish, research is necessary to determine which one fits your lifestyle and the time you have available for care. Some species only require two to three feedings per week, but others need daily feeding. If you like to travel or go out of town on weekends, a puffer that only needs a few feedings per week may be a better fit for you. Puffers need a diet consisting of snails, shrimp with the shells on, and frozen bloodworms. Their diet aids in the prevention of their teeth (known as beaks) from growing too long, causing them to be unable eat. These beaks never stop growing, and the shells of snails or shrimp help keep them at a healthy length.
Freshwater puffer fish can puff out just like the saltwater variety, but this isn’t something that should occur in a home tank. When they puff out, it’s a reaction to stress or to ward off a potential predator. They puff out because sacs in their oesophagus that can pull in water and air to change their shape, not only to appear larger and more threatening, but to become too large for a predator to fit in their mouth. The act of puffing up is very stressful, and isn’t something that should be done for human entertainment. Puffers also have a toxin called tetrodotoxin that is extremely harmful to humans and other fish. Puffers should not be handled; if it’s an absolute necessity, using gloves is necessary.
Puffer fish range in size from one inch to two feet and have an average lifespan of 10 years. They are often curious and can be very entertaining to watch. Each of my puffers has distinct personalities. My Dragon puffer (aka Humpback puffer) is very particular as to who cleans his tank; if my husband attempts to, he freaks out, but he’s very happy if it’s me reaching into his tank. He also readily greets me when I approach the tank. It’s very fun to watch our Congo puffer burrow in his sand, too. Each of them greets me at the glass and I’m still just as fascinated with them as I was when we first decided we were ready to get them. We have kept the following species of puffer fish: Dragon/Humpback, Red Eye, Fahaka, Congo, and the Hairy/Baileys puffer.
There are many freshwater puffers available for hobbyists; some are easier to find for our customers than others, but we can also special order them if there’s a specific puffer someone has been looking for. The most common puffers available are the Dwarf/Pea, Fahaka, Mbu, Figure Eight, Red Eye, Congo, and Twin Spot. We have a few species in the fish area daily, and we would be happy to help you select the perfect puffer fish for you and assist in making sure both you and your puffer fish are happy.
To learn more, visit the Pet Works’ website or visit their store at 407 4th Ave. E., in Olympia!