Karen Sabolcik, 1996
Cichlid Room Companion

How adaptable are discus fish?

By , 1996. image

Classification: Captive maintenance, South America.

One often wonders if they must go through great lengths to keep discus fish. For instance, purchasing reverse osmosis units because they feel their pH is too high from the tap water, etc.

Also, they may feel the need to purchase the most expensive testing equipment or filters. Do we really need to go to such an expense just because these fish are expensive in themselves to purchase? I would have to say no.

There are successful keepers and breeders with all kinds of water chemistries and equipment used for monitoring and filtration. Some of these people have never used certain testing equipment to monitor the water. The manner in which the discus fish is kept varies from one hobbyists/breeder to the next. There are no set rules of thumb. But there is one important thing to remember..... adapt the discus to your way of handling them and your water conditions.

We often take for granted the things that exists in nature and often forget that each living thing is adaptable and ever changing to certain extents. It is no different for the discus fish.

Consider the environmental changes that constantly take place in nature no matter how minute they may be. Anything is possible in this lovely world of ours.

How do we get the fish to adapt to us instead of us adapting to them? Well, the first step is to get to know the living range in which the discus can stand. It is a fairly wide range. But I wouldn't put a discus in salt water or rift lake water either. That would be too much to ask for. Discus can stand a wide range of water hardness and pH. The issue here is not what those ranges are, but to learn to adapt the discus to the range you have available for it.

You find out the discus you purchased is from a totally different water quality range then what you have coming from your tap water. So there are things that need to be done so stress doesn't develop when they arrive, and plans need to be made to adapt them properly.

For instance, lets say that the discus were born and raised in a pH of 6.5 and a water hardness of 50 ppms. Your tap water has a pH of 7.8 and a water hardness of 150 ppms. There is a significant difference there. But it is not at all hopeless. The bag acclimation process may require a longer period of time to adapt the discus, but will be well worth it. So instead of adding a cup of your water into the bag they are packed in every 5 minutes, maybe you will do this every 10 minutes and it may last 3 times as long. The wider apart the ranges, the longer it may take for the acclimation process. Suppose your discus are far more sensitive than the other discus that handled the bag acclimation process well. They seem not to adapt this way. So what you may need to do temporarily is lower your pH but you may or may not need to lower the water hardness. You may need to acclimate the discus with almost the same water chemistry in which they came. After they have become accustomed to their new home, each water change you do need not to be modified. For example, if you do small water changes a couple times a week, the discus will be able to adapt very well to this. If however, you one day change almost all the water and do not adjust it, there is less time for them to adapt to this new chemistry, so they may be stressed and jumpy for a while until their systems get use to it. There are discus out there that can abruptly go from one extreme water chemistry to the next without the slightest stress, but we will assume your discus are not like this and take the safe road.

Another thing to help them adapt and overcome their shyness is to not tipi toe around them from day one. They will get use to this and never seem to beg nor be their aggressive selves. Walk around the tank, feed them and do the other chores in the normal way you feel most comfortable. they may protest for a couple of days making you feel you have sensitive discus or are moving too fast for them. give them a bit of time, they will get use to you. Pretty soon, you will have to shoo the discus away from the siphon because they desire your constant attention. This is of coarse if you adapted them to you. When I see discus that freak out when a stranger enters the room or even their owner, I can assume that they have their owner wrapped around their fins and they are the owners of their care giver.

I have when first starting out with discus, unknowingly raised very adaptable discus that were once real skitzed with the previous owners. I didn't realize that my water change schedule and what little knowledge I had of discus actually worked towards my advantage. At the time, I had no idea discus had a reputation of being sensitive, etc. I never had a set schedule of water changes and amounts and never was real careful how I adapted them. I will give you some ideas on what I did and still follow now, though you should take this info with a grain of salt as it may not be right for you. I am only telling you this to give you insight.

One day I would change 50% water and the next 80% and then maybe skip 3 days. the next week, I may of changed 80% water every day and the next week skip it all together. the fish learned to adapt to a wide range of different water parameters to a point I would take a discus and just net it into another tank without testing the water chemistry differences and had no problems. they must of learn to adapt real fast to changes of pH and hardness as each of my tanks were a lot different in chemistry. I did come across some fish that once paired would become picky about what chemistry they would breed in. That is their reproductive instincts that I just couldn't fight with. that is another story though. the point of all this is that the fish learned to adapt to me and my ways of doing things. And to me, even with the minute amounts of knowledge I had of them, were easy to keep.

Another thing I still practice to this day is making them get use to my movements the way I am, not a tipi toe attitude. From the day the discus arrive in my home, they are forced to get use to my schedule, how I move in and out of the tank, etc. I do not bend at all for them. I place them in a bare bottom quarantine tank so they have no place to hide. If they get jumpy because they are not use to me, well, that is something they just have to get over. I do my daily maintenance and within a couple of days, these scared helpless creatures becoming beggars when they see me approach. Simple as that. I then know I have them broken in. By the time two weeks approach and sometimes less, even the wild fish I kept fight over my hand, bite each other and bite me to be pet. I stick my hands right in the tank on day one so they get use to me and also I never feed them without putting my hand in the tank. Hand feeding bribery works real well and also helps the fish to get on a variety of feed.

Any discus is adaptable.. I mean any. I have had wild caught adults loving my water and me and the foods I gave them only after two weeks and acting just as aggressive in my tanks as in nature. They are no different from tank raised ones. I never had a thought in my mind that they needed to be treated different so they never had the upper hand. Hunger strikes can be broken also with the power you can hold over them and a little manipulation on your part. yes, discus can be very stubborn, you just need to learn how to break that.

Discus are raised as precious jewels that are hard to keep and are thought to be the most sensitive fish you could buy. that is all because of their cost. If you continue to think that way, it will show in your interaction with them and you will soon become owned by your discus and will be forever convinced they are impossible to keep happy. Just do this. When you purchase your first discus, wipe out all the negative things you learned about them. adapt them the way you would any other fish you cherish, treat them as tough cookies and let them become dependent on you like a puppy dog. Given time and as long as you don't give in to that thought that discus are impossible to keep, you will be fine and enjoy them for years to come. Just like any fish, good clean healthy water and variety of foods are the stepping stones to success. But if you are convinced they are hard to keep, you may overdo your maintenance and due them harm. I see that all the time. I actually feel there are a lot more fish out there that are far more sensitive then discus ever will be, yet they are not noticed to be as sensitive because when they die, they are pennies to replace. I am a person that has trouble keeping goldfish alive and flourishing! go figure. :)


Sabolcik, Karen. (Aug 30, 1996). "How adaptable are discus fish?". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on May 24, 2024, from: