Cleaning fish for the aquarium: which fish clean the aquarium?

Most aquarists know them, many also love them: the typical aquarium cleaner fish, which are advertised in pet shops as a beginner in aquaristics. Mostly we understand cleaner fish as the classic L-catfish, which suck on the aquarium glass and free it from dirt and grime.

In the following aquarium Guide article we will generally talk about whether there is such a thing as aquarium cleaner fish at all (spoiler: not really), which catfish species are particularly suitable for cleaning the aquarium and which other species you can use to get rid of algae in the aquarium. for example – Have fun.

Table of Contents

Are there Aquarium cleaner fish at all?

Most aquarists are certainly familiar with the term cleaner fish for the aquarium. Already at the first consultation in the pet shop the animals are usually introduced and often established as an important component for a clean aquarium. This may make sense even for an inexperienced aquarist, as the catfish literally suck on the aquarium glass and “free” it from algae and other edible microorganisms.

Unfortunately, it is often not mentioned in pet shops that a cleaner fish, a typical representative of the catfish genus, often produces significantly more dirt than it removes. Because if cleaner fish live in the aquarium, there will usually not be enough food in the form of green algae or thread algae in the aquarium, which is why the animals must also be fed with aquarium fish food.

By using additional aquarium fish food, the fish naturally produce additional dirt, as they have to digest and eventually excrete this food. Although it may happen for a short while that the animals actually remove more dirt/algae than they produce, but only as long as there are enough edible organisms in the aquarium. For example, this would be the case in an aquarium heavily infested with algae: initially there would be enough food. After a few weeks/months, however, this surplus will be reduced and the animals must be fed with additional food.

Furthermore, an aquarist must understand that no cleaner fish in this world would eat excrement, dead plant remains or mulm (nor would any shrimp or snail). Only algae, carcasses or skin remains from a moult are eaten by cleanerfish.

cleaning fish

What are the typical cleaner fish

The typical cleaner fish, which are wrongly sold as such in pet shops, are mostly representatives of the catfish. Mostly they are the following species:

These species represent exactly what we have already mentioned above. Although they are all omnivores and quite capable of removing a lot of algae and other dirt, they are only able to do so as long as there are enough nutrients in the aquarium. Otherwise the animals have to be fed with regular aquarium fish food and naturally produce additional dirt.

In addition, some of the species are not suitable for smaller beginner aquariums under any circumstances. Some of them grow to a size of 15-20 or even 30 centimetres and often require aquariums holding more than 240 litres (120 cm edge length). For this very reason they are often not suitable for beginners. Also because of the high age, which the animals can often reach, they should not be used to remove some algae at short notice.

Which dirt do cleaner fish eat at all?

The term cleaner fish may imply that the animals destroy all kinds of dirt and that the animals actually clean the aquarium. Unfortunately this is not the case. The typical cleaner fish mentioned above do not eat mulm, which consists mainly of fish excrement and food remains, nor do they eat dead plant parts.

But these are exactly the substances that are mainly responsible for the pollution in the aquarium. Instead, the cleaner fish actually produce much more of them when used in the aquarium.

The animals usually only eat green algae and other algae species and if things go really badly, then even aquarium plants are nibbled. Certainly not the result what an aquarist expects from a cleaner fish.

What real cleaner fish are there for the aquarium?

If it is really a fish that is supposed to free the aquarium from pollution in the form of algae, then we recommend the following species:

Otocinclus catfish

With a maximum length of four cm, the animals do not grow particularly large, which is why they are also suitable for smaller 60-litre aquariums. On the other hand, they have only low demands on the quality of the water and the water parameters, which only makes them more attractive, especially for aquaristic beginners.

In addition, there is of course the beautiful pattern of the animals: the stripes in the length of the animals, in combination with the striped back make the animals especially attractive. Also the interesting social behaviour makes the aquarist happy.

The animals are kept in the aquarium in small groups of 6-8 animals and eat all kinds of green algae. These often occur in freshly set up aquariums, so it is often advisable to introduce the animals as “first stock” in the aquarium. The animals must be observed several times a day. If not enough algae have formed in the aquarium yet, the animals must be fed additionally with food tablets or vegetables.


Corydoras are also suitable as cleaner fish in the aquarium. Although they do not eat algae, they reliably destroy food remains, skin remains and carcasses on the aquarium floor – this is mostly what you associate with pollution anyway.

Corydoras grow up to 5 centimetres in size and should be kept in aquariums from 100 cm edge length. If the animals are to be kept in a 60 liter aquarium, I recommend Dwarf Corydoras pygmaeus, which remain clearly smaller with a maximum length of 3 cm. The animals are available in different breeding forms and can therefore show different drawings. They adapt themselves thus almost to each aquarium and are all very beautiful to look at.

Corydoras also show a very interesting social behavior: they swim around in small groups of 8-10 animals in the aquarium and dig with their bristles in the aquarium sand, always looking for the next food. The reproduction of the cleaner fish is also possible without problems in the aquarium, which is why even aquarium beginners can celebrate breeding successes.

Net brush algae eater (Crossocheilus reticulatus)

Also net brush algae eaters are very well suited as cleaner fish in the aquarium. However, the animals grow extremely large, up to 15 cm, and therefore cannot be kept in small aquariums: an edge length of at least 150-200 cm should be available to swimmers who love to swim and are as fast as an arrow.

Net brush algae eaters eat, as the name already suggests, love to eat brush algae. Anyone who has ever had to remove brush algae in an aquarium knows how stubborn they can be and can therefore certainly understand what an advantage it can be to be able to use these animals in a large, infested aquarium.

Nevertheless, even these animals cannot be considered as cleaner fish without exception: they only eat algae in the aquarium and do not actively look for food remains or carcasses on the aquarium floor.

Net brush algae eaters show an extremely interesting social behaviour and literally chase each other in the aquarium. They should be kept in groups of at least 5-6 animals.

cleaner fish alternatives: Shrimps for the aquarium

Especially shrimps are extremely suitable as cleaning crew in the aquarium. They take care of all kinds of edible dirt in the aquarium and are therefore the perfect all-rounders. The following species is our recommendation:

Amano shrimp (Caridina multidentata)

Amano shrimps (Caridina multidentata) are extremely well suited as cleaner fish in the aquarium. They destroy almost all representatives of the green algae, but also eat leftover food, carcasses and everything else that accumulates at the bottom. Of course also Amano shrimp do not eat mulm (excrement or dead plant remains). In contrast to some snail species, Amano shrimp protect you from nibbling on plants.

Amano shrimps are not very attractive compared to other dwarf shrimps for the aquarium. While other shrimp may have the pattern of a tiger or leopard, they are almost transparent and do not show any pattern. However, they have an exciting social behaviour and move through the aquarium in groups.

The animals should be kept in aquariums from 80 cm edge length in groups of at least 8-10 animals. In the aquarium the cleaner shrimps then move around in groups and free the aquarium floor from some impurities. The breeding of the animals is possible without any problems, although it can be quite difficult to raise the young animals, especially when socializing other species. They are almost always eaten.

Otherwise, all dwarf shrimp are also suitable as cleaner fish, but are not quite as effective as Amano shrimp. The following species, for example, are very beautiful:

  • Red cherry shrimp (Neocardina davidi “Red”)
  • Orange fire shrimp (Neocaridina davidi “Orange”)
  • Red Rili Shrimp (Neocaridina davidi “Red Rili”)
  • Black sakura shrimp (Neocaridina davidi)
  • Blue dream shrimp (Neocaridina davidi)

cleaner fish alternatives: snails for the aquarium

Snails are also extremely well suited as a cleaning crew in the aquarium. They eat almost everything from algae to food remains and carcasses in the aquarium, but depending on the species they also tend to nibble on plants – especially when there is not enough other food in the aquarium. The following species are our absolute recommendation:

Antler snail (Clithon sp. )

The beautiful antler snails are very well suited as cleaner fish in the aquarium. Thanks to their small size they can be used as an additional species in almost all aquariums and have only low demands on the water. Therefore they are also very suitable for aquaristic beginners.

The antler snail has, as the name suggests, small antlers on the snail shell, which is differently coloured depending on the species. The snail shell can be black-yellow, green or just black and is in any case very beautiful to look at.

The antler snail can be considered almost a tireless workhorse in the aquarium and eats almost all green algae, food remains, carcasses and skin remains. In contrast to other snail species, the Clithon sp. has the advantage that it keeps itself almost completely away from aquarium plants.

Antler snails are kept in groups of 3-5 animals – this is easily enough to keep a 120 liter aquarium clean.

Anthracite limpet (Neritina pulligera)

The anthracite slug is also extremely suitable for destroying contamination in the aquarium. Like the antler snail, it eats almost all types of green algae in the aquarium, but keeps away from the aquarium plants. It also eats food remains, carcasses and almost everything else that accumulates at the bottom of the aquarium.

The beautiful anthracite limpet snail has a dark coloured snail shell. It grows up to 3 cm and can therefore even be kept in nano aquaria. In a 120 litre aquarium the animals should be kept in a group of 3 to 5 animals.

Furthermore, the following snail species are also very well suited as cleaning troop in the aquarium:

  • Boat slug (Neritidae)
  • ramshorn snails (Planorbarius corneus)
  • Bladder snail (Physidae)
  • Malaysian trumpet snails (Tarebia granifera)

Conclusion: cleaner fish for the aquarium

Cleaning fish in the aquarium are a rumour in any case. No fish will actually remove more pollution than it produces. At most, this could be the case in the short term if a tank has a strong algae infestation. Then the animals will find enough food and actually clean the aquarium. If, however, the excess of nutrients is history, the animals, like all other aquarium inhabitants, must be fed regular aquarium food and thus produce excrement which is not eaten by any cleaner fish in the world.

However, if the contamination in the aquarium is actually algae or food remains, carcasses or skin remains, there are some species that reliably remove this contamination.

In any case the socialization of the animals should be coordinated with the rest of the stock in the aquarium. The size of the animals and their behaviour (as well as their effects on other species in the aquarium) should be considered.

If the worst comes to the worst, it may be better to use shrimps or snails instead of cleaner fish in the aquarium. These clean the aquarium at least as reliably from the above-mentioned contamination, but can be used in almost every aquarium independently of the rest of the stock.

Cleaning fish for the aquarium: which fish clean the aquarium?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *