Neon Tetra Care 101: Size, Tank Mates, Diet & More!

While scouring through pet stores and reading through different aquarium guides, you’ve probably already encountered this bite-sized marvel. The Neon tetra is arguably the most popular tetras around, and for good reason. They’re eye-catching, peaceful, and you won’t break your back trying to keep them happy. 

The table below gives a quick overview of the Neon Tetra profile:

Profile attributeValue
Care DifficultyEasy
LifespanUp to 10 years (2-3 years average)
DietOmnivorous 
Color(s)Blue and Red iridescent streaks
TemperamentPeaceful
Maximum Size2.5 inches
Minimum Tank Size10 gallons 
Tank SetupFreshwater/Heavily planted
FamilyCharacidae
CompatibilityPeaceful community tank

Below is our Neon Tetra care guide, continue reading to find out more about its appearance, tank size, breeding and more.

Neon Tetra Overview

The Neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) belongs to the freshwater fish family Characidae. Neon tetras are some of the nicer species in this family, bearing a nice, calm temperament. They’re native to the blackwater and clearwater streams of the Amazon basin, where they’re ‘neon-like’ bright coloring enables them to still be visible. Also due to this glowing coloration, Neon tetras are popularly displayed as showpieces. Speaking of popularity, Neon tetras are quite possibly the most popular tetra around. These tiny fishes are so in demand in fact, that in the US alone, around 2 million Neon Tetras are sold per month. Most of  which are imported from Southeast Asia, where they are raised for commercial purposes.

Neon tetras aren’t merely beautiful however, they’re also surprisingly easy to care for. They’re unfussy, and not picky with their food choices either. You have dozens of tank mates to choose from as well, since they’re calm and peaceful creatures. So, it’s no wonder at all why they’re such lovable fishes, popular with hobbyists of various experiences.

Appearance

As you can probably tell from their namesake, Neon tetras are famous for their unique glow-in-the-dark look. Neon tetras possess a unique iridescent turquoise blue streak starting from its nose all the way to its adipose fin. Where the turquoise line stops, its burning red streak begins. This fiery red line starts at the middle of Neon tetras bodies and runs up to its caudal fin. Apart from these colors and its shiny silver abdomen, Neon tetras are almost translucent.

These small guys are actually sexually dimorphic, though the differences are very subtle. In fact, you probably won’t even notice unless you really focus on the dissimilarities. Neon females are said to be bigger and have more rounded bellies than their male counterparts. People have also noted that the streaks in females are more wavy (probably due to their round tummies). 

For both sexes of Neons however, these normally vibrant colors become gray or black when they are asleep or resting. Without a doubt, Neons are unmistakable in anyone’s tank.

Tip: While very unique, Neon tetras have an almost doppelganger-esque look alike. Many people confuse the Neon tetra with the Cardinal tetra at a glance. To avoid confusing the two, take a closer look at their red lines. The red streaks of Neons start only from the middle of their bodies up to their caudal fins. This is different from the cardinal tetras, where their red lines extend throughout their entire length.

Lifespan

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that these tiny beauties have reasonably long life expectancies, Even in captivity. Indeed, with the proper care, optimal water conditions and diet, your Neon tetras can live long and happy lives. With all factors considered, their average lifespan goes from around five to eight years. 

Average Size

Neon tetras are some of the cutest fishes around, partly because of their size. These tetras have a very manageable average size of 1.5 inches. In some cases though, some owners report their Neons growing up to around 2.5 inches. 

Neon Tetra Care Advice

There’s a reason why millions of Neon tetras are sold per month in the United States alone. Sure, they’re beautiful, but more than that-these guys are great beginner fish. They’re omnivorous and unfussy with their food, and you won’t need a humongous tank in your homes to keep them!

We mainly categorize these fish as low-maintenance, but they can be a tad sensitive to suboptimal water conditions. In fact, that’s probably the main thing you should watch out for when owning Neon tetras. 

Water Parameters

Neon tetras are originally from the warm waters of the Amazon and bred commercially in Southeast Asia. And so naturally, these freshwater fishes are used to a more tropical climate. The water where Neons thrive is also known to be soft, and slightly acidic in nature. Such habitats include a blackwater environment, where there is an abundance of trees, leaf litter, bark, and etc. The tannins in trees and plant matter cause the water to become ‘black’, and more acidic than normal. 

Whether you decide on a blackwater tank or not, the important thing is to emulate natural water conditions in your tank. Having optimal water parameters is the one thing Neon tetras are fussy with, so you need to put in a little bit of an effort.  

Water Parameters:

  • Temperature: 72-80°F or 22-26°C
  • pH level: 5.0-8.0
  • Water hardness: 1-2 dH, 3-25 dGH (prefer soft water)
  • Water current: mild/gentle

Since Neons are extremely sensitive to water changes, extra measures must be done. Before you place your tetras in their new homes, the water must be cycled properly. Acclimate them slowly before fully transferring them, otherwise, your poor tetras can get pretty shocked.

Tip: Cover your filtration systems with foam media or mesh to prevent these tiny guys from suffering a gruesome fate.

Tank Size

Neon tetras are shoaling fish. As such, they would be happiest when in big, safe groups. A school of around 8 Neon tetras can fit in a 10 gallon tank, minimum. However, if you want your Neons  to be even happier, a group of around 15 Neon tetras is advisable. Consider around a gallon for every inch of fish length, with some allowance for your ornaments. 

Inside Tank Setup

These guys are partial to blackwater environments, full of tannins and various leaf litter. Their natural habitats are filled to the brim with vegetation, keeping away most of the light. In fact, this is how they’ve become the fish they are today. To adapt to their dark habitats, Neon tetras have developed their glow-in-the-dark coloration. This is so that they can still be seen by each other in the waters. 

Many owners also prefer a blackwater biotope because it further emphasizes Neons’ glowing beauty. The dark backdrop serves to further contrast their bright blue and red streaks, making them stand out more. As icing on the cake, Neon tetras also become more active and less reserved in blackwater tanks. 

To get started, be generous with your plants. These plants must be alive, and not plastic. This is essential because water is stained from the natural decaying of organic matter. Go for plants that can tolerate minimal lighting, such as Java moss, fern, and Anubias. Add some driftwood, and leaf litter as your organic matter as well. Popular choices are Malaysian or Mopani driftwood, Indian Almond leaves, and some tangled roots. 

For their substrate, you can opt for a dark river substrate, to add more contrast against your tetras. This is only a suggestion however, as long as the substrate is pH neutral or rich in organics. Some other options can be freshwater sand or gravel substrates. Naturally,  a blackwater tank also involves very little lighting. Get a low-watt fluorescent light to accommodate your needs. 

In terms of filtration, Neon tetras (thankfully) produce very little waste, so you won’t be doing much poop duty. Set up a simple sponge filter, and perform 25% water changes a week. Don’t overdo your cleaning, as frequent cleanups won’t be good for Neon tetras. 

Potential Diseases

Sadly, Neon tetras can get saddled with an illness called the Neon tetra disease. Also known as NTD, or pleistophora disease, this is one of the worst things that can afflict your tetras as it is incurable. 

However, this is not only for Neon tetras, and can in fact, be fatal to other fish species. NTD can cause loss of color or vibrancy, erratic swimming patterns, cysts, and abdominal shrinkage (hollowing stomach). It’s usually caused by fish cannibalism, wherein a fish eats another infected, dead fish. This is a bit like zombie-fication in fact. Unfortunately, NTD is a death sentence to your beloved pets. For this disease, prevention is the best, and only option. 

Fortunately, many times owners will encounter the above mentioned symptoms and think it’s NTD, but it’s not. Instead it’s the false Neon tetra disease, or more commonly known as columnaris. Unlike NTD, Columnaris is treatable with antibiotic medication, as long as you start treatment post-haste. To prevent your beloved Neons from getting true Neon tetra disease or NTD, keep their waters optimal. Maintain a slightly warm, tropical temperature, inspect fish now and then, and perform your water changes! 

Other diseases that might plague your little beauties are the more common White spot disease, and Fin rot. Both are fortunately curable, and more importantly, preventable. 

Diet & Food

Out in the wild, Neon tetras typically eat anything from small insects, worms, to crustaceans and plants. They’re indiscriminate omnivores, so they’ll eat both plant matter and more proteinaceous food. 

In captivity, however, many owners rejoice in the fact that these guys are very unfussy. They’ll eat whatever you give them, which are mostly high-quality flakes, because of their convenience. While they do well with flakes, we still recommend a varied diet for better health, color, and overall state of your fishes. Feed them high quality tropical flakes but change it up once or twice a week. Give them a couple of meaty treats like live or frozen worms to keep them happy. 

Neon Tetra Preferred food includes:

  • Tropical flakes
  • Micropellets
  • Frozen baby brine shrimp round twice a week to add variation
  • daphnia
  • Bloodworms (cut up into small pieces)
  • Tubifex worms (cut up into small pieces)

Neon Tetra Tank Mates

We’ve already mentioned how Neon tetras are even-tempered and peaceful, so it’s not a surprise that they’re great community fish. You can keep Neon shoals along with a great variety of fish species. They’re very tiny however, so large-mouthed fishes are obviously a no-go. Angelfish and most Cichlids would also be a bad gamble. Think of non-aggressive fishes, ideally bottom dwellers, so that they don’t travel in the same water column. 

Tank Mates Suitable with Neon Tetra:

Tip: There are some rare instances of Neon tetras having fin-nipping tendencies. To be safe rather than sorry, avoid housing them with fishes that have flowy and trailing fins like the betta.

Neon Tetra Breeding Behavior

For interested breeders, you might find that breeding Neon tetras can be a little difficult. First of all, sexing them can be a bit of a challenge for those without a trained eye. Sexually mature males are usually leaner than the more rounded females, and their streaks are straighter. The streaks of female Neons are known to be wavy, but this is probably because of their rotund bellies. This rounded belly is also because of the eggs she’s probably carrying (who’re you calling fat?). This distinction can be challenging however, because tetras who’ve eaten more than they should can also have big stomachs. 

Once you’ve got your potential couples you can place them in a breeder tank. Triggering their mating season is also no easy task. Neon tetras need dim lighting, a strict water hardness of less than 1 dH, acidic pH of about 5.5 and a slight drop in their usual temperature. This temperature is typically in the range of around 75 °F or 24 °C. Tannins in the water are also said to help trigger their mating mood. 

If you have miraculously managed to breed your Neons, congratulations! These guys are egg-scatterers, so female Neons should release her eggs all over your tank. These eggs will be around a hundred or so, which is a relatively small number of eggs. Male Neons will then fertilize these eggs. Once they do, remove both parents immediately! Neon tetras are not good parents, and will in some instances, find their children delicious. 

Soon, the little eggs will hatch and out comes the fry. You don’t have to feed them instantly when they do. Neon fry can survive eating their egg sack for a couple of days (2-3). When their food supply runs low, then you can start giving them tiny bits of infusoria, and baby brine shrimp.

Temperament & Behavior 

Neon tetras are not only famed throughout the land because they’re gorgeous, or because they’re unfussy eaters. No, Neon tetras have also attained their level of popularity because of their unproblematic nature. These guys are small and sweet-natured, just on the fringes of being shy. They’re also shoaling fish who love traveling with a group of at least 8. They’re generally peaceful and are usually just swimming happily with their school in the middle water column.

Sometimes however, Neon tetras can be slightly aggressive during breeding. They’re also known to sometimes get into the bad habit of nipping other fishes’ fins. This typically happens when your Neon is alone, or feeling jittery. This behavior can be curbed easily by just putting Neons in big schools. The bigger the school, the better it is for their mental health. 

Summary

Is there a more ideal showpiece/community fish around? Perhaps, but it’s the combination of its merits that make the Neon a mainstay in the fishkeepers’ hall of fame. They’re stunning, unfussy, friendly, and can be both the main display or an entrancing addition to any community tank. 

You only have to mind their sensitivity to water changes, and suboptimal conditions and you’re almost good to go! It doesn’t even matter if you’re a beginner at the hobby, or a fishkeeping virtuoso. The Neon tetra is for everyone.

Note: Please consider the environment before printing this Neon Tetra care sheet.

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