The 3 Best Decorations For Your Cichlid Tank


It’s time to get creative! Decorating a Cichlid tank is your opportunity to show your personality and style through an original aquascape. I bet you’ve got a ton of ideas already running through your head. But, before you go all crazy on your tank with Cichlid decorations, remember that’s it’s not just about what you want, but what your fish need.

The best Cichlid tank decorations are those that prioritize the comfort and health of your fish.

That being said, the most recommended and popular group of Cichlid tank decorations are:

  1. Cichlid rocks
  2. Cichlid caves
  3. Plants

To make sure we’re all on the safe side, we’ve compiled a list of guidelines below when choosing your Cichlid tank decor. But don’t worry as following them will not restrict you from designing an awesome tank.

Guidelines For Choosing Cichlid Tank Decorations

To protect your Cichlids, you must be aware of the do’s and don’t’s in choosing Cichlid tank decorations. Since virtually any design is possible, and any item you can find is a possible decor, just remember these:

Tip #1: Stay away from or remove sharp edges

You might’ve found the coolest-looking driftwood or Cichlid rocks while shopping around, but beware of sharp edges that might hurt their bodies, poke their eyes, or tear their fins. One can’t be too careful.

Clip off or file pointy edges. You can make them even more blunt by wrapping them with Java moss using a thread or fishing line.

Tip #2: Secure cave openings

Have you heard of horror stories where the Cichlid got injured (or even died!) because it got stuck in a cave or tunnel opening? There were also instances when the Cichlid dug the sand under a rock and got pinned down.

Consider these hazards when building your design. Your fish will grow bigger in time and might not fit its home or cave opening soon. Furthermore, Cichlids may move substrate that might cause your Cichlid decorations to tumble down. Think ahead and apply some what-ifs. It could just save your Cichlid’s life.

The 3 Best Decorations For Your Cichlid Tank-Secure Cave
The 3 Best Decorations For Your Cichlid Tank-Secure Cave

Getting stuck inside Cichlid caves is no joke. If in case your Cichlid goes missing, we have tips for you from our post “Can’t Find Your Cichlid? Here’s How to Look For It”.

Tip #3: Be aware of how the decor affects your water chemistry

When it comes to Cichlids, water consistency is the priority. Certain things might change your water’s pH or hardness, such as seashells or driftwood.

Driftwood contains tannins that make tank water brownish and acidic. You may use some of these but not too much in proportion to the amount of water you have. If you’re fixated on driftwood, soak them overnight in water to get rid of the tannins before placing them in your aquarium. We have answered this question before and you can check it out on our post “Is Driftwood Good For Cichlids?

Seashells do the opposite. They make the water hard and alkaline as it buffers your pH. If you plan to add lots of seashells, test your water first to keep the right balance as your tap water may naturally be hard enough already. Using crushed coral does the same.

Shell-dwelling Cichlids cannot live without seashells. If for some reason, you can’t or don’t want to use real shells, you can make do with PVC elbows with a cap at one end. PVC is not a contaminant.

We have more information on shells and their effect on your tank water in our article “Can You Put Shells In A Tank? A Safety Guide”. Read on before you decide to use them.

Using rocks, slate, and other items from local rivers and streams is a great and inexpensive idea. Just make sure you wash them thoroughly before use to avoid contaminating your water.

Tip #4: Choose Cichlid tank decorations according to the species’ habits

There are thousands of Cichlid species so not all of them live and behave the same way. Do your research to get to know your particular fish. Do they love digging? Do they like to hide in Cichlid rocks? Do they prefer Cichlid caves? Are they extra aggressive?

Using too much planted aquatic vegetation (or even fake plants) may not be a good idea for Cichlids that love digging or moving substrate around. Be mindful or else you may end up having to redo or remove items floating on the surface all the time. For those who prefer having plants, you can choose the floating variety instead.

Extra aggressive groups will need “sight blockers” to avoid fights. Aside from tall plants— and you may check our post “This is Why Cichlids Destroy Aquarium Plants” for suggestions— you may also like to create lots of hiding places for the fish such as caves, tunnels, and hut-like structures.

On the other hand, free swimmers like Oscars and Haps would need lots of open space to roam around. Some people opt for the minimalist look and just do one solid background color and one big stone arch in a 150-gallon without substrate and plants.

The 3 Best Decorations For Your Cichlid Tank-Plant
The 3 Best Decorations For Your Cichlid Tank-Plants

You can’t do this for rock dwellers like Mbunas that require lots of Cichlid rock caves to stay in. Without rocks, they’ll get stressed.

The substrate is also an issue for some as most Cichlids love to dig. The most common substrate for Cichlid tanks is sand, but this comes with the complication of having to fix it often due to the holes. You can learn more about this from our post “3 Reasons Why Cichlids Dig Holes (And What to Do About It)”.

Tip #5: Think about the background

One of the most neglected parts of the aquarium is the background. The purpose of the background is to make the color of the fish pop out more. Of course, consider the color of the Cichlid decorations, too.

More experienced fish keepers would apply window film or sticker paper to the back especially if the tank is situated in front of an unappealing wall. Others prefer to paint the back of the aquarium.

Some people use pictures of complete aquascapes as the background so they won’t have to do much inside the tank. That can be an alternative especially if your fish would rather have lots of open spaces.

Tip #6: Adjust if necessary

You can’t always control how your fish would react. Even if you’ve provided lots of Cichlid caves and nesting places, your fish might choose some other spot you didn’t expect. You can only hope that they’ll use the hiding places you’ve provided.

You may also need to redecorate if you encounter an aggression problem. One of the tips we’ve given recently was moving your Cichlid rocks and decorations to confuse fish if there are territorial issues. You can read all about that and much more on our post “7 Reasons Your Cichlids Are Killing Each Other” especially if you need help with aggression issues in your tank.

Now that you have these guidelines, let’s get on with the list of some of the most trusted Cichlid tank decorations there are.

Best Cichlid Tank Decoration Pieces

Let’s get to our list of the most preferred Cichlid tank decorations in the hobby. These are rock, wood, and plants.

Rocks and wood are important because Cichlids are territorial. Cichlid rocks, especially, set boundaries that mark territories. Without them, a bully Cichlid might claim the whole tank and make it unsafe for other fish.

  • Texas holey rocks are limestones that can be great hiding places for Cichlids like Mbunas that need their crevices. Also called honeycomb limestones, these rocks are white-colored so you have to decide if they will go well with your substrate or not. Note that these provide the hardness that you may need to buffer your water’s pH.
  • Tufa rock provides a great marine-like look and a pH boost for those who need steady alkalinity in their tank. These brown-gray rocks are a form of highly porous travertine and thus are lightweight.
  • Lace rock is a gray, porous volcanic rock. Cichlids sometimes poke holes on it for their convenience. It’s a little more costly but they look great.
  • Natural slate can be used to create Cichlid rock caves and also provide flat surfaces for Cichlids to lay their eggs on if you’re looking to breed them. They’re easy to stack so you can create great designs out of these Cichlid rocks. Just be careful to avoid the oily variety as this is not good for your fish. You can wash newly bought slate in hot water to be sure.
The 3 Best Decorations For Your Cichlid Tank-Rock
The 3 Best Decorations For Your Cichlid Tank-Rock
  • River rock has the benefit of being free (or very cheap from sources like landscaping companies). Yes, you can go to your local river and grab a few ones you think will fit best. But don’t use them just yet! You have to identify them through research to determine their safety.

A word of caution: some people use bleach or detergent to clean and whiten Cichlid rocks but we highly advise against that. Bleach and detergent residue might leak into your tank and kill your fish. Boiling is also dangerous as some rocks may explode due to their water content.

The best way to whiten Texas holey rocks and clean other types of rocks is to leave them out in the sun. You can also wash them with hot water or do both. Rock maintenance can be done naturally by getting bottom feeders as we discussed in our post “5 Best Bottom Feeders for Cichlid Tanks”. Be sure to determine if they’re compatible with your Cichlid species.

Cichlid caves are particularly important for stressed fish. Even if it’s not their characteristic to do so, fish will hide when ailing or when faced with a bully.

  • There are lots of Cichlid caves in your pet store or online that would provide a good resting place or territory for your fish. You can also use homemade Cichlid rock caves from your clean PVC pipes and clay pots, including terra cotta flues and jars. If you’re tearing out one part to make an opening or if you’re using broken items, be careful to remove sharp edges.
  • Rigid toys with hollow insides also serve as hiding places. Make sure they are not painted or don’t have any stickers attached to them. You can use them not only as hiding places for your Cichlids but your bubbler as well. If you’re contemplating a plastic toy, you can use those that don’t leach colors in the water. We’ve even heard of some fish keepers putting legos in their tanks.

You can also use ceramic figurines that work with your theme. They should be anchored if they’re not weighty enough to avoid toppling over.

  • An alternative to driftwood is petrified wood which doesn’t mess around with your water’s pH. However, they are very expensive and rare, especially the large pieces.

If you’re not sure how a certain decoration will affect your water’s pH and hardness, put it in a container with some water for 24 hours or more and then test them. From there, you can determine if they are safe for your Cichlids.

Plants are good options for smaller Cichlids as they won’t uproot them as larger ones would. Aside from their filtration benefits, they also add a natural feel and splash of color into the tank as there is just more than green to choose from.

More experienced fish keepers prefer these natural Cichlid tank decorations rather than the ones that are available in the pet store. But then again, nothing is stopping you from putting anything in the tank. Just remember our guidelines and your fish will be fine.

If you are interested in learning more about your fish behavior, check out the links below:

The Tank Is Your Canvas

Decorating a Cichlid tank is all about what you and your Cichlids prefer. It doesn’t have to follow a certain theme or famous aquascaper’s style. You can be as original, flamboyant, or minimalist as you like. Besides, it’s your tank. As long as the fish are safe, you have free rein over it.

Don’t get discouraged if you make a mistake. Nobody went into the hobby knowing everything. Each fish and setup is different so you have to find out what works for your pets.

So go on and have fun. Happy fishkeeping!

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