Neon tetra swimming in tank

Neon Tetra Care: Types, Tank Setup, Diet And More

The Neon Tetra is one of the most active, colorful, easy-to-care-for freshwater aquarium fish. They’re a hugely popular species for both beginners and experienced aquarists alike. However, to get the most enjoyment out of your Neons, you’ll need to provide the right care. Luckily, these tiny fish are straightforward fish to care for.

And in this guide, we’ll walk you through their optimal care conditions. 

Recommended Neon Tetra Care Items:

Neon Tetra Overview

Neon tetras (Paracheirodon innesi) are a schooling fish found in tropical freshwater rivers and streams in South America. The species was first discovered in 1934 in the Amazon jungle. It is a member of the Characidae family

Neon Tetras are a popular aquarium fish species. About 2 million are sold in the United States each month in the aquarium hobby and trade. The vast majority are bred in captivity which is a good thing because, over the generations, they have become more adapted to aquarium life. This translates into an easier fish-keeping experience for you. If you happen to purchase a wild-caught neon, just know that you’ll need to be extra diligent about their water conditions.

They are a non-aggressive, community aquarium fish, which helps increase their popularity. They will play nicely with most other fish. They spend the majority of their time in the middle of the water column, so you can easily pair them with fish who prefer other areas of your tank.

Neon Tetras should be kept in schools with at least 15 fish. Some sources cite as few as 6 or 8 fish, but we recommend at least 15. Larger schools result in less stress and aggression for your fish.

Neon Tetra Appearance

Most people can recognize a Neon Tetra because of their iconic coloring – iridescent blue and red stripes. This species has a flashy turquoise blue line that stretches from its eyes to its adipose fin (small rounded fin between the tail and the dorsal fin). The iridescence helps the colors pop, which is a huge selling point for fish keepers. In the wild, this helps the fish locate each other in murky water. Their abdomens are a glistening silver color.

Beyond their red and white stripes and silver belly, their fins are largely transparent. One would think that this bright coloration would hurt their chances for survival in the wild, making them easy prey for larger fish. However, in the wild, they can modify their hues in order to better disguise themselves. Their color also fades when they’re sleeping or sick, which helps them blend in more with their surroundings. 

School of neon tetras in aquarium

Their body shape is torpedo-like with a rounded nose. Their eyes are large relative to their heads. In captivity, the average size is around 1.2 inches, with females slightly shorter.

Varieties of Neon Tetra

Because of their popularity in the aquarium trade, breeders have developed several varieties that differ from the wild form.

Albino

Albino neon tetras lack the classic red and blue colors. Instead, they are a pearly white color. Like most albinos, they have pink eyes.

Golden

Golden neons don’t actually appear very golden in color so the name is somewhat misleading. At first glance, they more closely resemble an albino neon tetra. However, they are not albino. They have a soft, pearly, reddish white color, which under the right light could be described as golden.

They are leucistic, meaning they are missing some of their coloration. In the case of golden neon tetras, they are missing the light blue color on their heads and backs. Nearly all of them still have the red stripe on the tail. Their eyes are a striking blue color.

Longfin

This captive-bred strain closely resembles its wild counterpart in terms of its colors. As you might guess, its fins are significantly longer – about twice the size of a regular neon tetra. The elongated fins hinder the fish’s natural schooling behavior so don’t expect as much zip from your school of longfin neon tetras.

Diamond Head

Diamond Heads have a bright blue diamond shape on their heads. Otherwise, they look similar to the wild variety of neons.

Gold Neon Tetra

The gold neon tetra is extremely popular. It breeds very easily in captivity. This fish is similar to the true neon tetra, but the stripe running the length of its body is iridescent gold. 

Black Neon Tetra

As you might guess, this tetra has a black stripe down its side. However, unlike wild neon tetras, the black is not iridescent. Instead, this species’ has a stripe of shiny silver-white that contrasts with its dark stripe. 

Green Neon Tetra

The Green Neon Tetra (Paracheirodon simulans) is a completely different species than the neon tetra! It inhabits similar regions, with warm water in Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia being its natural habitat. Historically, it was imported as wild-caught but now, captive-bred is becoming more common.

Neon versus Cardinal Tetra

Neon and Cardinal tetras are easy to confuse because they look very similar. However, they’re actually two different species of freshwater fish.

Cardinal tetra versus neon tetra

Cardinal tetras (Paracheirodon axelrodi) have the quintessential red and blue stripes. However, the red and blue stripes run the entire length of the body instead of ending halfway like neons.

Cardinals are also bigger, growing up to 2 inches long, where neons tend to max out at about 1.5 inches.

How long do Neon Tetras live?

Despite being tiny, Neon Tetras can live a long time. There are reports of neons living up to 8 years in captivity. However, the average is probably closer to 5 years.

How big do Neon Tetras get?

Neon tetras are small. They only grow to about 1.2 inches in length.

Neon Tetra Care

Neon Tetras are relatively easy to care for aquarium fish. However, you need to know what you’re doing. Our guide covers their ideal habitat, including tank, lighting, filtration, and more.

Neon Tetra Habitat

When planning the ideal neon tetra tank, it is recommended to try to recreate their natural environment. This principle works well when designing tanks and making sure your fish are eating correctly. Recreate their natural environment for best results. 

As a native to the warm streams of South America, the Neon Tetra prefers densely planted tanks with plenty of low light areas for hiding and slightly acidic water. Their rivers flow through lush jungles with dense canopies blocking lots of daylight. This creates dark pockets of water with lots of fallen leaves, vegetation, and tree roots. 

Following this logic, an ideal Neon Tetra tank should be heavily planted. Driftwood will create more darkness and hiding spots. You should also try to use a dark substrate. Small rocks and pebbles, similar to ones you would find on a river bed, will also mimic their natural environments. 

What is the best tank for neon tetras?

Neons are not big fish so they definitely don’t fall into the category of fish that need tons of space. However, neon tetras do best in large groups – the more the merrier, or at least, the more, the less stressed out. Because neon tetras only thrive in groups, you can’t put them in nano tanks successfully.

Therefore, the smallest tank we recommend for a small group of neons (6 neons) is 10 gallons. However, to be candid, this set-up is not totally ideal.

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If you keep our minimum recommended amount of neons (15), then you need a larger tank. In that case, 20 gallons is the minimum ideal size.

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Giving neons the space to swim and school is a beautiful thing so you will glad your finned friends have room to explore. Additionally, they’re mid-water fish so if you’re debating between a tall aquarium and a long aquarium, choose the tall one. You will give them an extra wide swimming channel.

How many neon tetras can go in my tank?

Neon Tetras should be kept in a school. The larger the group, the happier your tetras. If you include only one or two neons in you tank, they will likely spend most of their time very stressed and unhappy. The best case scenario is a shortened lifespan and the worst case scenario is an untimely death.

At minimum, neons should be kept in a group of at least six. Honestly speaking, this is not ideal though. We recommend groups of at least 15 for neons to relax. Schooling fish feel more secure when they can group together; there is safety in numbers. Imagine if you were an inch long fish solo in a big 20 gallon tank. Now imagine if you had 14 other friends. That is neon community.

Additionally, when school sizes are small, neons can start getting nervous and aggressive with each other. More fish equals more dispersion of the hierarchical pressure and aggression, meaning no single fish is getting excessively bossed around.

For larger tanks, we recommend the following maximum amount of neons:

  • 29 gallons: 15-20 neons
  • 40 gallons: 20-25 neons
  • 50 gallons: 25-30 neons
  • 55 gallons: 28-35 neons

Water Conditions

Neons originate from the Amazon river basin, where they’re used to soft, slightly acidic water. This will be the goal state for your tank.

Neon tetras are sensitive to changes in water conditions. Newly cycled tanks are not ideal for your Tetras so it is not advised to add your neons to new tanks as the changes in the water chemistry during this time will likely kill them. Neon Tetras do best in established, matured tanks with stable water parameters. 

Ideal water conditions for your tetras include:

  • Temperature: 72°-76°F (22.2°-24.4°C)
  • Ammonia: 0 ppm
  • Nitrite: 0 ppm
  • Nitrate: <20 ppm
  • pH: 6-7
  • GH: <10 dGH (<166.7 ppm)
  • KH: 1-2 dKH (17.8- 35.8ppm)

In order to maintain stable water conditions,  we recommend testing weekly with this Water kit. This will help keep you up to speed on your tank and keep your fish safe. It is important to get the nitrogen cycle working properly.

Additionally, keep an eye on the pH in your tank. Check out our pH lowering guide if your water is too alkaline.

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What to put in their tank

Neon Tetra fish live in the warm streams of South America. Their rivers are shadowed by dense jungles above and tons of vegetation and natural debris like rocks and logs underneath the surface of the water. In this environment, there are lots of hiding places and dark pockets of water. In an ideal state, we are trying to recreate this world for them, which is why we recommend dark substrate, rocks, and driftwood.

Substrate

In terms of substrate type, Neons don’t require a certain kind of substrate. They’re mid-water swimmers and don’t really hang out at the bottom of the tank so there is no risk involved in them cutting or scratching themselves like certain bottom-feeders.

A sandy substrate with river stones added in will remind them of their natural habitat. They also prefer planted tanks so you will need to consider finding a substrate that will support your plants. A dark substrate will bring down the overall brightness of your tank and also help their neon colors pop in contrast.

If you’re going the planted tank route, we recommend something like Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel or Flourite Dark

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Filtration

Tetras are small fish and produce a very small bio load so their individual filtering needs are small. In most cases, a sponge filter will suffice. 

When considering filtering options, the most important component is getting a filter that is rated for the volume of your tank. It is important to have enough capacity for the beneficial bacteria that process ammonia.

To make sure you’re covered, look at the GPH rating (gallons per hour) of the filter, You want the GPH rating to be 4x higher than your tank size. For example, choose a GPH 40 for a 10 gallon tank.

Lastly, aim to perform a 25% water change each week. Again, be careful here and don’t exceed this recommendation as Neons are sensitive to water fluctuations.

Decorations

Neons do best with a mixed environment that includes open swimming space, plant cover, and some good hiding spots. The neons will school together in the open areas and hide if they feel threatened.

Neons are not territorial so don’t expect them to claim a cave or a treasure chest as “their spot” and hang out around it. They’re less interested in caves and more interested in a natural environment that mimics a riverbed so think rocks and driftwood.

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Plants

Neons love plants like Ludwigia repens, Java Fern, Java Moss, Amazon Swords, and Anubias. Neons also like floating plants like dwarf water lettuce or red river floaters. 

Live plants help to remove nitrates from your water. They’re functional, beautiful, and mimic the neon’s natural environment. It is basically a trifecta of goodness in a planted tank. 

If you’re not into live plants or don’t want the extra maintenance involved, we get it. In that case, tall fake plants are also a good option.

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Neon Tetra Potential diseases

Important notice: we are not veterinarians at Aquarium Friend so the information below should be used for general awareness only. If you are concerned about the health of your neons, consult a fish health professional immediately.

Neon Tetras are subject to the usual roster of freshwater aquarium fish illnesses including Ich, Dropsy, and Swim Bladder disease. The most famous of these is the aptly named Neon Tetra Disease. It was first discovered in neons but it affects many different types of fish including angelfish, goldfish, and rasboras.

What causes Neon Tetra disease?

Neon tetra disease is caused by a parasite known as Pleistophora hyphessobryconis.

Neons get infected by eating contaminated food, like live tubifex worms, which act as intermediary hosts for the parasite. They can also become infected by consuming other dead fish who also had the parasite.

Once inside the neon, the parasite consumes the fish from the inside out, starting with the digestive tract and stomach. Eventually, the parasite burrows through the intestines into the muscles, where it produces cysts. The cysts further damage the tissue, reducing the musculature of the fish.

It is highly communicable and can easily spread through a tank. Infected fish must be removed as early as possible or your entire tank is at risk. There is no risk of transmission to humans.

Symptoms of Neon Tetra Disease

This disease is degenerative, meaning it starts with mild symptoms but then quickly progresses to a severe state.

Symptoms include:

  • Restlessness
  • Loss of color, starting with one area of body
  • Fish stop schooling with others and hide
  • Lack of coordination
  • Lumps or cysts under the skin
  • Spinal deformities

At the beginning of illness, owners will often notice the affected fish no longer schooling with the others—which is a clear sign that something is wrong for a schooling fish like neons. Eventually, swimming becomes uncoordinated and the fish starts to lose interest in its normal activities.

As the disease progresses, affected tissues begin to lose color and turn white, which is pronounced in such a vibrantly colored fish like a neon tetra. Damage to the muscles can cause spinal deformities, which further exacerbates swimming difficulties. The body of the fish may appear lumpy as the disease progresses.

How to cure Neon Tetra disease

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for Neon Tetra disease. It is a lethal disease once a fish has been affected so the most humane option is euthanization

When this disease is discovered, the fishkeeper must remove diseased fish from the tank immediately. This is an important step to immediately get the parasite out of the tank, while also preventing other fish from eating them after death (and ingesting the parasite). 

How long does neon tetra disease take to kill?

Neon Tetra disease takes about 2-4 weeks to kill. The process can be as short as a week, depending on your tank conditions. Although this is a relatively short period of time, your fish will still suffer so consider a humane ending to their life.

How to prevent Neon Tetra disease

The best prevention is purchasing healthy fish and maintaining high water quality (as to not stress your fish). Always purchase fish from a well-regarded supplier. If at all possible, purchase locally. This will give you a chance to personally observe the supplier’s fish and see if there are any warning signs.

Warning signs include:

  • Schooling fish that are not schooling
  • Dead fish in tank
  • Sick fish in tank

Check out the neon tetra stock at your supplier but also make sure to review their other tanks for clues about the level of cleanliness and maintenance that occurs in the store.

If purchasing online, always check the reviews and avoid any suppliers with reports of illness in their fish. Purchase for quality instead of looking for the cheapest deal online. 

It is a good idea to quarantine new fish for about two weeks before adding them to established community tanks. This will give you a chance for the fish to adjust to their new environment and give you more time to further observe them. If you see any signs of sickness, call your supplier to ask questions. If you have any hesitations about adding the fish to your established tank, don’t do it. It is much better to play it safe with new additions.

If you have any sick fish, remove them immediately from your community tank and put them in your quarantine tank for further observation. Most fish will eat dead fish if given the chance, which is an easy method for illness to spread rapidly through a tank.

Neon Tetra Feeding 

Neon Tetras are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals in the wild. In the wild, they will eat algae, larvae from insects, and other tiny invertebrates. They’re not picky eaters and will enjoy eating all different types of food including pellets, flakes, frozen, and live. This makes the job of feeding them fun and easy, as you have a lot of choices.

One word of caution – when selecting live foods for your fish, always make sure to purchase from a reputable supplier. Purchase locally if you can. Neon Tetra disease can afflict your tank via infected live foods like Tubiflex worms. If purchasing online, read the reviews of the food and make sure there are no reports of disease. Additionally, purchase based on quality, not price. Low price items are more likely to be substandard, putting your entire tank at risk.

What should you feed a Neon Tetra?

Neon Tetras do best with a balanced diet such as high-quality flake food or sinking micro-pellets. They also appreciate treats Freeze-dried or frozen bloodworms and frozen brine shrimp.

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How often should Neon Tetras eat?

You can feed neon tetras every day – either once per day or divided into a morning and afternoon feeding. They are an active fish and have high energy requirements.

Only feed as much food as they can consume in three minutes. You want to avoid overfeeding your fish as uneaten food can rot and cause unwanted spikes and changes in the water parameters, to which neon tetras are especially sensitive.

Neon Tetra Tank Mates

Neons are small, peaceful fish that do well in community aquariums. They coexist best with other peaceful tropical fish. Large, aggressive fish will bully and possibly eat them. Don’t mix them with Arowanas, Oscars, or large Cichlids unless you want to pay for expensive snacks for your big guys. 

Good tank mates for neon tetras include:

Can neon tetras live with betta fish?

Neons tend to swim in the middle of the tank which helps them keep their distance from any bettas. As long as the tank is large enough, neons and bettas can get along because they will both have plenty of space to swim and hide.

Breeding Neon Tetras

Neon Tetras are one of the most common freshwater aquarium fish. Most of the fish sold in stores are bred in captivity, which means the breeding process is achievable with a little planning. However, we wouldn’t exactly describe the process as easy, so it is important to be prepared for multiple attempts when trying to breed your tetras. If you’re just getting started with breeding freshwater aquarium fish, we don’t recommend starting with neon tetras.

How to Sex Neon Tetras

First, it helps to know the sex of your neon tetras. When viewed from the side, the female neon tetra’s belly is rounder, which often causes the stripe to appear to be bent or crooked. The male neon tetra tends to be more slender, making the stripe appear straight.

Establish Fry Food Source

Once you have your adults sexed, it is recommended to set-up an infusoria culture at least a week before you start breeding. This will be your food for the fry so this critical to have in place and ready to go when the little ones show up.

Hikari First Bites are also recommended for fry food for at least a few weeks. 

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Condition the Parents

At this point, you have identified the future parents and prepped food for the fry for the first few weeks. Now, it is time to condition the parents. To do so, feed them protein rich foods.

High protein will trigger the females to start producing eggs, which actually makes them easier to sex, as it will cause their bellies to expand, making them more rounded in appearance and further emphasizing a slight curve in their neon stripes.

Neon tetra swimming near java moss

Foods like brine shrimp and frozen bloodworms should be offered for 2 weeks.

Set-up a Neon Tetra breeding tank

While you’re conditioning the parents with protein-rich foods, you will need to set up a separate breeding tank. Neons are known to eat their own eggs and fry so it is best to avoid that situation (which would ruin all of your hard work!) and create a separate breeding tank. 

Neons are egg scatterers. This means that the female releases batches of eggs around the tank. In total, she will lay around 100 eggs. Before they can sink to the substrate, the male quickly fertilizes the eggs. Then they land in the substrate and you have cute little eggs scattered around the tank. 

After the female has laid the eggs and the male has fertilized them, you should remove the parents from the tank.

Suggested Neon Tetra Breeding Tank Equipment:

*Use peat soil from an aquarium or reptile shops. Peat from your garden can be full of pesticides, which could kill your fish.

** Only add after the fry are large enough. Using an aquarium filter before then could suck up the small eggs or fry.

How to Create the Ideal Breeding Conditions

Here is how to create the ideal conditions for breeding:

  1. Rehydrate the peat in warm water.
  2. Spread a 1 inch layer in the bottom of the tank. Spread java moss on top of the peat.
  3. Fill the tank with water. The peat will throw off a lot of color at first! Don’t be alarmed – this is totally normal. The color will settle after several hours. When settled, the tank will likely look like it’s full of brewed tea – this is the goal. You’re looking for tannin-stained water.
  4. Add your Indian almond leaves.
  5. Install the heater. Let the tank heat to 75°-76°F.
  6. Add neons to the tank. Some people recommend just the breeding pair and others recommend a small group.
  7. This step requires patience. Let the adults stay in the breeding tank for a day or two. The lowered pH from the peat will trigger the fish to spawn. Continue their diet of protein rich foods.
  8. Do a 50% water change on the tank. Only siphon water. Do not stir up the bottom. This water turnover simulates the rainy season in the Amazon, which triggers fish to spawn.

The Breeding Process

When ready, the females will drop eggs into the water and the male will follow closely behind to fertilize them. The eggs are tiny and very difficult to see so you might be questioning if breeding even occurred. This process usually occurs early in the morning.

Neon tetra eggs and fry are photosensitive, meaning they degrade in the presence of light. Do not let bright light and/or sunlight hit the tank. Strong light can kill the eggs and fry. Again, imagine the natural conditions of the neon tetra – dark river waters, shaded by jungle canopy, and full of vegetation that provides lots of hiding places. If you absolutely must check the tank, use a flashlight to quickly take a look.

Keep the adults in the tank for about 5 full days after the 50% water change. Then remove them in order to protect the eggs.

How to raise the fry

Plan to keep the tank dark for at least two weeks. No exposure to sunlight, no turning on the lights, no showing the fry off to your friends.

The eggs will hatch in about 24 to 36 hours. They will be very small and completely transparent. The little fish will feed off their egg sacks for 2-3 days.

Five days after hatching, the fry become free swimming little creatures. At this point, they will be hungry so use a turkey baster to add infusoria to the tank twice a day for about 5 days. Again, remember to keep the lights low! If you notice the belly of the neon tetra fry starts growing, you will know that they are eating the infusoria.

After the initial 10 days, you can start feeding the fry a prepared fry food like Hikari First Bites for the next several weeks.

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When the fry reach their first month birthday, they can then be fed like adults.

Neon Tetra FAQs

Do neon tetras die easily?

Although Neon tetras can survive five to eight years in captivity, they are very sensitive to changing water parameters. For this reason, they’re relatively easy to kill relative to other freshwater aquarium fish. Drastic changes will cause the fish to experience stress, depression, and hinder their immune systems, resulting in their untimely demise.

Can neon tetras kill other fish?

While generally a peaceful, community fish, neon tetras can kill members of their own group or other community members under the right conditions. However, this is very rare. Neon tetras need to be in a large group. Within their groups, they establish a hierarchy. In larger groups, there is less aggression and stress on the fish, because the hierarchical aggression is dispersed among many members. In a smaller group, bullying (and potential death) can occur. Additionally, if tank conditions aren’t correct (overstocked, bad water conditions, etc.), it can result in stressed neons, which in turn could trigger aggressive behavior. 

Are neon tetras aggressive?

No, neon tetras are not considered aggressive like Oscars or Arowana. They will not actively hunt other fish in your tank. Given the right conditions, they are peaceful community tank members that can share space with many other types of aquatic critters, including other Tetras like Black Skirt Tetras, Clown or Bristlenose Plecos, Rasboras, snails, and shrimp.

Do neon tetras need light at night?

No, they do not need light at night. They need about 12-14 hours of light per day to maintain their circadian rhythms and coloration. In their natural environment, they only experience filtered light during the day, as it must break through the jungle canopy and the dense vegetation in the rivers. You want their aquarium lighting to mimic this natural environment. Bright light at night will likely stress them out.

How can you tell if a neon tetra is stressed?

Signs of stress in a neon tetra include refusal to eat, not schooling with the other neon tetras, erratic swimming, colors becoming progressively more pale, and clear indications of disease (ich, cysts, etc). 

Do neon tetras sleep on the bottom?

Neon tetras are bottom sleepers and middle swimmers. They sleep at the bottom of the tank, swim in the middle of the tank, and only come to the top for food. 

In the wild, tetras use teamwork to get safe sleep. Some fish in the school stay awake and watch for predators while others sleep. They take turns in the duties so everyone sleeps and guards.

Why are my neon tetras disappearing?

While neon tetras are beautiful, and some might say magical, creatures, it is unlikely, if not impossible, that they’re disappearing. The most likely scenario is that they’re dead and have either been sucked up by your filter or consumed by other fish in the tank. They could have also jumped out of your tank so check your floor. No magic here.

Conclusion

Now that you’ve learned just about all there is to know when it comes to caring for Neon tetras, you should be able to decide for yourself if they’re a good fit for your aquarium.

Neon tetras are peaceful community tank members. They’re a favorite of aquarists who love their bright, flashy colors and zippy, inquisitive behavior. They can live in harmony with both shrimp and fish tank mates but avoid aggressive fish who will snack on your neons.

If you can accommodate their precise water parameters and keep stable conditions for them, they make beautiful additions to any community tank with their neon pops of color.

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