I decided to write an article on proper Botiine loach care and requirements. All too often I see folks with one or two loaches, the wrong tank conditions, loaches that are far too large for the tank, or illnesses. Hopefully this will help with some of the common questions about these fish.
Over the past few years I have found there is no greater joy in the world than that of keeping a large shoal of Botiine loaches. These rambunctious little creatures are fun loving, playful, and downright entertaining to watch. They have terrific personalities, which makes them so desirable to keep.
The problem with keeping them? There is much confusion about how to house them properly. Also there is not an abundance of real information out there about proper care. You may find a lot of different people talking about loaches they keep; they may have one or two different species. This is not proper housing. Loaches are by nature very social creatures. They need large groups of other loaches to thrive. Alone they will pine away, and live a miserable life, until eventually they perish. This is completely unfair to these fish.
A proper shoal of loaches can really make your aquarium lively and fun for everyone that views it. There are a few things to keep in mind when considering Botiine loaches, I will discuss these points here.
Example of what surface water should look like
Loaches hail from all over Asia. They live in clean, clear waters of fast moving streams, thus making them require pristine water conditions that their natural habitat would provide. The buildup of waste that happens in home aquariums is not well liked by these bottom dwellers. They are not a clean up crew, and will not feed on scraps, and waste. I have my maintenance schedule for twice a week water changes at about 25% each time, this allow me to have a 50% water change in total each week. This schedule helps provide that clean, fresh, water they love. I also use canister filters on my tanks. I have two Fluval 405's filtering my 250 L. Is this overkill? I firmly believe that you cannot overfilter a tank, and especially not a loach tank as they can be very messy.
They also appreciate strong current and well oxygenated water. This is easily achieved by adding spray bars or powerheads to your tank to mimic a river flow. You will often see your Botias swimming against the current and playing in the water flow, they love to do this! If the surface of the water in your tank is not churning, the current is not strong enough.
Botiine loaches like slightly acidic water (I have my tanks at a pH of 6.5), that is also soft. Hard water they can live in, but will not thrive; premature deaths are sure to arise as they do not acclimate too easily to the harder conditions. The tank should be mature, and by this I mean a tank that has fully cycled and has been running problem free for at least six months. New tanks are hard on loaches, as they do not tolerate fluctuations in water parameters very well. Therefore, they should not be the first fish added to a tank.
A planted river tank with lots of aeration, strong current,
and plenty of hiding spots for Botiine loaches
Decorations and substrate should be smooth and have no sharp edges. This is will help to protect the sensory barbel area that loaches use to find food. I recommend a fine sand substrate, some smooth bogwood, and smooth rocks for caves. If you do not provide adequate hiding spots for your loaches, they will live in a perpetual state of stress. The more spots they have to hide, the more you see them, believe it or not. Reason being, they feel safe, secure, and are ready to venture out into the big bad aquarium. Constant stress lends itself to illness such as Ich and other common maladies.
What about plants you ask? Well, most plants will not last too long with loaches. They love to punch holes in the leaves, and uproot things for fun. They are masters of redecorating their surroundings. I find that the best plants to keep are Java ferns, and Anubias seem to do well. You may try your hand at an Amazon Sword, if you have the room in your tank for one. They seem to be a hardy plant from my experience, and can take the beating that loaches dole out. Also remember that loaches like subdued lighting so plants may not grow too well for you anyway. Stick with low light plants that can be attached to wood and rocks for the best results.
Tank size is important in a way. Not so much the volume, as the footprint. Loaches like a large footprint to swim back and forth in. The longer the tank, the happier the loaches. They are also more active at night under blue moon lighting. I find my shoals swimming back and forth under the moon light the most. This is not to say they are not active in the day, but when the lights go out, they really have fun.
Groups and Behavior
By now you have seen me use the term "shoal" thoughout this guide. This means a group of fish all of the same species kept together. They will move as one, if there are enough to form a proper shoal.
Botiine loaches are shoaling species, and must always be kept in groups for the best quality of life, and overall results. I strongly feel that five is the minimum. Kept alone they can become aggressive or reclusive. This can lead to refusal to feed, inactivity, and even illness due to stress. Loaches develop social bonds with each other, and find a sense of security the form of a shoal of others of their own kind. They will form a pecking order, with one known as the ‘Alpha loach’ who will be in charge - this is usually (but not always) the largest loach in the aquarium, and is most likely female.
Alpha loach pictured here is a Botia Histronica
If you populate with this idea that 'the more the merrier', the better off your loaches will be. They will truly shine for you as a fishkeeper. They will become more natural in behavior, and start to exhibit some of the natural behaviors that they do in the wild. One such thing you will encounter is territory battles; they will swarm each other until one gives up. No fish is ever harmed during these scuffles, which makes them fun to watch. The spats are usually over a favorite decoration or hiding spot. They can also be part of the pecking order I spoke of earlier. Loaches will have occasional arguments over what place on the chain of command they are in. The small battles most often occur between the first two loaches in command and the last two, so you may have two fighting over who is the alpha loach; or two fighting over who is second to last in line, and last. Perhaps the most famous things that botiine loaches do when in groups, is what us loach keepers refer to as the 'loachy dance'. This is the phenomenon where they swim in circles up and down the tank for up to hours at times. There is nothing wrong, they just do it by nature.
Some new loach keepers panic the second they see the loaches laying on their sides. As long as you see gill movement and your water parameters are normal, there is nothing to fret about. This is just what they do, they are having a nice nap. They will lay in all sorts of awkward positions, such as upside down, under rocks or bogwood, on their side in a plant, or squashed in a tiny hole with as many other loaches as can possibly fit. Since they do love to squeeze into small places, it's best to plug up any small holes that they may become stuck in.
A tight fitting aquarium lid is crucial! Loaches are excellent jumpers, it is not unusual to find a loach on the floor. I am partial to glass tops as they make for a snug fit, and allow for the equipment area to be customized by you. The plastic in the back is easy to cut holes that are snug to the equipment, leaving very little space for jumpers.
Contrary to popular belief, loaches are not scavengers or "clean up" fish. They have their own nutritional needs, and should be fed as such. I like to feed two to three very small meals per day, and especially before "bedtime". The night time meal is important as some loaches will only feed well when the lights are low. They feel more confident this way. The small meals are nothing more than a pinch of flake, a sinking pellet for each, or a cube of frozen bloodworms. We must be careful with feedings as it is easy to overfeed. Over feeding leads to excess waste and decay. This in turn, leads to poor water quality that can cause ammonia and nitrite spikes which can be deadly to fish. Overfeeding is also the most common cause for dreaded snail outbreaks.
Foods they enjoy are a varied mix of things. Sinking carnivore wafers/pellets, flake, algae wafers, freeze dried tubifex worms, and daphnia. Frozen foods such as bloodworms, beefhearts, clam, and chopped prawns are always taken with excitement. Loaches do appreciate some fruits and veggies as well. Melons such as cantaloupe (aka musk melon), watermelon and honeydew should be peeled and held down with plant weights or a stainless steel bolt. If your fish have never tried fruit, it may take a few feedings for them to get used to it, but they soon swarm the tasty treats in no time! Cucumbers may be also peeled and held with weights or veggie clips.
In my experience, my loaches prefer sinking carnivore pellets, algae wafers, frozen brine shrimp and bloodworms. I feed the bloodworms sparingly as they are a bit rich, and too much of a good thing, is not so healthy. They also love watermelon. Remember to remove any uneaten food at the end of the day to prevent decay and water quality issues.
Five Botia striata at feeding time
How to Pick your Loaches
When selecting the loaches you want to keep there are a few things to take into consideration. First you will need to take into account how large your tank is, and how large the adult size of the fish will be. Will you have enough room to successfully grow and keep a full shoal of adult loaches in your tank? I do not recommend that you plan to upgrade the tank at a later time, things happen in life and sometimes that upgrade is just not possible, for whatever reason. This means you will have a severely cramped environment on your hands.
Let us say that you have a 200 L tank for example. What type of Botiine loach will work best in this environment? Sure those clown loaches at the store are pretty, they look so lively, but no. Clowns grow far too large at adulthood (approximately 30-40 cm) to live in a 200 L. Considering that we spoke about shoals, there is no way a group of 5-10 clowns could work in this situation.
A better choice would be a nice shoal of loaches that only grow to about 10-15 cm at adulthood, examples of these would be: Botia straita (zebra loach), Botia kubotai (Burmese border loach), Botia histronica (Burmese loach/ golden zebra loach), Botia dario (Queen Loach), Botia rostrata (Ladder Loach), Yasuhikotakia sidthimunki - formerly a Botia species (dwarf chain loach) and Botia almorhae (Yo Yo loach). Please note that these loaches are best suited for tanks that are 150 L and up, as even though they're on the small side, they still need room move around well.
Loaches for larger tanks would be: Chromobotia macracanthus (Clown Loach), Yasuhikotakia modesta (Blue Botia) and Yasuhikotakia morleti (Skunk Loach). While the blue botia and the skunk loach do not grow overly large, topping out at around 25 cm, they do need ample space to accommodate the shoal and can be aggressive with others.
The next thing we need to think about is how reputable is the place you will be purchasing your fish from? Do you see a lot of fish that are ill, or dead in the tanks? If so, do not buy from there. Loaches are very prone to parasites and worms. A good shop will quarantine the fish for a week or two before sale. Make sure the fish are well fed and do not look skinny. A skinny loach is a sign of poor health or underfeeding. The latter is fixed with food and time; health is not so easily corrected. Chronic wasting syndrome (AKA Skinny disease) is common among pet store loaches. It's caused most times by the parasites or worms mentioned earlier. Levamisole Hydrochloride (Levamisole HCl), is an anthelmintic (anti-worm) agent that is mostly used for cattle, sheep, and pigs, but can be used in fish tanks to paralyze the parasites in the fish's gut so they may be passed. A good gravel vacuuming will remove paralyzed parasites from the tank. Please note this only works on adult parasites and worms and will not harm eggs, so repeat dosing may be necessary.
To avoid all the trouble, look for loaches that are active, robust, and always have a quarantine tank at home ready as well. It's best to QT your new fish especially if you have others, to avoid possible infection to your known healthy fish.
Pictured below is a B. striata that I had purchased. Notice how skinny he is, look at the top of the fish to see the bone structure, and the "pinched in" look behind the gills. This fish was brought back to full health in a QT tank with good feedings. He is in the above photo of five B. striata at feeding time. You'll notice how much more robust he is in that photo.
When purchasing your loaches, always ask the store to double or even triple bag the fish, as all Botiine loaches have suborbital spines that will protrude when scared or stressed - it's a defense mechanism. Nobody wants a popped bag on the way home from an ocular spine. With more bags, there is an incredibly small chance of water loss and disaster on the ride home. Better to safe than sorry.
Botia striata just after purchase
Botiine loaches are not known to normally breed in home aquarium situations. This is why these fish are still wild caught for the aquarium trade. Some home spawing has been documented, but it's rare and seems to be more accidental than anything else. The conditions that are required are very complex, and nearly impossible to replicate at home for breeding. Many cases of egg-loaded females have been reported, but rarely do any eggs hatch into fry.
After reading these basic guidelines, I hope you can make an informed decision about keeping them. Remember, a happy loach shoal is a fun loach shoal, and for that you need only follow the basics. I am sure you will soon see how charming these creatures can be.
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