Pea Puffer Fish – Food, Facts, Habitat, Size, And Care

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At first glance, the Pea Pufferfish or Carinotetraodon travancoricus might appear to be the ideal choice for a nano tank or community setup. But is that really the case, or are these tiny fish tougher than they look?

In fact, all puffers are highly aggressive creatures that are really only suited to life in a single species tank. However, if you’re looking for a fish with a personality and character to match its cute looks, a Pea Puffer could be the one for you!

Read this guide to learn all you need to know about caring for the Malabar Dwarf Puffer Fish.

Pea Puffer Fish – Overview

Scientific Name

Carinotetraodon travancoricus

Common Names
(species)

Pygmy puffer, Dwarf Indian puffer, Bumblebee puffer, Malabar puffer, Blue-eyed puffer, Pea puffer, Indian Malabar puffer

Family

Tetraodontidae

Origin

Malabar and Kerala regions of southwest India

Diet

Carnivore

Care Level

Moderate

Activity

Active fish that do best in small conspecific groups

Lifespan

Up to 4 years

Temperament

Semi-aggressive, fin nippers

Tank Level

Pea Puffers are curious fish that like to explore all areas of the tank, although they tend to gravitate to the middle of the water column.

Minimum Tank Size

Minimum 10 gallons, ideally larger

Temperature Range

Tropical 72° to 82°F

Water Hardness

8 – 15 dGH

pH Range

7.5 to 8.3

Filtration/Flow Rate

Slow to moderate flow

Water type

Freshwater

Breeding

Egg-layer that can be bred in captivity by experienced aquarists

Compatibility

Semi-aggressive, species only setup recommended

OK, for Planted Tanks?

Safe with plants

Origins

Dwarf puffers are found in the Malabar and Kerala regions of southwest India and are the smallest of the freshwater pufferfish.

Unfortunately, the Pea Puffer is now listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, largely thanks to urbanization and overfishing for the trade.

The fish live in slow-moving waters, including lakes, rivers, and streams, hiding from predators among dense vegetation, leaf litter, and sunken wood. The water chemistry varies from slightly acidic and soft in some areas to alkaline and harder in other parts of the puffers’ range. Although the Pea Puffer is a freshwater fish, in some parts of their range, the waters are slightly brackish.

How Big Are Dwarf Puffers?

Dwarf puffers are truly tiny fish, growing to measure only around 1 inch in length.

Activity Level/Temperament

The Pea Puffer is an intelligent, curious little fish that always knows what’s happening outside its tank. Once the puffer gets to recognize its owner, these cute creatures can be quite interactive, too.

Each fish has its own unique way of swimming around the tank, which makes the Dwarf Puffer fish fascinating and entertaining to watch. These fish can be quite shy and defensive at first, and you might see your puffer curling its tail inward as it swims along. However, once the puffer has relaxed and settled into his new home, its tail will uncurl again.

Compatibility and Tankmates

Unfortunately, these tiny fish are not suitable candidates for a community tank. Ideally, you need to keep a single species tank or one Pea Puffer on its own.

Rather like betta fish, puffers have their own individual personalities, so some are meaner than others. However, all puffers are known to be very territorial and aggressive, attacking and potentially killing much larger fish.

Can You Keep Dwarf Puffers Together?

You can keep small groups of puffers together in a large tank. However, these fish will quickly establish a pecking order, generally with a male as the dominant party in the group. The older the fish gets, the more belligerent they become, so I recommend that you keep only one male with a few females. 

To keep the peace, you need to replicate the fish’s natural environment by providing lots of hiding places, dense planting, and caves. Also, make sure that you feed your puffers sufficiently.

What About Shrimp As Tank Mates?

So, if puffers are aggressive toward other fish and incompatible with most species, can they live with aquarium shrimps?

No! Unfortunately, the carnivorous pufferfish will make a meal of a shrimp if it can. In the wild environment, puffers eat snails, small crustaceans, and worms, so a tiny shrimp is considered fair game.

That said, some hobbyists have kept large shrimp species with pufferfish without incident, provided that there are lots of hiding places available and the shrimp is much larger than the puffer.

Feeding

As with all aquarium fish, a high-quality, nutritious diet is essential to keep the fish healthy and thriving.

What to Feed Your Pea Puffer Fish

When it comes to feeding your Pea Pufferfish, you should know that these fish are carnivores, needing a diet that consists exclusively of meaty protein. These fish won’t eat fish flakes or pellets, making them somewhat challenging to feed.

To replicate the fish’s wild diet, you can feed your puffers on Ramshorn snails. These mollusks are very easy to breed, so you can usually create your own supply at home. 

Since Dwarf puffers are so small, they don’t have the powerful, crushing teeth of other puffer species in the family. So, the Pea Puffer sucks the snail from its shell instead of breaking into it. In fact, Dwarf puffers can break their teeth if they attempt to crush the snail’s shell. And, unlike most other puffers, Dwarf puffers do not need to grind down their teeth to prevent overgrowth.

Other suitable foods for puffers include live or frozen bloodworms, mosquito larvae, tubifex worms, blackworms, daphnia, and brine shrimp.

How Often and How Often Should You Feed Pea Puffers?

Ideally, you should feed your puffers only once or twice every day. Pea Puffers are very slow feeders, so you need to allow them at least five minutes to clear whatever food you’ve offered them.

Be very careful that you don’t overfeed your fish, as that can cause liver and kidney conditions to develop in the long term. After feeding, the puffer should have a gently rounded belly, but it shouldn’t appear distended or bulging.

What Not To Feed

As previously mentioned, puffers won’t entertain eating pellets or flake foods.

Also, I don’t recommend feeding your Dwarf puffers snails that have very hard shells, such as Malaysian Trumpet snails. That could damage your fish’s teeth and prevent him from eating properly.

Tank Requirements

Tank size

One big advantage of keeping Dwarf Puffer fish is that they are tiny, so you don’t need a huge tank.

If you only want to keep one of these cute fish, a 10-gallon nano tank is ideal, provided that the filtration is sufficient to keep up with the amount of waste these messy eaters generate.

However, if you’re planning on keeping a group of puffers, you will need a 20 to 30-gallon aquarium.

Tank Setup

Substrate

The best substrate for puffers is light and sandy, as these fish love to forage through the substrate, hunting for scraps of food.

Decoration

Pea puffers are intelligent, curious fish that do best in a very well-planted tank. Also, if you’re keeping your fish in a group, they are less likely to become aggressive if there’s plenty of distraction in the tank.

Incorporate caves, overhangs, and driftwood into your tank decoration scheme to break up the puffers’ line of sight and help to prevent confrontations. Just like bettas, puffers get stressed if they catch sight of their reflection in the aquarium viewing panes, so use tall plants to prevent that. Floating plants are also great for the puffers to explore and hide amongst.

Lighting

Pufferfish are happy with standard lighting. However, make sure that the light levels in the tank are adequate for your plants.

Setting Up the Aquarium

Although I don’t recommend using a brand-new setup for Dwarf Puffer fish, that could work, provided that you allow at least two months for the system to settle properly before adding your fish.

Gather together everything you’ll need to set up your aquarium, including: 

  • Sandy substrate
  • External filtration system
  • Driftwood, caves, rocky overhangs
  • Water conditioner
  • LED lighting unit
  • Heater
  • Aquarium thermometer
  • A selection of living plants

Setting Up The Aquarium

 1. Wash the substrate to get rid of dust. 

2. Put a few inches of sand into your new tank. Set an upturned bowl or smooth stone on top of the sand in the middle of the substrate.

3. Plug in your heater and filtration unit but don’t switch them on

4. Fill the tank with dechlorinated water to just below the fill line. Pour the water over the stone or bowl so that the substrate doesn’t get displaced.  

5. To begin the Nitrogen Cycle, your water must contain some ammonia. Without that, the cycle won’t happen, and you risk poisoning your new fish. So, add a bit of fish flake or a few drops of pure ammonia to the water to kick off the cycle.

6. Rinse your items of decoration, and add them to the tank. 

7. Prepare your plants by trimming away any dead leaves and broken stems. Arrange the plants in the aquarium.

8. Now, you can switch on the heater and filter. Your plants need eight to ten hours of light each day for photosynthesis, so you need to set your lighting unit’s timer accordingly. 

Over the next couple of months, keep testing the water every other day or so to see that the levels of ammonia and nitrites are zero and nitrates are less than 20ppm. Once you’re confident that conditions are safe, you can add your fish.

Habitat Requirements

Filtration

Pufferfish don’t have gill covers or scales, and that can leave them susceptible to attack by bacteria, parasites, and other fish diseases. These fish are also vulnerable to the toxic effects of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate in the water. 

Fish tank with filter

That means you need a highly efficient filtration system. Also, and because Pea puffers are extremely messy eaters, you should not keep them in a brand new setup that’s only recently cycled.

These tiny fish aren’t the strongest of swimmers, so you’ll need a filtration system that doesn’t generate too much flow. But to keep the water clean and cope with the waste the fish produce, you want a filter that can circulate the water around the tank between six and ten times per hour. So, I recommend that you use an external filtration system or buffer the filter outflow pipe if necessary.

Water Parameters

Water Temperature

Pea puffers are a tropical species that need a water temperature of between 72° and 82° F, so you need to install a heater that can keep the water temperature stable within that range.

It’s also a good idea to use an aquarium thermometer so that you can keep an eye on the temperature every day and remedy any fluctuations immediately.

Water Hardness and pH Range

Pea puffers are a freshwater species, so you don’t need to add salt to their water. However, in some parts of their natural range, pufferfish live in brackish habitats and can tolerate those conditions in the aquarium.

These fish need a pH in the range of 7.5 to 8.3 and a water hardness of between 8 and 15 dGH.

Habitat Maintenance

Your Pea Puffer Fish tank requires weekly maintenance to keep the environment safe and healthy for your fish.

You will need to vacuum the substrate, around the bases of plant stems, in the tank corners, and underneath decorations to remove any accumulations of organic waste matter that would otherwise rot and pollute the water.

Woman spraying on aquarium glass and wiping it with yellow cloth.

As part of the process, carry out partial water changes of up to 30%. Rinse the filter media in dirty tank water once a month or so to prevent it from becoming clogged with sludge, and replace defunct media as required.

You also need to remove algae from the viewing panes since the puffers won’t eat it and tend to your live plants by removing dead leaves and stems.

Health

Routine Care

These fish are generally pretty healthy, however, there are a few general care requirements that you should be aware of.

  • Firstly, Dwarf puffers’ teeth don’t usually need clipping, so long as they get plenty of snails to munch on, as biting the snail shell helps to keep the puffer’s teeth at the right length.
  • Dwarf puffers don’t have gill covers or scales, which can make them more susceptible to some common fish diseases.
  • Wild-caught pufferfish often carry internal parasites. So, double-check that the supplier has de-wormed the fish before you buy them. If that hasn’t already been done, I recommend that you quarantine the puffers and deworm them before you put the fish into your main tank.

Signs Of Health

Puffers are curious, active little fishes that spend much of their day exploring all areas of the tank. 

These are greedy fish that have very good appetites, so your pets should eat all the food they’re offered.

Red Flags

There are a few behaviors to watch out for that indicate that all is not well with your Dwarf puffers, including:

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of interest in food
  • Not interested in movement and activity outside the tank
  • Spending much time hiding away
  • Not interacting with other group members

Any sign of reddening of the skin, white spots, ulcers, or damage to fins should be taken as a sign of impending health problems.

Note:  Never use medication that contains copper to treat Dwarf puffers, as these scaleless fish are highly sensitive to copper.

Common Health Issues and Treatment

Health Issue

Symptoms or Causes

Suggested Action

Ich (White Spot Disease)

Ich or White Spot disease is caused by a common aquatic parasite. 
Puffers with Ich flick or flash against the substrate, and any solid surfaces in the tank. After a few days, a rash of tiny white spots appears.

Elevate the tank temperature to 82oF for a few days. Treat the aquarium with an Ich medicine.

Flukes

Flukes is a term that’s used to describe a variety of parasites that attach themselves to the fish’s body or gills. Often, flukes can be seen with the naked eye.

Treat your tank with an antiparasitic drug.

Fungal infections

White cotton-like patches on the fish’s mouth, head, and body.

Quarantine any infected fish. Treat the water with antifungal medicine.

Bacterial infections

Red, bloody patches, ulcers, ragged fins, general malaise.

Treat the fish tank with antibacterial medicine.

Health Issue

Ich (White Spot Disease)

Symptoms or Causes

Ich or White Spot disease is caused by a common aquatic parasite. Puffers with Ich flick or flash against the substrate, and any solid surfaces in the tank. After a few days, a rash of tiny white spots appears.

Suggested Action

Elevate the tank temperature to 82oF for a few days. Treat the aquarium with an Ich medicine.

Health Issue

Flukes

Symptoms or Causes

Flukes is a term that’s used to describe a variety of parasites that attach themselves to the fish’s body or gills. Often, flukes can be seen with the naked eye.

Suggested Action

Treat your tank with an antiparasitic drug.

Health Issue

Fungal infections

Symptoms or Causes

White cotton-like patches on the fish’s mouth, head, and body.

Suggested Action

Quarantine any infected fish. Treat the water with antifungal medicine.

Health Issue

Bacterial infections

Symptoms or Causes

Red, bloody patches, ulcers, ragged fins, general malaise.e body and head, ragged, bloody fins.

Suggested Action

Treat the fish tank with antibacterial medicine.C antibacterial treatment.

Breeding Pea Pufferfish

You can breed Pea puffers in a home tank, provided that you give them the correct conditions. Ideally, you want a group of females and one male so that the females don’t get hassled too much.

Spawning

It’s possible to initiate spawning by adding cooler water to the tank during water changes than raising the aquarium temperature by between five and ten degrees. You also need to give the puffers lots of high-quality live food to bring them into prime breeding condition.

Dwarf Puffer Fish are egg-layers. The fish lay their eggs on plants, such as Java moss, where the male fertilizes them. This species of puffer doesn’t guard the eggs, so you must provide plenty of lush plants for protection. 

The spawning tank must have a filter that produces a good flow over the eggs to stop fungus from attacking them.

Fry

The eggs hatch within about five days. At that time, you must remove the eggs from the tank so that the adult puffers don’t eat them. 

Put the fry into a 10-gallon tank without substrate, and keep the growing tank immaculately clean.

Feed the fry infusoria until they are a week or so old. When they are large enough, you can feed the fry baby brine shrimp and microworms.

Availability

You can find captive-bred Pea Puffers in most good fish stores for under $5. Before you buy your fish, make sure that they are not wild-caught since the species is in decline in the wild.

Product Recommendations

  • 10-gallon aquarium (larger if keeping a group of puffers)
  • Frozen meaty foods
  • Caves, rockwork, driftwood, etc
  • Water conditioner
  • Sandy substrate
  • Heater
  • External filtration system
  • Aquarium filter
  • Living plants

In Conclusion

I hope you loved our guide to the super-cute, feisty Pea Puffer Fish.

These fascinating, characterful fish make fabulous pets, whether kept in isolation or in a small group. However, although they’re relatively easy to care for and undoubtedly fun to own, puffers are aggressive and don’t make suitable community fish. 

If you have a Dwarf Puffer pet, tell us about it in the comments box below.

Alison Page has been an avid fish keeper for over 35 years and has owned many different species of freshwater tropical fish including bettas. Currently Alison has two large freshwater tanks. The first tank has two huge fancy goldfish who are almost ten years old and still looking as good as ever. In the other, she has a happy community of tiger barbs, green tiger barbs, corydoras catfish, platys, and mollies.

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