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The Tetraodontidae family includes the many varieties of puffer fish and these intelligent animals are becoming more and more popular as pets.
It may seem crazy to consider an animal that is known to be highly venomous as a pet, but many people are starting to keep puffers in their tanks and are reassured by the fact that these fish although very poisonous in the wild, are not toxic when kept in captivity. This is thought to be due to the diet that’s available to them in the wild and not in a domestic tank.
They are referred to commonly as puffer fish, puffers, blowfish, balloonfish and bubblefish and are closely related to the porcupinefish and look very similar to these, with external spines over the back which become visible when the animal is puffed up.
The name ‘Tetraodontidae’ refers to the four teeth the fish has that it uses for crunching up shellfish and molluscs that make up its diet in the wild. The four teeth have, over time, fused into two plates.
The pufferfish is considered the second-most poisonous creature in the world after the golden poison frog and its skin and internal organs are highly toxic if consumed. That said the meat of the puffer is considered a delicacy in some countries, where specially trained chefs prepare the meat for daring diners.
There are around 120 species of puffer, most of which inhabit the tropics. They are uncommon in temperate climates and completely absent from cold water areas. They are usually small or medium-sized fish, but some have been known to reach over a metre in length.
There are a few types of puffer that are chosen as pets, the spotted or dwarf varieties being the most popular.
The spotted puffer is a particularly intelligent animal and can become very tame over time, coming to the front of the tank when the owner approaches and actively seeking interaction with their humans. They can be a little aggressive at times and can nip, but this is usually harmless. They can be kept with other fish species but they must be monitored closely and well fed as they have large appetites. In order to keep nipping to a minimum feed little and often and ensure they have plenty of swimming space.
The spotted puffer enjoys eating frozen, thawed bloodworms, ghost shrimp and pond snails, whose brittle shells will help keep the fish’s teeth worn down. They can live for a number of years providing their needs are met, and they enjoy a brackish environment. They can be introduced to full saltwater when they’ve matured and being kept in a marine tank will make their colours particularly vibrant.
The dwarf puffer is a hardier fish than its spotted cousin and is therefore a more common choice for those looking at introducing a puffer to their tank. The dwarf is a freshwater fish and rarely reaches more than 22mm in length, making it one of the smallest pufferfish in the world.
Like the spotted puffer, the dwarf can also be aggressive and it’s often recommended that they are kept in a species-specific tank. Puffers are notoriously messy with food and will therefore require a well-managed dietary regime and a robust and reliable filtration system. Offer live and frozen bloodworms, some shrimp and triops and your fish will be happy. Puffers should never be offered flaked food as they will simply refuse to eat it.
Keeping a large group of five or six individuals (a female to male ratio of 2:1 is recommended) can help diffuse aggression, and they will provide hours of amusement for their owners as they hunt for snails. They will quickly learn to recognise their owners and can even beg for food.
These fish are becoming increasingly popular thanks to their intelligence, curiosity and energy, which make them very entertaining to watch. They will quickly learn to recognise their owner and will quietly study their every move if they’re near the tank.
As well as watching their caregivers, they will rush to the front of the tank when their owner comes near and they will also ‘beg’ for food – revelling in any interaction with their humans. They will also hunt endlessly for snails and will amuse and delight their owners with their antics while doing so.
Larger spotted puffers need a tank of around 30 gallons and must contain lots of plants for the fish to hide in and explore. Spotted puffer fish in particular like to know they have places to hide if they need them. If they feel confident they have plenty of places to secrete themselves they will often spend more time in the open. The tank should also provide plenty of open space in which the fish can swim and sandy substrate is recommended for puffers, rather than gravel.
Dwarf puffers can reside in smaller tanks – around 10 gallons for the first fish, and five gallons for each additional fish. All water must be completely cycled before any fish are introduced to eliminate any nitrites and ammonia. Never add salt to a tank intended for dwarf puffers. Adding dwarfs to a community tanks should be considered very carefully. Many enthusiasts add dwarf puffers to a mixed tank as they are small and will eat any snails. However their size belies their confident personality and once the snails are gone, they will nip their tank mates, regardless of how big or small they are!
Snails, snails and more snails! Dwarf puffers love to eat snails, which in the wild make up the majority of their diet. Owners can breed their own snails, or pet shops are often happy to donate the ones they’ve collected from their own tanks. Dwarf and spotted pufferfish will also accept frozen bloodworms, tubifex and mosquito larvae but any frozen foods must be soaked in water before feeding to your pets. They will also take fresh insects like blackworms, which may also form the mainstay of their diet. Never feed flakes as they offer little nutritional value and are usually rejected.
All puffers need hard, crunchy foods to keep their teeth worn down as, rather like a rodent, their teeth grow continually.
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