IV. Care of the Dwarf Puffer

Dwarf PufferOther common names: Pea puffer, Malabar puffer, pygmy puffer.
Scientific name: Carinotetraodon travancoricus.
Physical description: 1” max. Rounded bodies, pale or olive green with dark spots.
Lifespan: Varies. 3-8 years.

Care level: Intermediate.
Tank size: 5g for the first, with another 3g for each additional puffer. With these guys, less is NOT more. They have very heavy bioloads, and 5g per additional puffer is always a good idea.

Temperature range: 74-82.
Water hardness: Soft water is ideal, and usually required for breeding, but they will suffer no ill effects from hard water.
pH range: 6.5-7.2. HOWEVER, it should be noted that most fish purchased in pet/chain stores are farmed and raised in water much different than their native habitats. Also, most fish will adapt to reasonable water conditions given the proper acclimation techniques are used. My fish are totally content in a pH of 8.2. Wild-caught fish may be more sensitive, but tank-bred dwarves are becoming more widely available, and it’s always preferable to avoid wild-caught fish. Not only can it be invasive in their natural habitats, but tank-bred fish are generally hardier, and carry less diseases than their wild-caught counterparts.

Diet: Carnivorous. Live snails and live or frozen worms (bloodworms, blackworms) are great staples. Small live or frozen freshwater shrimp are also appreciated, and live brine shrimp are nice treats. Dried or prepared food of any sort will almost certainly not be accepted. Raw seafood is a healthy choice and can be offered, but it is usually not accepted. Vitamins are always appreciated.
Added 4/9/2010: The renowned scientist and hobbyist Dr. Robert T. Ricketts (RTR on thepufferforum.com) stated that in his experience, DPs do best on a diet of live blackworms and live snails. I don’t know anyone who’s been keeping DPs longer than he has. Also, in my experience, I have noticed that blackworms as a staple give my DPs the rounded look that a really healthy DP should have. Frozen bloodworms as a staple leave them leaner.

Compatibility: Much of this will depend on the individual personality of your puffer(s). In general, they are tenacious and territorial, and they are unstoppable fin-nippers. They will harass much larger fish without fear. Ideal tankmates are otocinclus catfish (please see brief species profile at the bottom of this article). Possible tankmates include ghost/cherry/Amano shrimp or fast-moving fish that do not have flowing fins. Absolute no-nos are slow-moving creatures or fish with long, flowing fins. (Mr. Betta is definitely out, unless you feel that his fins need trimming.)

Sexing: Sexing is very easy with adults and older juveniles. It’s also extremely important when keeping multiple dwarves together. If you have more than one male, you will need to provide at least two females for each male to prevent conflict. 

    -Slimmer body
    -Darker coloration
    -Spots turn to stripes as male reaches maturity
    -Markings resembling wrinkles behind the eyes
    -Belly is yellow, with a darker stripe down the center
    -An adult male will sometimes “keel.” He does this by raising the skin along his back and belly stripe into ridges, which make him appear taller and fatter when viewed from the side. This display is used to intimidate other males and impress females.
    -Rounded body
    -Paler coloration
A picture is worth a thousand words, so please refer to the included photos. It is difficult, if not impossible, to sex juveniles (young males resemble females, and females look the same all their lives), and adults are not usually available. This is the main difficulty in stocking the tank. Many owners wind up trading their male dwarves once or twice in order to obtain the correct m/f ratio.

Other info:
-Do not attempt to cycle the tank with dwarf puffers. The tank must, must, must be cycled before you bring them home! Otherwise, your new pal will probably die. Pufferfish are scaleless, and they are extremely sensitive to poor water quality. A water testing kit is an essential tool. Get tests for ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates.
-Water changes should be performed weekly, and should be at least 50%, unless you understock (always nice). These fish have heavy bioloads.
-Because they are scaleless, they are extremely sensitive to medications. Be very careful about what goes in. Ich should always be treated with salt and heat for a full month, rather than with meds.
-A planted tank (real or fake) is appreciated. Driftwood is also a great choice, especially if you want to lower the pH a bit. Heavy decorating is necessary for keeping these intelligent, inquisitive fish entertained; otherwise, they will spend all their time pacing the glass.
-Please do not try to make them puff up. It is animal cruelty to attempt to scare them for your personal amusement.
-That being said, don’t worry if they don’t puff, or if they puff for no apparent reason. Either of these is normal.
-This species is known to breed without any conditioning or “mood-setting” from the owner, but this is quite rare. It is probably the easiest of all puffer species to breed.
-There is some debate as to whether two seperate species have arisen in captive-bred fish. The only known differences are in coloring, and these are only slight. Their care will be exactly the same.
-Dwarf puffers are becoming more and more widely available; if your LFS does not stock them, they will probably be able to order them. They are also available from LiveAquaria.com.
-These fish have great personalities, and they’re totally adorable, very intelligent, and amusing. I enjoy my pair very much.
-All other species of puffers are at risk for dental issues (overgrown teeth) if not fed “crunchy” foods like snails, shrimp, crabs, etc. DPs are unique in that they don’t seem to suffer from this problem. I have known of two circumstances of overgrown teeth in DPs, and only one seemed to be legit – I highly suspect that the other case was actually a different problem. I have had mine for almost a year (as of 1/16/2010, the current date – I’m updating this profile) and fed them very few crunchy foods during this time, and I have seen no change in their mouths during this time.
-Use caution when transporting DPs. Puffers cannot be exposed to air (except in the direst of circumstances, such as if you have spilled a bottle of bleach in the tank), as a panicked puffer may puff, and when they take in air instead of water, they may not be able to expel it. This is a deadly condition. It is often possible to “burp” a puffer by holding it underwater with its tail down and head up and gently massaging the belly, OR by grabbing the tail and jerking it firmly downwards several times. If this does not remove the air and the puffer can’t manage it on its own, the result is much like swim bladder disorder, but more severe and instantaneous. The puffer will probably not be able to swim downwards and will exhaust itself trying to do so. The panic and shock often lead to death. This is why it is CRUCIAL that you do not remove it from the water! Shoo it into a container with a net and dump it into the other tank/holding container.

Thanks to…
ThePufferForum.com and Pufferpunk for letting me use some of the info from their species profile on Carinotetraodon travancoricus, and to all members of TPF for helping me to find the right puffer for me and to learn to care for them properly.