Why Are My Cichlids Losing Color?

by | Blog, Cichlids, Freshwater Fish

1. Color Factors + Difference between Male and Female Cichlids Colors.

Before diving in to the reasons why you might find your cichlids losing color, we should rule out a few things first.

Substrates in the fish tank impact the color of cichlids. If the substrates are a lighter shade, then the color of the cichlids will be at their lightest. Conversely, if the substrate is dark or bright then the cichlids will assume a similar hue.

You’ll also see color differences between male and female cichlids (particularly with African cichlids), though this varies from one species to another.

In some species, male cichlids have more sparkling and vibrant colors and in others, it’s the female cichlids that have the dazzling colors and patterns. When male cichlids are more brightly colored, it shows that they’re responsible for the safety and protection of the females (known as dimorphic.)

Bolivian Ram Cichlid


Still others, like peacock cichlids, have similar coloration for both males and females. This is known as monomorphic.

Lastly, cichlids can change their colors based on social hierarchy (more on this later!) For example, males will change their colors to attract females when breeding.

Affiliate Disclosure: Some of the links on this site may be affiliate links. This means we earn a tiny commission if you make a purchase using these links. There is no additional cost to you, and we only link to products we recommend.

General Disclosure: We do our best to provide free, accurate, helpful information. However, we are not liable for decisions you make. When in doubt, please consult a veterinarian and/or professional aquarist.

2. Why are My Cichlids Losing Colors?

If you’ve ruled out substrate and sex differences, it’s time to dive in to the other possible reasons you’re seeing your cichlids losing color. Sometimes it’s totally normal; Other times, it’s a sign that something’s very wrong.

2.1 Social Status

This is one example in which cichlids changing color is totally and completely normal. Cichlids can change colors in the matter of a few minutes; They do this based on social hierarchy, particularly males. The brightest color tone indicates the dominant/superior male, and the less color the rest have, the lower they are in the hierarchy. The brightest color is a hallmark of the dominant male cichlid because that is what allows them to mate with the female. The color is the way the males advertise themselves to the females.

You can even see the color change in other males when the dominant male swims away. In the wild, if the dominant male is eaten by a predator, then the next in line will assume the brighter color.

2.2 Stress

The color of fish, any fish, is a key indicator of health, stress levels, and diet (more on that last one late!) Stress can play a key role in the fading color of your cichlids. Incompatible tank mates, fighting, chasing, or aggression in the tank, fin nipping, etc. will stress your cichlid out.

Similarly, poor water quality, dirty or poorly maintained tanks, and tanks that are too small for the cichlids can all cause a loss of color. Sometimes the problem might even be more subtle, like not having enough hiding spots. Most cichlids come from natural environments with lots of driftwood and plants, and replicating that in their home tank will make them feel comfortable and safe, and help to bring out their best colors.

2.3 Sickness

If you’re already giving your cichlids every other possible facility, but they’re still losing color, they may be sick. Diseases like ich, lymphocystis, hole-in-the-head disease, and columnaris, and more can all affect cichlids.

White spots on the body are a telltale indicator of ich, which can look like color loss to the naked eye. If your cichlid is suffering from lymphocystis (an infection), then you may see its effects on the fish’s fins and skin, fading the color.


Orange Cichlid


Columnaris, a bacterial infection, can also be responsible for the change of color in fish.
Hole-in-the-head syndrome may cause the color to appear changed, although over time it becomes apparent that the fish is suffering from an affliction.

Red or blue spots, on the other hand, can indicate internal injury.

2.4 Environmental Changes

Think of color as a way to tell how your fish is coping with their environment. Fish often lose a little color when placed in a new tank; Once they adjust, their color comes back (provided the tank set up is right for them). Environmental changes can cause your cichlids to lose color.

Accurate light, temperature/parameters, and water quality can all affect coloration. Fluctuations in parameters, including pH and water hardness, can cause color loss.

Note that some species are more sensitive than others; For example, discus are quite sensitive and might lose some color due to very slight changes in the water.

2.5 Developmental Changes + Old Age

When cichlids move from one stage of life to another, you might see changes in their colors. They may start out as very brightly-hued juveniles, and lose some of their color as they become adults. It can also vary according to the genetics of the breeder.

As cichlids enter old age, they start losing their colors. Health and environmental conditions play a role in this; The healthier the fish and the better the surroundings, the longer they’ll retain vibrant color. Losing color during old age can also indicate the end of the fish’s lifespan.

2.7 Poor Diet

Fish Food Flakes Photo

Seasoned aquarists know that a varied, healthy diet brings out the best colors in their fish. Nutrient-rich foods like brine shrimp and bloodworms will enhance their dazzling hues and patterns. On the flip side, if you simply feed them flake food every day, you’re not going to see the best coloration. In fact, the cichlids will probably lose color.

This is partly because carotenoids are responsible for your fish’s pigment, and your cichlids get carotenoids by eating foods rich in them. These important compounds also help boost the fish’s immunity and resistance to disease.

3. How to Maintain Cichlids’ Color

Remember that substrate matters here. Healthy, peaceful cichlids in an excellent tank set up will still show color shades based on whether you added a light or a dark substrate. Once you’ve checked the substrate box, move on to the steps below.

3.1 Eliminate Stressors

Since stress is one of the primary reasons for cichlids losing color, you’ll want to work backwards and eliminate any potential causes of stress. Make sure the tank size is big enough for the fish you’ve stocked it with. Upgrade it if needed. Remove any incompatible tank mates, and break up the line of sight in the tank with plants. Make sure your cichlids have plenty of hidey holes, and set up the tank to mirror their natural environment. For example, Juli cichlids come from rocky African shorelines, and they’re happiest when they have lots of rocky caves to hang out in.

This should go without saying, but the water parameters should match the requirements of your cichlids, you should have a suitable filter and a heater, and the water should be well-oxygenated.

3.2 Step Up Maintenance + Water Changes

Step up your water quality and maintenance game. Perform small, frequent water changes and avoid large, infrequent ones. Stay on it with your test kit and don’t skip checking ammonia and nitrate levels. Adjust temperature and pH as needed, and don’t skimp on live plants.

3.3 Feed a Strong, Varied Diet

Most fish do best with a well-diversified diet; Meaning, you’re not feeding them the same thing every day. Including vegetables, frozen foods, and live prey will give your cichlids the nutrients they need to look their best. Brine shrimp and bloodworms are great for bringing out color.

Mixing it up with lakes, pellet food, freeze-dried brine shrimp, blood worms, algae wafers and live feeder fish will help your cichlids maintain their best health and color.

The best foods for boosting color contain carotenoids, organic compounds that are responsible for pigmentation. When you provide a diet rich in carotenoids to your cichlids, their skin and tissues absorb them and as a result, you can see the enhancement of their colors.

3.4 Test Your Tank Mates

Nobody wants a bad roommate. Cichlids are no different. Incompatible tank mates will stress out your fish and cause them to lose color.


German Blue Ram Cichlid


Creating a stress-free living situation will make them feel comfortable and safe, helping to bring out their best colors. Cichlids are notoriously aggressive and territorial, and sometimes even careful tank setups don’t work out. If need be, it’s worth experimenting a little to make sure that all the tank inhabitants are getting along. When in doubt, move the potential offender and see how the cichlids do

3.5 Treat Diseases/Illness

If you suspect disease or illness, quarantine your fish and treat them. Salt dips are a great first step to tackling various ailments. White spots from ich could look like color loss at first glance, and any illness can cause your fish to lose color because it causes stress.

4. Why Are My Cichlids Losing Color? FAQs

4.1 Does Substrate Affect Cichlids Colors?

Yes! Lighter substrates bring out darker colors, and darker substrates cause darker shades.

4.2 Do African Cichlids Change Color When Breeding?

Yes. African cichlids change their color when breeding because the males are vying for attention from the females. The most dominant male will be the brightest, and therefore the most likely to get to mate with the female.

4.3 When Do Cichlids Get Their Color?


Yellow Cichlid Photo


Cichlids start getting their color a few weeks after birth, but it takes 4-6 months for the color to fully develop (sometimes up to a year).

4.4 Why Do Yellow Cichlids Turn Black?

Sometimes yellow cichlids turn black as part of a completely natural process inherent to the genetics of the fish. Other times, it can be a symptom of ammonia poisoning and should be treated right away.

4.5 Why did My Blue Cichlid Turn White?

If your blue cichlid is turning white, then it indicates illness, poor water quality, stress or old age.

5. Conclusion

Cichlids change color due to several reasons including stress, sickness, poor water quality and diet, social status, environmental and developmental changes and old age. Sometimes it’s totally normal for the cichlids to lose color, such as when a more dominant cichlid is in the vicinity. Work backwards to eliminate stressors and determine the reason for the fading color, and feed a varied diet rich in carotenoids to bring out the vibrant hues of your fish.



To say that I’m obsessed with all things saltwater is a bit of an understatement. Aquarium Passion has served freshwater and saltwater aquarium hobbyists for over 10 years, and I'm committed to keeping the information accurate and free. My post-bac certification in Sustainability informs my writing about aquarium conservation efforts. When I'm not writing at AP, I'm out in the ocean or researching weird fish.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *