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Neon Tetra vs Cardinal Tetra – A Comparison

Just like some people adopt dogs, cats, and birds, some bring home fishes. Yes, fishes cannot exhibit emotions like dogs, cannot play hide and seek like cats, and nor can they chirp like birds. But, fishes bring home great positivity.

They are colorful, beautiful, and just watching them swim around gives you great satisfaction.

Similar to other pets, fishes too need your time and attention. You have to take great care of them. It is important to feed them on time and in the correct amount. Also, you need to make sure the water temperature, the lights, the filter, and everything else is just perfect. Whilst doing all this you develop a strong and beautiful emotional bond with your fishes.

By now you must be convinced that adopting fishes is as good an experience as adopting any other pet.

But, which fishes should you introduce to your tank is perhaps the question now running in your mind? Though you do have a huge choice to select from, the tetras are the most popular ones. Among tetras too you have many options but neon tetras and cardinal tetras are the favorites of most aquarists.

We shall learn more about them through a neon tetra vs cardinal tetra comparison. But before that, let us get to learn a bit about tetras in general.

The Beautiful Tetras

There are around 150 species of tetras and you get them in many different colors and variations. You can find tetras that are neon to multi-colored, striped to spotted, slim to chubby.

These freshwater species are great swimmers and mostly you will find them swimming in the middle of the aquarium. Tetras are also very social so make sure you have at least a few of them in your aquarium. But remember, some species can be more aggressive compared to the others and may enjoy biting at long-finned fishes.

Tetras should be kept in tanks of a minimum of 20 gallons. When you are preparing an aquarium for them the most important things you will need are a tank heater and a filter. These colorful fishes are not really fussy about food and so you have not much to worry about.

Though you have a wide variety to choose from, as already mentioned, neon tetras and cardinal tetras are the most loved ones. Which one among these is better you may ask? You shall learn about this when you go through the neon tetra vs cardinal tetra comparison. But now we will learn about both these fishes in detail.

All You Need To Know About Neon Tetra

Video: “Neon Tetra Care, Information and advice”

Neon Tetra, with the scientific name Paracheirodon innesi, is a native freshwater species of South America. It is a part of the Characidae family and is a great community fish.

When in the wild, these fishes have a life span of about 5-8 years, and in the tank, you can expect them to survive for about 5 years. Neon tetras are non-aggressive and love to stay in groups. You will mostly find them swimming in the center water column of your aquarium.

What Do They Look Like?

What easily draws most people towards neon tetra fishes is their beautiful color. You will notice that right from the tip of their nose to their adipose fins these fishes have a bright neon blue stripe. People even say that this neon stripe makes the fish more visible to each other.

Below their blue stripe, the neon tetras have a silvery-white belly. Past their belly is a bright red colored stripe that extends up to their tail. This amazing neon blue, silvery-white, and red color combination makes these tetras look super attractive.

The blue and red hue present on their body fades away when they are unwell or when they sleep. Apart from their color, what also needs to be mentioned is their spindle-like body and rounded nose. Furthermore, they have really big eyes which cover most part of their head.

The neon tetra fishes, when in their natural surroundings, can grow up to 2.5 inches long. However, when in a tank they can grow nearly 1.5 inches long. The females are shorter in size compared to the males.

Tank Requirements of Neon Tetras

Neon tetras originated from the rivers around Peru, Columbia, and Brazil. These are areas of blackwaters underneath dense canopies where very little light gets through. You can find these fishes living in the middle water layers in shoals.

To keep the neon tetras happy, you have to replicate their natural environment in your tank. To begin with, you have to opt for heavy planting in your tank. Also, use driftwoods so that you can create shade and darkness for them.

Make sure you introduce your neon tetras, not in a newly cycled but a fully mature and established tank. This is to ensure the fishes do not get killed owing to alterations in water chemistry.

The ideal tank size will be 20-gallon and the water temperature should be around 76 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The pH levels should ideally be between 6.2 and 6.8. Basically, these tetras will do best in soft water.

You do need a filtering system as well but a small one. This is because the tetras produce just a little bioload. Do remember to change 25-percent of the water each week.

What Fishes Are Safe To Be Placed With Neon Tetras?

You must be careful while selecting companion fishes for your neon tetras. They should not be so large that they eat them. Some safe options include –

  • Live-bearers
  • Small catfish
  • Dwarf Cichlids
  • Barbs

A good idea will be to check the mouth of the fishes. It should not be so large that can feed on your tetras.

What Should You Feed Them?

Neon tetras in the wild are omnivores and they eat small animals, plant matter, and insects.

Once you have adopted them, you will not have to worry much about their diet as they are not picky eaters. They will eat almost anything that you offer as long as it goes through their mouths. Usually, they will snack on plants present in your tank, like algae. Also, you will see these fishes consuming brine shrimp, blood worms, flakes, daphnia, and pellets.

You must feed the young neon tetra two times each day. Just offer them as much as they can finish off within three minutes. When these fishes mature, feed them just once a day but the three-minute feeding rule has to be maintained.

All You Need To Know About Cardinal Tetra

Video: “Cardinal Tetra Care Tips”

With the scientific name Paracheirodon axelrodi, cardinal tetras are native to the freshwater of Orinoco and Negro rivers.

These fishes like properly shaded areas and slow-moving or standing clear waters. This is why you will find them in waterways that are covered with thick rainforests where only a little light is allowed to pass through.

Cardinal tetras love living in shoals and you will find them swimming in mid-level waters of your aquarium. These fishes too are quite peaceful and will love other peaceful fishes as their companion.

Though they prefer living in large schools it is possible to keep them in smaller groups. But make sure there are at least 6 fishes living together. If you are not careful about the numbers your fishes can get stressed and may eventually die.

What Do They Look Like?

The color patterns that cardinal tetras have, often makes people confuse them with neon tetras. The underbelly of these fishes has a nice soft white color. They have a beautiful neon blue stripe that runs from their nose up to their tails. Below this blue stripe is a red stripe. The red coloration beautifully blends into the tail, which is transparent just like the other fins. It is in fact because of this red stripe that a cardinal tetra can be distinguished from a neon tetra. We shall learn more about this through the neon tetra vs cardinal tetra comparison given below.

Tank Requirements of Cardinal Tetras

As cardinal tetras are blackwater fishes they will not do well in very nicely lit tanks. So, you have to make sure to dim the lighting system. Also, make sure to add pieces of driftwood and dark substrate. You may even add floating plants to moderate the lighting.

You need at least a 20-gallon tank for the cardinals though a 25-gallons one will be even better.

Do make sure the tank that you will introduce your cardinal fishes in is mature. It must have stable water chemistry and soft acidic water. The pH level that these fishes love is between 6.0 to 6.8. The water hardness has to be taken care of it should not be more than 4 dGH.

The tank water must be within the range of 75 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Cardinals too need hiding places so make sure you offer them a few. But, do not forget to ensure they have enough swimming places as well.

What Fishes Are Safe To Be Placed With Cardinal Tetras?

Cardinal tetras will be happy to get peaceful fishes as their companions. Some options you have include –

  • Dwarf cichlids
  • Small Rasboras
  • Loricariids
  • Other little tetras

What Should You Feed Them?

Cardinal tetras, just like neon tetras, are also omnivores. They will be happy with almost any type of food you offer.

Remember, these cardinal fishes need more vitamin so do feed them high-quality flakes. You can indeed offer them live and frozen foods. But if they get used to it they might not readily accept other kinds of food later on.

Ideally, you should feed the young cardinal tetras three times a day. The food should be enough for them to finish off in as little as three minutes. As far as adults are concerned, you can feed them two times a day. Offer them as much as they will complete eating in 5 minutes.

Neon Tetra vs Cardinal Tetra

Now that you have learned about both these fishes in detail let us draw a comparison and discover their similarities and differences.

How are they similar?

  • Neon tetra and cardinal tetra have the same color combination of blue and red.
  • Both are blackwater fishes.
  • They are non-fussy eaters.
  • Both prefer low lighting conditions.
  • They love living in schools.

What makes them different?

  • Though they have the same color combination, in the case of neon tetras the red band runs from the mid-body to their tail. However, in cardinal tetras, the red band extends through the full length of its body.
  • Both of them are small-sized fishes but cardinal tetras are a little bigger compared to neon tetras.
  • Though both these fishes will thrive in acidic water, their aquarium water requirements are not the same. Neon tetras need a pH ranging between 6.2 and 6.8 whereas cardinal tetras need a pH of 6.0 to 6.8.
  • The water temperature ideal for cardinal tetras is 75 degrees to 85 degrees Fahrenheit whereas neon tetras prefer it to be between 76 degrees to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.


As this neon tetra vs cardinal tetra comparison clearly shows, there is a very little difference between the two. Both of them are equally beautiful, peaceful, and will make your aquarium look stunning.

You must remember that they love living in schools when in their natural environment. So, when you introduce them to your tank, they still must have a company of a minimum of 6 fishes.

Their other natural habitat has to be replicated too for their proper growth and long life. The water temperature and pH level must be taken care of. Also, you need to give great attention to the light that comes in. It must be very dim always.

Since both these fishes are very sensitive you must never introduce them to a newly set-up tank. The altering water temperature can prove to be very hard on them and they may even die. You have to be patient and wait until your tank is properly established and the water chemistry is in place. Once that is achieved, you can introduce neon or tetra fishes and you will be glad of the choice you made. Your tank will look immensely attractive. You will never want to set your eyes off these beautiful little fishes even for a moment.

Aaron Boyd
Aaron Boyd

Hello, I’m Aaron Boyd, the proud owner and author behind Aqua Movement. I hope my article was able to answer your questions. If you want to learn more about me, click the home icon above.

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