Dogface pufferfish care guide

Dogface Puffer Fish Care Guide

The most polarizing saltwater fish in the aquarium hobby has to be the dogface puffer fish. You either think they’re awesome to look at or awful to behold; there doesn’t seem to be an in-between. The one thing we CAN all agree on is that it has an unfortunate name (which may be why they also go by the name of black-spotted puffer fish). And if you’re even the slightest bit curious about these members of the Tetraodontidae family, you know you need to read on and discover more.

Table of Contents: Dogface Puffer Fish Care

The eyes and snout of the dogface puffer fish clearly remind me of a dog’s, which is pretty amazing in a reef tank. And they come with TONS of personality. But even with all of that knowledge, I can’t make up my mind whether I think they look cool or weird (making them cool by proxy). You may not, either. This is why we have all of these handy links available to help convince you one way or the other.

Quick Notes of Interest About the Dogface Puffer Fish

What it lacks in raw (traditional) beauty, the dogface puffer fish makes up for with cool and interesting factoids (in my opinion, anyway). For instance, did you know:

  • They lack scales
  • This puffer doesn’t have pelvic fins
  • You also won’t find a lateral line
  • No dogface puffer owns a motorcar nor any other luxury (Okay, so neither do ANY fish – I was trying to be generous to these homely guys)
  • They possess outer and inner layers of skin (which allow the puffer to inflate/deflate), doubling their size when scared or provoked
  • The fish has a face only a mother could love (Well, except they don’t receive any parental care…)

Brown dogface puffer fish

The most astounding fact that sets dogface puffer fish apart, though? (Well, actually, it’s a key feature of ANY puffer) A set of teeth that would make your orthodontist jealous – or at least raise their eyebrows. The teeth are shell-crushing vices designed to tackle the shellfish, sponges, and corals that make up the diet of puffers around the world.

Natural Habitat of the Dogface Puffer Fish

The dogface puffer fish (Arothron nigropunctatus) is a saltwater species predominantly found in the tropical regions of the Pacific and Indian oceans. They skip the Red Sea, though. Divers find them on the edges of reefs and lagoons, near the dropoffs. They don’t go terribly deep, either – only down to around 80 feet (25m) or so.

They get their name from the shading around their eyes and mouth, reminding people of a dog’s “puppy” face. And since you’ll see an appearance of “nostrils” on the face, people forget these fish have gills. (They’re also notorious beggars for food when they get into aquariums, using that puppy dog face to wheedle treats from their owners)

The layers of skin of a puffer fish provide the unique shape you associate with the family. The inner layer features skin that folds into pleats. When startled or confronted by a predator, the pleats unfold and stiffen to create that round, spiky “ball.” As they deflate, all of the pleats return in place, and the outer layer of skin covers them up. Without that double layer system, the dogface puffer fish would swim around, looking like a crazy raisin. (Imagine how unattractive THAT would be) And all of those folds would generate drag, decreasing swimming efficiency.

Almost all puffers produce tetrodotoxin. It’s the last line of defense when that inflation trick doesn’t work against a predator. We’re talking some powerful stuff, too: 1,200 times MORE poisonous than cyanide! One puffer fish contains enough toxin to kill THIRTY humans! (Oh, and there’s no antidote) We’ll go over the proper handling of your dogface puffer fish in a few minutes, but (for the moment) reconsider any thoughts you had of rubbing your face after touching your homely puffer.

Dogface puffer fish remind people of puppy faces

Dogface Puffer Fish Aquarium Care

Dogface puffer fish are best cared for by intermediate aquarists with at least SOME experience catering to unique species. This is mostly because of their picky feeding habits. You’re not likely going to get this hungry meat-eater to learn to take flakes (but we’ll cover that in a minute). Even if you DID convince your puffer to eat commercial food, you’d have a major dentistry bill on your hands. This saltwater fish’s teeth are made to crack shells and overgrow if they don’t encounter proper substances to wear them down.

If you feel up to the task, though, let’s cover what you’ll need to bring a dogface puffer fish home.

Dogface Puffer Fish Size

Dogface puffer fish grow to be about 12-13 inches (30.5-33cm) as adults. Of course, you usually find them sold in fish stores as juveniles – much smaller juveniles. You need to keep that adult size in the back of your mind, though. Excessive handling of these puffers ISN’T recommended, so you don’t want to end up transferring them as they grow.

And, of course, you need to remember they can DOUBLE their size when startled. That ovoid, elongated fish changes to a round ball in a matter of seconds. (Yeah, you need to think in three dimensions)

Dogfish puffer fish also develop black spots

Minimum Tank Size

Okay, so the dogface puffer fish can grow to be over a foot in length. That means you should keep them in a tank that’s about 75-90 gallons (284-341L). And, yes, that’s for ONE puffer. You need to provide enough room for them to swim and explore. You’re also ensuring there’s room in case a startle reflex happens. That “ball” girth is impressive. If you’re concerned in the slightest, err on the side of caution and go for a tank the size of 125 gallons (473L). This will give an adult dogface puffer plenty of room.

Once you have your aquarium selected, take care with your aquascaping. You need to leave room for open swimming and provide a cave for the puffer to retreat into. They’re shy fish (you don’t develop predator response systems unless you taste good), and having somewhere to call home will reduce stress. People LOVE seeing dogface puffer fish swell up, but it’s not comfortable OR healthy for them. You want to give them an alternative to that stress response.

In addition, a larger system will make things easier on YOU. Dogface puffer fish have specialized diets – messy diets. And keeping up with the waste produced is easier when you have a bigger tank. (Obviously, you’ll also want to choose the best filtration system possible)

Water Parameters

The dogface puffer fish doesn’t require anything special in terms of water quality. Standard reef water parameters are sufficient. If you want to narrow your focus, temperature, pH, bitrates, and salinity rank as the most important for these fish:

  • Temp: 78F (25.5C)
  • pH: 8.1-8.4
  • Nitrates: As close to 0ppm as possible
  • Salinity: 35 g/L or 1.025

Dogface puffer fish in a reef tank

Dogface Puffer Diet

Dogface puffer fish are nocturnal hunters out in the ocean. When introduced to captivity, they initially appear shy and often refuse the food you provide. You’ll need to work on coaxing them to accept your offerings. But once your fish acclimates to their new environment, they become bolder, sometimes pleading for food in that charming, puppy-like manner. (And it’s hard to resist that face others might shudder at)

They feed on invertebrates such as mollusks, algae, crustaceans, sponges, corals, and sea squirts in the wild. Those strong, hard teeth have no problems breaking into the shells of these species. They even benefit from chewing on corals to wear down their constantly growing teeth. Without the “wear and tear,” the teeth grow out of control.

In captivity, their diet should consist of suitably meaty foods, such as raw shrimp, squid, krill, mussels, and clams. Foods with hard shells will help keep their teeth from overgrowing (a frequent issue for aquarists that aren’t familiar with dogface puffer fish – or puffers, in general).  If you notice a hunger strike, it’s a sign of a problem. It could be an issue with the environment, but it may be an inability to eat. You’ll need to pay close attention to what’s happening in your tank.

Compatibility with the Dogface Puffer Fish

The dogface puffer fish is considered a non-aggressive saltwater aquarium fish – as long as you’re not a tasty invertebrate. Because of those giant teeth for breaking into and eating clams, crabs, and shrimps, you don’t want to leave your crustaceans alone and unprotected in the tank. Even with their impressive size, a puffer can root around in crevices, caves, or dig into the substrate after a tasty morsel. But they should leave your other fish alone.

As to your corals? That’s a tricky question. Dogface puffer fish chew on coral in the wild to keep their teeth in check. As long as you provide a proper diet, you shouldn’t have problems. But it IS possible your puffer will nibble. So you shouldn’t consider the dogface puffer fish 100% reef-safe.

Due to their large size and carnivorous tendencies, most aquarists keep dogface puffer fish in tanks with larger, aggressive, or predatory fishes. Ideal tankmates would be other non-aggressive (or moderately aggressive) puffer species, triggers, including the Niger trigger, lionfishes, snowflake eels, select tang species, large wrasses, or angelfish.

Skip fish with long fins, or you might find the puffer fish nipping and causing inadvertent wounds.

Dogface puffer fish nibble on corals to trim their teeth

Considerations With Dogface Puffer Fish Care

If you’re not careful, the teeth can grow so large that they prevent your dogface puffer fish from eating. Severe overgrowth requires trimming with special Dremel tools – something you don’t want to handle on your own. It also means unnecessary stress for the fish as they suffer capture and handling. Feeding your dogface puffer fish hard-shelled invertebrates helps check the growth of those teeth. But the necessity of this diet is why I recommend only intermediate or advanced aquarists try their hand at caring for man’s best (aquatic) friend.

The dogface pufferfish can also prove difficult to feed, especially when stressed, insecure, or shy. This goes double when they are first introduced to the tank. To ensure you have a healthy puffer, make sure they feed properly before purchase. Simply ask the fish store to demonstrate a feeding for you. Slow feeding can be a result of internal parasites (in addition to everything else). A proper dose of fenbendazole will help eradicate the problem.

One of the top sights people crave is a “puffed” puffer fish. And if your motivation for keeping these amazing creatures is you love the idea of watching a puffer inflate itself, you should think again. Okay, I’m on your side; it sounds awesome to see and show off. But it’s not good for the fish.

Dogface puffer fish only inflate themselves when stressed, and things can go wrong when they do. If they take in too much air during this process, they struggle with shrinking back to normal size and die. (A big bummer for both of you – but mostly for your dogface puffer) Not to mention it IS a stress reaction. Stress floods the body with steroids that depress the immune system every time it happens. And dogfish puffer fish don’t have scales. So now you’re courting skin infections. All for entertainment? Not a good plan.

If you’re interested in seeing what the inflation process looks like (and showing it off for friends), this YouTube video is available:

You want to take care when handling your dogface puffer fish. Obviously, you know that stress will create an “explosion” event. So if you need to transfer them, go slow. And NEVER use a net (for one, you probably won’t find one they can fit inside). Herding them into a rigid container (one they’ll fit inside safely) works much better. You won’t expose them to the air, and they’ll feel more secure.

Finally, that whole toxin bit. As long as you’re not EATING your dogface puffer fish, you’re in the clear. But you should wear gloves when working in your aquarium as a precaution. You also need to keep an eye out if your puffer decides to go on a hunger strike or look unwell. Dead fish? They can release the toxin into the water, affecting their tank mates. (Not to mention posing a severe hazard to your cleanup crew!)

Purchasing a Dogface Puffer Fish

Dogface puffer fish can cost anywhere from about $40 up to hundreds of dollars. The price is based on the size of the fish and its beauty. They undergo color changes as they age (though that tends to stop when they enter captivity). You’ll see a grey phase, where the black marks around the mouth and eyes are the most prominent. Then it goes into the half-yellow phase. This is when you start to notice a yellow “underbelly” and darker shading along the back. You can also start to see the black spots that give it the other common name of black-spotted puffer fish.

For most fish stores, the common range is probably $50-$90.

For More Information

Have I won you over about this unique-looking fish? Of course, I have. If you want to dive deeper and learn more about caring for the dogface puffer fish in a saltwater aquarium, check out this YouTube video:

If you are looking for other aggressive saltwater aquarium fish compatible with the dogface puffer fish, you may want to consider the fantastic foxface rabbitfish.

Or, if the aggressive nature and invertebrate-eating aspects of the dogface puffer fish have you reconsidering, you may want to opt for the magnificent marine betta.

Conclusion

The dogface puffer fish is an interesting saltwater fish worthy of consideration as you plan out the livestock additions for your tank. They’re big, (sometimes) beautiful, and certainly eyecatching in the tank as they swim around, seeming to crave your attention.

They require specialized care in terms of what and how often you feed them, so they don’t develop dental problems as they grow older. And you need to minimize their stress to prevent that famous puffing behavior. Not to mention monitoring the toxic ability lying in wait in their flesh. (But who snacks on their fish?)

The dogface puffer fish is a shell-cracking, invertebrate-eating machine. This means it ISN’T totally reef-safe. But if you have a large tank where you want to keep aggressive or semi-aggressive fish, the dogface puffer fish could be a cool choice.

What do you think?

Please leave a comment below and let us know what you think! Awfully beautiful? Beautifully awful? Quirky, cool, and personable? What’s your reaction to the dogface pufferfish?

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