Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Top Five Most Common (and Deadly) Betta Fish Care Mistakes (article)

A male veil tail Betta splendens flaring. Photo by Betta Fish Awareness Day

So you or someone you know has decided that a Betta fish is needed in life. Perhaps this will be new ownership or perhaps the fish has been in possession for quite some time. Yet, there is always the lingering question: Is this really how to take care of Betta fish? Regardless of age, experience, or number of fish owned, Betta fish pet keepers are often guilty of becoming susceptible to the myths and misconceptions about Betta fish care. And who can blame them? There is so much incorrect information spread by pet stores and product manufacturers, not to mention from ill-informed Betta keepers themselves, that is it hard to avoid making mistakes at one point or another. But some mistakes are worse than others and some of the worse mistakes are the most common. Let’s start with the least harmful to most harmful of the top five most common (and deadly) Betta fish care mistakes.

5. Discomfort Zone: Acclimation Deprivation

Perhaps it’s been months of deciding or an impulsive desire but you’ve found yourself in a pet store eyeing the Betta splendens fish display for a perfect new addition to your household. You find the perfect fin type, the perfect color. This little beauty is everything you’ve been looking for and more—love at first sight! But when you bring your new friend home you realize that he sits at the bottom of his tank and won’t swim. He may swim erratically and begin breathing heavily. His beautiful fins clamp shut and he lays at the bottom of his tank as though dead. But he looked so healthy and lively at the pet store, so what happened?

Seeing this behavior often brings the same questions into new owners’ minds. They wonder if their pet was secretly sick or caught an illness since their travel from store to home. Others may fall for the myth that a larger living environment is stressing their new Betta fish out and causing it to play dead. Often, new owners will jump into the world of Betta fish without doing too much research beforehand. Some things seem basic. After all, how much does a fish need that cannot be figured out as you go? Most of the time, none of these explanations should even be a consideration. In fact, this sudden change in behavior usually comes down to one of two options.

The first option is that this is actually normal Betta fish behavior. It is not uncommon for Betta fish to become stressed from a move and need to take time to adjust to their new surroundings. Some Betta fish take up to a week before they begin swimming around and eating normally because they need time to feel safe from predators in a new environment. The more common answer to this behavior, especially if it involves strange swimming or heavy breathing, is the second possibility: the fish was not acclimated to their new home.

Unlike mammals, Betta fish do not have the ability to maintain their own body temperatures; they are cold blooded. This means that their environment will directly impact their internal body heat and it is necessary for their environment to maintain a healthy temperature range to allow these animals to flourish. This also means that it is very harmful to quickly change from one temperature suddenly to another without acclimation first. Acclimation means to slowly adjust to surroundings or temperature and water conditions in the case of Betta fish.

Holding a cup in new water for 10 minutes is one way to acclimate your fish to new water temperature. Photo by

Dropping a Betta fish into new water before allowing it to get used to the change from temperature and conditions in their old water is not only directly harmful to the animal but it can be deadly as well. Should the fish be dropped from really cold water to really warm water, for example, it could go into shock and possibly even die if the temperature range is significant enough. Even a couple of degrees can be enough to shock a fish, making it important for a new fish to sit in its bag or cup placed in the new water for at least 10 minutes. Acclimating a Betta fish to water conditions is just as important as acclimating it for water temperature changes. Although water may appear clear, the chemicals it contains vary greatly from water source to water source. Chances are that the small volumes of water Betta fish are traditionally kept in at stores are highly polluted with the invisible chemicals ammonia, nitrite, and possibly even nitrate. Each of these chemicals may be needed to cycle an aquarium but they are deadly to Betta fish exposed to them (as explained later in this article), especially in high quantities enhanced by small spaces. Clean, conditioned, water from tap may be better for a fish but pulling it from its polluted environment directly into a clean one may also cause shock. This common mistake can be avoided by slowly adding water from the new aquarium to the old bag or cup the fish is now being acclimated in. This gives a Betta fish time to adjust to new conditions without extreme, shock-inducing, change.

4. Creating Hostile Living Environments

The next most common mistake Betta fish are subjected to from new and naïve owners is a hostile living environment. The most common mistakes include placing Betta splendens with any other cool or beautiful tank mates, placing males with other males, and males with females.

It may seem really cool to place a red-tailed shark or a fancy guppy with Betta splendens but doing so is not in favor of the well-being of any of those species. Any shark species tends to be aggressive and dominant in a living environment, especially as they age, and fancy guppies often incite stress and aggression from male Betta splendens who will brutally attack them because they mistake these fish as males from their own species. There is a long list of species that should not be placed with Betta splendens of either gender but there is also a long list of species that often do quite well with this Betta species as well, provided that their personality types and individual aggressive natures do not clash. As with all animals it is important to do research before buying and building a community.

As for Betta fish companions within the B. splendens species, it is never a good idea to house anything other than a group of females—called a sorority—together. Even then, there may be gruesome results if the sorority is incompatible or created by an owner with limited experience and/or knowledge on creating a successful one. However, a common mistake that still occurs despite their fighting nature is placing males into the same undivided tank. Some people wrongly believe that buying two non-aggressive male Betta splendens will result in a happy community with only one or two occasional spouts of fighting if any were to occur at all. This is false. It does not matter if the fish do not flare at each other in the store, do not attack each other immediately, appear disinterested in one another, or are from the same group of fry raised together since birth. Instinct is instinct. Male Betta splendens will fight male Betta splendens. They are known as fighting fish or fighters for a reason. Highly territorial, this fish species will try to scare each other off and will eventually go for blood if they feel there is no escape. Yes, in the wild males may come across each other and flare until one backs down or briefly duel before the weaker admits defeat and swims away. Wild fish behaviors are by no means a standard to hold domesticated breeds to. For one, true wild Betta splendens may not even exist anymore due to unwanted domesticated breeds being released into native waters and mating with their wild short-finned cousins, making the comparison illogical. Two, in a natural environment Betta fish have unlimited space that allows room for escape and backing down. A home aquarium with two male Betta splendens, no matter how much coverage or space given, is the equivalent of setting up a steel cage match to the death. Instinct will always win even if not immediately and creating this situation is animal abuse.

Two male Betta splendens see and flare at each other  in warning. Photo by
Finally, and quite commonly, is the misguided attempt many naïve owners have at housing males with females. There is a dangerous misconception that a male Betta splendens can live with a sorority of females if a tank is large enough and provides enough hiding places. This incorrect notion is often supported by claims that females in a group will ward off a male from attack and/or breeding. Not only would this idea require females to attack a male to keep him line, but this would also mean a male had to be less aggressive than a set of dominant females. Not only is the situation highly stressful for all fish involved, it is unrealistic and based in false premises.

In the best case scenario, an owner finds a completely non-aggressive male who shows little interest in provoking females and non-aggressive females that show little interest in provoking the male. What will happen over time is either an unplanned breeding or sudden aggression that may flare up after an extended period of time due to built up stress. In the breeding scenario, a male will try to fight the female who will attempt to devour the fertilized eggs and the female will try to attack the male to keep him away. Other females may try to eat the eggs as well because eggs are a great source of protein and it is not uncommon for females to eat eggs from others or their own. Under purposeful breeding circumstance both the male and female are separated immediately after egg fertilization and the fry eggs are placed in a separate hatchery. In this accidental situation there is no safe space for any of the fish involved and aggression will result in injuries at best, death at worst. There is also the additional responsibility of up to 500 fry to take care of. In the case of sudden flared up tension, the previously uninterested male and females may nip at each other or begin to fight. Nipping can lead to fin and body injuries that become infected and spread disease or bacteria to the injured party and, depending on what disease or bacteria incurs, possibly the whole community. Fighting can cause more serious injuries with similar results or a dead fish. There are cases of males and females living peacefully for years together until territorial instinct kicks in or stress causes aggression and a sudden outburst results in an unfortunate—but very much avoidable—death.

A male crowntail Betta splendens with a corydoras catfish, a compatible tank mate. Photo by

Owners who put males and females together do so out of selfish purposes. Even if individual fish against all odds may possibly be the extraordinarily rare exceptions to the rule, the risks by far exceed the gains. In fact, other than a convenient set up for the owner there are no gains to be earned from such a scenario. There are no benefits for the fish involved whatsoever, just the ever-looming threat of a likely outburst of natural instinct subjecting the in habitant to hazardous outcomes. 

3. Unheated Water for a Tropical Species

Betta fish are tropical fish no matter their species or breed. Originating from areas in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, this species is bred for warm water temperatures that rarely fluctuate in temperature. Despite this critically important fact, when selling Betta fish it is rare that stores push the need of heaters onto customers. Heater can be expensive and unreliable if you do not know where to look. Most people think of fish keeping as an inexpensive and low-maintenance hobby, ideal for beginning pet owners. Facts are far from expectations, however. While a Betta fish may not be as expensive as caring for a dog or cat over long periods of time, aquarium equipment can be costly and initial startup often high for people’s budget. Knowing this, it is not often advertised that Betta fish are tropical or need a heater at all. Some stores blatantly lie and state that room temperature is perfectly fine for these little guys to not only survive in but to thrive in. The falsity is unsurprising, though, considering how many lies are advertised to consumers about the needs of this species in order to gain an extra buck.  

It is important to know the temperature of your Betta fish's tank. Photo by Betta Fish Awareness Day

Water temperatures can drop as low as 10 degrees overnight even if tanks are kept in warm rooms! Shifts in temperatures throughout the day can lower immune systems, cause stress, and leave fish open for a variety of health problems. Room temperature is not steady or reliable when caring for a Betta fish yet many newcomers and veterans alike are told that a heater is not necessary because most customers are more likely to purchase a Betta fish and misleading, overpriced, related Betta fish-specific labelled products if they continue to believe the myth that heaters and other such equipment are optional.

Not only do Betta fish need steady, tropical, temperatures to be comfortable but they need them for health. Most illnesses anddiseases common to Betta fish are both preventable and curable from properlyheated water and regularly maintained water conditions. Speaking of water conditions…

2. Water Maintenance Confusion

Water maintenance and conditions are key to a healthy thriving Betta fish! This topic has been heavily discussed and outlined in this blog before but it takes place as the second most common (and harmful) Betta fish care mistake. Pet stores often do not take the time to explain how or why water changes should take place. Rarely, if ever, is the water cycle even mentioned. In fact, most of the time an inadequate water conditioner will be given to a first-time buyer who does not understand what the conditioner conditions. These issues feed into the confusion and misunderstanding about the most important part of Betta fish keeping, keeping a healthy environment.

A fish tank does not need to look like this before the water is changed. Photo by

For those who do not understand how clear water that looks no different from tap water can be dirty or in need of changing, imagine this: You live in a big city that has many manufacturing plants and industrial factories. Each is located in a contained area that sits right next to the packed residential area you live in. Everyday these manufacturing plants and factories relentlessly pollute the air but instead of releasing a thick visible smog their pollutants are completely clear. You cannot see or feel the pollution but your health is directly affected because of them. Your air is not clean and will never be clean so long as these polluters are around, taking a slow toll on your health and immune system. You can feel the invisible chemicals burn your skin, making it difficult for you to breath, and creating the perfect conditions for bacteria and parasites to infest inside of you. These buildings may be an unavoidable part of your daily life but your local government has found a way to clean the air in order to keep the effects of this invisible pollution from causing you or your friends and family from succumbing to sickness and deadly diseases. However, there are those who doubt that the air needs cleaning at all. There is no smog, after all, and no visible cloudiness to the air. Despite the lack of appearance of pollution it is evident from your and your community’s health problems that if something is not done you will surely perish.  

This is the exact situation millions of Betta fish go through each day. Unfortunately for them, a confusion and lack of understanding of water conditions leave their environment toxic to the point of deadly. The invisible chemicals that threaten Betta fish mentioned earlier in this article are ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. These naturally occurring chemicals are unavoidable in aquarium care but they can be removed and only removed through either an established water cycle in the case of just ammonia and nitrite or through regular water changes in the case of all three chemicals. Take a look at a previous article on this blog to understand what the water cycle is and how often to change water to avoid making the second most common mistake in Betta fish keeping.  

The nitrogen cycle. Photo by

Make sure you also understand that water conditioners only temporarily detoxify certain chemicals added to tap water to make it safe for human consumption but deadly for fish. Some water conditioners only remove chlorine and should be avoided in favor of water conditioners that remove chloramines and heavy metals as well. While water conditioners may not be substituted for water changes, they do make freshly added water safe for a Betta fish to inhabit and help avoid that nasty shock from a change in water conditions.

1. Choosing the Wrong Tank Size

Finally…the most common and most highly debated topic in Betta fish keeping—tank size! The Betta fish tank debate is forever ongoing. Confusing to novices and beginners in Betta fish care, it is common to receive contradicting information from experienced owner and pet stores alike. Some may claim that 2 gallons is the minimum for a healthy Betta fish while others roll their eyes and scoff, refusing to accept even less than 5 gallons for a single Betta fish to inhabit. Pet stores will even go as far as to endorse and encourage as little as 0.3 gallons of water for Betta fish, pushing often expensive and always inadequate tanks onto unknowing consumers. Strictly speaking in terms of facts in consideration to the basic needs of a Betta fish as defined by the development of harmful chemicals, room for exercise, and ability to safely heat at a regularly maintained temperature, the bare minimum needed for a Betta fish is a 1-gallon fish tank with multiple full and partial water changes performed each week. It should be noted, however, that surviving is distinctly different to thriving. Betta fish do better in larger environments that are cycled as do their owners who have fewer and less significant water changes to perform each week. Water changes, despite what gimmicky products may claim, are ultimately unavoidable but can be minimized in order to meet the needs of the fish.

Despite this, many Betta fish owners will buy 0.5 gallon fish tanks or smaller because of their labels that are Betta fish-specific and cute or trendy appearances. This mistake is also repeated because of the mindset that if a product is sold in a store then it must be safe for pets. This may be true (theoretically) for most dog or cat products because of the inevitable backlash consumers would provide to companies should they even potentially harm their beloved animals but such is not the case for fish products, especially those marketed for Betta fish. A lack of awareness, understanding, and knowledge involving Betta fish care allows corporations in the aquarium industry to take advantage of their consumers by pushing out dangerous products that are cheaply made at a high price considering their cost. PetSmart offers this tank for $24.99 normally. It is specifically labelled for Betta fish yet can only hold 0.5 gallons, has no lid, and includes a plastic plant that will shred delicate long fins. Meanwhile this is offered at the same store for only $14.99 while not labelled for any specific fish species. PetSmart is not the only store guilty of this nor is this shameful practice limited to big chain stores. The reason why this mistake is repeatedly experienced by Betta fish keepers at one point or another in their experience is because of the misinformation and purposeful misleading product labels intended to influence and enforce poor fish care in order for corporations to continue to make money off of unintentional abuse.

A 5-gallon aquarium complete with all necessary equipment. Photo by Betta Fish Awareness Day

While there are exceptions to the 1-gallon minimum rule, usually pertaining to professional breeders and those who literally can dedicated significant portions of each day to their fish alone, general pet owners need to abide by it and consider what size best fits into their lifestyle. So long as water conditions are regularly monitored and there is no slacking in keeping a water change schedule, Betta fish will have the opportunity to live happily in a large variety of aquarium volumes.

If you take time to learn and educate yourself on the needs of Betta fish and all other animals under your care before bringing them into your home you can avoid common care mistakes. If these mistakes have already taken place then take time to change. Your animals will live a better quality life because of your informed decision. Care for an animal regardless of its size or cost is a contract. In purchasing or adopting a living creature you are promising to meet its needs, help it thrive, and care for it even when difficulties occur. Help put an end to these top five common mistakes and spread awareness for how Betta fish should be treated.


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