For Thanksgiving this year my family travelled to Philadelphia to spend the holiday with my sister’s fiancé and his family. My sister lives in Pittsburgh but has been staying with her fiancé in New York for the past few weeks while preparing for her residency interviews. Before she left, she dropped off her betta fish, Henry, at my parents’ house for my mother to care for.
To save on gas and time, I drove over to my parents’ house the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to carpool with them to Philadelphia. When I got there, I was dismayed to see the state of Henry’s fish bowl. There were piles of uneaten fish food on the bottom of the bowl, algae growing on the glass, and a film on the surface of the water. I can’t say that I was surprised at the state of things. When I was still living at home I had my mother take care of my fish while I was gone for a while and she overfed them just as much. Seriously concerned for Henry’s welfare, I performed a 50% water change and cleaned his bowl to remove the algae and uneaten fish food before we left for Philly.
As I cleaned Henry’s bowl, I explained to my mother the dangers of overfeeding – especially in a container so small. My sister kept Henry in a rounded glass vase with blue glass stones on the bottom and a small plant in the center. It is unfortunate but extremely common for people to keep fish in containers so small. Equally unfortunate is the fact that most of these people do not realize just how bad these conditions are for the fish.
But if fish bowls are so bad for fish, why are they still so popular?
The long and short of it is this – most people are too lazy to do their own research so they fall prey to marketing schemes designed to make money. Think about the last time you went to the pet store. Walking down the aquarium aisle, you probably saw a collection of betta fish in small plastic containers. Near those containers you probably also saw a number of small bowls and tanks being sold as betta fish tanks. In the pictures, the betta fish look happy and healthy living in their little bowls so most people assume that this is the ideal environment for them.
In reality, keeping a betta fish in a small bowl or tank is akin to you living in a bathtub. Even if it is a very large bathtub, your movements are restricted and it doesn’t take long for the water to become soiled – the same is true for fish living in small bowls and tanks. As you feed your fish, he naturally produces waste which falls to the bottom of the tank where it starts to break down. As the waste breaks down, it produces ammonia as a byproduct of decomposition and ammonia is extremely toxic for fish.
Now, in a large tank (take a 20-gallon tank for example), the process would be the same but for one key difference. In a larger tank, there is a greater volume of water to dilute the ammonia being produced. If you were to test the water in that 20 gallon tank and compare the ammonia reading to that in the fish bowl you would find that the reading from the fish bowl to be much higher because it is much more concentrated in such a low water volume. This is why many people who keep goldfish in a fishbowl find that they only live for a few days – a week if they are lucky. Goldfish are notorious for producing large amounts of waste which leads to toxic ammonia levels in the fish bowl in a matter of days.
If fishbowls are out, then, what are the best conditions for betta fish and other solitary species? A betta fish is just like any other species – it needs space to swim and high water quality in order to survive. In an ideal world, betta fish would be kept in tanks no smaller than 5 gallons. Keep in mind, however, that bigger is always better. Larger tanks not only offer higher water volumes to dilute toxins, but they also provide room for essential equipment like aquarium filters, heaters, and lighting. You will find it difficult to fit even one of these items into a fish bowl.
I am not naïve enough to think that I can change the betta fish industry and stop the use of fish bowls entirely. If you do choose to keep your betta fish in a bowl or small tank, there are a few things you can do to make things less dangerous for your fish. For one thing, be very careful about overfeeding – betta fish only need a few betta pellets per day. Second, think about adding a live plant to the bowl to help keep oxygen levels in the water high. Most importantly, you will need to perform frequent water changes (several times per week) to get rid of ammonia and to keep the water quality in the bowl high.
I do not advocate for the use of fish bowls and small fish tanks, but if you choose to use them I hope that you will keep the best interests of your fish in mind and do the work to keep the water in the container clean.
Feature Photo Copyright: rclassenlayouts / 123RF Stock Photo