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A Guide for Betta Care
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
Bettas
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Split-tail BettaThe Betta splendens (Siamese Fighting Fish) has unquestionably become one of the most popular freshwater fish in the aquarium trade. In just a few short years, this species has gone from a well-kept secret among serious aquarists, to being found in nearly every office and for sale in every pet store or major supermarket chain in America. This article will help guide you in the correct care of your Betta and dispel some of the myths that still persist about this beautiful fish.

Why the Betta is so popular

The Betta is a beautiful fish that is somewhat tolerant to poor water quality. It is easy to breed in an aquarium and is relatively inexpensive. While these facts add up to make it a good beginner's fish, the real success of the Betta resulted because it was sold as a novelty. These fish were displayed in a glass vase where a large water plant with an intricate root system filled most of the vase. The theory, was that all you had to do was water the plant, the fish would eat the roots, and you would have this beautiful living novelty on your desk. Everyone would want one, and they did. Even Martha Stewart touted them on her television show. The problem is, that despite the fact that these fish are extremely hardy, they still cannot survive without their basic needs being met, and if left in these suboptimal conditions, they will die. In fact, the sheer number of Bettas sold every year is proof that most of these fish do not survive very long, and are frequently replaced. If every Betta survived to their minimal normal life span of at least two years, the total sales would be a fraction of what they currently are.

Problems with the bowls and vase-type aquariums

The problems with keeping these fish in a planted vase are many. Firstly, these fish are carnivores and they need to eat meat. While they will graze on plant roots, they derive no nutritional value from them and will slowly starve if not fed a meat-based diet. The second problem is temperature control. Temperature fluctuations are extremely stressful to all fish including Bettas. Small bodies of water are much more susceptible to temperature fluctuations than large bodies of water. A small vase of water will heat up in the sun and cool down at night, etc. If these small containers are not placed in a very temperature-controlled environment, away from sunlight and all drafts, the fish will become sick and die. The third problem has to do with water quality. Fish produce a large amount of ammonia through breathing and bodily waste. This ammonia builds up and needs to be converted by bacteria to nitrite, which then needs to be converted to nitrate. The nitrate then needs to be periodically removed from the water by removing old water and adding new water. If any of these waste products build up, they can be stressful and eventually deadly to the fish. The problem with small containers is that it is difficult for enough bacteria to establish a good working biological filter to remove the ammonia and nitrite. As a result, very frequent water changes are needed to keep the water from becoming toxic.

Split-tail BettaThe best environment for Bettas would include a larger (6 plus gallons) aquarium with a completely functional mechanical and biological filter. A heater, lights, and appropriate substrate and cover for the fish would be added. A well set up community tank with several other compatible species is an ideal environment. If these fish are then fed a suitable meat-based diet and appropriate pelleted food, they can live long, happy, healthy lives.

Properly maintaining Betta bowls

While some Bettas are successfully kept in bowls or commercially-made, mini Betta tanks, many others do not do very well in these set ups. While it is more difficult to keep these fish in smaller containers, it can be done successfully if you are extremely careful about temperature control, diet, and water changes. Some tips for successfully keeping Bettas in small containers include:

  • Provide a good container, the bigger the container the better.
  • Feed a fresh or frozen meat-based food once a day; small worms like white or blood worms work well, as do crustaceans like brine shrimp and daphnia.
  • Supplement the diet with a small amount of commercially prepared Betta food, if your fish will accept it.
  • Keep the water temperature constant at around 80°F.
  • Avoid drafts and direct sunlight that can alter water temperature.
  • Change 25% of the water 2 to 3 times per week.
  • Treat the new water with an appropriate water treatment to remove chlorine; be sure it is the same temperature as the water in the bowl.
  • Keep a ventilated lid over the top of the container to prevent the fish from jumping out, but still providing air exchange.
  • Consider adding plants to help improve water quality and to provide much needed cover.
  • Never keep more than one male Betta in the same tank.

Special disease considerations in Bettas

While starvation, chilling, and ammonia or nitrite poisoning are responsible for the vast majority of death in Bettas, there are three diseases that appear to be fairly common in this species. The diseases are fin rot, velvet, and ich. These are bacterial or parasitic diseases that can successfully be treated with a variety of medications designed for each disease. However, all three of these diseases usually occur as a result of stress caused by temperature fluctuations, poor water quality, and improper diet. Therefore, most healthy fish kept in the appropriate environment will not develop these conditions. If your Betta does get sick, you need to examine its environment and make sure the water quality, temperature, and diet are all acceptable; otherwise, the same or a different illness will occur once the treatment period is over.

Bettas are wonderful fish and can make great additions to many home aquariums. It is unfortunate that so much misinformation was initially spread about these fish resulting in the mishandling and death of so many of them. There is nothing magical about Bettas. They need the same care that all species of freshwater fish need. If you choose to keep your Betta in a small container, make sure you follow all of the guidelines to ensure proper temperature, diet, and water quality. Once people quit perceiving Bettas as a novelty in a vase, and start viewing them as a unique living creature with simple yet specific needs, the species will once again become the beautiful prize of the home aquarium that they once were, and should be again.

 
References and Further Reading

Bailey, M; Burgess, P. Tropical Fishlopedia. Howell Books. New York; 2000.

Burgess; Bailey; Exell. A-Z of Tropical Fish. Howell Books. New York; 1998.

Burgess, W; Axelrod, H; Hunziker, R. Dr. Burgess's Mini Atlas of Marine Aquarium Fishes. TFH. Neptune City, NJ; 1997.

 

RELATED ARTICLES:
Crown Tail Betta (Betta splendens) 
Twin Tail Betta (Betta splendens) 
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