Illustration by Lucas DeJesus for an article on betta fish

Are Betta Fish Really as Low Maintenance as They Seem?

Just because these aquatic pals need less attention than a cat or dog does not mean they are easy to take care of. Get ready to do some hefty research and set up a proper living space.
March 15, 2021
8 mins read

When compared to cats, dogs and animals requiring more involved pet care, bettas and other types of fish are incredibly easy to take care of. Even so, the betta fish market at retail and pet stores can be misleading for inexperienced students who may confuse “low-maintenance” with poor care. Additionally, closed aquariums and betta bowls are harmful to the fish, regardless of what is listed on the package. Students looking to buy bettas for their dorm rooms should do some research when planning their aquariums.

Where To Buy the Better Betta

Before jumping into how betta fish should be kept, the question of where to purchase a quality betta needs to be addressed, as this is where many people go wrong.

Retailers continue to push the idea that bettas are cheap. Naturally, purchasing a betta fish from a grocery or retail store is unwise, but the $3 cost of Walmart bettas can seem more appealing than the $10 to $20 ones from breeders. These figures might not sound high, but other fish — like guppies — can be sold for as little as 10 cents. The problem with buying bettas from retailers is that they often neglect the fish during shipping, and they are not provided for in stores. This leads to fin rot, starvation, suffocation, torn fins, muted coloration due to stress and a range of other illnesses.

Most of these fish die soon after transportation, and the ones that do survive often have shortened life spans due to illness. Students who buy cheap bettas are often frustrated when they keep dying, despite being labeled as “easy starter fish.” This being the case, there are many accounts of people “rescuing” fish from retail stores.

The better option would be to go to an individual breeder, who will take the time to care for the fish. It may cost more up-front, but the pet owner will feel better in the long-run about the quality of health and lifestyle their fish will have. Of course, betta fish will also range in price depending on the rarity of the breed. Saurabh Kumar wrote an article titled “How Much Does it Cost To Buy A Betta Fish (With 16 Examples)” that further illustrates the pricing of common betta species. He also provides habitat specifications for each type of fish.

Even from reputable retailers, it is still necessary to inspect the fish when buying from both fish stores and online markets in order to bring a healthy one home.

Give Them the Proper Filtration System and Space

In his article “Do Betta Fish Need a Heater and Filter in Their Tank?,” Eric Docket illustrates the mindset of students and beginning fish keepers.

“Betta fish are often housed in bowls. That means no filter and no heater. Even people who keep betta fish in small tanks rarely provide filtration or heated water, and they survive for the most part.

“Really, this is what makes the betta so popular. For beginning fish keepers, kids, college students and others who don’t feel like dealing with the maintenance requirements of a real aquarium, the betta is a way to have a pet fish without all the hassles of having a pet fish,” he said.

Naturally, this method of care is harmful to the fish.

Betta fish are able to take gulps of air from the top of the bowl because they live in tropical regions and have evolved to be able to survive in puddles during dry seasons. This doesn’t mean that they’re happy in small, unfiltered bowls. It just means that they won’t die. Docket compares a betta fish living in a state of low oxygen to a human surviving off the fat storage in one’s body: This ability prevents immediate death, but it is incredibly unpleasant.

The same concept applies to the amount of space bettas require. While they will not die in smaller spaces, this too is an evolved survival tactic. Betta fish tend to become depressed and sick when kept in confined, unfiltered spaces for too long. These bettas also tend to die sooner than healthier ones.

How to Properly Care for Betta Fish

When buying a living creature, it becomes the owner’s responsibility to take care of it.  Part of that responsibility is knowing what the pet needs in order to have a long and healthy life. Beth Mueller wrote an article titled “Bettas Need More Than Bowls” through the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine that outlines how to care for a betta fish.

According to Mueller, tanks need to have at least five gallons of water on average, with enough space for the betta fish to explore. It’s important to not have tank decorations that are sharp, as they can damage the fish. As stated above, a water filtration system is necessary to keep the tank clean. Even though bettas are great survivors in rough conditions, they typically live longer when their tanks are kept clean. This will also help their colors stay vibrant. Bettas are tropical fish and require 76-81 degree water. A heater is likely necessary to make this happen, especially during the night when temperatures drop. Concerning feeding, betta fish are carnivorous. They need high-protein meals, like insects and insect larvae. They cannot survive when fed plants, even though this myth does exist.

Male betta fish should not be kept with other male betta fish, as they are naturally territorial. Females will act territorial as well, but it’s generally not to the same extent as male betta fish. When keeping females together, it’s best to keep them grouped in numbers ranging from four to six. Naturally, more bettas will require more space than five gallons.

Male bettas may not do well with other male bettas, but it is possible to keep other aquatic life in the tank with them. Betta fish have trouble getting along with other fish, but there are other tank-mates that are less likely to cause trouble. African Dwarf Frogs are on this list, but there are some actions that need to be taken in order to set up the habitat to fit both species.

Taking care of betta fish can be a lot of fun, and once they are established in their habitats, there isn’t much else to do aside from tank maintenance, feeding and admiring the betta’s colors.

Beth Jordan, Aquinas College

Writer Profile

Beth Jordan

Aquinas College
English Literature

I’m an aspiring author who enjoys long walks and good coffee. I enjoy reading sci-fi/fantasy novels, and I’ve been working on a series of my own for a number of years now.

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