Eric is an aquarium enthusiast with over two decades of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish.
Bettas Are Both Popular and Misunderstood
Beautiful and exotic, with long, elegant fins and a fierce reputation, the betta is one of the most popular aquarium fish in the world. It is easy to care for, making it the perfect starter fish for the first-time aquarium owner. It has become a favorite of college students living in dorms, office workers looking for decorations for their desks, and apartment dwellers who don’t have space for a full-size fish tank.
Sadly, bettas are also among the most exploited fish in the aquarium trade. Marketing gimmicks and misinformation have led to many myths surrounding this amazing fish. I intend to set a few of those myths straight.
Surviving Is Not the Same as Thriving
If you take one thing away from this reading article, I hope it is this: Just because a betta fish can live through horrible conditions doesn’t mean those conditions are ideal or ethical. Surviving is not the same as thriving.
The betta’s ability to survive harsh conditions is its greatest strength but also the very thing that has led to its mistreatment.
Myth #1: Betta Fish Prefer Tiny Tanks
This is a marketing ploy. Very small tanks pollute quickly and turn into horrible environments for betta fish or any other living thing. Tiny, poorly maintained tanks lead to stress, disease, and the premature demise of the fish.
Bettas are better equipped than most fish to survive nasty situations. That’s because they are anabantids. They have a special organ that allows them to take in gulps of air from above the water surface and survive for temporary periods in muddy, low-oxygen puddles in the wild.
It isn’t the ideal way for a betta fish to live. This ability is an evolutionary adaptation that serves to get them through droughts in their wild habitat in Southeast Asia.
Surviving is not the same as thriving.
I always recommend at minimum a 5-gallon tank for a betta fish. They don’t belong in cubes, plant vases, bookshelves, or any other of the ridiculous marketing ideas companies have come up with.
Just like any other fish, bettas need room to swim around, space for plants and decorations, and places to hide so they feel secure. Choose the right size tank so you can give your betta all of those necessary elements.
Myth #2: Bettas Don’t Need a Heater or Filter
Skipping the heater and filter is another mistake made by well-meaning but uneducated pet owners. They think bettas can live in bowls or unfiltered tanks, like goldfish.
Nope. Goldfish do best in cooler water, and while there are a bunch of myths and misconceptions surrounding goldfish too, they are at least a little better suited for unheated setups.
Bettas are tropical fish. That means they do best with temperatures in the 76 to 81-degree range. Ideally, I would shoot for a temperature of 78 degrees.
Bettas also need clean water, and that means using a proper filter. We can trace many of the diseases suffered by bettas back to dirty water and poor tank-maintenance practices. A quality filter is the first step in keeping the tank healthy for your fish.
A good filter will:
- Facilitate mechanical filtration by removing solid waste particles from the water.
- Provide a means of chemical filtration using activated carbon and other additives.
- Encourage biological filtration by giving healthy microbe colonies a place to grow and thrive.
- Circulate the water so the tank temperature is even throughout.
- Gently aerate the water so it is rich in oxygen.
Once again, your betta might survive if you keep it in chilly temperatures and skip the filtration, but you are inviting constant stress for your fish. Stress, in turn, leads to illness and death.
Myth #3: Bettas Will Attack and Kill Other Fish
Many people would love to keep their betta in a community tank setup but worry that it will attack and kill any other fish it comes across. After all, male betta fish will fight upon sight of each other, sometimes to the death. Wouldn't a betta attack any other fish as well?
A betta might take a swipe at another fish in a community tank, or it may simply ignore them. The complete story is more complicated. Betta fish can live with other fish and critters in certain situations, and if all goes well, a community tank can be a healthier environment for a betta.
The problem is you never know what will happen until you put your betta in a tank with other fish. As often as not, other fish will pick on and harass the betta in a community tank setting. The betta’s flowing fins can prove irresistible to some fish, and its slow-moving nature makes it tough to escape the torment.
There are few things to think about if you plan to try your betta in a community setting:
- Avoid other fish that look similar to bettas. This means colorful fish and/or fish with flowing fins such as some types of mollies and fancy guppies.
- Avoid other anabantids, especially gouramis.
- Avoid known fin nippers, as they will harass your betta to death.
- Aim for a peaceful, under-stocked tank with calm, slow-moving fish and a gentle current.
The most important thing is to have a backup plan such as a small tank where your betta can live alone. If you see him constantly flaring and attacking other fish, or if you see him hiding in a corner with his fins chewed up, get him out of there.
Myth #4: Betta Fish Eat Plant Roots
This myth originated with the individual who thought it was a good idea to put a betta fish in a plant vase and never feed it or change the water. Sadly, countless people went along with it without giving it any thought.
Betta fish are carnivorous. In the wild, they eat worms, insects, larvae, and pretty much anything else they can find. In your aquarium, it is smart to feed a quality betta pellet as the staple of its diet, but it will also love treats like bloodworms.
Bettas do well with plants in their tanks, either real or artificial. They might hide in them, or even take a nap on a leaf. But they don’t eat them. A starving betta may take a nibble on a root, but this is akin to you or I eating the leather from our shoes after we’ve been stuck in a closet for three weeks.
Betta fish also need access to the water surface, which we deny them by blocking it with a plant. Remember, they must breathe at the surface when necessary. They will make bubble nests occasionally as well.
This does not mean you can’t keep your betta in a setup that includes a live plant. People have created some very cool tank designs using above-surface plants.
However, you need to be sure to feed your betta the appropriate food, allow it access to the water surface, and take all of the other steps necessary to be sure his living environment is healthy.
Myth #5: Betta Fish Get Lonely
I often get questions from people who worry that their betta is lonely, sad, or bored. This thought process has led to some terrible decisions by betta owners, such as cramming more fish or critters into a tank that is barely big enough for the betta itself.
Some fish should not live alone. Schooling and shoaling fish do much better in groups. These fish are typically prey species, and they have evolved to feel safer and more secure in schools. Keeping them alone results in tremendous stress. If a schooling fish lives by itself, I suppose we can loosely think of it as being lonely.
Betta fish are not schooling fish. They live alone, males often fight on sight, and even males and females don’t get along very well. Stocking a schooling fish like neon tetras in a tank packed with several of their kind and other schooling fish will reduce their stress and improve their quality of life. Doing the same with a betta will have the opposite result.
It is easy to attach human emotions and experiences to animals. I mean, how would we feel if we lived alone in a box for our entire lives? But humans are social animals. We can’t care for fish based on human emotions. We must make decisions based on what is best for them.
Instead of thinking about whether a fish is sad or lonely, it is more useful to consider whether your betta is stressed or content.
If your betta fish is active, healthy, and shows no signs of stress, you need not worry about him feeling lonely. As we saw above, he may fare well in a community tank with other fish and the extra stimulation may be beneficial for him. But if it doesn’t work out, don’t worry about him being in his tank all by himself.
Happy Betta Keeping
If you are a betta owner or wanna-be betta owner, I hope you consider the points in this post. I’ve written dozens of articles on fish and aquariums over the years. I try to share what I’ve learned, and I try to be an advocate for responsible fish keeping. Please remember that my advice is limited to my personal experiences and knowledge and I am always learning new things.
The ultimate decision-maker when it comes to your aquarium is you. It is up to you do to the research on the fish under your care and learn everything you can about betta care. Don’t fall for marketing gimmicks. Evaluate every piece of information you come across with a careful eye.
Most importantly, if you discover that owning a betta fish isn’t for you, realize that’s okay. It is better not to keep fish at all than to keep them under poor conditions. Maybe there will come a time when having an aquarium better fits into your life.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Troy Taylor from Anywhere on September 21, 2020:
It was over pretty quickly
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on September 21, 2020:
@TT - Hopefully that obsession is over!
Troy Taylor from Anywhere on September 20, 2020:
There’s was obsession for about a year in my family when I was kid where my mother would put a beta fish in a vase with a plant to go a long with the decor and even gave out some as gifts.