True to their name, Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens) were originally domesticated for fighting around 200 years ago in what is now Thailand. At first they were collected from the wild and made to fight, but soon the villagers realized they could breed the most aggressive fish. Thus the domesticated betta was born. When the long-finned varieties and vibrant colors began emerging betta fish also became known as pets.
The most common tail shapes are veiltail, crowntail, halfmoon, plakat, double tail, and delta tail. These are the types you are most likely to encounter at pet stores. I have included a few pictures below. Unlike with goldfish, the fins don’t affect the care requirements.
|Crowntail betta (Betta Slave @ BettaFish.com)|
|Veiltail betta (chrissylee13 @ BettaFish.com)|
|Halfmoon betta (copperarabian @ deviantart.com)|
Unlike many other fish, bettas can actually drown. This is because they possess a special organ called the labyrinth organ, a specialized folded sac that enables them to utilize atmospheric oxygen. This evolved because many betta and their relatives live in oxygen-poor environments throughout part of the year in the wild.
Now I know you’re thinking “just because they can use atmospheric oxygen doesn’t mean they can drown.” This is untrue. Betta are obligate air breathers and actually have to use the labyrinth organ to breath as their gills aren’t able to pull enough oxygen from the water. So without access to the surface a betta can drown.
Minimum tank size
No fish should ever be maintained long-term in a tank smaller than one gallon. Betta are no exception. The bare minimum tank size for any fish is one gallon of water. However, I believe betta and other fish will fare better in tanks that are 5 gallons (19 L) or larger.
Small tanks are hard to heat. They lose heat easily and can heat up too fast due to the small volume of water. The water chemistry can also change rather rapidly in a tank of this size as there is less volume of water to buffer a change. One small decaying piece of food will cause the ammonia to rise in a 2 gallon (7 L) tank at a much faster rate than in a 10 gallon (38 L) tank. A 5 gallon (19 L) tank is also the smallest tank that can hold a stable cycle (ie a colony of beneficial bacteria to change your fish's harmful waste into a non harmful state). A simple google search will give you many guides on how to cycle a tank. Having a cycled tank means less water changes and not having to remove the fish to do a 100% water change. This will cause less stress for your betta. And less stress equals a healthier betta.
Many people (sale reps included) will advise against a large tank for a betta, saying they “freak out” in large spaces. This actually has some truth to it. Betta and fish in general don’t like large open spaces. Many of the fish commonly found in the freshwater aquarium world are forest fish that evolved in streams that run through dense forests. This means the light is dampened and there are often lots of small branches fallen in the water in which fish can hide from predators. In the aquarium they maintain this innate desire to hide from (imagined) predators in cover.
What this all means is that betta, and any fish for that matter, can and do “freak out” in large open spaces because they are not comfortable out in the open. When given cover, betta tend to be less shy because they know if something spooks them, they can always run and hide. Without that “safety net” then they often become frantic. Think of it this way; would you rather be out in the middle of a field without any trees or tall grass for miles or watching the field from the tree line?
Tank decorations will really help enhance your betta’s quality of life as well as colors. When betta are stressed, they will wash out their colors. Many male betta enjoy caves that they can rest in. Female betta enjoy decorations that reach up close to the surface of the tank. Just make sure that whatever holes are in your decorations are either too large for the fish to get stuck or too small for the fish to get into at all.
One final note about aquariums for betta is that they should always have a lid. Betta fish are notorious jumpers, and many keepers have lost betta when they forgot to put the lid back on the aquarium. These little escape artists will even find the holes in the top of your hood if they are large enough. Be sure to cover all spaces in the hood. Old egg cartons and leftover craft canvas work great for this.
|3.5 month old juvenile (GeinahClarette @ BettaFish.com)|
Betta fish are tropical fish. This means that they live in rather hot regions. There are native populations in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. For anyone who has never been to that part of the world, it is hot and humid. This means that betta fish are adapted to living in these hot and muggy conditions and that they need a temperature between 76F (24C) and 86F (30F) to thrive. They become sluggish and sickly in cooler water and may refuse to eat. Or if they do eat, your betta may not be able to digest the food as their metabolism depends on body temperature which is externally regulated. Warm water helps boost their immune system and make them active.
When it comes to pH and hardness, betta fish are very unfussy. They will tolerate most normal ranges from pH 6.0 to 8.0. The most important thing is that your betta have a stable pH; just because they are comfortable in a wide range of pH doesn’t mean they can deal with a fluctuating pH which is only achieved through regular water changes. Some people have reported health problems associated with very hard water; however this appears to be few and far between.
As with any fish tank, the ammonia and nitrite should always be 0 ppm. In a cycled aquarium (which won’t happen in less than a 5 gallon (19 L) tank) this is nothing to worry about. The ammonia that your fish excretes will be changed into a harmless substance called nitrate by the beneficial bacteria that make up a cycle. Nitrate is controlled through regular water changes. Provided you keep up with them, nitrate is nothing to worry about.
An important aspect of keeping water quality top notch is a filter. However since filters are only useful in a cycled tank, if you choose to keep your betta in a tank less than 5 gallons (19 L) a filter isn’t a good idea. It won’t improve water quality and will just push your fish around. Betta come from very slow moving waters and any filter flow should be lessened to prevent stress on your fish. My favorite filter to use with betta is a sponge filters as they produce the least current and are the cheapest. However, they do make a bit of noise, so if you have your tank in your bedroom, you might want to look for another option.
Most betta are unfussy about food and will take anything you offer them. However, just like a kid with candy, just because they like it doesn’t make it good for them. Because betta are carnivores, they need a food that is high in protein (above 38% protein as listed on the label). A good way to check the quality of a fish food is to look at the ingredients list. If some kind fish or krill is listed as the first ingredient then you know the food is high quality. My favorite foods to feed my betta are New Life Spectrum’s betta formula and Omega One betta pellets. Pellets are a better food for betta because flakes are known to cause issues with bloat.
|Bettas enjoy planted tanks (PandaBetta @ BettaFish.com)|
Like a dog or a cat, there are special treats that you can give your betta. Frozen bloodworms or frozen brine shrimp are like filet mignon to a betta. Freeze-dried food is a good alternative for the more squeamish, but it shouldn’t be given on a regular basis due to issues with bloating of the GI tract. If you really feel like treating your betta, you can venture into live food like brine shrimp for him or her. Many fish specialty stores will carry treats like this.
A common myth about betta is that they have to live alone due to their high aggressiveness. This is not true. Betta can make great additions to a proper community aquarium, but not just any community will do. Since betta are small, the inhabitants can’t be too large to eat them like oscar (Astronotus ocellatus) or aggressive towards betta like gourami (Osphronemidae) or colorful enough that betta might mistake them for another betta like guppies (Poecilia reticulata).
That being said there are a lot of good tankmates for betta, provided the tank is 10 gallons (37 L) or larger. Many of the small tetra species like ember tetra (Hyphessobrycon amandae) and Pristilla tetra (Pristella maxillaris) make great tank mates under one condition: the tetra are in a group larger than 8. Tetra are schooling fish and do show aggression within the school. If there are not enough neon tetra around, they will begin to pick on your betta. I compiled a more complete list of suitable small schooling fish tankmates below. I encourage you to use the scientific names for reference as the common names will change from location to location.
- X ray tetra/Pristella tetra (Pristella maxillaris)
- Head and tail light tetra (Hemigrammus ocellifer)
- Ember tetra (Hyphessobrycon amandae)
- Harlequin rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha)
- Lambchop rasbora (Trigonostigma espei)
- Glowlight tetra (Hemigrammus erythrozonus)
- Black neon tetra (Hyphessobrycon herbertaxelrodi)
You also have the option of keeping substrate (bottom-swimming) fish with betta. Here you have many options with small catfish and loaches. Again, most of these fish are schooling fish and need to be in groups of 8 or more. Without sufficient group size, these fish will be very shy and withdrawn. These fish need a tank larger than 15 gallons (57 L). Here is a short list of suitable substrate fish with added notes about their care:
- Oto catfish (Otocinclus macrospilus) groups of 3-4; need a mature, planted tank
- Kuhli loach (Pangio kuhlii) groups of 6 or more; provide lots of hiding places
- Bronze cory (Corydoras aeneus) groups of 6 or more; also comes in albino
- Pepper cory/Salt and pepper cory (Corydoras paleatus) groups of 6 or more
- Tail spot cory (Corydoras caudimaculatus) groups of 6 or more
- Bristlenose pleco (Ancistrus sp.) best kept singly; needs large aquarium to house multiple
- Leopard cory (Corydoras leopardus) groups of 6 or more
- Bandit cory (Corydoras metae) groups of 6 or more
As I am writing this for the beginner hobbyist all of the fish I included are hardy and easy-to-care-for fish. There are other compatible fish, but they are more difficult to keep alive and not for the beginner fishkeeper. To find these, I encourage you to do your own research.
While there are many good choices for betta tankmates, I feel the need to mention fish that are not suitable to be kept with betta. Some of these fish are aggressive and notorious fin-nippers even in proper group sizes, some can become targets for betta aggression, and some will gobble up a betta without any hesitation. Either way, they have aspects that make them bad betta tankmates.
- Angel fish (Pterophyllum sp)
- Oscar (Astronotus ocellatus)
- Other cichlids (Cichlidae)
- Guppies (Poecilia reticulata)
- Platies (Xiphophorus maculates)
- Swordtail (Xiphophorus hellerii)
- Mollies (Poecilia sphenops or Poecilia latipinna)
- Blue gourami (Trichopodus trichopterus)
- Dwarf gourami (Trichogaster lalius)
- Pearl gourami (Trichopodus leerii)
- Other gourami (Osphronemidae)
- Kissing gourami (Helostoma temminkii)
- Goldfish (Carassius auratus auratus)
- Tiger barbs (Puntius anchisporus)
- Serapae tetra (Hyphessobrycon eques)
- Black widow tetra/black skirt tetra (Gymnocorymbus ternetzi)
It will also surprise you to learn that some female betta fish can live with other female betta fish. Males should never be kept together. However, this female betta tank is not your everyday tank. This tank is called a female betta sorority. The tank needs a lot of decorations and most people choose to accomplish this by heavily planting the tank or adding so many fake plants you can’t see the other side when looking through it. For a sorority you will need a minimum of a 10 gallon (37 L) tank and 5 females. Any less and you have a good chance of one or two females ganging up on the others. More females means spreading out the aggression more. A longer tank is always better than a taller tank with a sorority. If you want to peruse this avenue, I suggest you do more research and talk to people who have maintained a sorority. They’re not for the beginner betta keeper.
|Successful betta sorority (kfryman @ BettaFish.com)|
Live plants are a great enhancement to your betta’s tank. For the more adventurous you can research how to set up a planted tank, but for those of us who just want one or two easy live plants. I’ve got some suggestions for you. Anubias (Anubias barteri) and java fern (Microsorum pteropus) are two great beginner plants. You can easily find them at your local pet store, and they don’t need much light. Anubias has large strong leaves that betta like to rest on, and Java fern makes a great betta play ground with its many leaves growing to the clouds.
Smashing the myths
Due to the popularity of betta fish, there are many myths that surround these beautiful creatures. The first I hear used to justify keeping betta in tiny (less than a gallon or worse a litre) containers: wild betta live in mud puddles. While I am not going to deny that due to seasonal water flow in their native range betta can survive in small amounts of water for part of the year, I am going to point out that there is a large difference between our captive betta fish and their wild counterparts. Most of the fish available today are hundreds if not thousands of generations removed from the wild. Remember, betta have been bred in captivity for around 200 years. If you were to plop a pet store betta into the wild, it would die within weeks. In fact, many of these betta that are caught in “mud puddles” would have soon died when the puddle dried out in a few day. Just because an animal has evolved to periodically withstand harsh conditions doesn’t mean they should be forced to live in them. Betta fish evolved to survive in small spaces during extreme circumstances (ie drought) but need at least a gallon of water to live to healthily.
The second common myth I have seen and heard is the betta in a flower vase ecosystem myth. People believe that it is a natural ecosystem because the fish eats the roots and the plant eats the fish’s waste. This is not only completely false but cruel. There is no way to completely replicate a natural ecosystem in a volume of water that small; even in massive tanks at public aquaria they cannot replicate a natural ecosystem. Also betta don’t eat plants, so when a betta is kept in this type of tank, they slowly starve to death. Betta fish are carnivorous and need a lot of protein in their diet as I have already mentioned. The plants also take up surface area and without access to surface air, the betta will drown.
|(copperarabian @ deviantart.com)|
Many people don’t like betta fish. They see them as boring and unattractive. This is probably so because they have never seen the fish in a proper habitat. In properly decorated and heated 5 gallon (19 L) tank, betta fish blossom. They are a wonderful dorm or apartment pet. For those who want fish but don’t have the room for a large community tank, a 10 gallon (37 L) with a betta and either substrate fish or schooling fish is a great alternative. And for those who have even less space, a 5 gallon (19 L) tank will easily fit atop a desk. They make a great kitchen buddy, too. If you are just getting into the hobby or a long-time veteran, a betta fish can be a great subject for a small aquarium or a chance to try something new like a micro planted tank.
““Betta splendens” Regan, 1910.” Fishbase.org. Updated 15 Nov 2011. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
Christie F. 2004. “Betta 101.” Nippyfish.com. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
“Frequently asked questions on Siamese fighters.” Practicalfishkeeping.co.uk. Updated 2 June 2011. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
Helfman, G. S., B. B. Collette, D. E. Facey, and B. W. Bowen. 2009. The Diversity of Fishes: Biology, Evolution, and Ecology, 2nd edition. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, UK.
“The History of Betta Fighting Fish.” BettaFishCenter.com. Updated 2009. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
Ng, Heok Hee. 18 April 2011. “Quick guide to anabantoids.” Practicalfishkeeping.co.uk. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
Parnell, Victoria. 30 June 2006. “Feeding your Betta.” Bettysplendens.com. Retrieved 23 April 2012.
Warren, Eleanor. 2006. “Plight of the Betta.” Badmanstropicalfish.com. Retrieved 25 April 2012.