A common problem we see, especially in betta fish, is known as Fish Bowl Syndrome. Essentially, it can be broken down into one main issue:
Your fish is in a bowl.
Problem #1: Your fish has no filtration for processing of dangerous ammonia waste. Without a place for bacteria to grow and filter the water, your nitrogen cycle can never be established. Some may argue that betta fish get pushed around by filters, but if you chose the right one and slow the flow, it is perfectly suited to bettas.
Problem #2: You fish has no oxygen circulation. Fish tank filters are great at adding in oxygen, even in slow-flow mode. In a stagnant bowl, your fish is limited to what air diffuses from the surface. Yes, betta fish have a specialized labyrinth organ used to squeeze oxygen from the air. This is a short-term adaptation mechanism used to survive in drought conditions. It is NOT a long-term survival technique.
Problem #3: Your fish has no temperature stability. We’ll pick on betta fish again. Bettas are tropical and need heat. The small volume of a bowl causes temperatures to fluctuate dramatically. Watch the difference in ambient room temperatures on a 1-gallon fish bowl and a 10-gallon fish tank. It’s the same as you stepping out into freezing temperatures wearing a t-shirt or a coat.
Problem #4: When doing bowl water changes, most often, you will take your fish out of the bowl and put them in a tiny container while you empty all the water out of the bowl and scrub it clean. Since you have no filtration or oxygenation, you can swing the water chemistry parameters, including pH and temperature, very rapidly, causing your fish to stress and possibly die.
Fish bowls are ancient technology invented before there was electricity. With all the modern updates to fish-keeping, isn’t it time to let the fish bowls go? Unless, perhaps, you use them for this purpose:
The #2 Mistake – Not Doing Your Regular Maintenance
Fish are not maintenance free pets. Many owners think this when they first start, but some fish systems require the same care and cleaning as any other pet. Especially when you are first starting out, it is important to keep up with your regular scheduled cleaning. Maintaining a regular maintenance schedule for your aquarium will be of the most benefit to your fish by keeping your water quality within appropriate parameters.
Our best advice: add your regular maintenance to your TO DO list and make it a priority. Get the whole family involved and take the time to give your fish a happy, healthy home. Here is a helpful checklist for everything you need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.
If you follow the above checklist, get the family involved and make fish care a priority, your fish will have a long, happy life. If you’re confused or unsure the best way to clean your tank, watch our Best Tank Cleaning Practices video.
Ponder the following situation: you have two glasses before you. One is tap water and the other is hydrochloric acid.
How do you know which one is safe to drink by looking at them? Which one would you put your fish into?
It is impossible to tell if water is safe for fish by the look of it.
Water that is safe for fish and dangerous for fish will look EXACTLY THE SAME. This is why we always test the water at all of our appointments and why all fish owners should do the same. Fish health is directly tied to certain water quality parameters. If you’re a regular reader, please, list them along with us:
You don’t have to test all of these parameters all the time, but regular tests of AT LEAST ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, kH and temperature are essential.
Test your water AT LEAST once a month. You will need the following tools:
All of these tools are easily purchased at your local pet fish store or online.
Safe levels for fish will vary on the species. For koi, goldfish and most tropical, including bettas, you want your water within the following parameters (please keep in mind that this chart was made using the API kit parameters and are general guidelines):
As your fish systems progress, record your weekly/monthly readings and watch for any trends. How does your regular maintenance change your readings? By keeping a close eye on your parameters, you can significantly improve the overall health of your fish.
Mastering the ins and outs of filtration in aquatic systems can seem a daunting task for new owners, but we’re going to make it SO EASY!! To start out, there are three types of filtration going on in your fish system:
Mechanical (floss, sponges, pads) – These components remove particulate from your aquarium. They need to be cleaned regularly to maintain water flow rates throughout your aquarium.
Biological (bioballs, ceramic media, strapping, floss, sponges, media bed) – These provide housing for your good bacteria that keep your nitrogen cycle running smoothly. They need to be cleaned carefully so you do not remove too many of them.
Chemical (UV, carbon) – These components change the action of particulates in your water. UV lights kill algae and carbon will alter any chemical treatments added to your tank. UV light has NO EFFECT on bacteria or parasites living on your fish.
When you clean your tank, understanding what each part does will illustrate how to clean it. Mechanical filtration can be cleaned fairly thoroughly. Chemical filter components need to be replaced regularly for proper function. Biological filtration needs to be cleaned with old tank water and not until sparkling!
These filters come with a combination of filtration types, usually sponges (mechanical/biological), carbon (chemical) and zeolite (chemical – ammonia scrubber). You do not have to use all of the components! Our office just uses the sponges; carbon is not necessary and an ammonia-scrubber isn’t needed for established, well-maintained systems.
These are the most useless filters in the aquarium hobby. They are not meant to last and hemorrhage money. Switch them out for a sturdy sponge that you DO NOT need to replace every month. Only replace your filtration when it is about to fall apart.
This is the most common type of filtration used on outdoor fish ponds. These units contain many small plastic beads used to house good bacteria for ammonia conversion. They need to be backwashed on a weekly basis to make sure the media is not compacted. Once compacted, these units need to be cracked open and cleaned.
To keep your fish happy and healthy, it is important that you do your maintenance regularly! Here’s a handy checklist to make sure you do everything on a regular basis: For Fish Tanks and For Koi Ponds
One of the more common “healthy” pet issues we see in all of veterinary medicine is obesity, and fish are no exception. They may have better control than your golden retriever, but overfeeding your fish can have more severe consequences than just rounder fish.
Unfortunately, there is no absolute calculation to tell you how much to feed your fish. It depends on their species, temperature, water quality, other stressors, the type of food, formulation and current disease processes. For cats and dogs, it all depends on body size and life stage. If you take any bag of cat or dog food and look at the back, it will tell you what life stage the food is intended for and what amount to feed for body weight. (This assumes that your pet is the correct weight for the body type and structure.) But when was the last time you weighed your pet fish? Fish should be fed based on body size, but we know this is an impossible task for most owners. Thankfully, fish are pretty good at determining when they are full. A bigger problem is what happens when there is too much food in the tank.
So what should I do to ensure my fish are not overfed? We recommend using the 5-Minute Method. It is very simple:
Sprinkle a little bit of food into your tank. We recommend mixing it close to the filter return so all fish can get a fair share.
When all the food is eaten, sprinkle a little bit more. If the food is not completely consumed, WAIT.
Continue for 5 minutes or until the fish stop eating.
NOTE: Some species, like betta fish, are not great at regulating their intake. Keep in mind that their stomachs are about the same size as their eyeballs. Only a few pellets once or twice a day is adequate!
Why does this method work?
The biggest problem with overfeeding a fish tank is not just fat fish, but increased stress on your biological filtration. The breakdown of fish food, since it contains a lot of protein, causes an increase in the ammonia levels in your tank. Using this method makes sure that the food ends up in the fish, not the bottom of their tank. If you’re unfamiliar with ammonia and the nitrogen cycle, read this explanation.
For more information on fish food in general, watch our webinar.
You have a plan, you got your tank and all the additional items, so it’s time to add the fish! But how many fish do you add? In what order do you add them? In the beginning, your biggest hurdle will be establishing your nitrogen cycle. This cycle is made up of commensal bacteria living in your substrate and biological filtration media (sponges, matting, bio balls, ceramic cubes etc). These helpful bacteria convert the primary fish waste of ammonia into nitrite and from there into nitrate. Ammonia and nitrite are highly toxic to fish, and can cause lethargy, loss of appetite and death.
When a tank is brand new, the bacteria have not been colonized. There are many commercial starters promising to “instantly start” your tank, but they are the aquatic equivalent to snake oil. Our office tested over half a dozen of these products with no decrease in time to conversion. You do NOT need to add these products to your tank, they will come with the fish; they just take time to become established. It will take 4-6 weeks for your tank to go through all the necessary steps to become established. If you follow your tank’s progression with your water quality testing kit, you will yield a graph like this:
You will see spikes in ammonia, nitrite and then nitrate. When you see this DO NOT PANIC. It is a normal occurrence in EVERY new fish tank. It is called “New Tank Syndrome” and there is no way around it unless you have another established tank with similar water parameter requirements that you can steal some filter media from.
The best way to combat New Tank Syndrome and avoid crashing your tank with a major ammonia spike is by starting with just a few fish in your new tank. Start with one or two goldfish or 3-4 tropicals, like zebrafish or tetras, before your tank is established. Slowly increase your fish levels from there and you will never have an issue.
Be patient! It is extra work, but I guarantee by following these steps, you will not lose a fish from New Tank Syndrome. Buy a test kit, know how to use it and don’t panic when those spikes hit. By having fewer fish in a larger volume of water, you will produce a smaller, more tolerable spike, keeping your fish alive.
When you set up a new fish tank for the first time, there are a few things you can expect to happen.
With a brand new filter, your nitrogen cycle has not been established. It will take 4-6 weeks MINIMUM to start cycling your new tank. There are countless products who claim they can instantly start your cycle, but they DO NOT WORK. We tested many products and only one was able to shorten our cycle by one week.
During those sensitive weeks, your tank will undergo the following spikes in ammonia, nitrite and finally, nitrate, as those bacteria colonies are established. You tank’s temperature and filtration capacity will determine how fast your cycle is established.
As your nitrogen cycle is established, your fish can be in danger of toxic levels of ammonia and nitrite. Therefore, it is essential to keep you bioload low in those first few weeks! Rather than fully stocking your tank from the get-go, start with only a few, hardy fish until your cycle is established. Keep a close eye on your parameters with a water quality test kit. Plot your readings and you will match the graph above.
Ammonia-binding products will prevent this cycle from occurring. Your tank will be stuck in perpetual “new tank” standing. We understand that it can be very scary to see your new tank spike with ammonia, but you cannot get to the end stage without the journey in between. Keep a close eye on your parameters and bioload low in the first 4-6 weeks and you’ll be all set from then on! If you’re really worried, or your fish start to act sickly, do a small water change to decrease the spike. And if you decide to replace your filter media every month, your tank will be continually cycling. So, ignore the box, and invest in a sturdy sponge instead.
Thinking about adding a new tank to your home or business? Make sure you have everything you need before you get started. Print this list and bring it with you to the store to make sure you don’t forget anything.
BEFORE YOU GET STARTED: What kind of tank do you want? How big of a tank can you comfortably fit? What kind of fish do you want to have? How many fish of that type can your newly described tank hold? Sorry, but the 1″ of fish per gallon rule does NOT work. Research your species and understand what environment works best for them BEFORE you buy ANYTHING!
Check List for New Tank
_____ Fish tank of _______ gallons
_____ Table that can hold ______ gallons fish tank (1 gallon of water = 3.78 kg or 8.34 lbs)
_____ Lid for tank with light
_____ Filter capable of volume 1.5x ______ gallons (canister or hang-on)
_____ If tank is >30 gallons, consider adding aerator or powerhead to improve water flow
______ Substrate (gravel, rocks, sand, etc.)
______ Gravel vacuum
______ Decor items (must be FISH SAFE) – for bettas, stick with items that will not snag fins
When you live in a toilet, like fish do, it’s critical to have a well-functioning immune system. Being ectotherms, fish rely on the temperature of their surrounding environment to dictate their metabolism and immune function. Cold water = limited activity. Warm water = more activity. Hot water = poached. All things considered, a fish’s immune system may be more complex that you give them credit for.
In addition to basic phagocytosis, fish produce B and T lymphocytes. These cells are responsible for antibody production and are the reason why we are able to make vaccines for fish. Vaccines can be given orally, topically, by immersion, or through injection, like your flu shot. Most vaccines are available for aquaculture production and are not used on pet fish. For more information on vaccines in fish, read here.
Mammals produce their white blood cells in their bone marrow. Fish do not have bone marrow and rely on their kidney and spleen to produce blood cells. These cell lines have similar functions to mammalian white blood cells.
A fish’s response to stress has a direct effect on their immune system. When a fish is stressed due to lack of nutrition, bullying, poor water quality, sound irritation or multiple other causes, they release hormones into their bloodstream, specifically cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones initiate an animal’s “fight or flight” reflex, causing secondary changes in blood glucose, lactate, liver and muscle glycogen and osmolality. Over time, these chemical changes cause tertiary changes to behavior and performance, including digestion, reproduction, and immune function.
Acute stress is beneficial where it helps a fish get out of a stressful situation. Chronic stress, however, leads to long-term immune suppression and increased vulnerability to disease.
In order to maintain good immune function, use these key prevention and management strategies:
Sounds simple? Do it right and keep your stress minimal!
Wash your hands and arms to your elbows.
Unplug filter and lights. If you have any UV lights, unplug those too. Close any valves if you have a sump so it doesn’t overflow.
Remove any synthetic decor and scrub it with hot water and a designated toothbrush.
Clean the glass with an appropriate acrylic-safe or glass scrub.
Use a gravel vacuum to get into the substrate crevices. Do not remove more than 50% of the tank water at a time. Your fish can stay in the tank, just don’t suck them up!
Remove filter media and rinse gently or squeeze in collected bucket of waste water. Do NOT use tap water. The chlorine can kill your good bacteria. Your filter media does NOT have to be pristine and sparkling. Again, super clean media will reset your biologic filter to ZERO. You do NOT have to replace your filter media every month. If your filter media is falling apart, do not replace more than 1/4-1/3 of the total media at a time. We recommend using sturdy sponges over floss.
Use your waste water to feed your plants. The nitrates make great fertilizer!
Re-fill your bucket with tap water. Bottled water can be missing buffers and/or minerals. Make sure it is the same temperature as your tank! An infrared thermometer is great for quickly comparing two temperatures.
Add dechlorinator to your bucket of water and decor that treats chlorine AND chloramine. Chloramine is a more stable form of chlorine mixed with ammonia! Allow a few minutes for the dechlor to do its job.
Replace your decor back in your tank and pour in your treated water. You may need to adjust your decor after adding the water.
Prime your filtration by pouring some tank water into the filter base. Plug in and adjust flow accordingly. Open any valves you previously closed.
Turn on your lights and replace any covers. Watch your tank for a few minutes to make sure everything is working properly.