Betta abodes

Posted: Sunday, June 06, 2004

With their brilliant colors and flowing veil-like fins and tails, it's easy to see why bettas are a tropical fish staple in most pet stores. Yet, many pet owners remain unaccustomed of how to properly care for this popular species.

Bettas are one of the most well-known aquarium fish, although many know them better by their colloquial name Siamese fighting fish.

Bettas have earned this moniker for two reasons. The fighting aspect of their name refers to the fact that all males and most females of the species are very belligerent to their own kind, as well as to other fish.

Siamese refers to where bettas originally hailed from Siam, now called Thailand. Bettas are also found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and parts of China, where they proliferate in rice paddies, slow moving streams and shallow ponds.

This has led many a fish owner to believe that since they come from such a shallow water environment, they don't need much in the way of housing, but this logic couldn't be more wrong.

Bettas are very flexible when it comes to their environment and can be housed a number of different ways, but should always have plenty of space and fresh water available to them.

The most ideal way to keep a betta is to provide the fish with its own small one to five gallon tank with a gentle filter. Water movement should be kept to a minimum. Gravel, a few rocks and a live plant or two will be greatly appreciated by the fish.

If using at least a five gallon tank, it should be heated. If using a tank smaller than five gallons, it should be placed in a warm room so the temperatures can stay above 70 degrees. Bettas are tropical fish after all!

Water changes can be done by replacing 50 percent of the tank's water every couple of weeks to keep ammonia and nitrite levels at a minimum. Bettas prefer a neutral to slightly acidic pH.

Although it isn't as frequent as with some other species of fish, bettas can jump, so the tank should have a lid or cover. However, don't fill the tank all the way up to the lid. Bettas have a special respiratory organ that allows them to breathe air directly from the surface, and for this reason the fish need to have access to air.

This system will work well for one betta, but what if you want to keep two or more? Since the fish can't be kept together due to their overt aggressive tendencies, a divided tank often is the best option.

In the divided tank set up, there are fixed or movable partitions that are preferably clear so fish can be stimulated by each other. These partitions have holes or slits that allow water to flow from a filter system, from one compartment to another, without letting fish slip through.

Bettas seem to relish in this set up, but unfortunately there are several drawbacks. Since all the fish share the same water, if one betta gets sick, it's very easy for the disease to spread to all the others.

Divided tanks also offer a challenge in regard to filtration. Corner filters aren't advised since the fish closest to the filter will likely receive high turbulence, while the fish farthest from the filter may not receive adequate water conditioning. An under gravel filter is preferred.

Bettas also can be kept in smaller abodes, but as the tank size decreases, the husbandry to ensure a healthy fish increases. A one gallon tank or bowl can provide adequate housing for a betta. However, since filtration of a tank this size is difficult, full water changes will need to be done at least once a week.

Smaller tanks and the jars not much bigger than a coffee cup the fish are commonly sold in, are not recommended. Sure, they can live in these tiny environments, but just like a human could live in a closet if forced to, that doesn't mean they would ever want to.

Small jars also present a catch-22 in that their small size requires frequent water changes to prevent illness, sometimes as often as every third day. However, water changes are stressful to bettas the stress will eventually weaken their immune system.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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