Weird Stuff I’ve Learned About Betta Fish

Since acquiring my betta fish, Simon, almost two weeks ago, I’ve picked up a surprising amount of info on the affairs of bettas. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I didn’t want a fish, and then bought one on impulse. I didn’t really know how to take care of a fish, other than putting it in water and feeding it now and then. It’s been a big learning curve, but Simon’s turned out to be quite an entertaining little buddy, and I haven’t regretted my decision at all since adding him to the household. However, it hasn’t been exactly an easy transition. There’s been action, adventure, fireballs (OK, not fireballs, but action and adventure). Then last weekend, we had a near death experience.

In between the fish acquisition and the drawn out death scene (with last minute redemption, of course) there was LOTS of Googling. What I found out while I was researching pretty much everything my damn fish does is that lots of people know lots of stuff about how to keep a betta from going belly up, but no one is sharing it all in one place. I also found out that a large percentage of my Facebook friends list has, at one time or another, attempted to keep a betta and killed it. SO. In the interest of saving some lives, and hopefully getting some responses that enable Simon to live even longer, here are some weird things I’ve discovered recently, as well as some other things that are more commonly known but should be said, anyway…

1) Origin. Bettas are originally from Thailand, and in the wild, they’re found in rice paddies. Here are some cool photos of a wild betta in its natural habitat.

2) Frippery. If you’ve ever taken a gander at the betta display in your local pet store, you’ve noticed that they come in many brilliant colors, and typically sport gorgeous, flowing fins. As you might have guessed, these bettas are bred to make colors brighter and fins longer – in the wild they’re not nearly as exciting, though they are still quite pretty. In addition, if you’re like me, you might not have noticed that there are lots of different types of bettas, with all kinds of different shaped fins, and like males of many species, male bettas are colorful and have fancy fins, while the females come in duller shades and have less exciting paddlers. Here’s a great website that shows some of the different betta tail and fin variations. If you’re wondering, Simon’s a double tail plakat.

The other neat thing about a betta’s color variation is that when they’re fed a proper diet, their colors become brighter and richer. Simon started out as a dull white fish with greyish markings and a very light yellow tail with a hint of grey at the edges. He didn’t eat for almost a week, so he didn’t change right off, but he’s been eating well for five days. Now he’s still a white fish, and the pink of his inner body still shows through, but each of his scales is outlined in black, his tail and fins are a little darker yellow with a faint wash of blue, and the outer edges of his tail are black, too.

Simon the Betta Fish

Simon, a day or two after I brought him home. Notice that he's very pale, more pink than white, with very light yellow tail & fins and a light grey line around the edge of his tail.

Simon the Betta Fish Black Scales

He's a tough one to photograph, but here you can tell how much darker the scales on his body are now. Each one has a thin black outline, so he looks latticed.

Simon the Betta Fish Yellow Tail

His tail is a lot more yellow now, with a hint of a blue sheen and a strong black edge all the way around. Also, notice the scratches on the tank - a great reason to get a glass tank if you have cats.

3) Anger. Bettas are known to be extremely territorial. You should never put two males in the same tank, nor should you put a male and a female in the same tank unless you’re trying to breed them. You can, however, keep multiple females in the same tank, as long as the tank is larger, around 10 gallons. If you’re going to keep that many females in the same tank, you should also make sure to have lots of plants and caves/places to hide.

Bettas tend to flare their fins and ‘dance’ around when they feel threatened. Simon does not appear to be threatened at all, but he did start flaring his beard yesterday and it freaked me out a little. Male bettas have a little dark line under their chins that is sometimes called a beard (for obvious reasons), and yesterday I could see the top edges of it popping out from behind his gills. It scared me a little until I researched it online and found out that it’s actually a good thing, as it means they’re feeling a little fishy testosterone.

4) Small Spaces. Pet stores keep bettas in these tiny little tupperwares, and you often see people keeping their bettas in tiny little bowls. I have my betta in a one gallon tank, and it’s OK, but not great. It’s true that they can live in small bowls, and I think a one gallon could possibly sustain Simon for some time, but the more I’ve read, the more people I’m seeing that put their bettas in larger bowls with a few other compatible tank mates. I believe I’ll be doing this soon, as well. Why?

Well, in my last post, I said that when I bought Simon, I thought I saw something intelligent in his eyes. And every day since I brought him home, we’ve spent an average of an hour ‘chatting’ at the front of his tank. Whenever I come over to his tank to hang out and feed him, look at him, whatever, he swims up and looks at me for as long as I’m there. During this time he’ll happily blow bubbles at the top of the tank, swim lazily back and forth, and just generally be cool. It’s hard to explain, but his reaction to me is very personal, and unlike what I’ve experienced with other fish. The only reason I’m saying this here is that I’ve looked up other people’s experiences with their bettas, and read other accounts that are very similar (so I know I’m not completely nuts). I see from this that he’s a social creature, and I want more for him. Just like I wouldn’t keep my two cats in a studio apartment, I’m not going to confine my fish to a one gallon tank when I can hook him up with ten gallons, friends, and some live plants.

Blue Mystery Snail

Simon's new friend, Morris the blue mystery snail. I never realized how fun it was to watch a snail crawl around. Morris is a real cutie.

5) Speaking of friends…Just because male bettas shouldn’t be kept with each other doesn’t mean that they can’t have tank mates. I’ve read A LOT on this, since my initial plan was to get shrimp (not a fish), and I was hoping to still get some shrimp. From what I’ve read, depending on the size of the tank, bettas can live with a variety of other tank mates. Ghost shrimp, snails, frogs, algae eaters and tetras are all good. I’ve read of people who kept other kinds of fish, too. The general consensus seems to be that you shouldn’t keep fish with flowing fins, as bettas will find them threatening (thinking they’re other bettas) and fight with/kill them. In addition, some bettas will eat your shrimp and attack the other fish you’ve put in the tank. Other bettas will be cool with just about anything.

Bottom line is to make sure you’ve got a tank that’s big enough for all of the fish you’re keeping, and then keep an eye out for aggression. Since bettas live at the top of the tank, fish that live at the middle or bottom of the tank should be OK most of the time, but just like any other animal, you’re going to have to account for personality. I bought Simon’s first friend yesterday – a blue mystery snail named Morris. Simon nipped at Morris’ antennae a few times, and then realized he wasn’t interested and gave up. Now they’re living together quite happily. Simon has even become a bit more animated since Morris moved in, and spends time watching him and just hanging out beside him. I kind of wonder if they’re shooting the shit with each other. And while we’re speaking of shit, something I didn’t know when I bought a snail is though they are great for eating algae in the tank, they also poo a LOT. So now my tank is a little cloudy, which will hopefully not be such an issue when I move them up to a larger home soon.

6) Bubbles. If you’ve seen your betta blowing a lot of bubbles, don’t worry – that’s a good sign. Bettas breathe primarily through their mouths, not their gills. That’s why they hang out at the top of the tank so much, and why you should never fill their tank all the way to the top. When it’s time to mate, male bettas blow bubble nests at the top of the water, making a safe space for the spawn. Males also blow bubble nests at other times, with or without females present. In general it’s a kind of day-dreamy thing, meaning that your betta is happy and healthy. Inversely, if you see your betta breathing primarily out of his gills, this can be a sign of stressful water conditions, like too much ammonia in the water.

7) Water. Oh boy. So this is something I didn’t realize but had to pick up on pretty quickly. Bettas are needy little buggers. Even if you have them in a tank that’s being filtered and cleaned, and has an algae or detritus-eating creature at the bottom, you’re still going to need to do partial water changes every week or so. If you don’t have a betta and are planning to get one, do yourself a favor and buy a tank cleaning tube now. Don’t wait until you wake up to find your poor fish lolling at the bottom of the tank, gasping for breath. While you’re at the store, also purchase a pH test kit (I bought strips, but I heard a full kit is a better) and a water conditioner. It sounds like it’s hard work to do a water change, but it only takes a minute or two. The most complicated part is conditioning the new water and setting it aside to get to the same temperature as the water in the tank. Here are some good, detailed instructions on doing a partial water change.

8) Chow Time! As I mentioned before, Simon didn’t eat for almost a week when he first came to live with me. As you might imagine, that freaked me out. When I bought him, I brought home two different types of food – pellets and freeze dried bloodworms. He didn’t even take a glance at the bloodworms, and though he made half-hearted attempts at eating a pellet once in awhile, he never got one down. On the fourth day, I got desperate and fed him one of my live SeaMonkeys, which he hunted, tormented, then sucked down in about 30 seconds. He was visibly happier after, and I started looking online for clues to what I should be trying to feed him. I read that he wouldn’t do well living on SeaMonkeys (brine shrimp) alone, but that they were a great thing to give him in conjunction with a more well-rounded food.

After watching him try to eat pellets for another day, it occurred to me that maybe they were just too big for his tiny mouth, and I finally went back to the pet shop and bought him flakes. I’ve also read that some betta enthusiasts don’t like flakes because they aren’t quite as nutritious and they also dirty up the tank faster. That’s just going to have to be a problem we learn to deal with, because finally my fish is able to fit something in his face, and he gobbles up his breakfast and dinner happily every day. The Tetra Bettamin flakes that I got him also have tiny bits of chopped up freeze dried brine shrimp in them, and I’ve noticed that he has trouble eating those bits, too, but he typically gets the shrimp in his mouth, chews, spits it out, sucks it up, and starts the process over again. After five or six times, he can generally eat it in one gulp.

If you get a betta and it doesn’t eat immediately, don’t panic like I did. I’ve since found out that it’s pretty typical for them to not eat for awhile while they’re getting used to their new home, sometimes as much as a week goes by. Also, I’ve read accounts where people’s bettas didn’t eat for a few weeks at a time. If your fish still looks healthy and happy, don’t freak out. But do try different types of food if you can. Also, it’s a good habit to feed your fish only what it can eat in 2 minutes, twice a day. After about 2 minutes, scoop any remaining food out of the top of the tank to keep it from polluting the water as it breaks down.

Artistic Betta

Simon's a happy little guy now that mum has figured it out a bit.

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13 thoughts on “Weird Stuff I’ve Learned About Betta Fish

    • Anna says:

      You’re right, for some reason I tend to forget how much time and energy it takes to care for my kitties. Maybe it’s just having had cats for so long, cleaning out the litter box and double-vacuuming the couch just seem like normal daily activities.

  1. Chris R. says:

    I used to keep big saltwater reef tanks, and I think this article has inspired me to get another betta. There’s just something so badass about them; basically the freshwater equivalent of the lionfish. Mine have tended to jump out of their tanks rather quickly, so I’d strongly urge using a top. I think keeping a shrimp such as a ghost shrimp as a companion would be a good idea (if only for the entertainment obtained from watching them feed upside down at the water’s surface), though I’d worry about it nibbling on the betta’s fins at night, so a small species of Corydoras catfish might be better.

  2. TR says:

    What an awesome read! The prose, the pictures absolutely marvelous. I love fish and don’t care much for felines but if we were all the same it would be one boring world.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Hi. Ive never had a fish before. I have a male betta and hes awesome. But today hes freaking me out. I dont know what u call it but he swims up to me and opens up his “cheeks ” at me. He looks scary. Why is he doing that. Hes happy with my family but he keeps doing this to me. Please help.

    • Anna says:

      I’m not a fish expert, so I can’t say for any certainty. However, the action that you’re talking about is called “flaring” and some fish owners say that it’s something they do to show recognition of a face they have started to know. They do it when they’re happy to see someone, which can be confusing since they also do it when they see another fish they’d like to fight. Either way, it’s very natural, so unless he’s showing any signs of not doing well in his tank, he’s fine! πŸ™‚

  4. STEPHANIE PAZOLES says:

    My Betta was doing really well and now for some reason he is having trouble staying at the top of the tank unless he is sitting on his leaf. He still gets excited when I come to the tank he eats just fine and his color etc. look fine. I have changed the water, had it tested and retested. I have a very small Pleco and a slightly larger Pleco in the tank it is 5 gallons. I have a oss ball and a cave for him to hide in. Any ideas what is going on? I have only had him since March.

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