I can’t think of a fish that comes in more colors, forms, and patterns than a betta. Walking through the aisles of tiny cups to pick out a betta has become akin to walking through a candy store; dazzling colors, options galore, and you can never be happy with just one! Their uniqueness isn’t just scale deep; they have personalities galore as well. Not only are they small, beautiful, easy to find, and full of spunk – all great qualities! – they’re also easy to care for. This doesn’t mean keep them in a cup, plop in some flakes, and call it a day (I can’t think of a fish that fits that bill,) but they’re quite adaptable.
Contrary to popular belief, they’re not all bloodthirsty fighting ninjas, as romanticized as that idea has become. Males certainly won’t tolerate other males in their territory, though. How far a betta’s territory stretches is all up to the betta’s personality and the structure of the tank. Some males see themselves as owning empires and relentless chasing off intruders, while others are from much more humble homes and are peaceful. Red bettas are proven (scientifically) to be more aggressive than any other colors while white bettas are usually the most peaceful. There doesn’t seem to a be a great explanation for why this is, but that’s it, nonetheless. And many generations of selective Thai breeding have increased their aggression from their natural state of aggression. They’re often bred not only based on looks, but how vigorous and aggressive they’re capable of being. And even if they’re not anymore, almost all strains come from fighting stock bred for thousands of years based on their aggression in Thailand.
In some cases, if kept in a large space by a (very) experienced keeper, males can do just fine with each other so long as they have their own space to call theirs but, again, that depends on the betta. When two males are put in the confines of a 10-gallon tank? Surely scales will go flying and the loser will have nowhere to retreat, leaving the victor frustrated that loser won’t retreat. Taking it as a sign he’s not fully asserted his dominance, the winner will continue with the attack, eventually killing the other – but only because the losing fish won’t (can’t) leave.
We see these mock showdowns when two males are put next to each other in small tanks, but if you put two planted 10-gallon tanks with males next to each other, you may never see it happen. Similarly interesting and misunderstood, most male bettas won’t eat their offspring once they get the hang of things (usually three or four spanws.) Some will always eat their eggs or fry at a certain point, but most are awesome fathers that will care for their young until they’re old enough to breed themselves. This is another situation where, given a large enough tank and a skilled enough keeper, you will see dozens of males getting along just fine as the dominant male (the father) keeps all his fry from squabbling over dominance – everyone knows their role is below his and he seems to dictate who comes next in the pecking order without violence. Of course, this truce is temporary.
And, since we’ve done so much talking about the men, let’s give the ladies a shout out; in my experience, and the experience of many others, female bettas are much nastier than their male counterparts. Which makes sense, given that they were selectively bred for aggression, would the female not have to stand her own against an aggressive brute to reproduce?
For whatever the reason, betta fish are so commonly kept, yet so frequently misunderstood. Blood thirsty children eaters or puffed up father figures? We’ll let you decide after you read this article. Hopefully I can debunk some myths for you along the way.
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Table of contents
Do bettas get lonely?
This is a debated topic and we really don’t know enough about fish emotions to say for sure. We certainly thought for some time that fish don’t feel pain, which turns out to not be true. Or that fish aren’t intelligent when, in fact, there are fish that use tools, some are self-aware, and most fish have rudimentary counting skills . Back to the question: do bettas get lonely? Probably not, they’re solitary creatures by nature, but they can certain be bored or depressed.
Do betta fish recognize their owners?
They certainly seem to. In fact, many fish have been shown to recognize human faces, being able to distinguish faces they’ve seen before from faces they haven’t. This, however, just means they remember what your face looks like and that you’re a bipedal food dispenser. Presumably they’d recognize anything they’ve seen with relative frequency, not just those who feed them – your cat, a plant, your curtains, for instance, as they’re all a part of his world and he catalogs these things for spatial reasoning purposes.
How do you know if your betta is happy?
The short answer: they seem happy and healthy. The long answer: are their colors bright (and have no horizontal black bars if they’re females), are they moving about, exploring, greeting you, building nests, eating, flaring, or otherwise being industrious? Then your betta is probably “happy.” If you’re questioning it, they’re probably not. The hard thing about this question is the word “happiness.” Happiness for a fish is, as far as we know, not being completely stressed out, which is not the same as thriving.
Can bettas live in a fishbowl?
Bettas can live in big fishbowls, but we certainly don’t condone such conditions. The shape of a bowl doesn’t allow for much swimming space, they’re hard to heat, and they don’t come with lids. Let me put it this way; you could live in big a cardboard box indefinitely, but would it be a great life? I know my answer.
The argument could be made, however, that bettas often live in pails, buckets, or flowerpots in Thailand – and this is where the most beautiful and robust bettas come from. That’s certainly a conundrum, isn’t it?
For one, Asia – as a whole – isn’t known for animal welfare and they’re open about not giving a shit about fish (koi and arowanas perhaps being marginal exceptions.) But, moreover, they have the climate there to be able to keep their containers heated naturally, and all their containers are much more appropriate for swimability – cylindrical versus round. With that said, tanks are better options. Of course, in an emergency, you could house your betta in anything that holds water – but that’s certainly not the life I’d want to live long-term.
Can bettas live without a filter?
Yes, they can, but you’d have to change their water more often and there’s no good way to cycle a tank without a filter of some sort. I personally hate hang on back (HOB) filters for bettas, but that’s me. I would opt for the cheaper, environmentally friendly, quieter, and easier option: a small sponge filter. You can get a sponge, some airline, and a small air pump for a little as $10 if you shop around. Unlike HOBs, you can use it forever without having to pay for additional replacement filters every few months and the flow rates are much easier to adjust.
Do bettas die easily?
On a whole; no, not really, nope. But – and here’s the caveat! – by the time you get your betta home, they’re incredibly stressed and highly susceptible to all sorts of things, at which point bettas can seem to “die easily,” but that’s just because you didn’t see everything they went through to make it to your house.
First, bettas are netted up and plopped in very – I cannot stress this enough – very small amounts of water, usually just enough to keep them mostly wet, in tiny 3” x 3” bags, where they’re usually sedated and laid on their sides. They’re then loaded up into a box with 500 or more other sedated bettas stacked on top of them in equally tiny bags. Then they’re dropped off at customs – which takes them about a day to get through – then loaded on a cargo plane and placed in the cargo hold. When they get to the states, they’re unloaded off the plane where they’ll be brought to customs to wait another good, long, while before they’re released to a transhipper. Already, so many ways these boxes and fish can be mishandled or tossed about.
If the transhipper is a wholesaler (like in the case of Petco and PetSmart’s suppliers) they’ll be packaged into cups, usually smaller than the ones you see at the store, where they’ll wait to be shipped out again – usually a few days if not less. At this point they repeat most of the process; tiny bags, little water, sedatives, sorting facility, truck, cargo hold, another sorting facility, another truck, plopped off at destination. Usually, once at the store, they repack them in cups. Occasionally, depending on the wholesaler and destination, they’ll be shipped in cups to the stores. And this is the stage you buy them at.
I’ll caveat this whole explanation by saying that not all bettas are shipped under such horrible conditions by wholesalers. But from overseas? That’s the norm.
How do I get bettas that aren’t transported under horrible conditions?
Okay, I’ll admit, this isn’t an FAQ, but I wanted to include it for those of you who were shocked, angered, or dismayed by the above answer – which is hopefully a lot of you. Avoiding bettas that were bred outside of the states is the only realistic option for definitively knowing how they were shipped and reducing the demand on oversea bettas. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of breeders in the states, but you can certainly join the IBC as a start.
You can also choose to not “rescue” pet store bettas. This will certainly not end the practice, but hopefully, reduce the demand on bettas from overseas and reduce the incentive for breeders to mass-produce and go through the hassle of shipping them into the states.
Betta Splendens Classification
IUCN Status: Vulnerable – Last assessed 2/25/11
Class: Actinopterygii are ray-finned fishes, which is a subcategory of boney fishes. These fish are characterized by the bony structures that support their webbed fins. This group makes up nearly half of all living vertebrates.
Order: Anabantiformes are fish characterized by teeth on the parasphenoi (a bone found in the cranium of some ray-finned fishes.) Snakeheads and anabantoids (a sub-order of Anabantiformes) both have a labyrinth organ; this enables them to breathe atmospheric oxygen.
Family: Osphronemidae, commonly referred to as simply “gouramis.”
Genus: Betta contains 73 recognized species under this genus, only one of which is referred to by the common name “betta”, which is B. splendens.
Scientific name: Betta splendens
What Does Betta splendens Mean?
Betta comes from ikan betah, the Malay word for many species of the betta genus. Splendens comes from the Latin word meaning ‘shining, glittering’.
Distribution & Natural Habitat
Bettas occur throughout central Thailand. Notably from Chiang Rai province in the north to Surat Thani and Phang Nga provinces at the northern extremity of the Malay Peninsula. Other species and non-native populations can be seen in southern Thailand, and the Mekong River basin in eastern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
Bettas have been introduced to several countries, mostly escapees from betta breeders and fish farm. Known non-indigenous populations are established in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. Despite their vulnerable status with the IUCN, a large population was found in the Adelaide River Floodplain in Australia, where they’re considered an invasive species.
In the wild, bettas inhabit stagnant or sluggish waters such as swamps, rice paddies, ditches, ponds, and slow-moving streams. The dissolved oxygen content of these bodies of water is often low and they’re usually shaded by submerged, floating, or marginal vegetation, providing low light conditions. Most of the time, you can find leaf litter in these areas, however, bettas are known to occur in areas of sandy, muddy, and deeply sedimented substrates as well. Given the monsoons season, water conditions can go from droughts to flooding.
Wild populations of bettas, despite their overabundance in stores, are in danger due to habitat loss or modification and the introduction of ornamental forms and other species, which is showing detrimental effects on the genetic integrity in some wild populations.
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Difficulty: Pretty easy, usually the challenges come down to poor understanding
Size: 2.5″ (6 cm)
Lifespan: 1.5 – 2 years, though some can live up to 5 years
Tank Size: 5 gallons (20 liters)
Diet: Omnivore – will eat prepared foods
Temperature: 75 – 82F (24 – 27C)
Bettas need at least a 5-gallon tank to call their own with a lid, as they’d adept jumpers. They prefer overhead vegetation such as salvinnia, duckweed, or lilies, and these plants go a long way in making sure your betta stays in the tank. They appreciate root systems or tall plants like valsenaria to dip in and out of.
Since bettas don’t particularly care about substrate, you can put in whatever, really. Just be sure if you leave the bottom bare that you paint the bottom pane or put it on something dark-colored, otherwise you risk stressing your fish with the light coming up from the bottom of the tank.
Bettas are also known for finding their reflection on the sides of the tank and nonstop stressing over intruders. Painting three sides of the aquarium black (or another dark color) helps make your betta feel more secure in their home. I’ve tried stick-on backgrounds with little success.
Leaf litter is certainly appreciated as well and can help lower your pH and create a beautiful blackwater biotope. If you opt for black water, I suggest botanicals such as alder cones, Swietenia macrophylla pods, and catappa leaves, but there are plenty of other great options to explore. What I don’t suggest is using peat moss to lower you pH and hardness, it’s not sustainable for the environment and it’s not as effective as so many other methods that are!
Bettas also need a heater and a small filter, sponge filters are certainly preferred, but with such a small tank you could spring for a corner hamburger matten filter if you don’t like the look of sponges and heaters. Just make sure to keep the water movement minimal, bettas aren’t strong swimmers with their long heavy fins, and they certainly don’t enjoy the current.
It’s no secret that bettas love to eat, and they’ve been known to literally eat themselves to death. So be careful with portion sizes in the aquarium.
They love live food if you’re up for culturing it! They like daphnia, white worms, grindal worms, blood worms (especially live!), pinhead crickets, wingless fruit flies, and mosquito larvae.
If you’re not up for playing with creepy crawlies, you can buy frozen or freeze-dried versions of most of these live foods. They’re also happy eating freeze-dried blackworms and tubifex worms. Bettas will eat pellets, but they’re certainly not the only thing you should feed your betta. And, while they do eat some vegetables, they prefer to be carnivores on a whole.
But, beware: bettas loooooove bloodworms and once you introduce them, they may revolt and not eat anything else but. Even if you try to starve them out the phase. Because they’re stubborn like that.
And, since we’re talking about food, bettas cannot – can not – live off plant roots. That’s not what they eat in the wild, that’s not what they eat in people’s houses, and they will surely slowly die a very painful death due to starvation. So, please, don’t buy into that hype that should’ve died years ago.
Bettas don’t have many diseases that they get, but the few they do get they’re notorious for. Dropsy (aka bloat), velvet, fin rot, and obesity are some of those problems. And, in most cases, all of those diseases can be prevented with proper care.
Velvet (Gold Dust Disease)
For whatever the reason, bettas are particularly prone to velvet, but any tropical fish can get it. Velvet is caused by a surprisingly attractive looking parasite that can easily go unnoticed until the fish dies from them.
Symptoms, not unlike ich, include itchiness, lethargy, rapid breathing, clamped fins, and obviously a gold dusting. Treating velvet can be done the same way that you’d treat ich.
- Brownish/gold discoloration
- Clamped fins
- Skin peeling off
- Labored breathing
- Oödinium pilularis (parasite)
Bloat certainly doesn’t have to be as severe as the picture, but you get the idea. Bloating is an accumulation of gas, fluids, or unpassed food present in the fish. Although I have no proof, I suspect this is why most people search “how to tell if [insert fish species] is pregnant” even if they can’t get pregnant. There is a difference between a bloated fish and a fish that’s eaten too much – the fish that ate too much will act normal whereas the other usually won’t.
- Your fish’s stomach is distended without raised scales
- Fish may appear to be in some sort of discomfort and avoid swimming or other usual activities
- May not be pooping
- Intestinal blockage
- Internal bacterial infection
- Internal growths/tumors
Ich is caused by a parasite that, to many, looks like tiny white pimples across the fish. It can attach to the mouth, fins, body, and gills. You can usually see fish scraping themselves against objects (likely because parasites are itchy!) before white spots even appear.
- White spots
- Redness or bloody streaks
- Ichthyophthirius multifilis (parasite)
Fin Rot & Tail Rot
Fin rot and tail rot are the same thing and are caused by gram-negative bacteria that eat away at your fish’s fins, leaving them ragged and choppy looking. Depending on the severity, this bacteria could open the door for fungal infections or eventually turn into body rot (where the bacteria starts eating the body of the fish.)
- Fins look like they’ve been chomped on
- Fins are slowly shrinking
- Faded coloration on the fins (not to be confused with new growth)
- Poor water quality
- Prior untreated injury in combination with poor water quality
Obesity in fish is pretty straightforward. But, to be honest, it can be hard to diagnose if you’re not incredibly familiar with the way the fish is supposed to look. It can also be difficult to know in females if she’s full of eggs or just fat. Could even be both.
- Acts normal, just fat
- Fatty foods
- Not enough swimming space
- Too much food
- All of the above
Betta Tank Mates
If you want to keep a community tank, bettas are not the best option for a few reasons. First, would be their aggression towards anything that looks like a male betta, so avoid bright and colorful fish with similar body structures. Second would be bettas don’t fare well in deep tanks, it makes it much harder for them to reach the surface for air should they need it (which they seem to do even with high levels of oxygen.)
This would be their long fins are subject to nips and inquisitives bites from boisterous tankmates. Additionally, male bettas aren’t usually aggressive eaters and can easily be outcompeted for food. Finally, bettas can be, somewhat ironically, fin nippers themselves! So keeping anything that moves too slowly or is too docile can also lead to nipping problems from the betta.
Female betta sororities don’t work long-term. They may seem more docile, but they’re just as feisty. I’ve never seen a betta sorority where all the fish were happy, and I’ve never heard of bettas being kept in the sorority until they peacefully die of old age (because they usually start dying of other sorority-related issues.) It’s a cute, warm, fuzzy idea, but that’s just on paper. In real life, it’s often fine until it’s a blood bath, provided it was ever fine to begin with.
Okay, with that out of the way, it’s important to note that tankmates depend on the betta, mostly. And if you plan on keeping anything with a betta, you need to have 10 gallons or more for them to go in. But, with that said, bettas are compatible with many more species of fish than our usual “not really community fish” fish.
Ember tetras are bright, fun, tiny, shoaling fish that occur in South American black waters. They’re hardy, peaceful fish that are often described as active, bold, and playful. They also enjoy a planted tank, but be mindful that they do like to swim in open space, so be sure to include that in your layout. They enjoy their numbers a little higher than most shoaling species, 8 is recommended.
pH: 5.5 – 7
dKH: 1 – 10
Temp: 68 – 82 F (20 – 27 C)
Size: 3/4″ (2 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful and active
Swimming: Top to midwater shoaling
Nerite Snails (Neritina natalensis)
The most common complaint about snails is that they can reproduce like crazy, this is especially true for tanks with tons of leftovers! Nerite snails, however, can’t reproduce in freshwater so this isn’t a concern for the average aquarium. A simple remedy to keeping shrimp in soft water or water with little calcium is to add Tums to the tank for them to munch on to get their calcium fill.
pH: 7.0 – 8.9
dKH: 6 – 12
Temp: 70 – 80 F (21 – 27 C)
Size: 1″ (2 cm) although somewhat species dependent
Swimming: Everywhere there’s food
Corydora (Corydora sp.)
While each species will vary slightly, all require smooth substrates or bare bottom and do best when they’re kept in groups of at least six or more.
Some larger options would be better here, anywhere from 2.5″ (6.5 cm) and up. Good candidates would include bronze, emerald, Sterbai’s, and peppered cories.
pH: 5.5 – 7.0 – species dependent
dKH: 3 – 10
Temp: 72 – 80 F (22 – 26 C) – species dependent
Size: 1 – 3.5″ (2.5 – 9 cm) – species dependent
Temperament: Peaceful, can be boisterous for less active species
Swimming: Bottom (most) in a shoal of 6 or more
Leopard Danio (Brachydanio froskei)
Leopard danios have amazing color and, if you look hard enough, you may even be able to find some dazzling color morphs of this fish as well! They do best in groups of six or more and zip around the tank quite a bit, so ensure you have swimming space for a shoal of this size.
pH: 6.0 – 8.0
dKH: 2 – 20
Temp: 64 -75F (17 – 23C)
Size: 2.4″ (6 cm)
Swimming: Mid to top
Amano Shrimp (Caridina Multidentata)
Most amano shrimp are wild-caught, so you’ll want to make sure you quarantine them properly before adding them to your tank, but they make a peaceful and entertaining algae control crew. They’ll be at their best if they’re kept in groups of six or more.
pH: 6.5 – 7.9
dKH: 1 – 6
Temp: 65 – 76 F (18 – 24 C)
Size: 3″+ (7.5+ cm)
Temperament: Peaceful and active
Swimming: Bottom & structured surfaces
Zebra “Danio” (Brachydanio rerio)
Zebra danios belong to the minnow family. They’re fast, outgoing, peaceful, and need room to swim with their shoal (6 or more being ideal.) They can handle a range of temperatures and water conditions – from stagnant to faster-flow, making them a versatile community fish.
pH: 6.0 – 8.0
dKH: 5 – 20
Temp: 65 – 77 F (18 – 25 C)
Size: 1.5 – 2″ (4 – 5 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful and active
Swimming: Top to midwater shoaling
Lambchop Rasbora (Trigonostigma espei)
You can think of the lambchop as a smaller cousin to the harlequin rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha) they look and act similarly and their care requirements are about the same. These guys are just a bit smaller with slightly different coloring.
pH: 5.5 – 7.5
dKH: 1 – 10
Temp: 74 – 83F (24 – 28C)
Size: 1.2″ (1 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful shoaling fish
Swimming: Mid to top
Harlequin Rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha)
Harlequins are a shoaling species that prefer friend groups of six or more. They’re not known to be nippy fish and are quite peaceful as long as they’re provided plants, space to swim, and the company of their own kind.
pH: 5 – 7.5
dKH: 1 – 12
Temp: 70 to 83 F (21 to 28 C)
Size: 2″ (5 cm)
Swimming: Mid to top-water shoaling
Kuhli Loach (Pangio kuhlii)
Kuhli loaches are easy to keep, but they need food that hits the bottom of the tank. If you have the chance, hiding food under the sand is a great way to see their natural behavior and it’s fun to watch them root around for scraps. They like to be kept in groups where you’ll often see them curled up under structures together.
pH: 3.0 – 7.0
dKH: 1 – 8
Temp: 70 – 79 F (21 – 26 C)
Size: 1.3″ (3 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful, can be shy
Bristlenose Plecos (Ancistrus sp.)
Most plecos aren’t suited for the average aquarium, some growing up to two feet long – not the bristlenose pleco. They’ll happily munch on algae, green beans, zucchinis, cucumbers, sinking algae wafers, and of course leftovers and fish poo – although leftovers and poo make for a literally shitty diet.
pH: 6.0 – 7.5
dKH: 6 – 10
Temp: 60 – 80 F (15 – 27 C)
Size: 4 – 5″ (10 – 12 cm)
Temperament: Peaceful, can be territorial
Swimming: Everywhere that has structure
Watching bettas spawn is an absolute delight – their colors, grace, and coordination are amazing to see. I’ve often sat in front of tanks at 3 am and stared until I felt like my eyes were bleeding. Each pair seems to go about it slightly differently, and even if they’ve spawned together before, they seem to take their previous experiences into account and are forever perfecting their finned ballet.
- splendens, like many anabantoids, make a nest of bubbles at the surface of the water to house their eggs and fry. The nest is made of a sticky spit-like mucus mixed with water and air. It’s thought that the eggs need to be exposed to some degree of atmospheric air to develop or hatch properly and that the mucus the male uses to create the nest possibly contains some antibacterial properties.
Again, contrary to popular internet belief, male bettas do not “squeeze” the eggs out of the female. This would be not only painful, but impossible. In fact, I don’t know anything that ovulates when squeezed and I’m not entirely sure how this rumor started. If you watch closely, you’ll see that they’re not touching closely enough for him to python squeeze her ovaries dry, but instead, close enough for the eggs to be successfully fertilized as they come out. Often, especially during the first few embraces, she’ll drop her eggs without him in the correct position to fertilized them. Females have also been known to drop eggs at the sight of a male, when they’re suddenly spooked, or seemingly just for the fun of eating their own caviar (weird, but whatever floats your goats.)
There are dozens of ways to breed bettas and to raise the fry. The subject is so interesting I wrote a whole article on how to breed bettas.
Further Reading & Resources
Seriously Fish – Betta Splendens
Animal World – Siamese Fighting Fish
CNN Health – Fish can recognize human faces, study shows
Smithsonian Mag – It’s Official: Fish Feel Pain