Articles Stocking aquarium

Fish with personality

October 18, 2013
oranda goldfish

When thinking of fishkeeping, many people think of tropical community tanks: peaceful, colorful and beautiful, but – admittedly – not always too exciting. This has lead to the idea that fishkeeping is a bit of a ‘boring’ hobby sometimes, and that keeping fish is just not the same as keeping a more fluffy, warmblooded pet. 

To smash this myth once and for all, I have compiled a list of fish that are definitely not boring. These species are perfect for anyone looking to actually interact with their fish. If you are allergic to anything fluffy and hairy, these fish may be the solution!

Puffer fish varieties

This is a very obvious one, but when it comes to personality, puffers just take the prize. Often described as ‘puppy-like’ and very intelligent, they are shy at first but seem to be able to recognize their owner after a while and will actively beg for food whenever this specific person enters the room.

Most puffer varieties, especially the bigger ones, are quite hard to keep. Definitely a fish you have to research before you run out to the aquarium store. They are very sensitive and aggressive and have to be kept in single-species aquariums with plenty of decorations to prevent them becoming bored. Dwarf puffers are the easiest puffers to keep – although they are small, they have the same wonderful personality as their bigger cousins. We keep a single dwarf puffer and the little guy is so wonderfully curious and intelligent he has inspired me to set up another puffer tank for a red eye puffer!

For more info on keeping puffers, check out The Puffer Forum.


Although they are not actually fish, crays definitely deserve a place on this list. Both dwarf crayfish (which can be kept in aquariums as small as 5 gallons/20 liters) and their bigger cousins have huge personalities and are incredibly fun to keep. They are very defensive, often completely forgetting their tiny size when someone approaches the tank – my dwarf crays always come running at me with their pincers raised high when I come too close and don’t back down unless I sit still for a while. Their behaviour towards each other is also quite amusing; I often see them slowly approaching each other with raised pincers, coming closer and closer until one finally backs down and takes a huge leap backwards.

Most bigger crayfish need to be kept in single species aquariums as they are aggressive and destructive. Lots of hiding spaces like shrimp caves, plants and driftwood are appreciated, as crays need a quiet, dark place when molting.

Betta splendens

They are this popular for a reason! Most bettas have a huge personality; they are curious and active and will often beg for food whenever someone walks into the room, doing anything to get their owner’s attention. My betta tank is next to the bed, and my betta often starts flaring and swimming excitedly along the front of the tank as soon as I start moving in the morning, even before the tank light is on. Betta males will see other bettas as an opponent, so when confronted with a mirror they will display territorial behaviour, which is very interesting to see: the fins and gills are flared out and the fish will try to intimidate the other fish in the mirror.

Bettas can be kept in smaller tanks, but try to avoid anything under 5 gallons/20 liters. Aquariums that small don’t cycle properly, causing water quality issues and stress for your betta. For more info on bettas and how to keep them, check out the betta caresheet.

Oscar (Astronotus ocellatus)

Oscars are well-known for being very interesting to keep due to their personality. I don’t have personal experience with them, but almost all oscar owners will tell you the same: they are fantastic at begging for food and will get very excited whenever anyone enters the room, splashing at the surface and waiting for the tank lid to be opened. Another interesting personality feature is the fact that oscars tend to enjoy playing ‘interior designer’ by destroying plants, moving decorations and digging around in the substrate.

Oscars are very frequently kept in less than ideal conditions and fed foods that are not actually good for them. They grow very large and this should be kept in mind when setting up an aquarium for them. This is a great guide that covers pretty much everything related to setting up an aquarium for oscar fish and this guide contains tons of info on what to feed your oscar (some will be surprised to learn that feeder goldfish are, in fact, not suitable for feeding bigger fish).

Clown loach (Chromobotia macracanthus)

Many aquarists have had bad experience with clown loaches, as they’re often sold for small tanks as juveniles. This leaves the owner with a fish that outgrows the tank and has a terrible personality, often harrassing other fish and hiding most of the time. So why are they on this list? Because a well-cared for clown loach is actually a fantastic fish that doesn’t deserve this bad reputation at all. The key to success with these loaches is the fact that they need to live in big tanks (75+ gal/285 l) in groups of at least five. When these basic requirements are met, groups of clown loaches will actively school and beg for food whenever someone approaches the tank. They will also ‘dance’ together from time to time, tumbling over one another and repeatedly swimming to the surface.

The most interesting thing about these loaches, though, is the way they sleep. I can’t count the number of times I was absolutely convinced ours had died during the night – they sleep upside down, sideways, wedged behind the filter, on top of the heater or squished under rocks. Nothing to worry about, but quite scary to see sometimes. You can find a full clown loach caresheet here.

Fancy goldfish

Fancy goldfish are exactly what you expect them to be: silly, funny, enthusiastic, clumsy and super friendly. I’ve been keeping them for almost two years now and I’ve just totally fallen in love with their adorable personalities. They get incredibly excited when anyone gets close to the tank and can usually be hand-fed without a problem. Individual fancies seem to have their own personalities; some are a bit more shy, while others will push everyone aside to get to the food first.

If you’re interested in keeping fancy goldfish, do your research first! Goldfish bowls are unfortunately not a good idea – your goldies are actually going to need a big tank with a big filter and good quality food. Read the Fancy Goldfish Caresheet before running out to the pet store to save yourself a lot of trouble.

If you have any more suggestions for this list, if you have questions about one of the fish or if you just want to share your experience, leave a comment below. Happy fishkeeping!

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  • Reply RN at RIverside September 14, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    I have a senior assisted living center and acquired a small 1.5 gallon tank. The facility wont allow pets but I talked them into some fish. There is limited room or i’d have gotten a larger tank. What fish would you recommend I get? We tried a Betta first but he got “ick”? (a staff member recognized it) and was lethargic to begin with so I wonder if was acquired from the store where I got him as I used very clean bottled Beta water to start the tank with, shocked it, etc, all according to direction. I need advice on how to sterilize the tank so that doesn’t happen to the next fish. Any help would be appreciated. I’ll check back to see what you can offer or you can reply to my email. Thank you.

    • Reply Mari September 14, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      Hi! I would unfortunately strongly recommend against getting any fish at all. 1.5 gallon is extremely tiny, doesn’t cycle properly and is really not suitable for any fish (5 gallons is the minimum for fish, including bettas). You might be able to turn the tank into a plants-only setup, maybe with some shrimp or tiny snails, as described here. No fish!

      Sorry I don’t have better news. Good luck!

      • Reply RN at RIverside September 14, 2016 at 10:28 pm

        Oh, thank you. I’ve looked for larger tanks that would fit in the only space I have that I can put a tank but can’t find one skinny enough that I can afford. As it was, my $5 betta turned into nearly $100 (out of my own pocket) after buying stuff to try to save him. Not really into snails so will keep looking for a proper tank as I have the temp gauge, the filter, pump and all other parts of the system now. I’ve printed off your personality fish so that when that happens I can choose a fun fish for them here. I think they need something to care about.

      • Reply RN at RIverside September 14, 2016 at 10:34 pm

        Actually just read about the shrimp and snails and was surprised! I like peaceful creatures so maybe they could be a solution! I figured there wouldn’t be any ‘personality’ but maybe they have a little? Was an interesting read about all the ‘peaceful community’ fish … wish humans could be better about emmulating them.

      • Reply RN at RIverside September 14, 2016 at 11:19 pm

        actually, we just filled it and it’s a 3 gallon tank…. are there any nano fish that work with that size?

        • Reply Mari September 17, 2016 at 12:43 pm

          Nope, unfortunately not! A 3 gallon can’t really sustain a stable cycle so introducing fish would likely lead to ammonia spikes. Fish are also just too active for such a small size tank. But as you already found out, inverts really are peaceful and they really aren’t as boring as you’d think. Watching a bunch of shrimp and snails forage and do their thing can be super calming and their behavior is interesting to see. So I would recommend those!

  • Reply Pisces November 7, 2015 at 9:13 am

    Hi There,

    I have seen this small gold goldfish in a tiny bowl with no oxygen filter and no environmental stimuli such as weeds. The goldfish is all alone and is left over the weekends without any feed. This animal-fish is simply being treated as an ornament ‘a replaceable object’ and sits on top of the desk at a real estate agency. I watched it today through the window looking like it’s having a panic attack it was clearly stressed, The fish has been in this condition for at least four weeks now. This has angered me so I have placed a call for the RSPCA to inspect my complaint, however, I don’t know how long this would take. I tried to find any legislation in Sydney Australia that renders gold fish bowls banned or legislation that explains gold fish bowl cruelty but I can not find any (only in Italy). I want to do something about this because some people are using animals – especially the ones who can not be heard through sheer ignorance – as commodities and replaceable objects without empathy and compassion. I would like to bring forward a petition to my local council to ban the use of gold fish bowls period! However, as you are more experienced than I, I don’t know much about goldfish at all and don’t know how to win this proposal with my local council with scientific facts. I don’t want to start something that may not be successful. Please Please can you send me scientific proof of the negative affects of goldfish being confined to existing in fish bowls. I read that goldfish in these conditions go blind and have a distorted view of reality resulting in suffering from this. (italy Council bans goldfish bowls). any help would be greatly appreciated. I’m just so sick and tired of some people treating animals as expendable toys and ornaments – they are not robots. Kind Regards Pisces.

    • Reply Mari November 7, 2015 at 10:07 am


      So sorry to hear about that poor goldfish, must be a horrible sight to see. Great to hear you’re trying to do something about it.
      The most important negative effect of goldfish being kept in fish bowls is actually not at all the distorted view of reality and I’m not sure why this argument is always used. The most negative (and deadly) effect is actually much worse: because a bowl is obviously MUCH, MUCH too small and there is no filter to break down any wastes (check out the article on cycling if you don’t already know how filter bacteria work), ammonia quickly builds up. This causes the goldfish to actually choke on and be burned by its own wastes. You’ll often see goldfish in bowls getting black splotches; this is not a color change, but the black is actually caused by ammonia burning. Now, goldfish are incredibly hardy creatures, which is why some endure this suffering for years and years, but that doesn’t make it okay at all and they always develop deformities. Common goldfish (single tailed, long body, “feeder fish”) are strictly pond fish, and fancy goldfish (round body, double tail) need at least 20 gallons per fish but ideally more.
      If you haven’t already checked these out, the following articles may be helpful to you:
      Why goldfish bowls should be banned
      Common goldfish caresheet
      Fancy goldfish caresheet

      Good luck!

  • Reply Lana Lemony December 31, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Another fish with a great personality is the Black Ghost Knife! They have such quirky personalities, and they’re always swimming around and checking stuff out. Sometimes they swim backwards and forwards like a swing. xD
    Here’s a good video of how human friendly they can be-

    • Reply Mari December 31, 2013 at 11:07 am

      Ahh, that’s so sweet! I really didn’t know they had that much personality. I’d love to see one up close!
      It’s a pity they’re often kept in less than perfect conditions, they get pretty big and most people don’t seem to realize that (or don’t care). 🙁

  • Reply Brian December 23, 2013 at 6:58 am

    Puffer fish have a ton of personality! I own a Fahaka Puffer and he is more like a dog than a fish. Almost the size of a small dog too! 🙂 Great article. Thank you for sharing.

    • Reply Mari December 23, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Ahh, I’d love to own a bigger puffer like a Fahaka one day! I’ve heard nothing but great things about their personality. I saw a Mbu in an aquarium store a while ago and I was immediately sold, haha! 😀

  • Reply Rachel November 29, 2013 at 3:37 am

    I think cichlids in general can show a fair amount of personality. My bf has Electric Yellows and they’re antics are so funny =]

    • Reply Mari November 29, 2013 at 7:47 am

      From what I’ve seen in other people’s aquariums, they’re pretty fun to keep indeed! It’s a pity I’ve never gotten the chance to keep them myself. 🙁

  • Reply Gen November 11, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    Puffers are amazing little fish friends! Anyone looking for more information on them- search for ThePufferForum. The members are so helpful there and it has a treasure trove of info on keeping the magical little blimps 🙂

    • Reply Mari November 12, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Agreed! ThePufferForum is a great place to find more info. There’s a link to the forum in my Dwarf Puffer caresheet, but I’ll add one here as well! 😀

  • Reply goldfishgal October 19, 2013 at 2:09 am

    Yes! Oscars are AMAZING fish! I’d totally have them if I had the roomand resources. My mom had a few when I was growing up (though she didn’t care for them well, I didn’t know that at the time) and they have soooo much personality and can be really gorgeous too! They remind me alot of goldfish, though I must say, they seem smarter XD

    • Reply Mari October 19, 2013 at 12:15 pm

      I don’t actually have personal experience with them, but I watched quite a few videos while writing this article and I have to say, they look like amazing fish to keep! Definitely something to keep in mind if I ever have the room 😀

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