Even though awareness on betta fish care seems to be slowly spreading, both pet stores and the internet are still an enormous source of misinformation. Betta bowls, vases and tiny “aquariums” are still sold on a large scale, which means many unfortunate bettas die a premature death due to bad housing. Even though bettas are very small fish and often quite cheap, they still need to be kept in a heated, filtered aquarium to thrive.
Keep reading to see some of the most common betta myths smashed and find out just why a bowl, vase or very small tank is not enough to keep your betta healthy.
Myth: Bettas in the wild live in small muddy puddles and even animal footprints. They like dirty water and small spaces.
False! While the water bettas live in sometimes seems muddy due to its darker color, it’s actually stained by plants and fallen leaves. They are not “used to” dirty water: a filter and water changes are necessary. Although the water is often quite shallow, the rice paddies and streams bettas naturally occur in are actually huge! Your betta will not “freak out” in a larger space. If it does, you should add more hiding places in the form of plants, rocks and decorations. Growing live plants can be intimidating, but luckily there are many beginner plants such as Java fern that help a betta feel safe.
Myth: Bettas can survive in vases eating plant roots.
False! Bettas are carnivorous surface feeders that mostly eat fallen insects. When kept in a vase with only plant roots to eat, a betta will starve. The plant roots may also block the surface, making it impossible for your betta to reach the surface to breathe! Breathing air is necessary for your betta to survive, so it should always be able to reach the surface.
Myth: An “aquaponics” system is a good way to keep a betta in a tiny container because the plants will remove wastes.
False! There is no excuse for keeping your betta in a very small unfiltered container. Proper aquaponics systems, where plants are grown on top of the aquarium using the wastes from the fish as fertilizer, can be a fun project. However, the tiny “aquaponics” tanks that seem to be all the rage because they claim to make water changes and cleaning unnecessary, are little more than betta death traps if you use them as advertised. Cleaning, heating and filtering is always necessary!
Myth: Bettas are not tropical fish so they don’t need a heater.
False! Bettas naturally occur in Thailand and Cambodia, where it actually gets really hot. This myth was created to make impulse buying a betta more attractive. If you keep your betta in temperatures below 76 °F/24,5 °C, you will quickly notice it becoming lethargic due to the cold. A heater is 100% necessary unless you have a fish room with a stable, high temperature.
The myths are proven false: bettas can’t live in bowls, vases and tiny containers. But why not? So many sources say it’s okay – what could possibly make this kind of housing so bad?
Filter and heater
The first and most important reasons are water values and temperature.
In a round bowl, adding a filter and a heater is almost impossible, and they will take up much of the already very small space. Getting a square vase or tiny aquarium that can accomodate this equipment is unfortunately not a better option. The filter will be mostly ineffective in breaking down ammonia and nitrite: establishing a stable cycle in such a small amount of water is almost impossible and water values will constantly fluctuate.
The alternative, very frequent 80-100% water changes, is stressful for the fish unless you work with a drip system in a bigger fish room (which is what many betta breeders do). As mentioned before, adding plants is unfortunately not a good replacement for a filter either, as they are not able to remove the wastes a betta produces.
Water values and temperature
Since betta bowls cannot be filtered, problems with keeping your water values stable will arise. Even if you work very hard to keep your betta bowl/vase clean, an ammonia spike can occur very quickly and without you noticing.
For example: In a 10 gallon (38L) aquarium, a tiny piece of rotting food won’t do much harm. The beneficial bacteria will take care of any ammonia and there is plenty of water to dilute it; water values will remain relatively stable. However, if you only have 1-2 gallons (3,5-7,5L) of unfiltered water to work with, that piece of food can cause a big ammonia spike that can harm or even kill your betta within a short time span. There are no beneficial filter bacteria to break the ammonia down and no large amount of water to dilute it.
The same goes for temperature, which is almost impossible to keep stable in a small container. The constant fluctuations are very stressful for the fish, which can eventually result in disease.
Although heightened ammonia and nitrite levels can kill your betta by themselves, this is not the only danger in a bowl.
As mentioned before, water values and temperature will often be all over the place; this is very stressful for your fish. Stress is very bad for the immune system, so even if bettas seem hardy enough to survive the fluctuating, dangerous water values at first, they will eventually fall prey to disease. This can range from fin rot, which is very common and relatively easy to cure if not progressed too far, to parasites, fungus and internal bacterial infections like popeye.
These diseases can all be fatal to your betta. Although there is always medication, you should try to prevent them. Overmedicating damages fish and doesn’t solve the initial problem of bad housing!
Although they are small fish, it’s best to house your betta(s) in an aquarium of at least 5 gallons (~20L). More is always a plus! Some aquarists say a starting point of 2,5 gallons (~10L) is fine, but this is not something I would recommend unless you’re an experienced betta keeper or breeder. It’s very difficult to keep the water values stable in these mini setups and I personally think a 2,5 gallon is too small to keep any fish in. A bigger aqauarium is usually much more pleasing to the eye as well!
A betta setup needs to be filtered like any other aquarium. The filter is necessary to establish a stable cycle, which is crucial to keep your betta healthy. For more information about cycling an aquarium, check out this article! A thermostat heater is necessary even in very warm areas to keep the water values stable and prevent stress, unless the fish room is consistedly heated to a suitable temperature. To make your betta feel safe and comfortable, it’s also a good idea to add tall plants and hiding spaces.
If you’re still unsure about suitable betta housing, take a look at Betta than a Bowl! This article contains all the information you need as well as some great examples of well-housed bettas.
It will unfortunately likely be a while before betta bowls, vases and tiny unsuitable tanks disappear from pet- and aquarium store shelves. In the mean time, don’t support these products. A bowl is pretty at first, but the fish will turn lethargic and sick quite quickly without proper care, which is definitely not a pleasant sight. Your betta will live a much longer and happier life in a filtered, heated and well-decorated aquarium.
If you still have questions about betta bowls, want to share your (bad) experiences or think I forgot something in this article, be sure to leave a comment below. Happy betta keeping!
Cover photo: firebreathingbettas.