Articles Betta

Why betta bowls are bad

March 10, 2015
betta bowl

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 ridiculously small “aquariums” are still sold on a large scale, which means many unfortunate bettas die a premature death due to bad housing. Don’t be fooled by their size – 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 in.

Betta myths

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.

Wheat grass about to get a haircut after two weeks.

Betta aquaponics systems are not suitable betta housing. Wheat grass about to get a haircut after two weeks. by hackaday

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.

Consistently bad water values inside a small pet store cup caused this betta to develop severe fin rot as well as blood poisoning. Luckily, he was rescued in time by Tumblr user theblondeaquarist.

Consistently bad water values inside a small pet store cup caused this betta to develop severe fin rot as well as blood poisoning. Luckily, he was rescued by theblondeaquarist.


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, and while there is always medication, you should try to prevent them. Overmedicating damages fish and doesn’t solve the initial problem of bad housing!

General guidelines

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.

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  • Reply Katarina October 2, 2016 at 5:30 am

    I really wish I would have known this information sooner. My first betta Charles got sick yesterday. I was changing his water regularly (twice a week), and I had enough space for him to surface. It wasn’t a vase or bowl, but a giant apothecary jar that held about 3 gallons of water. Today, he was so sick he was laying on the bottom of the tank. I went to petco and asked around and they said I was overfeeding him, nothing about the bowl being the problem (the bloodworm container said 3x a day, instead of once every 3). I came home from petco with a salt treatment, but he had died. :'( I wish I had known this.

    • Reply Mari October 2, 2016 at 11:37 am

      Oh no, I’m so sorry to hear that 🙁 Unfortunately a larger setup that’s filtered (and more importantly, cycled) and heated is crucial in keeping bettas healthy. If you ever decide to get back into betta keeping, this article describes exactly what a proper betta tank looks like. This article contains everything you need to know about feeding bettas – they do need more than just bloodworms to stay healthy.

      The apothecary jar makes a great container for tropical plants like Cryptanthus bromeliads.

      If you ever decide to get another betta – good luck 🙂 I’m sure things will go better with the knowledge you have now!

  • Reply Alexa September 29, 2016 at 2:05 am

    I have 5 gallon bowls the temperature is right and I do regular cleanings, all my bettas are in good health and seem to be stress free. Is this OK?

    • Reply Mari September 29, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      If the bowls are filtered (and cycled) and heated and have lids then that’s fine. 5 gallons is the recommended minimum for bettas, the shape of the tank doesn’t matter that much. It’s just that the average fish bowl is much too small!

  • Reply Pri Howell August 25, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    Hi! After reading your article, I’d still like to try aquaponics but with a different container. I can build my own tank (already done one and went great) but I’m wondering if you could help me with the measurements, specially height. Which is smallest height possible? Do bettas prefer swimming up and down?
    Also, are guppies good tank mates according to your experience? I’ve read mostly good comments in other websites. A few were bad, though.


    • Reply Mari August 31, 2016 at 6:04 pm

      I’m not an expert on aquaponics, you could try asking Izzy, I think she has more experience with it 🙂

      What I can tell you is that no, bettas don’t prefer swimming up and down – they naturally inhabit shallow waters and prefer a shallow aquarium as well. So a longer aquarium is better than a taller one. As for your other question, bettas and guppies don’t really match. The guppies are too active and colorful and might also nip a long-finned bettas fins.

      Good luck! Sounds like a fun project 🙂

  • Reply Sammy July 8, 2016 at 4:08 am

    Oh no! 🙁 I recently bought my little guy with one of the betta “bubbles” they displayed beneath them. They only hold 0.5 gallons! He seems happy currently but after reading this article i’m a concerned fish mama! I have the money for a tank but i don’t have the space for it as his home is on my desk. Any suggestions? I don’t want him to be unhappy 🙁

    • Reply Mari July 8, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Hi! Oh dear, that’s not an ideal situation at all, 0.5 gallons is indeed much too small and you should get your betta out of there as soon as possible. Are you sure there is no room for something like a 5 gallon? That’s about the size of a decent sized laptop. If it’s not possible to upgrade him then I unfortunately have to recommend rehoming him. A heated, filtered and cycled tank is really a must for these fish. If you haven’t looked up the other betta related articles on this site already these might be good reads:

      What a betta tank should look like
      Betta caresheet
      If you set up an aquarium it’s also crucial you cycle it, which is something many beginning aquarists don’t know: How to cycle an aquarium

      Good luck! I hope you can upgrade him 🙂

      • Reply Sammy July 8, 2016 at 2:50 pm

        Thanks for the quick reply! I’ll go to the pet store today after work and see if i can find a decent volume tank that will fit on my desk and maybe a snail tank mate too. Thanks again for your help, hopefully my fishy will be happy and in a bigger home shortly 🙂

  • Reply Abby March 13, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    I have 2 bettas Spike and Mr.Bubbles. Mr.Bubbles is in a ten gallon tank, and Spike I just got today from Walmart he has fin rot and an infected looking face. I was not prepared for spike so I got a vase ready put some stress coat in and he seems ok. The bowl is about one gallon. Is this ok?

    • Reply Mari March 13, 2016 at 11:19 pm

      No, as you can see in the article a bowl is not a good home for a betta at all, you should always have a full tank set up and cycled before you adopt a betta! Please get a real aquarium as soon as possible, it will be a hassle to cycle it with the fish already in there but not impossible. Good luck!

      • Reply Abby May 4, 2016 at 10:26 pm

        ok I will soon be getting a 30g tank! His face is not infected anymore and is growing back his tail fins. I clean his tank every week

        • Reply Mari May 5, 2016 at 10:58 am

          That’s great to hear! 🙂

          • Abby May 6, 2016 at 2:15 am

            how can I tell if my betta is happy???

  • Reply Jen October 29, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    I feel really bad for my beta, when i got him I didn’t realize that there was a need for a heater and filtering system. I have him in a normal bowl now with rocks and a synthetic plant, but I can tell he’s unhappy. Aquariums seem really expensive and my parents are not willing to invest in all of the equipment. What can I do to help out my beta?!?! I hate feeling like I’m being cruel by not giving him to best care he can have, but I don’t have the money. 🙁

    • Reply Mari October 30, 2015 at 12:37 pm

      Don’t worry! Have you looked at used product sites like Craigslist? A 5-10 gallon aquarium with heater and filter can be really cheap when you buy it used, and they are often still in great condition. I bought a 60 gallon with external filter and stand for $130 a while ago 🙂
      Once you have your aquarium, be sure to have a look at this article so you know what to do to get started. Good luck! Keep me updated if you can. 🙂

      • Reply Jen November 2, 2015 at 1:32 am

        I talked to my parents and saved up my money, I bought a 5.5 gal tank with a filtering system and a heater with a thermometer. I plan to check the ph levels now too! I think my fish will be happier now 🙂

  • Reply Jasmine March 11, 2015 at 3:02 am

    Totally agree with you. I myself keep my betta in a 20 gal. Having a filter is necessary as long as there is a fish in there, to me, no filter = no fish. However, there are still many people who believes that it is alright to keep bettas in small containers, as that’s how they were housed in pet shops as well. I have a few friends who keep bettas in small containers, (all of them less than a litre of water), as they were insistent that an experienced betta breeder taught them this way. =(

    • Reply Mari March 11, 2015 at 10:20 pm

      A 20 gal is so great for a betta! I kept mine in 13 gallons and it was so clear they don’t “freak out” in bigger spaces at all, he seemed to love the space and being able to explore. As for the betta breeder thing, many experienced breeders actually do believe tiny containers are suitable for bettas, I’ve experienced this as well when I visited betta shows. These people are fish experts who often work with drip systems and know how to keep a betta healthy in a very small container, which is necessary because of how many bettas they have to keep. However, they often also seem to think any aquarist can do this, which is not the case. If you don’t have a bigger filtered setup, there are going to be problems.

  • Reply Lyra March 10, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    Great article! Very informative, I wish I could have shown this to my aunt when she had a betta..poor little thing.

    • Reply Mari March 11, 2015 at 10:21 pm

      Thank you! Hopefully it’ll come in handy in any future cases of bad betta housing 🙂

  • Reply Andrew March 10, 2015 at 4:55 pm

    As someone with a betta in an aquafarm, i think this article is a bit unfair toward the miniature aquaponics systems. Calling them a “deathtrap” is an overstatement. Yes, the advertising for these tanks need to be changed, but these tanks can be used properly. The Aquafarm is three gallons, small, but within the range for a betta. There is room for a heater, as mine has. Also, just because it says self cleaning does not mean that you have to not clean it. Mine gets water changes and I test with the API test kit, and everything is great. This being said, it can be harder to get to the tank to clean algea and vacuum gravel. The plants also actually do help remove nitrates, making a noticible difference whe. The plants are removed. Roots also allow for nitrogen fixing bacteria to grow, thus allowing a cycle. So I would say overall the problem with these is false advertising, not necessarily the tank itself. This being said, i have bought another tank since then for a rescue betta, and i went with a 5.5 gallon and its planted, and i did not get another aquafarm. If someome was between a bowl and an aquafarm, the Aquafarm is much better in my opinion, though a normal tank is probably still best.Sorry this is super long.

    • Reply Mari March 10, 2015 at 10:24 pm

      You are right, my wording was a bit harsh. As you say, the point I was trying to get across is that these tanks are death traps when used as advertised, which, unlike you, many people do! Aquaponics can be a very fun and rewarding project when done right, but the “betta specific” aquaponics tanks are a waste of money in my opinion and cause many unexperienced fishkeepers to end up with dead fish (due to the way they’re advertised). I’ll be sure to change the wording in the article! Thank you for your input 😀

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