Making a filter safe for Betta fish

For one of the most commonly kept pet fish in America, there is shockingly little consideration given to the Betta. There is not much equipment really made for them and as a result they are one of the most improperly kept fish. This is for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the aquarium hobby likes to focus on larger more expensive fish because they know that “real” aquarium keepers want those fish more than your everyday Walmart Betta, and are the ones looking to buy expensive equipment for their expensive fish.

Secondly, following that, Betta are a cheaper, more inexpensive fish to buy if you’re grabbing them from a local pet store, so sadly many people get them for that very reason. As the equipment making industry expects, people aren’t going to pay way more money for equipment and set up than they do for the fish itself. Either they don’t have it, because if they did they would’ve gotten a more expensive fish, or they don’t want a pet they have to spend money on, so they buy the cheapest one they can find, which will either be a Betta or a goldfish.

This leads to thirdly that Betta are marketed and sold as cheap fish that don’t need “regular fish” care. They are portrayed as some super fish that lives in mud and happens to have a short natural lifespan. The more Bettas die early with people thinking it’s all good and normal, the more Bettas the stores can sell back to them in the future. Companies know there is a market for people who want pets that are cheap, make no noise, have little smell and don’t make a mess, and they know that those people are not interested in aquarium keeping seriously. (If they knew it could also be messy and was just as much work as any other pet it would lose its appeal, since the payoff, if you don’t enjoy the hobby in itself, is very minimal for most)

But there are ways Betta keepers can have what they need for their fish to live their full, long, happy lives like any other fish. It just takes a bit more customization.

I feel comfortable saying that Bettas do much better with a filter. I don’t necessarily think a filter is necessary all the time in every set up and I think for shorter periods Bettas will be fine without one. (see previous posts) However, I will say all of my long-term success with Bettas always involved a filter. Simply put, because of their anatomy they can live without one, but I just don’t think they can thrive indefinitely that way unless you have a much better set up, care system and time devotion than I did, and I had a fair amount.

On the flip side of that, filters can be extremely dangerous to Bettas if the keeper is not vigilant and diligent with what they choose and how they set it up.

It breaks down like this, Bettas have been bred to have beautiful, flowy fins above all else (except the plakat tail type that more closely resembles the wild Betta tail shape). Therefore, they are not always strong swimmers, relying mostly on their little pectorals (the ones they flutter on their sides). Other fish don’t have these problems, so the guards or cages on filters are made to keep the body of a fish from being sucked up through the intake tube of the filter, they are not made fine enough to keep delicate, long fins that other fish species don’t have from being sucked inside. Luckily this is an easy fix.

I have modified the intake on two different types of filters recently. One had no guard on the intake tube, so I bought a fish scooping net made to catch the fish and cut the net part off. With just a square-ish piece of water safe netting, I stretched it over the bottom of the tube and secured it with a rubber band. This creates a fine enough guard that even fins won’t get sucked inside and ripped apart, yet water can still get through.

Note: if you are using rubber bands make sure they’re not dyed or perfumed in any way etc. Also replace them when they start to break down in the water.

Another note, you’ll have to take the net off and clean it fairly frequently, maybe even weekly depending on your set up because it is so fine and will grow algae and clog up quickly if not kept clean. If it does that, the motor can struggle to pull in water and burn up, ultimately breaking your filter.

A second way to modify an intake is to leave the original guard on the tube. I found, in my local pet store, a filter sponge. It was a cube of blue sponge, hollowed inside and filled with carbon pellets. It was made to be inserted in a filter to help chemically filter impurities from the water. (more on filters to come). All I did was remove the top of the sponge that was precut and empty out the carbon. I then slid the intake tube into the hollow middle of the sponge and secured the sides tight around the tube with a rubber band. The depth of the sponge happened to be enough to cover the length of the guard at the end of the intake tube. Because the sponge was made to be in a filter, it was made to have a lot of water pass easily through it, so it really didn’t block the water from going into the filter at all. Not all types of sponges may be as good for this, but any type of filter sponge should be able to do the job. My Betta now sits atop the sponge in his free time.

The other filter part that needs to be altered is the output, where the cleaned water from the filer flows back out into the aquarium. Going back to how Bettas aren’t good swimmers, they don’t necessarily come from bodies of water that have a great amount of current. It can stress them out and lead to illness if it is overwhelming and they cannot get away from it. Lots of fish species love current, so lots of filters are made to create current in their output. There is one easy way I have personally used to lower a current from an output myself. The water on my filter dropped off a little lip and fell to the aquarium like a waterfall. First I raised the water level so the fall was as little as possible, then I took an empty water bottle and cut off the top above the lable and the bottom below the label. I then removed the label and cut up one side so that I was left with a “C” shaped piece of plastic. I then secured the plastic over the lip so that it curled under the waterfall. The water was running out of the filter and falling on the plastic then running out each side of the submerged plastic in a dispersed lesser current. I can post some pictures of the process if it’s helpful, but I have since seen several places online that have almost identical step by step instructions with pictures.

With those steps done, you protect your fish from getting sucked into the filter, and protect them from getting pushed around constantly by what comes out of the filter. It makes it so that any filter really can work for a betta. They do truly make water quality so much better, which is really the key to a fish being happy and healthy. Since using filters, I have seen my fish brighten in color, regrow some ripped and missing fins and become more active and overall healthy. They really make all the difference when done properly and are really a piece of equipment to invest in (though not all are that expensive and there are some great deals out there!). If you want what is really best for your fish I think you’ll be glad you did. I can talk more later about why some people don’t think that filters are necessary for Betta, but all I can say from my experience is they may not need them all the time to live, but they definitely need them to thrive. I’ve said it before, water quality is the most important part of their life.

I am not a handy person and I’m sure there are many other ways out there to make filters safe for Bettas. But I think anyone can make these ideas work and I really think they should. Like any other living animal, Bettas deserve proper care. It only takes a little while to set up a safe filter and it will make all the difference for the rest of their lives. With less force on output, filters are also typically less noisy, and having a finer guard to clean, keeps more particles from having to be cleaned out of the inside of the filter! It’s a win-win for you and your fishy friend.

For an extra note: when in doubt you can always buy a filter rated for more gallons than what’s in your aquarium. It will do a better job cleaning. Remember that monitoring the flow and having current going in and out of a filter is more of a problem the smaller the tank, when you get into the very small, because the fish can literally not escape it and rest.

Of course other equipment, like a heater is also necessary for a great aquarium, but we’ll get to that later. Water quality should be a top priority, and this is a pretty easy way to help it. I hope something in here is a little helpful. The bettas I have kept with filters really came into their full colors and finnage and are absolutely beautiful; and I wish I would’ve known to use them sooner!

Don’t forget, diy filter changes CAN go horribly wrong, if you’re like me and make mistakes before finding the right way that works for you BUT that’s a story for another time. Give a filter a chance and make it safe for your fish to change their whole world for the better.

 

Until next time, love from me and Luxe (my betta)

 

A betta’s story: Spiro

In my years in the hobby I have had several fish that helped me learn the right way to keep fish and aquariums. Unfortunately, at the start there was one betta who helped me learn all the wrongs ways to do it. His name was Spiro. I want to take a moment to highlight his incredible, brief life and appreciate him here.

(To not get in trouble here, I’m going to refer to a store as Walmo but I think it’s fairly clear what I refer to.)

Spiro came from a Walmo. To those who study and are passionate about fish, this is the first bad sign. While I don’t want to get too into my opinions and feelings on the issue, the particular Walmo where I found him did not have any other live fish, so it seemed to me there was no required knowledgeable fish person there to care for the bettas. They were on a shelf in cups, as is common practice and never once did I see an employee feeding them or nearby to ask questions or anything of the sort. I stopped in regularly for quite a while and slowly all but two of the bettas were sold off. The remaining two continued to have water that looked dirtier and dirtier, with visible excrement building up in their cups.

Finally, I felt I had researched bettas enough and I bought a 1 gallon tank. It was the first betta I was going to keep since I was a child, and since I decided this was a hobby I wanted to seriously pursue. I have touched in a previous post, why I ended up choosing a 1 gallon. (It was what got me thinking and made me want to move a spotlight on this particular betta.) Basically the situation was this; I was in a college dorm and thought to change the water I would have to have a tank I could carry full of water, down the hall to the communal bathroom and back. It had to fit on the small desk in my room, the only furniture of mine that fit in the space besides my actual bed (it was one of the ‘freshman only’ pathetically cramped and small dorms). I lived in a remote place where there were no “pet” stores. The nearest Walmo was a little over half an hour drive and short of ordering things online, which was not something I’d ever really thought of, Walmo was it.

On a side note that is why I’m not necessarily against Walmo selling fish. Whoa don’t stab me yet fish lovers. I DO feel that if they are going to sell fish they need to adhere to ethical standards of keeping and selling them and need to have a required fish keeper on staff that is knowledgeable. Like all places that sell fish I think they need to cut out some of the unethical fish products that they sell alongside the fish and they need to provide correct information to all buyers. That would be the dream anyway. I say I’m not totally against them selling just because there are Walmos everywhere. And I know what it’s like to fall in love with a hobby and not have accessible resources to get involved. This is a hobby that will only survive if it continues to grow and gain participants. I want every person interested to be able to get their hands on aquarium supplies and fish, BUT like in any pet retailer I don’t it should be at the cost of the health and happiness of the fish.  I do think it’s a bit ridiculous that a store that sells no other animals and is not a “pet store” would sell a pet with no special conditions, just like they were another nonliving item. I have even heard stories that they don’t so much as feed the fish in the store, much less change their water. They just put them out and they either are bought or they die (or expire perhaps is how they think of it in grocery terms). That is just what I’ve heard of course, I have no personal proof other than what I’ve seen. To think fish are given a fate to either starve to death, or die from burning in their own ammonia if not sold is quite sad. I did notice that the water never seemed clearer or changed and looked progressively worse as I visited my local Walmo. There were sick fish and an occasional dead fish. I don’t know what happened to those as one day they were just gone.

Another side note, don’t dump food in fish cups at your Walmo after reading this. I will get into it more later but excessive feeding without water changes will kill them quicker with more ammonia being produced than starvation will. Both are cruel and it does no better.

ANYWAY back on topic, this is where I went wrong with Spiro. I went to Walmo and he was one of two bettas left. This means they had been there the longest and were the last survivors. The quality of their water was therefore extremely bad. He was a veil tail, the most common and as far as I know, easiest to breed tail type. He was a bright, clean red with just a little iridescence to his scales. He was on the left and on the right was a pale orangey male veil tail. I was drawn to his bright color and after nearly crying because I felt leaving the last betta there alone was a death sentence, I brought Spiro home and named him, after a dragon video game character.

Spiro ate a little for me and I waited a couple days then took him to my college and set him up in his new one gallon. I had black rocks as the substance and a few live plants (though they died shortly after he did). To begin with Spiro seemed extremely happy. He swam laps around, seemingly thoroughly enjoying being out of his small cup. He looked at everything and every time I would open my laptop on my desk he seemed to take it as a threat. He would flare up and do his little war dance until he ran me off. He built a decent bubble nest and overall seemed quite content, if not grumpy.

Another short side note: I have heard a superstition that red colored bettas are more aggressive. Thoughts?

The main thing I did wrong was that I did 100% water changes every freakin day. I did this because some extremists I found online while trying to learn reputable information wrote that 1 gallons were extremely cruel and a betta would die if not changed every day. Looking back I should’ve seen it as extremist considering he’d survived weeks in a tiny cup at Walmo. But I had just come back from crashing an awful, awful goldfish tank in the worst way and was determined to follow the internet and learn the secrets of serious fish keeping.

As I’ve said in earlier posts there’s a couple of reasons why those water changes killed Spiro. After being in terrible water that built up high ammonia, nitrate and nitrite levels (all the bad stuff from fish breathing and pooping in the water) for a long time, going to completely fresh water every single day was no doubt too much of a shock for poor Spiro. Also he went from being ignored in a small cup to being in a tank with a light and a person and being moved around and taken in an out for water changes constantly and it no doubt mentally stressed him out. Also, doing so frequent changes meant it was hard to match the temperature and other water parameters, which was more fluctuation than he’d probably ever had. All and all it was just too much. He got tightly clamped fins and became lethargic, then within the week died.

I was devastated. I felt the internet had let me down, and I had let him down, and that even with trying my best to research, there was no way for the average person to get into the hobby successfully without some professional help or experience. I, of course, later found all the other articles explaining shock and stress with other theories of way too little water changes and never 100%. With such a small tank, I ended up developing my own method of keeping a 1 gallon and tried again with a new fish that I’ve had for years now. I may someday detail exactly how I did the water changes and kept my second betta alive in a 1 gallon. However, Spiro never got to see my new method. He taught me what information was false by paying the ultimate price.

It is of course, largely my fault, I could’ve always done more research. However, it is also due to the fact there aren’t enough openly available knowledgeable sources on betta care. Most places are focused on bigger, more expensive fish. Others are so dead set against small tanks that there’s no information on HOW to make small tanks work. They think they can stop people from buying them by putting out no information so that people are on their own and their fish die, like mine did. Others are extremists who post without knowledge because they pick up opinions around the internet and try and stand up for the fish so much that it does more harm than good.

It is hard to know what sources to trust and what not too when the internet is so vast and so many opinions are contradictory. As I said, I lived in a place where there were no other fish keepers or pet stores (not that pet stores are always incredibly knowledgeable). I had to choose a side and stick with it and hope that was the side with correct information. I thought better to do too many water changes than not enough. I didn’t know how delicate a balance it was. I chose my side and learned the hard way that it was wrong so next time I could choose right.

Spiro was a beautiful fish with a bold, fearless personality that survived longer than any fish can be expected to. I like to think he enjoyed his slightly larger tank in the time he was there and I am glad in a way that he passed so quickly and didn’t suffer too long. I will always be grateful for the fish that taught me my first tough lessons about this hobby. He was unforgettable.

In the end, there are times in every fish keeper’s life when they’ve made mistakes and fish have paid the price. Even with good intentions and effort, misinformation and mistakes happen. That is why I think it is so important to create this resource of proper information that can be accessible BEFORE someone else makes the same bad decisions I did.

Spiro certainly made a difference in the way I keep fish and helped my future fish lead better lives. I hope that he continues to live on with his story helping other fish live better lives with more knowledgeable keepers as well. Swim in peace Spiro.

Until next time, love from me and Luxe (my current betta)

The big topic: Tank size and why it matters. Part 1- the 1 gallon tank

To be honest, this is the topic I’ve been most worried about writing on, for a very simple reason. In my experience this is one of the single most debated and heated topics on the internet, in terms of betta fish care and keeping. When I was first starting out in the hobby and trying to do some research, I came across opinion pieces that made me feel personally attacked for wondering what my options were.

After a couple years experience, with putting into practice different betta keeping methods for myself, I have finally drawn a loose conclusion for my opinion on tank sizes.

It depends on how well you’re going to take care of said tank.

I do not say this lightly. I know its easy to start off excited about a new pet and ready to give it the best care, and then slowly grow tired of a pet that can’t communicate its feelings very well to you and get more and more lazy with upkeep. Some say that betta fish only live a max of 2-3 years in captivity. Some say with proper care they should live 8-10 years. Seeing as my betta now was quite large and mature when I got him, potentially somewhere around 2 years of age and I’ve had him for almost 3 years, which would make him a total of 5 and he’s not slowing down very much, I lean more toward the mind that they can live a decade or more.

There was a time when I got very busy with other things and I learned firsthand that I had to stay diligent in my betta’s care if I wanted a healthy, happy fish. In this series of posts I will give a brief overview of how I have come to understand tank sizes.

To start I must begin with how I started in the hobby, and that is with a 1 gallon.

The first tank I bought meant purely for keeping betta was a 1 gallon, or it was supposed to be. It said it was a 1 gallon on the box, but ended up holding more like 75% of a gallon (always measure a tank’s compacity for yourself after purchase). A large portion of the fish keeping community seems to settle on this size as the minimum size for betta. I reserve judgement on this as I have heard many stories of people keeping bettas successfully in 1 gallons for years. These could have been hardier tail types, perhaps veil tails that were kept with frequent water changes, I don’t know. All I know it that with my double tail half-moon male betta it was a fine size- for a period of time. After about a year it became apparent that I would need a larger tank.

Anything smaller than a gallon I have to say, I believe to affect the quality of life quite negatively. Simply put, a tank is a fish’s entire world. If they can barely turn around in it, think of standing in a single room your whole life almost touching the walls. It would be very sad. Also to keep water quality in a tiny tank is far, far more trouble than a larger tank.

Why? Fish excrete ammonia in their waste. Now, betta have a very low bio load, they had a small stomach and don’t produce as much poop as say a goldfish, which doesn’t really have a stomach so they are constantly pooping and excreting a lot of ammonia for a large bio load as they graze throughout the day.

Water quality is the key to healthy fish, period. Ask any experienced hobbyist. Fish are pooping in the same water they’re breathing in. It has to be kept clean somehow or they will be very sick.

Under the right circumstance with the right resources, time and effort do I believe a 1 gallon is alright for keeping a single betta (not a giant, a regular size betta), short answer: yes. In Thailand where betta originate and in some mass producing breeders they are kept this way and seem to do fine. However, they are not typically focused on keeping the fish that way their whole lives, they want to sell them.

So, do I also think that there are better ways to keep betta, absolutely. I would say a 1 gallon is a bare minimum IF you are devoting a lot of time to their care consistently for the next decade or so.

My experience with keeping a betta in a 1 gallon went something like this. I got my first betta when I got serious into fish keeping and did research. Simply put, I was in a college dorm and had to have a tank I could physically pick up and move to dump and clean the water back and forth from the communal bathroom. Being fairly weak, I felt I had to choose a plastic 1 gallon.

Some people on the internet said 1 gallon was better than a lot of betta bowl choices out there. Some people, condemned 1 gallons. I saw a lot of negativity saying “go shoot yourself”, “animal cruelty” etc. They said to keep a single betta in a 1 gallon you would have to do a 100% water change EVERY DAY or they would suffer and die breathing their own ammonia. So I did.

My betta died within 7 days.

Here is what I now know happened. My betta came from very bad conditions, in a dirty small cup and one strong possibility is that so much change and new water sent him into stress and shock that killed him.

The other possibility is that not being able to match water temperature well enough and pH and all the other parameters caused him to stress and go into shock that killed him.

Long story short, in my experiences don’t do 100% water changes every day. Some people say don’t ever do 100% changes. In larger tanks I agree. What I ended up doing with my second betta, that I now have had for three years, is a 100% water change once a week while he was in the 1 gallon. (He’s been upgraded from that tank now). As I said that worked alright for me for about a year.

In summary, if you are going to chance a 1 gallon, this strict plan was how I got it to work and my fish not just die.

  • A 100% water change EVERY week
  • during said water changes match the temperature, pH and other parameters as closely as possible before putting the fish back in and let him acclimate slowly each time. I let the water sit over night before putting it in to minimize the wait time as much as possible.
  • Put live plants in if you can keep them alive. I used marimo moss (it was the only plant I found that would live in such conditions) Healthy plants eat some of the ammonia. Dying plants produce more bad things in the water, so be very careful!
  • If you try and use a heater rather than warm ambient room temperature, keep a thermometer in at all times. Only cheap, crappy heaters are made for small tanks. While I’ve heard that some work, it is very easy to overheat and cook your fishy in small amounts of water. Watch it CONSTANTLY for over 24 hours before deciding its alright. Always keep an eye on it.
  • Always dechlorinate water – but that’s the case in all tanks
  • if you use a filter, find one that won’t be too strong a current in such a small space, not all bettas are strong swimmers with the way breeders modify them to have long fins. It won’t be easy. Filters are rarely made for bettas. You may have to modify any filter you do get. Often times even with guards, long, delicate betta fins will get sucked inside the intake.
  • Don’t overfeed. I fed three pellets in the morning and two at night. They have a stomach about the size of their eyes. They can go up to two weeks without food, so skipping one day or feeding small amounts won’t make them starve. Excess food will rot and ruin your water quality.
  • Deep clean your tank at least once a month, meaning take a paper towel or something and rub off the sides and bottom where any gunk builds up. Never use any kind of soap.

 

If you want the truth, I kept my betta in an advertised 1 gallon, with no heater and no filter for a year, keeping up with cleaning and low feeding. I tried a heater once and it got too hot and almost killed him. I skipped a deep clean for two months and he got very sick and almost died. He did survive fairly healthy for most of that year but I did end up moving him to a 2.5 gallon where he did much much better. Then I moved him even bigger and so on. More specifics on that later.

I will talk later on about the other tank sizes in my experiences, diseases, heaters and filters and so on. Until then, do your research.

The bigger the tank the better. A proper filter and heater if you know what you’re doing, is for the better as well. If circumstance forces you into a smaller tank size, the absolute lowest I would go is a 1 gallon (remember tanks are often smaller than advertised- I haven’t gotten one that held what it said it did yet). Keep up with water changes and feed low.

As you will see some bigger tanks can be much easier to care for. No seriously, I’m not just saying that.

No matter what a person chooses to do in regards to keeping their fish, don’t spread hate and violence. Always encourage people to do better and provide knowledge and experience when you can. If you feel something is truly cruel, think first if you are a qualified source with facts to back up your opinion and go about making change in a careful and positive way with help from an authority figure if you aren’t one. Never tell someone they are a bad person or should kill themselves, etc. if they simple hold a different opinion than you or act out of ignorance. Nothing is worth hate to your fellow man, and fellow fish lover.

I’ll say it a hundred times- this is not a cheap hobby no matter the set up. If you stay in it, eventually costs will build up. BUT I think it’s totally worth it. This is a small hobby in America that needs to be spread and encouraged, not made judgmental and hard to approach. Proper aquarium keeping needs to have more awareness.

Although I don’t condemn 1 gallons, and think they can potentially be suitable, I don’t think they are for everyone, and not for the novice or un-serious fish keeper. Trust me there are way better, easier set ups that will have better results and aren’t too much more expensive.

Personally I no longer use 1 gallons. While I admit that they have their place in the hobby and can be alright for quarantine tanks or small amounts of time, I do not use them if I can help it anymore. In most cases I don’t think a fish can live their full life or reach their full potential in a 1 gallon, and problems and disease are much more likely.

For any other aspects you’d like me to cover, let me know! Until then I’m going to keep on this series of breaking down the intricacies of tank size for bettas and why it matters.

Until next time, love from me and Luxe (my betta)