The Betta Fish Tank Debate

Betta splendens are surrounded by myths. Misconceptions about this domesticated Betta species have created a slew of controversies about their care, some perpetuated by confused owners and many perpetuated by fish supply stores. One of the most debated topics on Betta fish care is one of basic care: What size fish tank does a Betta fish need?

Some claim that Betta splendens do not need more than a few inches of water, citing the idea that these fish live in mere puddles of water in the native lands the species originated from. Others say that the size of the tank does not matter as long as it is not too large or else the Betta fish, territorial in nature, will panic from trying to protect too much territory and thus a large tank will kill it from stress. On the other end of the spectrum, there are advocates screaming that anything less than 10 gallons is animal abuse and owners that place their fish into an environment of less than that should lose the right to own an animal. Finally, there are those who believe that as long as the water in the tank is changed regularly and the fish does not appear to be in distress that it does not matter what sort of tank a betta is kept in.

So what is the true answer to the Betta fish tank question? This can easily be found by looking at scientific explanation and concepts crucial and essential for the fish-keeping hobby. First, however, it is important to debunk the myths and separate them from the truths.

Origin of the Species

Betta splendens is the proper name of the commonly sold Betta fish, sometimes referred to as the Siamese fighting fish, in pet stores. There are hundreds of Betta species existing in the wild but long-finned and brightly colored Betta splendens are not one. This is because this form of the Betta splendens is a species of fish entirely man-made through years of domestic breeding for various desires, such as aggression and/or fin length, and there are enough genetic differences that identify it as its own domestic species despite sharing the genus name splendens of its short-finned and duller-colored wild counterparts. The wild B. splendens variety may not even exist in pure forms any more, or at least not in high populations, because of the amount of domestic Betta splendens that are sometimes released into the wild and breed with wild types to produce impure offspring.

A wild type Betta fish, the Betta enisae. Photo by Kei Sasaki

Domestic Betta splendens come from a lineage of their wild counterparts of the same name and various Betta species that are native to the areas of Thailand (formally Siam), Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The wild species are found living in rivers, streams, and rice paddies. The myth that Betta fish naturally live in puddles comes from a misunderstanding of what rice paddies are. These areas of shallow water are nowhere near puddles; rather, they are pools of water that can be anywhere from ankle-deep to 6.5 feet deep and contain long, horizontal, space. Farmers use rice paddies to grow various crops and they can support many semi-aquatic plant species.  The paddies are deep enough to hold an ecosystem and wild fish species often live in them, including wild Betta species.

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One of many different styles of rice paddies in Indonesia. Photo by Samuel Matthews

Companies, however, have been known to take advantage of such a misconception about the natural habitat for wild Betta species and create dangerous fish tanks that feature the false factoid on their boxes that Betta species originate from puddles of various countries, including ones where they are not even native. As a result, the consumer, who would naturally trust a company creating a product for the well-being of the animal, does not look into whether or not these creatures originate from puddles and the myth circulates like poison, infecting the minds of all who hear it because it is confirmed by the sight and sale of products in stores.

Commercially Available Fish Tanks

There are literally hundreds of fish tanks to choose from in a pet store or even those exclusively available online. They range from traditional, rectangular, designs to modern pieces of abstract art. Some are tall, some are fat, and many are deadly.

Just because a tank is available for purchase, it does not mean it is safe for use.

The most dangerous tanks are ironically usually ones specifically advertised as Betta fish homes, often with the label “ideal betta home” or “best for Betta fish” and other similar phrases that are only not considered false advertising because of the vague, subjective, wording and the fact that proper betta care knowledge is often unknown by mainstream pet owners. Holidays and birthdays become opportunities for companies to take advantage of this lack of animal care knowledge and they often market novelty tanks designed like candy machines or glass bowls inside of teddy bears.

The “teddy tank” that encourages the use of a betta tank as a toy and nightlight. Photo by Teddytank.com
The controversial “ipond” betta tank in Australia. Photo by MyFishTank.net

It is not a North American exclusive marketing technique; these tanks can be found globally and are just as dangerous in other parts of the world. The Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in the United Kingdom is only one of many animal welfare groups that addresses the dangers of novelty fish tanks. In 2011, Sophie Adwick, the group’s scientific officer, released this statement on their website about novelty fish tanks being given as holiday gifts:

“People buying these tanks might think they are getting a novel or unusual present but it is unlikely to be a happy Christmas for any fish inside. They are designed and marketed as fashion accessories to match your living room rather than with any thought of welfare, and are inadequate homes for these animals. Displaying live fish as ‘art’ encourages people to see them as replaceable ornaments, rather than living creatures in need of care and commitment.

“Some tanks are being marketed as a complete aquarium but include no enrichment (eg. gravel, plants, places to hide), no mention of the need to provide this and no instructions as to how many fish can safely be kept in the tank.”

Other betta-marketed housing units are not even fish tanks at all. These can be the worst containers to consider housing a Betta fish in and unfortunately many used to be very popular because of their marketing. Betta vases, the arrangement of a Betta fish inside a glass vase with a plant such as a peace lily nesting on top with its roots exposed to the fish, were once a commonly seen and advertised fad. These so-called betta homes are still being sold in dollar stores and large chains such as Walmart with instructions on how to create the arrangement.

Betta Death Vase

A betta vase by AquaCulture, a Walmart brand, with instructions on how to create the abusive and deadly arrangement. Photo by BettaSmart

A misunderstanding of Betta fish care stems into the idea behind these containers. The Betta fish is supposed to live under the plant and receive oxygen from it, while the plant is supposed to receive, and clean the water of, fertilized nutrients from the fish excrement. For feeding, the Betta fish in this arrangement is thought to devour the roots. Once examining this arrangement with a more critical analysis, however, it becomes obvious that this ecosystem in a vase idea is misconstrued and dangerous to the well being of the animal.

Betta fish require surface air and frequently go to the top of a tank to breath from it through the use of their labyrinth organ, which acts like a pair of lungs. With a plant on top, there is no access to air and new oxygen cannot be circulated in the water because of this. The plant’s roots do not create oxygen in the water, making for a slow suffocation of the fish. Betta fish are carnivores and do not eat plants, so in addition to denial of air the Betta fish is starved. Finally, the only way to remove toxins from fish excrement is through water changes and with a plant on top this becomes impossible. These betta vases threaten the animal with suffocation, starvation, and ammonia poisoning, conditions that when applied to other species would spark out rage in animal welfare supporters.

With novelty-style fish tanks out of the question, what are other signs of an inappropriate home for Betta fish? There are two main important factors to examine before considering a tank: volume and shape.

The Proper Volume

Very few fish species can live in small quantities of water but small is a subjective term that can be interpreted differently by different people. Instead of thinking about tank size in terms of how it looks, a fish keeper should measure space by the volume of tank. Gallons and/or liters are the standard measuring units of fish tank volume and small is generally referring to any tank that holds less than 5 gallons (18.92 liters) of water because most species cannot live in a volume so low due to many factors.

5 gallons is a special volume too. It is the lowest volume of water that is easiest to establish the nitrogen cycle in. Although cycles can be established in smaller volumes, it is generally a long, frustrating, process that requires fishless cycling and precision. 5 gallons establishes at an easier rate and there are more options for filters that suit 5-gallon tanks than there are for smaller sizes and since filters are only useful if left on every hour, everyday, in order to cycle, they are useless in smaller tanks that come with them without the intention to cycle.

For a betta keeper who is new to or inexperienced with the nitrogen cycle and desires to keep a Betta fish in a cycled aquarium, 5 gallons is generally the minimum standard for easy establishment. With 5 gallons an in-fish cycle can be established with relative ease, although it is recommended to always establish fishless in order to avoid ammonia burns. A 5-gallon tank is also easier to chemically balance and provides other benefits outside of cycling that include more room for a Betta fish to exercise, a larger selection of reliable heaters, and a prettier aesthetic display. Most importantly, however, is that “a higher volume of water allows for more stable water conditions and thwarts the waste concentrations that a polluted betta bowl is subject to—it can go from livable to toxic literally overnight” (Purser 2007).

A 5-gallon tank, however, is suitable for only one Betta fish and a possible small snail or shrimp companion that does not emit a high bioload into the water. For sororities (groups of female Betta fish) and other community tanks, the minimum volume is generally at 10 gallons and up, requiring cycling.

A 5 gallon betta tank. Photo by BettaSmart

For Those Not Interested in Cycling or Who Are Space Conscious

But what if it is not possible to have a 5 or 10-gallon fish tank? Is anything smaller considered abuse or neglect?  Simply put: no. It is not animal abuse or neglect to house a Betta fish in a tank smaller than 5 gallons. To understand why, the definition of abuse and animal neglect must be considered.

Abuse— “treat (a person or an animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeated” (The Oxford Dictionary)

Because abuse is defined here, and other places, as the either violent treatment or neglect toward human or animal, the definition of animal neglect needs to be further examined. While the legal definition varies by each American state due to wording and individual regulation, as well as varying by different countries, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) provides a general definition for animal cruelty that is used within the United States and similarly by other countries by their respective prevention of cruelty to animals societies.

Animal Neglect— “a failure to provide an animal with adequate food, drink, veterinary care, shelter. The neglectful behavior either endangers the animal’s health or causes physical injury or death.” (ASPCApro.org)

At the basic level, an animal’s essential needs must be provided on a regular basis in order to keep the animal healthy and stress free. To determine the minimum tank size for a Betta fish, all one has to do is simply examine the basic needs of a Betta fish and see if a certain tank provides these requirements.

Betta fish require a few basic needs: a tropical temperature range of water between 76 and 84 degrees that does not regularly have large fluctuations, an environment with no to few toxins present that are removed through care, places to hide in order to reduce stress, easy access to surface air, and exercise. These needs are not negotiable and are required to maintain in order to keep the animal healthy. Any tank that cannot support these needs is not an appropriate permanent home for a Betta fish.

1 gallon (3.78 liters) is the minimum requirement for a Betta fish home because any tank of lower volume does not have the ability the regularly maintain a constant temperature without large fluctuations. A regular tropical temperature range that remains mostly consistent would be impossible within a tank that holds less than 1 gallon and there are very few heaters that would fit in a tank of such size let alone maintain a constant temperature without overheated the animal.

In addition to temperature, a 1-gallon tank is also the smallest size in which naturally occurring toxins in the water can be easily regulated. Because clear water does not mean healthy or even safe water, the appearance of a fish tank is the worst way to judge whether or not conditions are appropriate. Ammonia is the number one killer of Betta fish and it is excreted into the water through food, waste, and exhale from the gills. Tanks that hold less than 1 gallon of water are subjected to high ammonia spikes and easily poison the fish living inside.

The Importance of Shape

Tank shape is also important to consider when purchasing a tank because like most fish species, Betta splendens prefer long, horizontal, spaces rather than vertical ones. Vertical spaces allow for less access to air and some breeds that have particularly long, heavy, fins may struggle to get to the surface easily. Horizontal spaces allow more room to swim and easy access to the surface.

A fish tank with more horizontal room than vertical room. Photo by Fishtanknow.com

It is less important that a fish tank blends into a room than the quality of living space it provides the living, feeling, creature inside. Although horizontal tanks may take up more room than vertical ones, a fish has no business living in an unsuitable environment simply because it is more aesthetically pleasing to the owner.

Why Bigger is Better

As long as a fish tank is at least 1 gallon of water, can provide room for a heater without worry for large temperature fluctuations, and room to swim, it can be an appropriate permanent Betta fish home with proper maintenance and care. However, if more room can be provided for this charming aquatic creature then it should be given. There are studies existing that show Betta fish living in larger spaces have an extended lifespan and a better quality of life.

Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine writer Philip A. Purser described such experiments in his article Better Betta-Keeping, explaining that “specimens confined to tiny bowls seldom exceed 18 months to 2 years in captivity, while free-ranging specimens housed in larger aquaria may thrive for more than seven or eight years!” (Purser 2007).

If it is possible to provide an animal with the best quality of care, then why not provide to the best of one’s ability? Betta fish have the unfortunate plague of misconceptions that harm their care and lower their lifespan. By looking critically at the myths and misconceptions that plague this beautiful species, a step can be taken toward improving their care and giving them a more deserving life.


*Because fish tanks that hold less than 1 gallon of water are harmful to fish health and often lead to their deaths, we have created a petition that has a goal of the voluntary ending their sale at PetSmart. If interested, please look at and sign the petition here. Thank you.*



References

Denaro, Mark. “Splendid Bettas.” Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine. Tropical Fish Hobbyist, Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. .

F., Christine. “Choosing a Tank.” Choosing a Tank | Betta Fish Care. Nippyfish.net, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. .

Fenner, Bob. “Choosing and Caring For The Betta Fish.” Choosing and Caring For The Betta Fish. FishChannel.com, 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. .

Purser, Philip A. “Better Betta-Keeping.” Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine. Tropical Fish Hobbyist, Apr. 2007. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. .

RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase. “What Sort of Environment Should Siamese Fighting Fish Be Kept In?” RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase RSPCA Australia, 04 Mar. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.

RSPCA United Kingdom. “Decorative Fish Tanks Are Inadequate for Fish.” RSPCA United Kingdom. RSPCA UK, 07 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. .

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