Myths and Misperceptions About our Beloved Bettas by RandomWiktor
Last edited - December 8, 2018
Like goldfish before them, bettas are fast rising in the ranks of America's most popularly owned aquarium fish. Hardy, attractive, and capable of surviving in smaller quarters than most species, bettas have surpassed the goldfish as the "ideal" bowl buddy for the office, dorm, and home. However, this widespread popularity has come at a high price: many bettas suffer horrendous abuse and neglect at the hands of their owners. Perhaps the greatest tragedy about this unfortunate situation is that the majority of bettas who are mistreated are harmed unintentionally, out of ignorance or even misinformation.
The key to helping improve the lives of bettas is to dispel the myths propagated by pet stores and industries about this fascinating and unique species of fish. Most betta owners would never keep their fish in sub-standard current conditions if they were made aware of proper betta husbandry, and the first step to this is calling the misinformation for what it is. This article hopes to serve that purpose, so please share it with everyone you know!
Myth: Wild bettas live in tiny mud puddles and thus do not require clean water or space.
Reality: The wild ancestors of today's domesticated Betta splendens yield from rice paddies, swamps, wetlands, and shallow ponds in South East Asia. These bodies of water, though shallow, are quite expansive; rice paddies typically span many acres. Male bettas form sizeable territories during breeding season, sometimes as large as a square meter, and are only found in "puddles" during the dry season - a time of year where many bettas will die due to crowding, poor water quality, and inadequate food supply. It is also noteworthy that these bodies of water, though dark from tannins in fallen leaves, are not unclean - plant life provides a sort of natural filtration, and the replenishing of water during the wet season maintains a healthy, clean aquatic environment. The suggestion that bettas or any fish thrive in filthy water is contradictory to logic.
Myth: Bettas prefer tightly confined spaces and will "freak out" or die in larger containers.
Reality: Most owners who report bettas becoming distressed or dying in larger tanks had this experience because of something done wrong during acclimation, set-up, or husbandry while in the tank. In a well-planted tank with appropriate filtration (or lack thereof), compatible tank mates (or, again, lack thereof), proper acclimation, and suitable water parameters (including temperature), there is no reason that spaciousness should stress or kill a betta. Indeed, a slightly larger tank, in the range of 2.5-10g*, may even be beneficial; one of the leading killers of bettas is inadequate physical activity, resulting in fatty liver.
Myth: A cup or bowl is the ideal habitat of a betta.
Reality: In a room of the appropriate temperature, and with frequent enough water changes, it is true that bettas can survive short-term in a cup or bowl. However, this is far from being an "ideal" home for a betta. Cups and bowls are prone to temperature fluctuations, rapid declines in water quality, and generate stress during the frequent 100% water changes typically required to prevent fin rot and dangerous waste build-ups. They are also positively correlated with curled fins and obesity, both of which can be caused by insufficient physical activity.In actuality, the ideal habitat for a betta is a heated tank of 2.5-10 gallons, that is longer and wider than tall. It should have live or silk plants and at least one hide for the sake of the betta's sense of security, and water quality should be maintained through cycling, filtering, or frequent water changes. And it should certainly be covered to prevent jumping - a problem we often see in cups and bowls.
Myth: Betta-in-a-vase products mimic the betta's natural environment and create a stable internal ecosystem
Reality: One of the most dangerous elements of the betta fad is the betta-in-a-vase craze. These vases are undersized, over-exposed, fail to maintain adequate temperature, and often do not provide space for air-breathing. It should be easy to see through the suggestion that they mimic the betta's natural environment; what natural environment could a tall, narrow container half-filled with marbles with a plant plopped on top possibly be emulating? Certainly not a rice paddy, that's for sure! What's more, the assertion that the plants roots will sufficiently manage ammonia and waste production in the small container is preposterous; even in aquariums filled with aquatic plants, filtration and gravel cleaning are required.
Myth: Bettas kept in vases survive by eating the plant's roots; feeding and cleaning is not needed since this is a self-sustaining environment.
Reality: Bettas are carnivores (insectivores) by nature; in the wild, they eat a variety of insects, and occasionally the eggs and fry of other aquatic species. While they might will intermittently nibble at plant matter if hungry enough, they can not obtain adequate nutrition from plants. Any betta actively consuming the roots of a plant is likely doing so as a last resort while attempting to stave off starvation. They absolutely must be fed an appropriate carnivore diet. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the vase is not a self-sustaining environment. True, a starved betta will not produce as much waste as a well fed one, but bettas absolutely need water changes - especially when kept in inadequately sized containers like a vase.
Myth: Bettas, even in small and unfiltered tanks, do not require frequent water changes as they thrive in unclean conditions.
Reality: Tying back to the myth regarding the ideal water conditions of bettas, it is a common misconception that the species is found in dirty, muddy puddles, which has convinced some novice aquarists that clean water is not demanded of the species and could even be harmful. In reality, the opposite could not be more true. The selection for decorative and show finnage types in bettas has created fish that are in fact highly sensitive to water quality; unless conditions are pristine (right down to hardness and pH, even!), you can expect crown tails, half moons, and other long finned bettas to suffer deterioration of the finnage. The poor circulation to the extremities of these lofty fins also makes them a prime target for bacterial infections, a problem only exacerbated by unclean water. Make no mistake: there is no such thing as a fish that thrives in waste-laden, filthy water!
Myth: Bettas do not require heating or filtration.
Reality: While this is technically a myth, there is no simple counterpoint for a number of reasons.It is true that bettas can survive without a heater or filter, but only under highly specific conditions. For example, in a room heated to at least 76 degrees, a betta does not need an actual heater, but under normal room temperature conditions, they absolutely do. The ideal range of the species is 76-82 degrees (with a survival range of around 72-86), which under most conditions demands a heater. In regards to filtration, opinions are split. The benefits of a cycled, filtered tank are numerous and well supported. Unfortunately, the combination of yielding from stagnant water and having large, cumbersome fins can make filtration stressful, so many keepers (including traditional thai breeders) do not filter or cycle. Both methods seem to work so long as clean water and consistent water parameters are maintained.
Myth: Bettas are not tropical fish.
Reality: Many pet stores will tell customers that cold cups are not problematic because bettas are not tropical fish. I'm sure the people of Thailand would be interested to learn that they are living in a temperate climate! Bettas, like many other tropical fish, have an ideal temperature range of 76-82 degrees. They survive perfectly well in temperatures upwards of 86 degrees, but they can not thrive in temperatures below 72. While they may be hardy enough to survive outside of their ideal range, cool temps typically result in lethargy, constipation, fin rot, and an increased susceptibility to disease.
Myth: It is best to keep bettas in cool temperatures as it results in a longer lifespan.
Reality: Because bettas are exotherms, it is true that their metabolism is directly related to the temperature of their environment. As such, there is some foundation to the suggestion that colder temperatures will reduce metabolism and thus, in theory, lengthen lifespan. However, what this theory neglects to consider is that cold temperatures are correlated with susceptibility to parasitic infestations and illness, which shorten lifespan. What's more, colder temperatures result in lethargy, and low levels of physical activity are closely linked to fatty tissue degeneration - one of the number one killers of bettas.
Myth: Because bettas do not use their gills, there is no need to oxygenate their water.
Reality: While bettas do have a labyrinth organ that permits them to breathe air, this does not mean that they do not gill breathe, nor does it mean that there are not risks to keeping them in oxygen deficient water. While healthy bettas do not demand aeration to stay healthy, aeration should always be provided during medical treatments, if the fish is suffering gill distress, or if the fish is having trouble surfacing. Oxygen poor water contributes to anaerobic bacterial blooms, stresses the gills, and in extreme cases of weak fish who can not surface, may result in death. The adaptations bettas have evolved to survive in stagnant water are not an excuse for improper care during sickness.
Myth: Bettas are inactive fish and thus demand minimal space.
Reality: Most bettas who are inactive are behaving as such because they are cold or ill. When provided with appropriate space and temperatures, they are an extremely active, inquisitive fish. Some heavier finned fish may be less active, but a betta who is inactive is most likely unhealthy.
Myth: Bettas must be kept in distilled water.
Reality: Because bettas come from soft-water, acidic environments, many pet stores incorrectly recommend keeping bettas in distilled water. While there is some debate over this topic, a general consensus is that distilled or R/O water must be conditioned with some degree of trace minerals; purely distilled water is not healthy. Bettas do demand a certain amount of essential trace minerals in the water, and unconditioned distilled water is prone to fluctuations in pH as it often has a poor buffering capacity. In short, unless you have the resources to properly condition R/O or distilled water, your betta is safer in dechlorinated tap under most circumstances.
Myth: Bettas only need to be fed once or twice per week.
Reality: This myth comes from stores that keep bettas in extremely cold conditions, resulting in a sluggish metabolism and a minimal requirement for calories. A betta kept in a properly heated and appropriately sized tank demands feeding most days (typically daily with 1-2 fasting days per week), even if fed a wholesome diet of quality pellets and live/frozen food. Tropical temperatures and the naturally active nature of this inquisitive species mean high energy demands. For in-depth information on nutrition and feeding schedules, please refer to the following sticky topic: Betta Nutrition 101.
Myth: Bettas only bubblenest if they are happy.
Reality: Bubblenesting is not an expression of joy or pleasure; it represents the betta's urge to mate. Mating is the ultimate instinct of any creature outside of survival; even in unfavorable conditions, most young male bettas will still bubble-nest. Water changes, temperature spikes, or viewing other bettas will also often encourage bubble nesting behavior. In other words, a betta blowing bubbles in a cold, dirty gallon bowl isn't doing so out of pleasure, but out of instinct. Do not use such a behavior to excuse improper care under the pretense of the animal being "happy."
Myth: Bettas are too stupid to require behavioral enrichment.
Reality: It is a common misconception that fish are unintelligent. This assumption has resulted in bettas and other fish being kept in dull environments. For an intelligent species like bettas, an environment void of behavioral enrichment can result in neurotic stress behaviors such as pacing, excessive hiding, tail biting, etc. It is strongly suggested that in addition to plants and hides, a betta should be offered a variety of non-threatening stimuli to keep them active, engaged, and entertained.
Myth: There is nothing wrong with fighting bettas because they can not feel pain.
Reality: As of 2003, scientific studies on the anatomy and behavior of fish offered conclusive proof that fish react to painful stimuli and possess the nocireceptors required to feel pain sensations. This means that fighting bettas does result in undue pain and distress, even if carried out in a professional and controlled manner. UltimateBettas.com has an official stance opposing the fighting of bettas for sport and profit. Betta fighting is an exploitation of a natural instinct for human gain, at the expense of the animal's health and safety. While we respect that fighting was an integral part of the betta's domestication, it is not a responsible or humane husbandry.
Myth: Male bettas only fight with other males; this aside, they are peaceful community fish.
Reality: Most male bettas will fight with anything that even remotely resembles another male in finnage or coloration. Some will attack any fish indiscriminately, regardless of its appearance. It is inherently risky to house bettas with other fish. Some bettas are too aggressive to be kept with any species, and many community species will damage the finnage of a betta. This species does best when kept alone due to its special environmental and social needs. However, community keeping is possible with careful monitoring and appropriate tankmates if the betta's personality permits. Communal housing should always be approached on a case by case, individual basis!
Myth: Female bettas are peaceful and can always be housed together or in tropical community tanks.
Reality: Many female bettas are equally as aggressive as males - with added speed and mobility due to their short finnage! Sorority tanks are only possible in a well-planted environment under highly specific population and gallonage conditions, and even then injuries and deaths are commonplace. Likewise, female bettas will often attack and injure community fish, especially ones who resemble bettas. Male and female bettas are almost equally solitary; the safest way to keep females, like males, is alone. If you do wish to keep a sorority or community tank with females, you must monitor closely, and read up on setting up such a tank safely.
Myth: Bettas are completely unsuitable community fish and can only be housed alone.
Reality: While the safest way to keep bettas is alone for both the betta's sake and that of its would-be tank mates, it would be inaccurate to suggest that bettas can never be housed with other fish. Placid males and females can often be housed in a well-planted community tank with mellow, dully-colored fish, as well as some aquatic invertebrates or amphibians. Careful monitoring is demanded, and the positives and negatives of the housing situation should be thoroughly evaluated prior to mixing species, but the community betta is not an impossibility.
Myth: Bettas can be kept with goldfish since both live happily in bowls.
Reality: This myth is multi-dimensional. Bettas are arguably unsuitable for keeping in bowls due to the difficulties in maintaining appropriate temperature. Goldfish should never be kept in bowls due to their waste output, oxygenation needs, and growth potential. Improper housing aside, the two species are incompatible. Bettas are small, solitary, aggressive tropical fish which require soft, acidic, still water and pristine conditions. Goldfish are large, social, fin-nipping coldwater fish which demand harder, slightly base, well-oxygenated and filtered water. They are also massive waste producers and hosts to many parasites. In short, the two species are utterly incompatible, and should not be housed together under any circumstances - especially in bowls!
Myth: Guppies and bettas make great tank mates.
Reality: Some betta keepers do successfully keep female bettas or passive males with guppies. However, it is not suggested or encouraged to mix these two species. Male guppies in particular have bright colors and flowing finnage that can illicit aggression from male and even female bettas. Countless guppies have been wounded and killed by bettas due to inaccurate compatibility suggestions; it simply is not worth the risk.
Myth: Male bettas can be kept with groups of female bettas.
Reality: Many pet stores suggest keeping a male betta with a small harem of females, and some betta keepers have tried this set-up with limited short term success. However, in the long run, such an arrangement almost always results in the injury or death of the females, male, or both; male and female bettas were not made to co-habitate outside of brief periods of mating and will aggress upon each other. Male bettas should never be kept with any member of their species.
Myth: A male and female betta can be housed together as mates in the same tank.
Reality: Bettas are a solitary species; they do not form mate bonds and thus will not recognize one another as companions. The only time one should attempt to place a breeding pair of bettas together is during the actual mating; a male and female betta housed one on one is asking for a massacre. Even with a careful introduction and supervised mating, injuries and deaths during reproduction are not uncommon. Male and female bettas simply should not be housed together, period.
Myth: Female bettas need other females for company and will become lonely and depressed without others of their kind.
Reality: Anthropomorphism is a grave enemy of fish. Bettas are a solitary species; they do not need companionship and will not become "lonely" or "sad" without the company of other bettas. Overall, other bettas simply create territory disputes and a need for a pecking order. Sorority tanks can be safely formed, but please understand that it is done for the owner's preference and not for the needs of the fish involved. Those wishing to keep social fish would be well advised to consider a schooling species instead of bettas.
Despite its popularity as an aquarium fish, the betta is still largely surrounded by myth and misinformation. A combination of inaccurate information from vendors and a poor understanding of the social and environmental needs of the species among aquarists has lead time and time again to the mistreatment of bettas on both a private and industrial scale. Thankfully, the word is slowly spreading about the needs of this unique and wonderful species. The days of cold gallon bowls are slowly fading away as more and more responsible aquarists acknowledge that the betta deserves the same standard of care of any other tropical fish - with extra considerations for their unique needs. Please feel free to share this article to help dispel the myths and promote responsible betta husbandry!
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