Visiting Veterinarian

Fighting fish vs. a pony

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - September 14, 2006

I have spent much of the last three years explaining to my now-six-year-old daughter why we aren't getting a pony. She is not impressed with any of my reasons ("Honey, mommy doesn't DO horses!") especially since she is a talented and avid rider who actually knows kids with their own ponies. When I was growing up in middle-class suburbia, kids didn't have horses. A dog or cat, yes. If you were really lucky, maybe gerbils. But not horses. So when Sydney, who likes to spend her afternoons hanging out at Little Leona's Pet Supply store, started bugging me for a fish she had been visiting weekly, I finally acquiesced. After all, it had to be easier than a pony, right?

After proving herself responsible by feeding the dog for two weeks, we went down to Little Leona's and bought Prince Ruby, a brilliant red two-inch-long Beta fish, also known as a Siamese fighting fish. Many people have the misconception that all veterinarians know everything about all species of animals. Okay, some of you think we don't know much about anything, but seriously, my training in school focused on dogs, cats, and farm animals. Classes on exotics, birds, pocket pets, and fish were limited and optional, unless you were planning to specialize in those fields. I freely admit I know absolutely nothing about fish except how to make a nice poached salmon, so I sheepishly asked the pet store owner, Vivian, for instructions. We came home with a bowl, some food, and a few miscellaneous items. At first Prince Ruby thrived. After two weeks I changed his water, following the basic instructions. Prince Ruby immediately began to look less regal. He hung out at the bottom of the bowl. His fins drooped. Then he stopped eating. I logged on to my on-line veterinary group and began educating myself. Better late than never.

Watch the water

The first thing I learned is that I was misspelling his species. It's Betta splendens, with two Ts. Originally from southeast Asia, the natural habitat of Bettas is the rice paddies of Thailand, Cambodia, and Viet Nam. They belong to the labyrinth fish group, which means they can actually breathe atmospheric air, an adaptation that allows then to survive in monsoon puddles in their native countries. It also means they can survive in very small fish bowls. Bettas are tough and can endure a lot of environmental stresses such as low oxygen, high ammonia, and wide temperature fluctuations. Unfortunately this hardiness has often led to their being kept in less than optimum conditions. Many people feel it's okay to keep Bettas in very small containers and just change the water every few weeks, but specialists frown on this practice as neither healthful nor humane, advising that all fish be kept in regulated, filtered tanks.

I bought Prince Ruby a 10-gallon tank with filter, heater, lights, sea glass, and a ceramic coral reef complete with purple octopus. I already knew to dechlorinate the tap water. Tap water should be dechlorinated by letting it stand for 24 hours, and well water may need water conditioner, as it tends to be too hard to use as is.

I learned that changing 100 percent of the water all at once is not good for fish. It is better to do partial water changes, the minimum being one quarter of the water every two weeks. Why do we need to change water at all? Because fish pee and poop like every other creature. These waste products break down into ammonia. In nature, this ammonia dissipates in the large volumes of water of the natural habitat, but in an aquarium, ammonia levels can quickly become toxic. There is a fascinating ecosystem that develops in a properly maintained aquarium, involving beneficial bacteria that help convert the ammonia into relatively less harmful nitrites and nitrates. You are supposed to let the tank "age" with just one or two hardy fish and appropriate plants first. It can take six to eight weeks to develop the proper bacterial populations and balance. If you introduce too many fish too quickly, before the right bacteria are established, your fish can get sick and die. It's actually called "new tank syndrome." I still have to learn more about this whole process of the nitrification cycle, but I now know I should monitor water quality by testing pH, ammonia levels, nitrates, and temperature.

Surfing the Internet, I discovered a wealth of information, but I was also reminded how much misinformation is out there in cyberspace. Two good web sites are and I was overwhelmed by how much there is to learn and how little I know. For example, I always thought of goldfish as the typical "beginner's" fish, picturing them swimming around in that traditional Dr. Seuss-style fish bowl. Goldfish, however, like lots of space and create a lot of waste. They are also messy eaters. The standard advice for determining tank size is "one inch of tropical fish per gallon of water." Not goldfish. They need between 10 and 30 gallons of water per fish. Another nice quality is that they will literally eat themselves to death. Inexperienced fish owners may misinterpret this gluttony as hunger and overfeed. No wonder so many goldies end up getting flushed.

My point is simple. Before you take on a new species of pet, aquatic or otherwise, learn about its needs and decide if you can really provide a good home. I may not know much about fish, but I do know that the main cause of illness veterinarians see in any unusual pet is poor husbandry. In other words, the owners do not know how to house, feed, or care for the species properly to ensure good health. For fish, the cardinal rules are these: maintain and monitor water quality by doing routine, partial water changes and checking your filtration system regularly, don't overfeed, give them enough room, and make sure any tank mates are compatible. Once I corrected the water quality, Prince Ruby perked right back up. He comes to the surface of the tank to be fed. He dances around his purple octopus. He has an amazing amount of personality packed in that tiny red body, rippling his fins and waving his glorious tail. We talked about getting him a companion but Betta males can be very aggressive. My reading has taught me that if we do get any other critters for the tank, we should isolate them for three to four weeks first to be sure we don't introduce any diseases. I've heard that African dwarf frogs might work. Oh. Wait. I don't know a thing about African dwarf frogs. Time to start reading again.

Maybe I should have just gotten her that pony.