When most people pick a betta fish, they normally choose them for their ease of care, coloration, and interactivity. Interactive fish make the best “pet” fish, as opposed to schooling fish that are more display fish. Some fish, like Flowerhorns, even enjoy being pet and will lift their heads out of the water just for you to pet them. You can even train goldfish to accept being petted, but can you train bettas?
While you are physically capable of petting a betta fish, it is not a good idea. They are easily spooked and highly aggressive, so your fish will either become afraid of you or bite you if you try to pet it. While it is possible to pet goldfish and Flowerhorns, those fish get 10-12” and 10-14” respectively, and the itty-bitty betta with a 1” body does not tolerate petting well. Petting your fish can lead to serious infections, even if they don’t get a scratch.
In this article, we will cover the slime coat, biting, aggressive nature, stress, and security.
Betta fish have a protective layer over their scales called a slime coat. The misconception that reptiles feel slimy may have come from the fact that both reptiles and fish have scales, and since fish feel slimy, some assumed scales are slimy. However, a fish’s scales are not at all slimy, instead, it is the slime coat covering the scales that give this tactile response.
The slime coat is an essential part of a fish, very similar to the first layer of skin we have. Unfortunately, the slime coat is more easily damaged than our first layer of skin. Just like our skin, the slime coat keeps out bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other pathogens.
If the slime coat is damaged or broken in any place, it opens the fish up to infection. In aquarium water, there are always pathogens present. The chlorine in the water is very good at getting rid of most, but there will always be some parasites, like flukes, and bacteria in the water.
These bacteria are unable to affect fish with a healthy immune system and a healthy slime coat. However, once the slime coat is damaged, the fish will not only be in pain, but it is likely that bacterial or parasitic infection will occur.
When you attempt to pet your betta, some of the slime coat will come off. Given their nature to jerk away and hide, this may inadvertently cause you to take off a good deal of the slime coat. Larger fish can deal with a small portion of the slime coat coming off, but since bettas are so small, if a chunk of slime coat the size of your finger comes off, they can die.
Betta fish are carnivorous, which means they do have teeth in their mouth. The teeth are small and sharp, but they are meant to damage small insects and crustaceans, so they won’t cause damage to you.
For most bettas, if you attempt to pet them with your finger, they will probably bite your finger and dart away. If you jerk your hand away when they bite you, you could cause severe damage to their jaws.
Their jaws are extremely thin and brittle, so they are easy to break. If you accidentally break your betta’s jaw, it will probably die. The mouth area is too small to perform surgery or reset the bones properly, so if they heal at the wrong angle, the betta will be unable to eat and will starve.
Even if the betta does not suffer any damage, if you retreat after it bites you, it will think that biting you, what it believes to be an aggressor, will solve its problems. This is a dangerous notion if you plan to keep your betta with tank mates later.
On the other hand, even if you don’t keep your betta with tank mates later, it will make tank maintenance more difficult. From that point on, your betta will either be very angry with you or very afraid of you. They often do not have an in between.
Betta fish have a very aggressive nature and do not appreciate sentimentalism. While you may have a bond strong enough with your betta that you want to physically reach out and pet it, your betta does not want to touch you.
In general, fish are very flighty and do not appreciate you touching them. Betta fish fall into this category, though instead of being flighty, they may turn aggressive and end up biting you. Either way, your fish will not appreciate your touch.
Because of their aggressive nature, they will often try and stand their ground when faced with a potential threat. This does sometimes result in bigger fish eating them, but in this scenario, it just makes them hard to pet.
Instead of running from your hand/fingers, they will keep facing them. This means you will have a very hard time getting to your betta’s back and petting it. While their defenses do not work against larger fish, they will work against you.
Stress is another reason that you should not even attempt petting your betta. Even though they are naturally curious, the sudden addition of a giant blob (your hand) into their territory will stress them out.
Bettas innately defend their territory, as their territory is the thing that would get them a mate in the wild. Since every animal has a want to reproduce, bettas will defend their territory in order to do so. Without their territory, they will not be able to woo a mate.
If you not only put your hand in the water but also move towards them, your betta will freak out. It will be stressed to the point of a fight or flight response, which is bad for their health. When fish, and other animals, become stressed, their immune systems are severely affected.
As previously mentioned, pathogens are constantly in the water just waiting to infect your fish. One of the ways they can get in is through a weakened slime coat from injury and damage. Stress can also weaken the slime coat as well as the overall immune system.
It is surprising just how bad stress can affect your fish. For example, just moving a fish to a new aquarium, even if they are drip acclimated, will often cause them to become sick. Drip acclimation is excessively cautious and generally not necessary, but it is one of the gentlest ways to move a fish.
I have moved several fishes to different aquariums, and even taking all the proper precautions, some of them get sick. One betta developed bad fin rot just after being moved and it persisted for over a month. Another fish developed dropsy within 24 hours of being moved.
If a gentle and safe move from one tank to another can stress a healthy fish to disease, what does chasing it with your hand do? And how can you carry out tank maintenance?
If you have not attempted to pet your betta and have not yet been bitten, you should take steps to avoid startling or stressing your betta. The best thing to do is to heavily decorate the tank to give your betta some hiding places.
Bettas also tend to pick specific parts of the aquarium that 100% belong to them. By providing large plants and other shelters, you provide your fish with a place that can be entirely theirs. It will also increase the chance that they flee instead of fighting.
The presence of a security area also reduces your stress while doing tank maintenance. If you avoid the area of the tank that is theirs, you probably won’t have to deal with the little betta bites and the consequences.
In conclusion, you should not pet your betta fish. Petting your fish can damage their slime coat and stress them severely. This, in turn, can lead to serious infections and illnesses, so petting them, or even just attempting to pet them, is not worth the risks.