I’m sure we’ve all seen bettas in tiny little bowls and cups, and it seems like that’s how everyone keeps them. I’m sure we’ve also all heard that an actual tank is unsuitable for betta because they will drown in anything except a bowl. Then how do they live in the wild? Is this really the best set up, or do they prefer moving and deep water?
Betta fish do not have a preference for either shallow or deep water as long as they have access to the surface of the water and the air. Some betta fish absolutely adore strong currents and come from fast moving streams, while others come from slow moving water with little current. Most bettas in stores prefer slow moving water, but they still need adequate filtration and flow to stay healthy and avoid chemical burns.
In this article, we will discuss the drowning myth, long fins, filter baffles, large tanks, and whether or not fish can actually drown.
Now, about a betta drowning in anything except a bowl, how true is this? Well, it is not true at all. Bettas normally live in large bodies of water, multiple miles long, and often several feet deep. While not all of these bodies of water are moving water, they are all quite expansive.
The origins of this myth are unknown, though some attribute it to the myth that betta fish live in puddles. Since the area of the world that bettas live in is often dominated by a wet and dry season instead of four distinct seasons, some bettas become trapped in puddles during the dry season.
Unlike the common perception, the bettas trapped in the puddles do not live in the puddles, and often die shortly after becoming trapped. These puddles are also murky and disgusting looking, leading people to believe that a betta can survive in a bowl.
Bettas are actually less likely to drown than other fish; they have an organ called a labyrinth organ that is similar to a primitive lung, allowing them to take in oxygen from the atmosphere. This evolved partly because of their still environments; still, warm water does not carry a lot of dissolved oxygen and a suffocate fish.
If the dissolved oxygen in the water plummets, or if all the fish in a tank have severe ammonia or nitrite poisoning affecting their gills, bettas are the most likely fish to survive as they can access two different oxygen sources.
While wild bettas normally live in stiller water, they have no issues swimming rapidly when required to do so. On the other hand, captive bred bettas have been selectively bred for extremely long fins and bright colors.
Not only does this prevent them from being able to survive in the wild, but they are also unable to move their excess finnage rapidly. They cannot swim swiftly due to the extra weight and drag, which can cause some issues.
While most can live in aquariums perfectly fine, some do have issues being able to swim at all, though this is a very rare occurrence. In these cases, the weight of the extra fins drags the betta down to the point where they are unable to swim and risk drowning. Cosmetic surgery is necessary for these situations.
Unless you have one of these very rare bettas, yours will be able to handle a large tank very well. Shallow water is not required, and the betta will be able to handle the flow from most filters. Small bowls and vases will do much more harm to a betta than a normal 10, 20, or 75-gallon aquarium.
When choosing a filter for your betta, you will have to take the tail type into account. If you plan on buying a betta with very long fins, such as the traditional halfmoon or a rosetail, you should pick a very gentle filter. Some of the best filters for these tail types are powered by air pumps, such as a sponge or corner filter.
If you plan on getting a very colorful but short finned betta, such as a plakat or a female, you can get a slightly stronger filter, mainly a Hang On Back (H.O.B.). These filters are easy to clean and you can easily customize the filter media.
Every now and then you will end up with a filter that is just a bit too strong for your betta, though these are normally H.O.B. filters. If you are unable to return the filter and swap it for another, you may have to baffle the filter.
A baffle is something you add to a filter that will reduce the flow and make it easier for your fish. These are often not needed, as most filters are easily adjustable. For example, adding a 60-cent control valve to an air pump will make any air powered filter fully adjustable, and most H.O.B. filters are already adjustable.
The easiest baffle to add to a filter is to hot glue a sponge right underneath the outtake. This will allow the same amount of flow out of the filter but will reduce the current. The water will flow through the sponge and lose most of its energy, entering the water silently and making life easier for your betta.
There is a common misconception that betta fish cannot live in large tanks. This is likely based off of the same puddle myth that has led some to believe that betta fish will drown in anything large than a tiny mud filled puddle.
Betta fish can happily live their whole lives in a 200+ gallon tank and will not encounter any issues related to the size of that body of water. If you have ever seen a betta in a large tank, you will notice that they actively use all the space provided to them.
Even though they may seem lazy and inactive in a smaller space, they become much more active in a larger tank. The change is quite remarkable, though it is often not one expected. Most assume that because betta is inactive in a tiny 5-gallon tank, a large tank will be a waste of space. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
A betta fish is, well, a fish. There is no reason that they are unable to swim in a larger tank or that they shouldn’t be provided with a larger tank.
Can Fish Drown?
Now, it seems counterintuitive that a fish could drown. Don’t they breathe water? Well, they actually don’t. Fish breathe oxygen, and bettas can extract both dissolved oxygen in the water through their gills and oxygen from the atmosphere through their labyrinth organ.
Think of it like this; humans don’t breathe air, they breathe oxygen. We can’t use the nitrogen gas and carbon dioxide and all the other trace gasses in the air to breathe and live; we can only breathe oxygen. Similar to this, fish do not breathe or use the water and trace minerals, they can only breathe oxygen.
Due to this, if a fish is unable to get enough oxygen from the water, they can drown. This can be caused by a majority of issues, whether it be high temperatures or medications lowering the dissolved oxygen, damage to the gills, or many other possibilities.
So, long story short, fish can drown. However, as previously mentioned, you are more likely to lose other fish to drowning than bettas, due to their ability to extract oxygen from two different sources. If the temperatures spikes and you also have to treat a tank with medication, the dissolved oxygen will plummet, and this may kill some fish. As long as the betta has access to the surface, they will survive, though other fish may not.
In conclusion, betta fish do not have a preference over shallow or deep water. They do prefer a slower current, but if their fins are not abnormal, they can easily handle a moderate current. Betta fish are some of the easiest fish to keep and are great for beginners, but they do require proper care and maintenance.