Despite being an incredibly popular fish, there are many mistruths and misunderstandings surrounding bettas, and one of these is their lifespans. Some people say bettas normally live 3-6 months, others boast about their betta who lived for 8 years, and others say 1-2 years is average. So, which of these is true?
To put it bluntly, none of the above is the correct average lifespan for bettas. Most bettas live for an average of 4 years, however, some bettas cannot achieve this even with perfect care, while others can achieve much higher lifespans with mediocre care. Factors that affect lifespan range wildly, from genetics to background to past ammonia exposure, and many more. We will cover some of the most common factors that decrease your betta’s life expectancy and how to fix them.
In this article, we will cover ammonia and nitrite poisoning, cup bettas, bettas from domestic breeders, extending your betta’s life, and common fatal illnesses.
Ammonia and Nitrite Poisoning
Ammonia and nitrite are naturally occurring organic compounds, but not everything that is natural is safe. Any level of ammonia and nitrite in aquariums is harmful, and once it reaches just 0.25 parts per million (ppm), it can be lethal to bettas in just a few days.
When fish produce waste, or when food decays or anything of organic material decays in an aquarium, it releases ammonia into the water. Ammonia is the first step in the aquarium nitrogen cycle, and it is unfortunately incredibly harmful. Ammonia causes chemical burns on fish, and while nasty black burns all over their bodies can’t be fun, the real issue is with their gills, which often sustain permanent damage.
Even if this damage doesn’t kill them outright, they will have a shortened lifespan from that point forward. Nitrite poisoning is similar, though often more severe. Once ammonia poisoning hits your fish, bacteria convert ammonia to nitrite, which is a whole other wave of bad.
Nitrite binds to hemoglobin in the blood and prevents it from carrying oxygen. This often kills fish by suffocation and causes severe gill damage. Once the nitrogen cycle starts, you need to do daily water changes to keep the ammonia/nitrite levels below 0.25ppm. The last stage of the nitrogen cycle is a nitrate, which is safe up to 20-40ppm.
The only way to prevent your fish from suffering through this is to cycle your tank before you get them. Add an ammonia source to keep the ammonia at 4ppm for about one month, or however long it takes for the bacteria in your filter to turn 4ppm ammonia into nitrate within 24 hours.
“Cup” bettas are the bettas found in nearly every chain pet store, aptly named because of the tiny, cup-like containers they are kept in. However, it is questionable whether or not the containers even hold a cup of water…
As you may imagine, the lack of a filter and biological filter (the bacteria that live in filters which turn ammonia to nitrite to nitrate) means that these bettas are constantly exposed to ammonia, possibly nitrite, but never nitrate. The high levels of ammonia actually kill off any potential bacteria that turn nitrite into the much less harmless nitrate.
Even though they do not live in the cups long (with most of them dying from the subsequent effects of being shipped in such small containers, the lack of a heater, lack of a filter, and high ammonia/nitrite), they will have a dramatically reduced lifespan. Even if you pick one up the second that it arrives in the store, it will have damage.
This typically reduces their lifespan by ¼ to ½, with a few months to 2 years is an average lifespan. Of course, there are some that will make past the average lifespan of 4 years, but this is not normal.
Bettas from Domestic Breeders
Domestic bred bettas from reputable domestic breeders will have the longest lifespans, with overseas breeders having the second longest average lifespan. The primary difference between the two is simply transportation. Domestic breeders will only have to transport bettas for one or two days maximum, while 5+ days is typical for an overseas shipper.
Being shipped is a stressful situation to bettas; they are kept in the dark, jolted around, kept in a small, normally cold, container for that entire period. Stress is extremely damaging to fish, and they can even die from stress alone.
These bettas won’t suffer from poisoning before you get them, so their life expectancy is much greater than cup bettas. While shipping can be stressful, most of them recover perfectly well within a week.
In addition to this, bettas from domestic breeders are better adjusted to the microbiome that lives in your country’s water. Bettas from outside your country will be adapted to different microbiome and illnesses. No matter how well we filter water, some pathogens will remain behind, and these vary from place to place.
Even though bettas from overseas breeders are generally much healthier than those from cups, they have a higher chance of getting sick when you first get them, due to a difference in germs in their water. Be sure to keep the transition as stress-free as possible and do extra water changes to keep the water pristine.
Extending Your Betta’s Life
The best way to extend your betta’s life is to keep the water pristine and feed them the right type and amount of food. The exact definition of pristine water varies depending on who you talk to, with some people defining it as water with 0 nitrates, 20 nitrates, 10 nitrates, lots of plants, a natural recreation of the fish’s habitat, etc.
While nearly everyone would consider a tank with 0 ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate to be pristine, a tank with 10 or fewer nitrates is another common definition and is more achievable for the average fish keeper. In a healthy and fully cycled tank, no ammonia or nitrite should be found.
As your fish consumes more food, nitrates will build up, which need to be removed through water changes. More frequent water changes mean more pristine water, so by keeping up with the required weekly water changes plus a few extras, you can extend your betta’s lifespan.
All species of bettas are prone to obesity, bloat, and constipation, all of which can be much more harmful than they appear to be. Be sure to feed your fish quality food with few fillers and ensure that it is for bettas. Feed them only an amount of food about the size of their eyeball twice a day and keep an eye out for any bloat.
In addition, you need to ensure that your betta is living at the proper temperature. You will need a heater in addition to your filter to maintain the temperature between 78-80 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the optimal temperature for a betta’s metabolism. A lower temperature can extend their lives, but it weakens their immune system and ruins their digestive tract.
Common Fatal Illnesses
Dropsy and columnaris are two of the most common, and unfortunately fatal, illnesses that affect bettas. While bettas are not immune to any particular diseases, they are more prone to developing dropsy from bloat and are prone to developing columnaris simply because of the temperature range they inhabit.
While Dropsy is relatively rare, bettas seem incredibly prone to developing this condition after prolonged bloat and/or constipation. Dropsy is a symptom of kidney failure and is typically caused by a bacterial infection of the kidneys. Fish kidneys not only filter the blood, but help with osmotic regulation, filtering fluid in and out of the body.
As the kidneys begin to fail, the fish will begin to swell from the excess fluid, but unlike simple bloat, the swelling forces the scales out to the side of the body and take on a “pinecone” appearance. While the fatality rate is over 90%, you can attempt to treat your fish by adding 1tbsp of Epsom salt per 5 gallons of water to the tank and dosing Kanaplex.
Columnaris is a nasty bacterial infection that normally looks like a fungal infection, appearing as white fluffy patches on the backs, mouths, and other areas of the fish. The best way to treat this is with a mix of strong antibacterial medications, including Kanaplex, Furan 2, and Maracyn 2. Treat the entire tank, as tropical columnaris can wipe out established tanks in as little as 3 days.
In conclusion, bettas can live for an average of 4 years if they are bought from a reputable breeder. Domestically bred bettas have a better chance of living longer than non-domestic bettas, no matter where you are. Bettas bought from cups generally have a shorter lifespan ranging from 1-2 years, but pristine care can extend their lives.