Oops! You Forgot to Change Your Betta’s Water… (when serious time lapses)


angry stick training one, originally uploaded by revs45.

Q: J&J wrote,

Christie,

[We] have a beautiful dark blue and radiant red Beta Splenden (or at least I think that is what it is called) He has long flowing fins. His name is Earl. Two weeks after my parents gave him to me I received orders and deployed to Iraq. I am back now and can’t wait to help Earl.

HISTORY: Prior to cleaning the tank Earl had slowed down a little but was for the most part normal (sitting between leaves, flaring, begging for food, chasing your finger. His tank was very dirty (neglected) and had lots of algae so I decided to clean the tank out. On the advice of a PetsCo employee here in Austin I:

RECENT ACTIONS:

1. Removed Earl and completely cleaned the tank and all of its parts (washed everything with bare hands, no soap and tap water)
2. Replaced the charcoal filter
3. Filled the tank with 70 degree tap water (as directed from PetsCo)
4. Added “Stress Coat”
5. Added a piece of drift wood from a gold fish tank to reduce future bacteria.

RESULTS:

Almost immediately Earl became lethargic and inactive. He has always tended to enjoy sitting still in the leaves of a plant but this is FAR different. He doesn’t move. You can reach in the tank and touch him and he barely moves. He floats upright in a totally vertical position. He sits on the bottom in a corner or resting on a leaf near the top periodically going up for air. After grabbing a breath he ceases all movement and sinks to the bottom in a vertical position. This is very scary to say the least. Is there any hope and if so what do you suggest? I have listed the setup below:

STATS:

1. Earl is almost 2 years old
2. 1.5 gallon tank
3. Small tank with charcoal filter (came as all in one starter kit)
4. Have NOT tested for Ammonia, Nitrite and Nitrate
5. Have NOT tested for pH, kh and gh
6. Water temperature is 68 degrees (F)
7. For previous 20 months: Only added water as it evaporated (20% at a time)
8. There are NO OTHER FISH in the tank with the betta
9. Feed my betta 4-6 “Betta Bites” pellets once per day in the morning. 2-3 blood worms once per week
10. Water additives are “Stress Coat (this was the first time)” and a small piece of Drift Wood from a Gold Fish tank (recommended by PetsCo employee)

PS: I misread the instructions on the “Stress Coat” and added 2 tsp (enough for 20 gallons.) I then removed half of the water and replaced it with tap water at the same temperature.

I will deeply appreciate any advice you might have to save Earl! I have grown quite attached to him and don’t want to kill him. Thank you for your help!

A: Thanks for writing in about Earl. I hope that I will be able to help you guys. All the great information you provided in your email has been very helpful. Thanks.

There are a few things that may have contributed to Earl’s sudden change in behavior. First, as you know the tank was pretty severely neglected. Toxins build quickly in a small 1.5-gallon tank and reach dangerous levels long before you can see any sign of dirty water. Most bettas will suffer the result of this quickly and will become ill or even die, but on occasion a betta, like Earl, will continue to live even in water that is quite toxic. I’m always amazed at how resilient they can be sometimes. Fortunately, you had a tank with a filter. In water, good bacteria called “nitrifying bacteria” grow naturally and consume fish waste turning it into a compound called nitrite, (spelled with an “I”) which is also toxic to fish. Another group of nitrifying bacteria consume that nitrite and give off another compound call nitrate. (Spelled with an “A”) Nitrate is much less toxic to fish then ammonia or nitrite but still can become a problem if you don’t dilute it by changing 20% of the water about every week. All these good nitrifying bacteria live in the filter and in the gravel. In a tank that is scrubbed clean or one that doesn’t have a filter, the bacteria don’t have a place to live and die off so there is nothing consuming that dangerous ammonia. This is what kills many fish. Your tank, having run for a long time, was probably well established with nitrifying bacteria. The first mistake PetCo made was to tell you to clean everything in your tank. Getting rid of all that bacteria is exactly what you DON’T want to do. I’m really sorry they told you this, they absolutely should have known better. The average fish keeper may not know about nitrifying bacteria (we call this the nitrogen cycle) but fish store employees have no excuse. Even though the water was probably in bad shape, he was likely used to it and sort of went into shock when all of a sudden his water was crystal clean. Usually, we recommend a series of partial water change over several days to people who have let their tanks go without cleanings for a long time. This is to avoid any shock to the fish.

The second mistake PetCo made was to tell you to remove the charcoal filter. The filter is where the great majority of the helpful nitrifying bacteria live. Scrubbing the entire tank isn’t a good idea when it’s well established with bacteria like yours was, but as long as you don’t change the filter, the bacteria would probably regenerate quickly and it wouldn’t have lost its nitrogen cycle. Now, you are basically starting from scratch.

The third mistake PetCo made was to tell you to put him in 70*F tap water. This is wrong for two reasons. First, they should have told you to put him in water that is the exact same temperature as the water he was removed from. I don’t understand where they got 70* from. If your water was 80* then putting him in 70* water could have caused thermal shock, which at best can stress the fish and at worst can cause death. Matching the temperature within a degree or so is important. The only safe way to do this is with a thermometer. Estimating with your hand can be several degrees off. (You can pick one up for $1+ at any local fish store) I would even suggest acclimating him like you would a new fish by floating him in his cup or bag inside the new water for 15 – 30 minutes, even if the new water was pretty close in temperature. Proper acclimation, again, is basic fish care and PetCo employees absolutely know this stuff and should have told you. (I would consider complaining to a manager about this.) The second reason why 70* is wrong is because Bettas are tropical fish. In their natural habitat, the water is around 78* – 82* F. When the water temperature falls below about 76* F, bettas become sluggish. Below 72* can cause stress that leads to weakened immune systems and disease. The very cold water could be part of the reason your Betta is just laying about. I suggest warming it slowly over several days (2 degrees per day) with an aquarium heater until his water is warm and stable. Most aquarium heaters aren’t made for such tiny tanks but I have seen products out recently geared toward betta bowls. They may just take a little hunting for. In the mean time, I would keep him away from any drafty windows and in a room that is a little warmer. Here’s a product I’ve heard good things about, http://www.drsfostersmith.com/Product/Prod_Display.cfm?pcatid=12087&N=2004+113767 You could also consider upgrading him to a small 5 gallon tank. This will require less frequent water changes (once per week about) and can be heated with a 25 watt aquarium heater, which are pretty easy to find at most fish stores.

Adding stress coat is ok advice. It does the trick to condition tap water. Personally, I like Kordon’s AmQuel+ and NovAqua (meant to be used together) because it binds ammonia and nitrite in addition to neutralizing chlorine, chloramines and heavy metals. Since your tank will be cycling again and ammonia will inevitably build from fish waste, you may want to consider this as one more defense against new toxins.

The final recommendation PetCo made to you about adding driftwood from a goldfish tank doesn’t make any sense. It certainly in no way reduces bacteria. If anything, it may help you to reestablish bacteria quicker. If the driftwood came from an aquarium that was already cycled (having all that good bacteria) then it may help bring in some of the bacteria that was cleaned out of your tank earlier. As long as the driftwood was still wet and wasn’t sterilized when you put it in.

Wow, I have gone on and on. Sorry I’m so long winded. I was trying to keep it simple, I swear. ;-)

I have had lots of problems with bad PetCo advice before, but this one might actually take the top prize. I am really so sorry this happened to you and Earl too. I know you’re just trying to do what’s right for him and you deserve to have gotten good advice from the beginning. I really hope that by warming up his tank and completing the nitrogen cycle again, that Earl will be back to his old self. He sounds like a beautiful Betta.

Best of luck to you both and your fishy too. I’m glad to hear that you returned safely from Iraq, and thank you sincerely for your service to our country.

Written by

Christie F is a Betta splendens hobbyist that enjoys spending time caring for her fish and helping new betta keepers learn the ropes. More posts by:

10 Comments for this entry

  1. Anonymous says:

    My betta is also laying around the bottom of the tank not wanting to eat. I’ve read your the other posts and your response to them. I’m just wondering then everything dies sometime and would this just be a sign that the fish is on its way out (naturally)?
    Also regarding what someone wrote about Petco and keeping the water temp. at 70 degrees.
    I’ve talked to the managers at Petco regarding the fact that everything in there store is more expensive then any of the other large pet stores. The manager actually acknowledged that they know they charge more for there products. His excuse for that was because of there most knowledgable employees that work there and help there customers. WHAT A BUNCH OF B.S. that is. They must think there customers are pretty stupid too. Only in extreme cases will I shop at Petco.

  2. Christie says:

    Yes, it’s true that sometimes fish are just old and succumb to an illness in their weakened state. the case of this post the fish is only 2 years old so probably isn’t ill from old age.

    When old bettas die, it is still sad but I try to remind my readers that it takes a lot of love and dedication to keep a betta to old age.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi! I was randomly searching betta fish information and came upon this site. I started looking through it and found that there is a lot of helpful information on this blog, so now I have a question of my own.

    I hvae two betta fish, Joan Jett, a dark blue crowntail female with rainbow fins, and Jedd the Kraken (roflmao), a regular male with a dark blue head, green body, and red/green fins. They live in separate tanks, the female in a 1 gal. tank and the male in a tank that is bigger than 1 gal., but I'm not sure exactly how big. I know bettas ought to live in larger tanks, but pets aren't allowed in my dorms, so I have to hide them occasionally, which accounts for the smaller tanks. My fish are doing fine so far, but I've been hearing a lot about cycling tanks, and I was wondering if it was possible to cycle a tank of that size?

    The tanks have gravel, live plants and places to hide, but no heating or filters. I like to let the water sit for a couple days before putting it in the tank, but I still use a water conditioner. I also bought, and use, Bioenzyme because it said it helped with bacteria growth. The temperatures are around 74 degrees, and I do a complete water change once a week with partials every 2-3 days.

    Also, I've noticed that a film will develop on the top of the water. Do you know what can cause that and if that is a sign of a more serious problem?

  4. Anonymous says:

    My fish is over a year old. His water gets cloudy quicker than it use to. All elements are the same. Does anyone have a reason for this. Thank you.

  5. Publius Vergilius Maro says:

    For what it’s worth: I keep my betta in a 2.5 gallon tank and do gradual water siphons from the gravel every week or so. I remove about half the water and replace with same temp and a few drops of conditioner (to neutralize chlorine and metals)
    I feed him frozen worms and shrimp and sometimes pellets (flakes suck) when I am lazy, since I can’t find live worms any longer.

    i keep live bamboo and leafy plants in is tank (why put in some toxic petro-chemical artifcial ‘plant’?) and loose a few leaves to float on the surface to give him a sense of shelter from above. Remember little fish are hunted by birds in the wild. I have for ‘gravel’ blue and green glass beads from the dollar store and pepper these with polished tiger’s eye stones and lapis lazuli and quartz to beautify the tank. Many people believe certain stones emit particular positive energies and for what it is worth my fish is really really smart and healthy. When I call his name he swims to the front of the tank. He also eats from my finger and will follow the tapping of my finger when I indicate to him where food has sunk. He is named ‘Horace’ by the way, after the great Roman poet Horatius Flaccus.But I confess, for all the quartz, his writing still sucks.

    I wanted to emphasize that a 2.5 gallon tank is really the perfect size for a betta. Not too big nor too small. Natural plants and food with living enzymes (frozen or live) is mostly the way to go. But, since Petco would not exchange my 2.5 gallon tank which cracked after a single water change, I now have Horace in a .5 gallon bowl. I am actually letting him stew there a while while the water becomes ‘toxic’ and almost opaque from his waste and the rot of uneaten food. My theory is simple: everyone I know who let a betta live in continually foul water kept that betta 6 years which is about the maximum lifespan. It seems they build up extraordinary bacteria by this habitation, and let’s remember they have lungs as well as gills and can breath from above. Furthermore, in native South Asia where they are from they will live in a hoof print in the mud until leaping out to greater pastures. This means that in nature they live in their own filth for extended periods of time.

    Horace’s temporary diminutive tank, compliments of Petco’s draconian return policies (you need to save every little receipt for an exchange or take a hike) I am using to build up a strong bacterial digestive tract in him, much as probiotics do for people.

    Eventually, I will return to an independent pet store and buy another 2.5 gallon tank which with the gems and the glass beads and natural plants looks magnificent, and more importantly, provides an expansive environment through which my betta can swim freely and explore happily. (He always made bubble nests.) But first I want him to toughen up in the rotted water which so often seems to serve the longest living bettas so well.When I do reintroduce him to the pristine and commodious environment he deserves, I will do gradually, adding a little dirty water to the clean, so the critical bacteria have time to flourish and create a healthy habitat.

    • Allison says:

      I was ignorant about bettas and kept one in similar miserable conditions in college. It died. Within a couple months.

    • Destiny C says:

      I can’t believe you would intentionally put your poor fish through such disgusting water- there IS a difference between “survival” and living. In the wild- betas live in rice extensive water habitats-fields and water drainage’s with lots of foliage plant material and nitrifying bacteria the water is cleaner than you think. The “they live long periods in “mud puddles” is a total myth- they survive for short stints when the dry season hits. Do your fish – which is another living being – a favor – find your google bar and do some real research. I’m sure you have the best intentions for your fish and aren’t trying to hurt him but your working with false info.

  6. Laura says:

    So, I have a really fun copper male delta. He’s fantastic (by that I mean he plays chase with my finger, and swims to the top of his tank whenever I talk to him). He has an extra fin, though (it’s really, really tiny on his back.. but he can still move it). And he has a very strange habit. If I ignore him (meaning don’t look at him), he’ll follow me around in his tank and just stare. No matter how long it is, he just stares at me. Then if I turn toward him, he swims around really fast and pushes his leaves around. Is this a normal Betta behavior? I have had Bettas before, but none have ever been anywhere near as energetic as this guy. Also, he eats quite a bit more than any of my others have. Normally, they would stop eating after 4 or 5 pieces of food. He’ll eat anywhere from 10 to 15 before he stops. He’s my fatty boy, and he really has been a joy to have in my home.

  7. Dus D. says:

    Hello I stumbled a pound this thread and now I’m totally confused. I had my fish 4 months and researched bettas for about 2 before that and every post I read could not stress the importance of clean water. I have a 3 1/2 Gallon tank with a sponge filter heat stick 2 silk plants 2 lil moss balls and this week I added bamboo. My fish loves the bamboo and the moss balls make a huge difference in the water clarity I use spring water and clean completely clean the tank and chage the water every 7-10 days. But now from reading this thead it sounds like I’m doing more harm then good. Someone please help me understand what to do. Eg. With the sponge filter should I not clean it once a week also a have medium size glass stones not gravle do I thoroughly clean them or just give them I fast rinsing. Because this thread (great BTW) contradicts everything I read in the last 6 months. Thank you for your time. Please help me help my lil guy be as healthy as can be.
    PS I also have stress coat but and water conditioner again I use spring water should I use either one? Lastly I love my betta as all owners do and by nature I equate love by feeding him well the urge to I feed him omega gold pellets it was 4 a day cut down to 2 with a day of not feeding him at all is this correct and what could I feed him as a snack I hear a pealed pea? Sorry I went on so long but as everyone reading this I want my buddy to live a happy and long life. Again thank you for the time
    Respectfully, Dustin

    • Tihani says:

      The person who thinks leaving her fish in a tiny polluted
      Tank is definately off her rocker crazy. This idea of building up a fishes immune system by trapping him in excessive ammonia is ludicrous. Caring for a fish starts with water quality and tank condition. Test your water with a good master test kit. Cycle your tank and keep amonia to zero. If your fish isn’t acting sick and your water parameters are on target, keep up the good work.

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