Moving Your Aquarium Fish


Fish in plastic bags loaded on a bike, originally uploaded by Jungle_Boy.

Q: TF wrote,

My wife and I will be moving in a few weeks to a new home. It’s about a half hour drive from our current place, but I was wondering if you could offer any advice on how to best move my male betta and his tank (separately of course :) . It’s a 5 gallon tank with a heater, sponge filter, some silk plants and gravel.

My biggest concerns are keeping the lil’ guy safe, unstressed and as happy as possible during the move, but I’m also very concerned about the filter being off for that long – if it will kill too many of the good bacteria in the tank and cause it to go through a cycle period again.

A: I frequently get emails from betta owners seeking advice about how to move their fish, especially this time of year when students are leaving school. Exactly how to move your betta safely and effectively varies depending on the size of the aquarium or fish bowl, distance travel and mode of transportation. Even seasonal temperatures may effect how you travel with your fish. I myself have moved fish several times from 300 to 3000 miles away. Here are a few tips to help you safely move your betta.

Moving Fish – Moving fish is more about time spent in the container rather than the distance traveled. If moving your betta fish is expected to take less than a few hours by car I might suggest putting him in a betta cup like the one you likely purchased him in. I often keep one or two lying around for just such an occasion. If you have tossed your old betta cup ask your local fish store for one. These containers usually fit right into your car’s cup holder, where you can keep a close eye on your betta. Avoid excessive heat and cold from the sun or heater/AC unit. Never leave your betta unattended in a hot (or cold) car. Temperatures can reach 120 degrees in the sun, which can quickly kill your betta fish.

Another great method for storing your betta for a move is in plastic fish bags like those you buy most fish in at your local fish store. I bought a small package from the International Betta Congress (IBC) years ago which have lasted me years and countless moves. Put the fish in the bag with a few inches of water and capture as much air as possible in the rest of the bag. Remember, bettas require oxygen from the air to breathe so get as much air in the bag as possible. Close with a rubber band and double-bag. Fish stores add compressed air to the bag directly which helps to maximize the amount of time a fish can live in the bag. They often are shipped from one side of the world to the other spending a couple of days in these bags. This method can be used for short distance travel or long distance. When mailing your fish long distance you will need an insulated box, live fish shipping labels, and possibly heating or cooling packs depending on the time of year. You will also need to contact your local shipping company for rules and regulations regarding shipping live fish. Please note too that shipping your fish increases the risk for illness or death. If you have the ability to carry your fish with you, I suggest it. Fish shipping bags can be purchased online or you can ask your local fish store if they will give you a couple free.

One more thing to note, before shipping your fish long distance, is fast him for a day or two to minimize waste in the water. Because betta fish are shipped in very little water they can quickly become overwhelmed by toxic ammonia.

If you don’t have any betta cups or plastic bags you can move your betta fish in sealable Tupperware or even in the aquarium itself by reducing the water level to just a few inches. Have a friend or family member carry the fish on his lap. This works fine for small distances.

Moving the Tank – The work involved in moving a fish tank can vary greatly due to the tank size and distance traveled. Obviously a small bowl is much easier to move than a large-scale aquarium. For a smaller 5 gallon aquarium that is well established (meaning it has a good colony of beneficial nitrifying bacteria) you should first disconnect the filter, heater and any other elements. Remove and properly pack your fish (see above). Drain most of the water with a siphon or bucket leaving enough water to keep your substrate and plants wet. Usually a couple of inches of water is fine. If you have a HOB (Hang on Back) filter with filter bags and media, go ahead and remove the bag and place it in the tank so that it remains wet. Some debris may get into your tank but you can filter it back out later. Canister filters can be disconnected and typically moved as is. Filters vary greatly so you may need to asses your situation individually. The tank, plants, substrate and filter media can then be placed in your car or moving truck. Secure well so that it doesn’t move and so that nothing will fall on top of it. This method works well for shorter distances. I moved my aquariums this way half way down the East Coast in the back of a UHaul with no issue. I placed my fish in Tupperware containers within the aquariums, stopping to check the water temperature every hour and a half.

The bacteria in your filter media will not quickly die off. I have kept mine out of the tank, submerged in aquarium water, for up to a week when I need to treat a tank with antibiotics. A couple of days out of the tank could cause your aquarium to go through a mini-cycle but a couple of hours will have no adverse effect on your filter bacteria.

For large aquariums over long distances I recommend one of two things. Have a professional aquarium moving company crate your tank and ship it for you. You will need to ship your fish and plants ahead of you and set up your aquarium from scratch. Moving a tank can be costly. In many cases it is cheaper to buy a new aquarium than to have it shipped by a pro. The tank itself is relatively inexpensive compared to all the accessories like lighting, tank stand, filters, etc. It cost me about $100 (less tip) to move my 30 gallon tank from the East Coat to the West Coast in 2007. It would have cost me about the exact same to buy the tank new so for me it was a wash. You’ll need to assess the cost benefits for yourself.

Fish on a Plane – People ask me all the time about taking their fish on an airplane. I don’t suggest it. Most airlines don’t distinguish between fish and dogs or cats so you will still get hit with the hefty fee of $80 or more plus you will have to carefully review the guidelines of the individual carrier. Your plane ticket will often cost more too as you will need to book directly over the phone with the airline rather than utilizing the popular online booking companies that typically give you a better rate. You may also be subject to TSA fluid restrictions as well.

This guide to moving your betta fish is far from complete. There are as many ways of moving fish as there are fish that need moving. If you have moved your fish, let us know how you did it.

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:

11 Comments for this entry

  1. Anna says:

    Great post, I love how thorough you are.

  2. Christie says:

    Thanks Anna. ;)

  3. Fish Tanks says:

    Very informative post. You are correct minimizing the time between tanks is key.

  4. Jenna says:

    I am moving with Angel Fish and a red finned "shark" and several neon tetras, I have a 25 gal tank, should I bag every fish seperately?

  5. Christie says:

    Bag the red tail seperately. The neons can go together or in one or a couple of bags depending on how many you have. Small angels can usually be bagged in pairs but larger or more aggressive ones should be bagged seperately. Good luck with your move!

  6. Fish Tanks says:

    Very informative in every post i have read. Thank you for the great resource that i send my customers to for information.

  7. Goldfish Care says:

    Very informative post indeed! Love the photo. You've definitely helped many people through your very descriptive and resourceful information you provide.

    Great job! If people need help moving their fish this is a great post to read.

  8. Heather D. says:

    This is so helpful, thank you so much for being so generous and thorough in your info-giving!! I will be leaving my residence at university to travel home, which will take approximately 3 and a 1/2 hours, I am going to ask the pet store for a few bags and follow your instructions exactly :) Again, thanks so much for providing a wonderful site!

  9. Nicole Nietlisbach says:

    Hi! In about a month, I’ll be moving back home from college for the summer. I know that my water at home is quite a bit more acidic than the water up here at school. Do you think my betta will be fine if I just acclimate him to my home water with the drip method, just like bringing a new fish home?

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