Betta with healthy looking gills.
Q: MU wrote,

Hi Christie. I am hoping you can help me with my male Siamese fighting fish. Lately he has been laying on the bottom a lot not being very active. His gill covers are sticking out a little bit and look sort of red and irritated and he hasn’t been blowing bubble nests like he was when I first got him. I don’t see any spots or fuzzy white patches on him so I don’t think it is Ich or columnaris. I will tell you a little about his set up too. He lives in a 1/2 gal bowl without filtration but has two java ferns to help keep the water clean. I do 50% water changes every other week using conditioned tap water. I try to match the new water to the bowl water as closely as possible. I don’t test the water so I can’t give you any information on that. What do you think is making him so sluggish? What causes irritated gills? Thanks for you help.

A: Thanks for including information on your water changes and bowl-set up. The more information you can provide the more we have to go on. I can’t say for sure but my feeling is your Betta may have ammonia or nitrite poisoning. Ammonia is the main byproduct of fish waste. In a tank with a filtration system, beneficial bacteria will grow over time and begin to consume the ammonia. These bacteria then give off nitrite which is also toxic to fish. If given the chance, a second type of bacteria will grow to consume the nitrite. This is called the Nitrogen Cycle. In a bowl that is not cycled, the helpful bacteria don’t have a chance to fully develop in order to consume all the ammonia and nitrite as quickly as it is produced. In this case, the only way to keep these toxins at bay is to do frequent full 100% water changes before they have a chance to become detectable at all. I suspect your half gallon bowl water needs to be changed much more frequently then the every two weeks you have been doing it previously. The symptoms of ammonia or nitrite poisoning are often lethargy, red or inflamed gills (gill covers sticking out when the Betta is resting and not flaring) and gasping for air. This occurs because the ammonia or the nitrite burn the gills of the fish making it very difficult or impossible for them to get dissolved oxygen out of the water. The fish begin to suffocate. This immense stress can lead to a weakened immune system and other illnesses can pop up.

It can be difficult to treat the gills once they have been burned by these toxins but there are steps you can take to help your Betta out. First, do a complete 100% water change being sure to match the new water temperature with the old. Add a good water conditioner, preferably one like Kordon’s AmQuel+ and NovAqua combined, which eliminates chlorine, chloramines and heavy metals AND neutralizes ammonia. While adding aquarium salt to the water isn’t usually necessary for Bettas it can improve gill function for fish exposed to nitrite. Plants, however, often suffer when salt is added. You may not have an issue since Java Ferns are pretty tough plants.

To avoid problems with toxins in the future, monitor your ammonia and nitrite levels regularly and invest a few dollars in a pH test kit. The toxicity of ammonia is directly affected by the water’s pH levels. Ammonia is less toxic in acidic water (pH below 7.0) and becomes extremely toxic in basic water (pH above 7.0). Keep the water clean by changing it before toxins present register on the test kit. This could mean up to twice per week in a small half gallon bowl. Also, slow the rate in which ammonia is produced by feeding small quantities of food, removing uneaten food and fish poo and by snipping any dead or dying plant leaves. Basically, remove anything that can decompose as soon as you’re able. Healthy plants work to counter toxins and are helpful.

Your fish may never fully recover if the damage was severe but keeping your water clean will help to keep him healthy and live a longer life.

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Reader Interactions


  1. Charles says:

    HI,My Veiltail Betta seems healthy though there is a problem. I have read similar comments and still cannot see what his problem is. He is in a 2.5 litre rectonal tank,tanks, no plants, under a ‘cool’ light etc. I change his water same day every week
    Looking down on him or front on, one of his gills is sticking out. Today he takes his grain of food and seems to try to chew it, spits it out as he doesn’t seem to be able to swallow. He hasn’t really had anything down since yesterday. He seems happy enough. Do I have a problem or not. Is it possible to email me as I am very anxious and do not want to lose him.
    My address is
    Many thanks, hope you can help. Charles in Brisbane

  2. Anonymous says:

    My betta is having a similar issue. The side of his gills have large red spots on the ends. Im a fairly new betta owner. He lives in a 1 gal. tank with 2 plastic plants. He eats like a horse when i feed him (i have him on flakes everyday and a pea once a week). He recently just got over velvet. I’m not exactly sure what to do to help get rid of the red spots on his gills. I’ve done a 100% water change. Any tips on what to do next?

  3. Natasha Fredrick says:

    My betta is having the exact same problem as charls’s, and looking at him from top, back, or front, the black sort of puffy part of his gill stick out a bit and the skin flap thats supposed to cover it looks a bit bent or something. When i look at him from the back it looks reddish pink on the very inside i know u rnt supposed to see that. He isnt eating like a pig as they r suppose to, and he will take a bit off food every once in a while and then spit it out again. Also his fins r closed up, and i heard they r supposed to be open and flowing. He is not very active, either. If anyone knows wats wrong with him email plz!!! He is also a veiltail betta, and he is very sweet. I currently have him in a 2 gal bowl, although he is going to move into a 7 gal tank when my frog dies, because i heard bowls rnt good for them. I got him from a pet store, he was in a bowl he could hardly move around in and i think that maybe the inflamed gill was their fault. I use a good water conditioner thats supposed to help build up the fishs protective mucis… He is living with a healthy water plant (idk wat kind its long and green and ruffly) that is standing up straight, he has a betta bed (ya know those little fake leaves that u suction cup onto the side) a ceramic log which i rinsed thoroughly in hot sudsy water, some colorful rocks at the bottom of his bowl. He is roommates with an albino african dwarf frog and they seem to be friends. My betta will chase him around the tank occasionaly and tap him with his nose and then swim away. I keep him in a dark room, because i heard thats wat u do to cure them, and i feed him freeze dried bloodworm pellets once a day, but, like i said hes having trouble getting most of them down. 🙁 i normally change his water once every 3 days (70%) and i just did 100%. He has a natural filter. I want him to live a full life of 2 or 3 yrs so plz help!!!

  4. Kelly says:

    I really need to know what is going on with my delta fish, i keep him in a 5 gallon tank, plenty of plants, i add water conditioner in the water when i first bought him (on the 24th of november 2013) but he seems to have gill inflammation, staying on top breathing, staying still and every now and then swim like crazy and crash into tank… i am dying to see him that way, and please help me find him a cure!!!!!

  5. Michelle says:

    Hi! I’m very worried about my male betta. About 5 days ago I started aquarium salting (almost 1tsp) and heating his 2 gallon tank to cure fin rot. Now his fins are much better, but he’s gasping for air with his gills always flared and he stays at the top of the tank and is starting to spit his food out. I took out the charcoal filter when I started salting, but still use the small pump to agitate the water. There are no signs of ick or anything, but he looks like he’s going to die, he’s trying to breathe so hard at the surface. I would greatly appreciate anything might suggest. Thanks

    • Robert says:

      Michelle, heating the water reduces its ability to hold oxygen. You need to either reduce the temperature, or greatly increase agitation on the water’s surface, i.e., via airstone.

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