Q: J&J wrote,
[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:
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.
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:
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, 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.