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Thoughts and tips on finding good aquarium advice in stores and online.

In the last couple of weeks I have gotten a lot of emails from readers who have gotten false and even dangerous advice from their local fish store (LFS) and through the WEB regarding the proper care of their Betta fish. As someone who is constantly seeking out more information on Bettas and aquaria I too often find strange, outdated or plainly inaccurate advice through the usual avenues. I’ve even gotten into a debate or two with the fish store clerks over the very basics of fish care.

Rummaging through all this miss-matched and conflicting advice is one of the very main reasons why I started and later, Nippyfish: A Betta Blog. That, and I needed to get all my thoughts down on paper (or HTML as the case may be) before they overwhelmed me.

When I first started out with Bettas I really really struggled to keep them healthy and to get straight answers as to what was wrong with them. I would get 3 diagnosis, all completely different, 5 different treatment options and 10 reasons why I caused it in the first place. It was exhausting, frustrating and expensive. You think you have an answer, you go to the store, make $20 in purchases, go home, nothing works, get more advice, return to the LFS, buy $30 more in equipment and medication, return home, rinse and repeat.

Eventually I had to stop blindly taking advice and start asking WHY! (or sometimes “how”?) Before we get into the nitty-gritty as to why WHY is so important, let me first make it clear that information traded in the aquarium hobby is almost entirely based on opinion, theory or hypothesis. Sure, there is some hard science in there somewhere. For instance, we now know about the Nitrogen Cycle and how it works. Still, very few formal scientific studies have been done regarding tropical fish care, health, nutrition, disease or medication. A lot of it comes from personal experience or perceptions and even more of it is a regurgitation of someone else’s opinion.

The internet is an obvious avenue for seeking aquarium advice. You can find something on almost any common aquarium species and for fish like our beloved Betta, there are literally thousands of sites with information available. Web forums are another terrific source for help for specific situations. Many of them are heavily populated and asking a particular question about your betta can lead to dozens of answers in a short amount of time tailored specifically to you. Unfortunately, there is no way to know who is answering these questions. They could be old timers in the fish biz or a newbie who is reiterating what they just heard at their LFS. Even then, there is no guarantee the old guy has the current advice or that the newbie is incorrect. Additionally, people often misrepresent opinion as fact and even more often make blanket statements about things that are really more complicated. For example, “Female bettas can be kept together.” Can they? How many female bettas? Are all their personalities the same? How big is the aquarium? Is it planted?

Why WHY is Important

These gross blanket statements about betta care are everywhere on the web, at your LFS and even in books, though I find books to be a little more careful about verbiage. When I began drudging through all the information, I started by asking WHY. “Oh, flare buddies are a good way to avoid depression in bettas? Ok, why? If there is no reason why, you may have to dig a little deeper. If you do get an explanation, listen to your intuition and determine if the reason given makes sense to you. You may not get it right all the time, but among a hobby so saturated with opinion, your gut may be the only way to make a determination. In the case of the flare buddy for example, I couldn’t make any sense of it. Scientifically, it didn’t have a foot to stand on. Why in nature, are bettas territorial and fighting other males to defend their territory while at home they get the warm fuzzies when another male is placed in proximity to their habitat? It makes no sense that a Siamese “Fighting” Fish would feel joy being in proximity to a competing male. There haven’t even been formal studies done (that I have seen) proving that fish can feel joy at all or even experience the complexities of depression. My gut was telling me, quite loudly, that these claims were just another example of hobbyists anthropomorphizing.

Often, these situations will occur when your betta is ill and you desperately need advice. Remember, people on the web or in the fish store haven’t seen your betta and can only make determinations based on the information you provide. If you tell them your fish isn’t eating and they give you a solid diagnosis that it’s a parasitic infection, ask them WHY… or at least HOW they know. This is especially important if there are few symptoms or if you haven’t provided info on all the usual water parameters, your aquarium set up, feeding routine and cleaning regimen. There really needs to be a dialog in these situations so ask questions and ask a variety of people and in the end, make sure you feel comfortable with the advice you are taking.

10 Tips for Finding Good Aquarium Advice

1. At the LFS (Local Fish Store) ask the employees about their own aquariums. You may learn, in some of the larger stores especially, that they have never owned fish or that their set-up is vastly different from yours.

2. Ask fish store employees if they have had personal experience with your species of fish.

3. When getting your information from the web, find sites that are species specific. Sites that outline needs for hundreds of species may be too general for your situation.

4. When choosing a web forum, find one with experienced moderators and a mix of regulars with little, some, and years of experience. Avoid seeking advice from sites like Yahoo Answers where anyone can post and often give dangerous advice for malicious reasons.

5. Find a forum you feel comfortable at. Avoid ones that are full of bullies and make you feel bad or stupid and conversely, sites that are all about making you feel ooey-gooey happy and talk mainly about the cute and adorable things their bettas did that day may not provide the most comprehensive aquaria information you need at that time. There should be a good balance of fun and science.

6. Join a local aquarium club. The folks that join these clubs are pretty hardcore about their fish and love to “geek-speak” about aquaria all day. They will happily teach everything they know to anyone who will listen. Go online to find the clubs near you. You can also find a comprehensive list of clubs in the back of Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, which can be found at Barnes & Noble or visit the International Betta Congress site for clubs dedicated solely to bettas.

7. Get a second or third opinion. I am a member of well over 30 online fish forums, granted very few do I visit on a regular basis. Joining these forums is totally free and registration usually only takes a minute or two. Ask the same question in two or three places may help you to come to a more solid conclusion.

8. Remember, there are few experts. A lot of the hobby is based on opinion or personal experience. I am generally leery of people who call themselves experts, though some really are. Because the advice came from a breeder or a life long enthusiast doesn’t necessarily make it true. If someone claims to be an expert, consider their advice but don’t mark it as gospel.

9. Trust your gut. If the advice you receive feels wrong or the logic just isn’t there, trust your instincts. There are no shortage of people to ask. Go to another store employee or find another web forum.

10. Trust your own experience. This is a hobby that gets easier with time and experience. There are constantly new challenges and relatively few rules. If you know something to be true for you, go with it but remain open to advice and new science. The aquarium hobby is as much about communication as it is about fish.

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