Lovely the Fish, originally uploaded by steve xavier.

DO wrote,

I received a 1 gal. wall bowl w/ bamboo plant, few rocks and red male Betta in March as an anniversary gift from my husband. Up until 1.5 weeks ago he was active, had a routine, seemed happy and healthy. We went out of town for the weekend, I left him a sinkable disc food. It was his 1st time alone. After our return I immediately changed the water as it was very cloudy. His gills were protruding and he seemed to be gasping? After clean water he seemed to perk up, but didn’t completely return to his old self. 4 days ago he stopped eating. I thought maybe he was cold so I place a light above him a few hours a night. He swims to it and hangs out where it is warm. Yesterday he did his morning “dancing” asking for breakfast, which I took as a good sign, but still won’t eat. He doesn’t seem to have ick, or any physical damage (besides gills). I am getting very concerned about him. My children keep asking about him. I change his water 1-2 times a week, boil/cool rocks in between as well as rinse off bamboo. His head does look a little gray but not fuzzy the last 2 days or so. Any advise would be great, thanks.

A: This is a classic case of ammonia poisoning with all the signs. Fish waste and decaying food are the primary sources for toxic ammonia. In such a small bowl ammonia can build to toxic levels in a very short amount of time (a few days under normal conditions) and that problem can be compounded by adding extra food or missing a water change.

Swollen gills and gasping are typical symptoms of ammonia burns. Unfortunately, these burns are slow to heal and often never fully return to normal function. When Bettas struggle to get oxygen they often experience secondary problems including loss of appetite, faded color or secondary infections. This is due to the added stress on the immune system.

Some steps you can take to increase your Betta’s chance of recovery are keep up with frequent water changes, test for ammonia regularly using a simple ammonia test kit from your local fish store and supply your fish with an appropriately sized aquarium (3 – 5 gallons minimum). Aquarium salt can also be beneficial to
help relieve stress and increase gill function for fish who have experienced ammonia burns. The dosage is 1 tablespoon for every 5 gallons of water and remember that salt does not evaporate so don’t continue to add salt to the bowl or it will reach unsafe concentrations.

The single best thing you can do to improve water quality and provide a stable home for your fish is to cycle an aquarium. The “nitrogen cycle” is a naturally occurring process that happens in an aquarium (and all bodies of water) where beneficial bacteria reproduce and grow and consume dangerous ammonia as it is being produced. Tank cycling is something that few fish keepers know about when the first buy their fish (unfortunately most fish stores don’t educate their patrons) but eventually learn about the process once their fish begin to get sick. I put together a web page for new Betta keepers describing the process so they can easily cycle their first aquarium. Cycling a fish tank will help you combat future ammonia problems, will create a safer healthier environment for your fish and will save you time and money by reducing the frequency of water changes. To learn about the nitrogen cycle visit Tank Cycling [The Fishless Method]

This is a very common problem with new Betta keepers and I know your question will help many others experiencing the same problem. Good luck to you and I hope your fish will experience a full recover as soon as possible.

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Reader Interactions


  1. xenobiologista says:

    Also, if you’re gone for only 2 days it might be safer to just not feed the fish. I know it _sounds_ cruel, but that’s what happens when, say, you buy fish on the internet and they’re mailed or shipped to you, or shipped from a wholesaler to a pet store. They can handle it.
    (I’m not a big aquarist but I was reading a book called Fish Welfare by the Fish Veterinary Society in the UK and they said fish will be OK without food for a few days.)

    • Somebody says:

      HELP! My female crowntail suddenly developed a white patch on her eye. I was searching the web, bout couldn’t find answers. I checked on her to find that the patch has become a ring in the middle of her cornea. She doesn’t seem sick and is very healthy and none of the other fish in the tank seem to be affected. Any help?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi I have a question related to the reddened gills. My male betta lives in a 3-gallon tank with filtration and light. While he is eating well and livel, his gills are ocassionally poofing out. I change the tank monthly as well as the cartridge and he has been doing fine…until recently when he poofs out his reddened gill. WHat should I do?

    • Fish says:

      Hey there! So, to answer your question he is FINE! When he poofs them out thats actually him just flaring (displaying). When you have two bettas that can see each other (not in the same tank more than four females with no males) they “flare” and warn each other off. Its like “fight me” in a way. Nothing is wrong with him, he might just see you as a threat or see his reflection and think its another betta.

    • bettakeeper says:

      What are your readings for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate? Is the tank fully cycled

  3. cheyenne says:

    Ammonia burn can also cause the blood in the fins, right? I’m learning about this now and hopeing that I can save little fishy befor eit’s too late. We’re going to buy epsom salt and test strips today, and some medicines for him.

    • Christie F. says:

      Removing the ammonia from the water is the most important step in treating ammonia burns

  4. Violet says:

    I have a blue male and I noticed that his dorsal fin is not as large and is turning white. Its half the size it was when we got him home. II have a small tank with a light. I change his water every other week, he does have a small castle. I use bettasafe water conditioner when I change his water. Also, the water temp is in the safe zone according. Whats wrong?

    • Angelina says:

      In a small tank, you should clean it once or twice a week. Your Betta seems to have fin rot. change the water every day for a week and give it a teaspoon of aquarium salt for every 5 gallons. if it doesn’t get better, you may want to try maracyn 1. Maracyn one can kill the beneficial bacteria in your tank so you should treat him in an aquarium safe bucket full of your fish tank water and change all the water every day with more tank water. good luck. this same thing happened to my betta.

  5. Fabio's Fish Mom says:

    I changed Fabios water today and I think I added too much water neutralizer to the water I was putting him in while I was cleaning his home. He started to frantically swim. I hurried up with the cleaning and put him back into his bowl. His body almost seemed to go top heavy like his gills stopped working. I noticed his gills seem burnt almost. He didn’t take his food, which isn’t like his normal routine. I hope I didn’t hurt this little guy.. He is the friendliest little dogfish I have ever seen. If I did burn him what can I do? I feel terrible about this.

  6. mexi says:

    i have been searching online for a proper diagnosis for my sick betta, and after reading about ammonia poisoning, the pieces fit together! i am almost positive as to what ails my betta. thanks for the info.

  7. fidencia says:

    help me please. my betta is really sick. i have pictures and i researched some diseases that might be the problem but i can’t be too sure yet. if someone can please get back to me
    so i can try to save his life.

    • Sylvie says:

      I can try to help, if you could tell me his symptoms and show me the pictures somehow.

  8. Syerra Lynch says:

    So my betta definitely has ammonia’s what I’ve been doing ( PLEASE CORRECT ME IF IM WRONG)
    •Change water every day; leaving 20%of H2O
    • Put betta in seperate bowl with the 20% water and wipe down the main tank with hot water / towel
    • Removed all rocks/decorations ; wipe them down with hot water / towel
    •Fill cleaned tank with tab water ( I haven’t been filling it all the way up lately because he’s to weak to swim- I want him to be able to come up for air )
    • After filling I add “betta water conditioner” and “aquarium bacteria ” to the cleaned tank..not too much tho because the directions
    Instruct 1ml to each gallon) Should I be adding this every time I change the water??
    •Is there anything else I can do / add besides “sea salt” ??
    I really want him to survive I’ve had him for 11months now. I semi-neglected the tank maintenance because I just had a baby . One day my fiancé tried to help without 1st consulting me he added tab water to the tank without checking temp or adding maintenance products and now that I think about it , I think he did it more then once …So being that the tank hasn’t been cleaned properly lately and the fact tab water was added without conditioning /cycling I believe he’s suffering from ammonia burn…he has all the symptoms.

    • Jenna says:

      I’ve also been told that it is very bad to clean the rocks since that’s where much of the bacteria gather. If I see algae growing on the plant bases or my betta’s cave, I try to remove it, but generally washing the rocks out ends poorly.

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