Why People Kill Fish, and How To Avoid It

My fish tank, newly cleaned. Notice the thin haze of algae/minerals/salts/bacteria on the glass; It was left there on PURPOSE.

This is not a post about sushi. This is not a post about environmentalism. This is a post about how to keep a fish tank. Most people kill fish within a month of getting them. You’ve probably done it: you buy a fish (a Betta/Fighting fish or a Goldfish in a little bowl,) you give it a few little aquarium rocks, and maybe a fake plant and a little ceramic statue of a diver. You lovingly clean it every week, and cautiously feed it every day until, about a month later… it dies. But you took care of it! You did everything right! No. No, you didn’t. You did everything wrong. Here’s how you take care of fish.

There are three basic rules for taking care of fish.

  1. Clean the tank whenever you remember to.
  2. Feed the fish whenever you remember, but make sure it’s at least twice a week, unless you’re on vacation. Then it’s ok to leave them a week or so.
  3. Never never NEVER put PLAIN TAP WATER in your fish tank or bowl!

Let’s start with the last and work backward. This is how most people kill their fish: they clean the bowl about once a week, and they put fresh, clean, chlorinated tap water in the fish bowl. People who do this usually end up killing their fish within a week or so. When you buy your fish, forgo the luxury of the little ceramic diver and buy a bottle of tap water conditioner. Chlorine kills fish. Tap water conditioner removes the chlorine from your tap water.

Number 2: Don’t overfeed your fish. Some people might disagree with me on this one, but in the wild, no animal eats as often as we do. I feed my fish anywhere from one to four times a week, and I’ve had this tank for over a year with no food-related casualties. (I have had two natural deaths and one or two territorial disputes that ended badly.) I don’t know that a little overfeeding will hurt your fish, but it certainly won’t help.

Last, but not least, don’t clean your tank all the time. Fish live in filth. In the streams or tropics from which your fish came, their relatives float happily in their own pooh from birth to death. Your job is to simulate the cleaning properties of the plants and constantly flowing water that they don’t get in your tank. Beta fish, on the other hand, naturally live in mucky, still water, and hardly need to have their bowls cleaned at all.

When you clean your tank, use an aquarium vacuum (a tube with a bigger tube attached) to suck out about half the water in the tank. Sift through the rocks and try to get some of the turd and decaying food out from between the pebbles. When the tank water is down to about half, you’re done. Don’t refill the tank and start over; you just want to get rid of some of the muck, not all of it. Also, don’t throw the water out! Put it on your plants; they’ll love you for it. Then refill the tank with treated tap water, distilled water (if you want to waste money,) or Reverse Osmosis (RO) water (if you really want to waste money.) Distilled and RO water are only a waste of money in a fresh water tank. If you have a salt water tank, use them.

When you first get your tank, you should put in whatever water treatment/starter fluids the person at the pet/aquarium store tells you to put in. This will build up the bacteria that the tank needs to properly deal with the fish guano that develops in the tank. Pebbles and other “complex” surfaces are also important, because that’s where the bacteria live and om nom nom on crud.

Regularly testing a well established tank is a waste of time, in my opinion. Test pH, ammonia, and nitrates if you get a sudden die off or if your fish start looking sick, but nature does a fantastic job of regulating all these things all by itself… if you don’t clean your tank too often, that is. If it makes you feel better to keep an eye on things, test as often as you like.

Expect any given fish to live for several years (at least two,) and if they die before that, then something is probably wrong.

Hopefully this will serve as a loose guide to help you keep your fish alive longer, or encourage you to start a fish tank if you don’t already have one. Fish tanks have been a fixture of the Davoust household since I can remember, and I encourage you, if you’ve ever thought about getting a fish, to go out and get a small starter tank (a Betta in a bowl will do as well.) Feel free to leave questions in the comments if you have them, post a link to pictures of your own tank, or to tell me I’m wrong and extol the virtues of rigorous, monthly cleaning and daily feeding.


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