A Basic Guide to Betta Care

By: Charlotte Maxwell

Though popularly kept in bowls, the colorful and interactive betta is a fish that will thrive in a full-fledged aquarium under the care of beginner aquarists and advanced keepers alike. In many ways, an aquarium setup for a betta is just like any other freshwater aquarium, but this guide aims to help you maximize comfort, health, and happiness for your new betta friend.

What size tank should I get for my betta?

There’s not really a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Much like dogs and cats, captive-bred betta varieties are numerous and diverse, and such a popular pet means that many experienced keepers have weighed in with different opinions and successful methods. Our advice would be to go as large as you can (a bigger tank will stay more stable in both temperature and water chemistry), but keep in mind that the space alone is not what makes a fish thrive. You must be able to provide a clean tank that is also well-decorated to contribute both enrichment and a feeling of safety for your fish.

What are the ideal conditions for my betta?

While tank-bred bettas are robust and adaptable, there are still some general guidelines for keeping them comfortable based on their wild origins and the experience of keepers all over the world.

Wild betta fish are found in tropical Asia, often in ponds, rice paddies, and slow-moving streams. The water is warm, so it is best to use an aquarium heater that can maintain a water temperature close to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. In colder water, bettas are lethargic and more prone to illness.

These bodies of water are filled with decaying plant matter that lowers the pH and colors the water like tea (this is likely where the myth of bettas living in filthy puddles comes from. What looks to the untrained eye like dirty water is often just darkened with tannic acids). This can be achieved in the aquarium with the help of botanicals (especially almond leaves or extracts, which are closest to the kind of tannins found in the betta’s natural habitat), or, if the blackwater aesthetic is not for you, with buffers. Tank bred bettas can be kept comfortably in water with a pH between 6.5 and 7.5. Many keepers use dechlorinated tap water or bottled drinking water to fill their tanks. These sources typically have a pH within the desired range and are ready to use right away. Distilled water and reverse osmosis water are too low in minerals and need to be buffered and remineralized before use.

***Worried that your water’s pH doesn’t quite match this guide? Don’t stress too much. Get as close as you are able to maintain rather than chasing numbers. At the end of the day, your fish will prefer a stable environment. If you are having problems keeping a healthy fish or stabilizing your water parameters, talk to an aquarist to come up with solutions together.

What kind of filters are safe for bettas?

We are commonly asked if it is possible to have too much filtration for a betta tank. The literal answer to that question is no, as extra or oversized filters can be beneficial to your tank. However, a better question (and what a lot of people probably mean) is “can a filter be too strong for a betta?” and the answer to that is yes.

Bettas are not known for being particularly fast or energetic swimmers. Since they are typically found in more still bodies of water, they’ve never really needed to be super strong. If your filter creates a very strong current, your betta will have trouble swimming against it, which can lead to stress, exhaustion, and difficulty coming up for air. If you are not buying a filter designed specifically for bettas (which are often not available outside of box aquarium kits), the best kind of filter is one that creates no horizontal current (like an air-powered sponge filter) or one with an adjustable flow that you can turn up or down depending on your individual betta.

How do I decorate a betta tank?

So much of tank decoration comes down to an individual keeper’s taste, but there are some specific things you can do to ensure that you create an inviting home for your betta.

One of the things that draws so many people to bettas is their curiosity. Even in their displays at the store, healthy bettas are watching and reacting to their surroundings. When setting up your betta’s permanent home, it is important to richly decorate it so that your betta has a lot to investigate and explore. Many keepers even report their bettas responding to changes in the decoration outside their tanks! A well-decorated tank will also make your betta feel safe. These are little fish that often live alone in the wild. A huge empty space makes them feel very vulnerable to predators and competing bettas (they don’t know that these things don’t exist in your aquarium!)

Plants are probably the best thing to include in your betta tank. There are live plants accessible to every skill level that can turn your aquarium into an attractive snapshot of nature that nicely ornaments any room. Live aquatic plants also improve the water quality and reduce algae growth by consuming excess nutrients and nitrogenous wastes. If live plants do not appeal, you can still achieve a tank dense with foliage by using artificial aquarium plants. When taking this approach, you should use plants made out of fabric or soft silicone. The more commonly-seen plastic plants often have sharp points and edges that can tear a betta’s delicate fins.

Stones, driftwood, and aquarium-safe ornaments add further interest to your betta’s environment and increase the aesthetic options for you, who gets to look at the tank every day. These hardscape materials can provide caves, anchor plants, or just be simply for fun. Just be sure that everything stands firmly in its place and won’t fall over and hurt your fish. And just like with the artificial plants, these hard elements should free from sharp edges and places where a betta can get stuck.

For substrate, there are gravels, sands, and soils available in different colors, grain sizes, and chemical functions depending on your needs. In addition to stabilizing your decorations, it is beneficial to use these in your tank because the substrate bed is one of the principal homes for the beneficial bacteria that helps keep the water safe and healthy for your fish.

An important detail that is often overlooked is the intensity of your aquarium light. Bettas come from dark-colored water that is dense with plant life. If there is intense light flooding the entire aquarium, you might notice that your betta will spend most of its time hiding. Since live plants are a popular choice for betta aquariums, you can utilize tall, leafy vegetation and floating plants to create shaded areas, or ensure that your other decor includes darker places for your betta to get out of the “sun” (otherwise you might find them sheltering under the filter or heater). There are also many varieties of plants that can thrive in a lower-light environment, allowing you to use gentler lighting overall. Fish don’t have eyelids, so they need darkness to know when to sleep. You can keep your tank light on for about 6 to 8 hours a day in order to create a day/night cycle without fueling excess algae growth with prolonged light exposure.

How do I clean my tank?

            Once your tank is completely cycled (we have an informative handout titled “Something to Know Before Buying Your First Fish” if you are unfamiliar with the process!) you will want to keep to a regular maintenance schedule. Good tank hygiene is not only important from an aesthetic point of view, but it is also vital to preserving your fish’s health. A dirty tank can cause ammonia spikes and sudden pH drops in addition to creating an environment where pathogens can flourish and infect your fish. When cleaning your tank it is important to use buckets, tubing, and sponges that you set aside only for aquarium use. Chemicals, soaps, and other impurities left behind on multipurpose supplies can contaminate your tank and put your fish at risk.

To maintain a healthy tank, you should alternate between cleaning your filter and vacuuming the debris out of your substrate. Many keepers start with a routine of performing one of these cleanings every two weeks, and then make adjustments to the schedule depending on how dirty they observe the tank to be. These tasks should not be done on the same day because this could cause over-depletion of your good bacteria. The good news about setting up a filtered aquarium is that you are not required to completely empty the tank with every cleaning. A typical filter or gravel cleaning will drain between 25 and 50% of the water, and you can clean the filter media right in the water you have removed (Never clean your filters in the sink. The chlorine and heavy metals in tap water will kill the beneficial bacteria living in the media). Removing water from the tank without disturbing your gravel or filter can be beneficial when dealing with cloudy water, water chemistry issues, or power outages. Be sure that any new water being added to the tank is free from chlorine and about the same temperature as the remaining tank water.

If the glass and decorations begin to grow algae, it is perfectly safe to wipe this away with your designated fish tank sponge. Algae is typically not harmful to your fish, but it can be unattractive to look at and may indicate that your tank has a buildup of wastes and nutrients that need to be removed with a water change. You can do your algae scrubbing right before changing the water so that you can remove dislodged algae with the water that will be discarded.

***You should keep tabs on your water chemistry and track how well you are cleaning by testing the water in your tank often. The presence of ammonia or nitrite in an established (aka not currently cycling) tank is cause for concern and necessitates immediate attention. High nitrate levels can indicate that it is time for a cleaning. We will test water samples for you in-store and help you interpret the results. If you are unsure how to perform these aquarium maintenance tasks, we can demonstrate for you on one of our tanks.

What do I feed my betta?

            Bettas are micropredators that feed primarily on small invertebrates. Their diet should be high in proteins to mimic their natural food sources. Tank-bred bettas respond well to dry food that floats on the water’s surface. Absolutely Fish Naturals betta pellets make a great daily staple food that you can supplement periodically with live blackworms and brine shrimp, size-appropriate frozen foods, and freeze-dried treats. You can start off with 3-5 pellets in a single daily feeding, and adjust the quantity and frequency of food based on your individual betta. Be careful not to overfeed. A betta can become swollen or bloated from too much food and develop digestion issues as a result, and excessive fish wastes and uneaten food can dirty the aquarium and necessitate more frequent cleanings.

Is my betta lonely?

            Many people feel bad about keeping a fish alone in a tank, because most of us wouldn’t want to be alone all the time. You can take comfort in knowing that bettas do not feel human loneliness. These little fish are perfectly content to have their safe, clean tanks all to themselves and prefer solitude to fighting for food and territory with other fish. This is not to say that you 100% cannot keep anything else with your betta if you want to, just that you don’t have to include tankmates for the betta’s sake.

When considering betta tankmates there are some important ground rules that you definitely want to adhere to. There should never be more than one male betta in an aquarium, and housing a male and female together is dangerous for both fish involved. Advanced keepers will sometimes keep groups of 5 or more females together in a “betta sorority,” but this requires a larger tank, confident knowledge of betta behavior and poor health warning signs, and the ability to separate fish that cannot get along with the rest of the group.

Most people will prefer to have their betta as the centerpiece fish of their community aquarium and surround it with small, peaceful fish that do not look anything like it. When considering adding a betta to a community, keep in mind that the tank should be much larger than what you would use to house a betta alone. A smaller tank means that the betta will encounter its tankmates more often, and it might get anxious and defensive if it feels like it doesn’t have space of its own. You should also be prepared that not every betta will respond well to tankmates, and not every community fish will get along with a betta. It may be necessary to remove your betta from the community tank and give it a private aquarium if everyone does not coexist peacefully.

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