Betta fish (Betta splendens), also known as Siamese fighting fish, are one of the most well recognizable tropical aquarium fish in the world.
Betta fish have risen through the ranks and achieved a position comparable to goldfish and guppies in the minds and hearts of many aquarists.
But, betta fish are also known as a somewhat fragile fish, and have this reputation because many betta fish die within days, or even hours of being purchased from a big box pet store.
If you are thinking about getting one of these magnificent fish, but are wondering how to be a responsible and ethical betta fish keeper, then this article is for you.
What Betta Fish Need To Thrive
Below, I am going to explain what your betta fish needs—from water quality to tank mates—and why so many betta fish do not survive their first week.
I will also outline everything you need to keep a betta fish successfully.
What Kind of Water Do Betta Fish Need?
The question, “do betta fish need distilled water?” is a common one.
The answer is no, in most cases.
While some species of wild type betta fish may benefit from re-mineralized distilled water, most betta fish purchased at a local pet store do well with conditioned tap water.
While betta fish can thrive in a variety of different tap waters make sure you cycle your tank before adding your fish.
And, when performing water changes, make sure the tap water is treated with aquarium conditioner before adding it to your tank.
What is cycled water? If you are new to the aquarium hobby you may have been told to let your fish tank sit for a couple week, or more, to let it cycle.
The cycling process in an aquarium begins when colonies of nitrifying bacteria start to establish themselves in the tank.
A fully cycled tank means that specialized bacteria can convert ammonia to nitrites, which are then converted to nitrates, which you, as the fishkeeper, remove with water changes.
If fish are added before nitrifying bacteria are fully established, too much ammonia and nitrites can quickly turn the water toxic and any fish added to the tank will die.
So, the answer to what kind of water do betta fish need is cycled water.
Before purchasing your betta fish, make sure your tank sits for at least two weeks, with the heater and filter running, and hopefully some aquatic plants as well.
The ideal water temperature for your betta fish is 76-78 degrees Fahrenheit (24.44-25.55 Celsius).
Do Betta Fish Need Water Conditioner?
In most cases, yes.
Each time I do a water change for my betta fish tanks, I use an aquarium water conditioner for the purpose of removing chemicals, like chlorine, and some heavy metals, from the water.
If you are using reverse osmosis water in your betta tanks then using water conditioner is likely unnecessary, but if you use tap water, like I do, adding aquarium conditioner is a good idea (better safe than sorry).
The conditioner that I use in my aquariums is API Stress Coat+
What Kind Of Tank Does A Betta Fish Need?
Betta fish do best in tanks of 3-10 gallons.
Even though we commonly see betta fish displayed in cups and jars, tanks holding less than 3 gallons provide little room for betta fish to exercise and water quality quickly degrades and becomes toxic in the cramped environment of a small container.
Tanks larger than 10 gallons are also not ideal.
While betta fish can thrive in larger tanks, they are not strong swimmers and typically underutilize the space in a large tank.
While larger tanks allow a betta fish to live with a greater variety of tank mates, I find that my betta fish is less stressed when kept alone in a smaller tank (like a 5 gallon), where I can closely monitor his feeding and care.
One of the better tanks, for a betta fish, that you can find on Amazon is the Landen rimless low-iron aquarium.
One other thing to keep in mind about betta fish is that they can be jumpers, so having a lid on your aquarium is crucial to preventing your fish from jumping out of the tank.
The Landen aquarium does not come with a lid or any other equipment, so buying those items separately is necessary.
If you don’t want to bother finding a lid, a great alternative to the Landen tank is MarineLand’s Contour Glass aquarium kit, which includes a lid and a light.
Besides having a lid, making sure to leave a small amount of space between the top of the lid and the surface of the water is also crucial because betta fish breathe atmospheric air.
Did I just say that a fish needs room to breathe air? Yes.
Betta fish are part of the suborder Anabantoidei, which means they possess a lung-like organ that allows them to breathe air at the water’s surface.
So, having space between the lid of your tank and the water’s surface is critical for your betta.
Do Betta Fish Need A Filter?
The short answer is no. Betta fish do not need a filter.
I have successfully kept betta fish in tanks without filters for years.
But, maintaining a betta tank without a filter is far more work than maintaining one with a filter.
So, in most cases, providing your betta fish with a filter is beneficial and worth it.
Not only do filters help remove waste, but they also provide a home for beneficial bacteria, including nitrifying bacteria, which help convert potentially harmful substances into less dangerous compounds.
So, the complete answer to whether betta fish need a filter is that they can be kept without a filter, but will benefit from having a filter in most cases.
The thing to avoid is keeping your betta fish in a bare bottom tank without a filter, where water quality can become toxic quickly.
The best filters for a betta fish, in my experience, are sponge filters.
Betta fish are not strong swimmers, so a strong hang on back filter can exhaust and stress out a betta.
Sponge filters provide only the smallest amount of water current, but are still effective at filtering waste and providing a place for good bacteria to colonize.
For smaller tanks, I prefer these sponge filters, but a variety of sizes and shapes are exist online.
Do Betta Fish Need A Bubbler?
A bubbler, sometimes referred to as an oxygen pump, helps aerate aquarium water and prevent stagnation.
While a bubbler can help improve water conditions, a better and more efficient way to improve water quality in your tank is to use a sponge filter.
Sponge filters provide the same benefits as a bubbler, but have the added advantages of mechanical filtration and a wide surface area for beneficial bacteria to grow.
Setting up a sponge filter is simple, just remove the air stone from your bubbler and attach the airline tubing to the top of the sponge filter.
If you are trying to decide between using a bubbler or a sponge filter for your betta tank, choose the sponge filter because it provides more benefits for your fish.
Do Betta Fish Need a Heater?
Yes. Betta fish do need a heater.
An exception would be if you live in a tropical climate, like Thailand, where water temperatures remain warm year round.
For the rest of us, using a heater in our aquariums is necessary.
The idea that bettas do not need a heater seems to stem from how bettas are displayed in many large pet stores.
People walking into those pet stores typically see bettas sitting in small cups without a filter and without a heater, which makes it seem like betta fish can live happily without either of those things.
But, that is simply not the case.
The big pet stores hope that the betta fish will sell quickly before succumbing to disease or stress.
The reason that most big pet stores keep betta fish in cups without heaters is that it would cost them significantly more to provide each betta fish his or her own properly sized tank and a heater.
Hopefully we can change that by educating betta fish owners and persuading pet stores to provide humane conditions for the tropical fish they sell.
If you need a heater for your betta fish tank, consider this Eheim Jager heater, it works well for me and is well reviewed.
Do Betta Fish Need Plants?
In their native habitats—small ponds and shallow bodies of water—vegetation and plant life is abundant, often making it hard to see into the water.
So, while betta fish do not strictly need plants for survival, they do benefit from having them in the aquarium.
Artifical plants are better than no plants at all, but real aquatic plants not only make your tank look stunning, they also help remove toxins from the water and provide a place for your betta fish to rest.
While growing live aquatic plants may seem intimidating for the beginner aquarists, a decent number of easy-to-care -or aquarium plants exist.
If you want to learn more about which plants are best for a betta tank, and which grow well under low light conditions, check out my article on the best plants for betta fish.
Do Betta Fish Need Gravel?
I have seen many examples of betta fish living in bare bottom tanks, or tanks without gravel covering the bottom.
But, I am still convinced that keeping a betta fish properly requires having a tank with gravel or substrate covering the bottom.
The reason substrate is so important is that each piece of gravel provides a place for millions of beneficial bacteria to colonize.
These bacteria help process waste and stabilize water conditions in your aquarium.
But tanks without gravel or substrate are at greater risk for instability and/or water conditions becoming toxic to aquatic life.
So, if you are serious about keeping a betta fish, put some substrate in his or her tank.
Also, it doesn’t hurt if the substrate is geared toward growing aquatic plants.
Even if you only use rhizome type plants in your tanks, having a substrate that contains nutrients can fertilize your plants over time.
My favorite substrate for betta tanks is Eco Complete.
If you want to learn more about which substrate are ideal for planted tanks, including betta tanks, check out my article on the best substrates for planted tanks.
Do Betta Fish Need a Light?
Betta fish do require a light.
Fish, like numerous other animals, do best on a consistent day and night cycle.
While it may not seem like it, fish do sleep.
Picking the best light for your betta tank will depend on whether you plan to keep aquatic plants in your aquarium.
If you do plan to grow plants in your betta tank, check out my article on the best LED lights for growing aquarium plants.
Do Betta Fish Need Exercise?
The idea of fish benefiting from exercise is a strange one, but one study (check out Walt Maurus’s A Complete Guide to Bettas) found that betta fish who were chased around their tanks with a stick lived significantly longer than bettas who were not forced to exercise.
While chasing your fish around the tank with a net or stick seems excessive, consider enticing your betta fish to swim back and forth at feeding time.
Betta fish quickly learn that you are the food provider, so use that to lure your betta from one end of the aquarium to the other.
Even this small amount of exercise may help your fish live a longer life.
Having a larger tank means that your betta fish will have more room to exercise, 5-10 gallon tanks provide enough room for exercise while still being compact and easy to maintain.
What Kinds of Food Do Betta Fish Need?
Fish food quality is not something many think about, but I suspect that quality food contributes to a longer life for your fish.
The three main categories of food for betta fish are dry, live, and frozen.
In the dry food category, a commercial betta pellet, like Hikari BioGold Betta Food, is an excellent daily food for your betta fish.
Freeze-dried foods, which I count as dry foods, are excellent supplemental foods for your fish.
Add them as a twice a week treat for your betta fish for enrichment.
Live foods are also stimulating for your fish, provoking the excitement of the hunt.
Betta fish will chase down worms as they fall toward the bottom of the tank before thrashing them around and sucking them down.
Live foods are great, but the main problem is keeping your them alive and producing more.
Red worms in particular are not my favorite because they smell and need to be rinsed constantly.
The best live food for betta fish are white worms.
White worms can be cultivated in a small container, and because they live in soil they do not turn into a putrid mess over time.
If live foods seem like too much work, consider supplementing your betta’s diet with frozen foods, which are easier to store than live foods and provide many of the same nutritional benefits.
The main downside to frozen foods is that each block of defrosted food is more than any single betta fish can eat.
So, make sure you have other fish, or animals, that can eat the extra worms that you defrost.
Do Betta Fish Need Tank Mates?
Do betta fish get lonely? I hear that question regularly, and the answer is likely no, at least not in the way we humans think of “lonely.”
Even in the wild, in small ponds filled with vegetation, male betta fish carve out territory for themselves.
In captivity, betta fish retain this trait, and will attack other betta fish or any other fish that seems threatening.
So, in general, betta fish are better off being kept by themselves.
But, if you want your betta to have a tank mate or multiple tank mates, be sure to do your research and pick the right kinds of tank mates for your betta.
You can find a list of compatible tank mates in my article on the best betta fish tank mates.
Betta fish are truly magnificent animals.
They are unrivaled in having both stunning colors and charming personalities.
It’s a true shame that so many betta fish experience deplorable conditions in pet stores across the US.
But I hope we can change that by showing others how to properly care for betta fish.
As a community of betta fish owners, we can continue to debate the absolute minimum size tank for a betta fish, and we may not ever reach an answer that applies universally, but I think we can agree that betta fish do not belong in cups.
So, I hope this article provides some guidance on what betta fish need to thrive.
If you plan to get a betta fish, make sure you give it a name that matches his or her personality and color.
And, if you want to learn about the differences between male betta fish and female betta fish, check out my article on male vs female bettas.
Finally, if you want to learn how to aquascape a tank for your betta fish, check out my article on creating a dragon stone aquascape for my betta.
As always, stay zen.