Bettas are one of the most popular aquarium fish out there. Unfortunately, they’re also one of the most notoriously badly kept aquarium fish out there. These myths are part of the reason for that. Welcome to Mythbusters: Dustin’s Fishtanks Edition (For a quick reference for best betta parameters, scroll to the bottom).
Myth #1: Bettas Like Tiny Tanks/Cups
Verdict: Absolutely not.
Starting off with the biggest (or, maybe the smallest) myth, we’ve all seen the wall of betta cups. At best, they look bored. More often, it’s outright depressing. The reason they’re kept in cups is not because it’s the best environment for them, but because you can’t keep male bettas together. It’s harder for stores with a bunch of bettas to maintain a few dozen tanks just to keep the fish separated, so the cups are a temporary solution until the bettas go on to bigger and better homes. It’s hotly debated whether even that should be allowed. Fortunately, pet stores are slowly improving their standards and are either selling fewer bettas in better setups or doing regular maintenance with the cups.
Myth #2: A vase/bowl with a plant is a low-maintenance ecosystem and perfect for a betta
This one is everywhere. The myth is that you can get a vase, put a betta in the bottom, grow a plant up top, the plant will filter the water, and the betta will eat the plant roots and fertilize the plant. In theory, it sounds amazing.
You know what they say about things that seem too good to be true. For starters, bettas don’t eat plant roots (see myth #6 below). And unless you have a giant vase, you’re dooming yourself right out of the gate. The smaller the container of water, the easier it is to change the water parameters and harm your fish. Which is faster to heat up or freeze? A thimble of water, or a stew pot of water? If you accidentally dump a bunch of ghost pepper in a big pot of chili, your unsuspecting dinner guests are less likely to notice it than if you dumped it right into their bowl. The same margin of error applies to tanks.
Bottom line: These kinds of systems aren’t very forgiving, and there’s no such thing as a maintenance-free fish.
Myth #3: “Bettas live in mud puddles in the wild so they need smaller tanks to keep from stressing out."
Verdict: You guessed it. No. Unless you look at this and think “puddle.” (If you do, please invite us to your your summer parties because your idea of a “pool” must be wild and we want to see that.)
Image source: Kanenori from Pixabay
Bettas come from the warm marshes, slow-moving streams, and rice paddies of Thailand and Cambodia. While it’s true their environment is shallower than other aquarium species, it’s a far cry from the half gallon tanks people like to keep on their desks. These are rich ecosystems with a lot of territory and thick vegetation, and your betta will benefit from more space.
Myth #4: Bettas have to live alone
Verdict: Not always.
It’s true you can’t keep two male bettas together, but one can be great in a community tank, especially with smaller and faster fish. Even if your betta does decide to go after one of them, it’s like watching Danny DeVito try to catch Usain Bolt. The caveat with this is making sure you do it right.
Most importantly: make sure everyone has enough space. When it comes to fish tanks, a good rule of thumb is bigger is betta - sorry, better. Having hiding spots, plants, etc. where fish can get away from each other is ideal. It’s also not a good idea to keep species with long, flowing fins (especially colorful ones) with bettas because they may mistake them for rivals. And no one wants to watch a vengeful betta zooming after a panicked, long-finned neon tetra that’s basically yelling “You’ve got the wrong guy!”
Additionally, you can make things easier on yourself by having the community tank first and then introducing the betta rather than introducing tank mates to what a betta has already established as his home turf.
Myth #5: “I can just start a betta sorority if I want more than one betta.”
Verdict: Kind of. But it's nitpicky.
A betta sorority is exactly what it sounds like: a tank with several female bettas. If you thrive on chaos, bring up betta sororities in a Facebook betta group. Some hobbyists swear they work. Some think they’re a time bomb.
A common misconception is that female bettas are less aggressive, so it’s easier to keep them together. This is sometimes true, but they’re just as capable of being vicious with each other as male bettas. There’s a reason bettas are also called Siamese fighting fish.
The caveat here is similar to the one in #4: sometimes it’ll work, but you have to set it up correctly. And even then, there are some female bettas that will murder any other betta in her territory no matter how careful you are. Bigger is better, make sure there are enough escape routes for the less dominant bettas, minimize stress by maximizing your standard of care, watch for bettas that are consistently bullying or being bullied, and make sure you introduce all the fish at the same time if you can. It’s not a project recommended for beginners because of how much you have to monitor.
Myth #6: Bettas will eat plants/plant roots
Verdict: You may see them nip at the leaves occasionally, but they don’t eat plants.
Bettas are obligate carnivores, which means they think “vegetarian” is a funny way of saying “bad hunter.” In the wild, bettas love mosquito larvae, insects on the surface of the water, and small crustaceans.They can’t digest plants and plants hold no nutritional value for them, so bettas are epic in tanks with live plants. They’re also used to swimming through a lot of plants in the wild, so you can help them thrive by simulating their natural environment. With the increasingly wide variety of colors and subspecies in bettas, you can create a gorgeous planted tank with a stunning fish at the forefront.
For a pop of color to go with the betta’s, there are tons of easy-to-keep red plants, like Ludwigia or Alternanthera.
Imagine this guy up against bright red and green. Yes please. Who needs art on the walls when you can have it in a tank? Dustin’s Fishtanks has the plants you can use to make it happen.
Image source: Rethinktwice from Pixabay
Myth #7: “My betta built a bubble nest, so he’s happy.”
Verdict: False. Your fish may be happy and also building a bubble nest, but it's not guaranteed just because he does.
A bubble nest is…well. It’s a nest of bubbles. Bettas have what’s called a labyrinth organ that enables them to breathe air. It also lets them blow bubbles on the surface of the water. When a male betta wants to mate, he’ll blow bubbles using the labyrinth organ until it forms a big group of them. When the female betta spawns, the male betta will place and guard the eggs in the bubble nest. A female doesn’t have to be present for a male betta to build one. Sometimes, they’ll just do it for no reason. Other bettas will never build a bubble nest. It’s not a good way to determine whether he’s happy or healthy because they’re so sporadic with them.
It’s not a good idea to anthropomorphize animals too much, but it works to explain this. Ever had the urge to mate even though you’re in unhealthy, unhappy, or less than ideal conditions? Yes? Enough said.
Myth #8: Bettas just need water - forget about a heater or a filter
Verdict: In most cases, not true
Like I said in Myth #3, bettas come from warm, shallow waters. Unless you have your tank in an environment that consistently stays between 75-80°F, you’re going to need a heater for your betta to thrive. As far as the filter goes, a lot of the myths about not needing one come from the fact that bettas have the labyrinth organ I mentioned. People often assume because they can come to the surface to breathe, it doesn’t matter how off their water parameters are. It’s true that this makes bettas more forgiving, but it’s not an excuse to not give them the best environment you can. You can keep one without a filter, but to keep him happy and healthy it’s going to be a lot more work on you because of more frequent water changes, water testing, etc. We’re all about making things easier, but it’s up to you.
Myth #9: Bettas aren't good for beginners
Verdict: These fish have gotten a lot of people started in the aquarium hobby - and for good reason.
If bettas were plants, they’d be the flowers you see growing up through cracks in the concrete. One reason they’re so popular is they’re incredibly tough, easily accessible, and reasonably inexpensive (depending on breeding, color, etc.) I’ve seen bettas survive as office pets, classroom science projects, and kids’ room decor. If that isn’t a testament to their hardiness, what is? You should obviously do your due diligence and give them the best care you can. But if you mess up, they’re more likely to give you a grumpy look through the tank glass than up and die on you.
Image source: Danny de Brunye from Pixabay
Myth #10: “It’s just a fish/it can’t feel pain/it isn’t smart enough to worry about.”
Verdict: *distant fish laughter from the ones who are often smarter than some people*
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has published a slew of research on this: fish do experience stress, and it is likely they do feel pain. The way they experience “pain” may be different than how humans do, but they still possess anatomical features that suggest it happens.
There’s also research that indicates bettas are intelligent. They’re capable of learning and remembering, and they recognize their owners. Some people have taught them tricks like jumping through a hoop. I had a betta who loved playing underwater soccer with a floating ping pong ball. Others have played with their bettas by moving their fingers by the tank or even drawing on the tank glass with erasable marker. They’re naturally curious, brave, and just fun-to-watch fish. But people who have had bettas before didn’t need the research to tell them all that.
Tank size: At least 5 gallons.
Heater/Temp: You’ll see some variation in sources on this. Overall? Consensus is between 75-80°F. Ish. There are a lot of inexpensive, preset heaters already set to 78°F, so that’s nice and easy. It doesn’t have to be exact, but somewhere in that area.
Filter: Yes, unless you want to do water changes all the time. Find the filter size recommended for your tank. It’d be a good idea to get one with a gentle flow if possible, too, because bettas’ fins are long and delicate. If the filter flow gets too strong, your betta starts looking like he’s in the cyclone from Wizard of Oz.
Food: Bring on the meats. Bettas don’t eat plants. Frozen/thaw food like brine shrimp is great. Insect/animal based dried foods are good, too. They also love bloodworms as a treat. Don’t overfeed them - they will eat whatever food you put in there, but it doesn’t mean they’re still hungry. You don’t want them to get bloated or throw off your water parameters. Feeding every other day has always worked well for me.
Accessories: Live plants are awesome, rocks/driftwood, hiding places, etc. They’re smart and funny fish - they’ll definitely interact with the stuff in your tank.
Other housekeeping things: Be sure to cycle the tank, properly acclimate your betta to his new home, quarantine as needed if you’re introducing to other fish, have a tank lid or a lower water level (because they can jump), and don’t keep male bettas together.
Want more betta content? Check out Dustin’s YouTube channel for tons of cool fishtank videos!
Know what you want to see next? As always, let us know, and tank on!