How to Take Care of a Betta Fish: History, Life Span, Feeding, and Tank Setup

PetMD Editorial
February 11, 2016
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The “Siamese fighting fish,” or betta (Betta splendens), is an undeniably unique fish.

Even amongst its “labyrinth fish” relatives such as gouramis (Family Anabantidae), the betta fish is a real standout.

Betta fish, which is actually pronounced “bet-tah” fish, not “bay-tah” fish, have long been clear favorites of novice and advanced aquarists alike. However, despite their popularity in the fish world, many people are still unfamiliar with their care requirements.

This stems, by and large, from (1) expectations that bettas can be maintained on the cheap and (2) widespread exaggerations of their hardiness. 

Here’s what it really takes to properly care for a betta, including their history, life span, feeding requirements, tank setup and ideal tank mates, so you can set your betta fish up to thrive.

Get to Know the Betta Fish

Betta fish naturally live across tropical Southeast Asia (especially Thailand) in small, warm, stagnant bodies of water.

Around 150 years ago in Thailand, betta fish started to become pets when kids would collect them from the rice paddies and place them together to watch them spar. As these contests grew in popularity, the King of Siam began to regulate and tax betta fish.

The betta fish gained European attention in 1840 when the King gave a few of them to a Danish physician named Dr. Theodore Cantor. He studied and bred them, and by the 1890s, betta fish were being imported into France and Germany.

The first betta fish didn’t enter the United States until 1910.

How Long Can Betta Fish Live?

The average betta fish life span is about 3-4 years.

But to help them live this long, you will need to provide them with the right fish tank, food, light, and mental stimulation.

Betta Fish Tank Setup

While many people may think that bettas can live in small bowls, this is actually very inaccurate.

No fish should be forced to live in a bowl.

The Myth of the Betta Fishbowl

The reason for this misconception is not entirely clear but seems to stem from the fact that the betta fish can breathe air and survive in oxygen-depleted environments.

They are able to do this due to their “labyrinth organ,” which allows them to breathe air to a certain extent. It also allows them to gulp food from the water surface without worrying about the air disrupting their swim bladder.

However, bettas don’t actually prefer small habitats, but rather, they use these environments to avoid their competitors and predators (which cannot survive there).

And bettas are still just as sensitive to the effects of ammonia exposure as any other fish species. They are actually prone to fin rot and other maladies—due to their long fins—and a poorly maintained or undersized fish tank can increase their risk or exacerbate an already developing issue.

So if you have a pet betta fish that’s protected from competitors and predators, wouldn’t you want to give them the extra space to thrive and not just survive?

Betta Fish Tank Size

The minimal tank size for a betta is 5 gallons. There is no such thing as too much swimming space, so you could even do a 10-gallon tank—just be sure that the tank is not super deep.

Since bettas are used to swimming left-to-right in shallower waters, a deep tank is not ideal for their habits.

You should also choose a standard square tank over a bowl. The rounded sides of bowls—and relatively small opening at the top—seriously limit filter options. And with bettas being so sensitive to bacterial maladies, it’s important their habitat have an effective filtration system.

Betta Fish Tank Temperature

Bettas are also very temperature sensitive, so an aquarium heater is a necessity, not an option, for betta fish.

The betta fish strongly prefers temperatures (78-82°F) that are even higher than most other tropical fish.

Betta Fish Food

Betta fish are carnivores. They actually survive by eating insects and larvae, so you will need to feed them a balanced fish food containing a lot of protein.

Betta fish can be fed flakes, pellets, or frozen foods that are specially made for them. These foods will contain the levels of protein that suit their needs.

How Much to Feed A Betta

Betta fish are not capable of sensing when they are full. In the wild, they are typically always on the search for their next meal, so it’s up to you to feed your betta fish the right amount of food.

You should feed your betta fish no more than twice a day.

There are two common rules for feeding a betta fish:

  • Only provide enough food for your fish to eat in 2 minutes. If you have a fish that dawdles when they eat, you can give them up to 5 minutes.

  • A meal portion should be equal to about 5% of a betta’s body size.

Betta Fish Temperament

While the betta fish might be referred to as the “Siamese Fighting Fish,” they’re not as mean as their reputation would suppose.

The moniker comes from the tendency of male bettas, which are highly territorial, to attack each other on sight. Male bettas have even been known to attack their own image in a mirror.

It should go without saying that this fish should not be housed with another betta (including females); bettas are just too grouchy with each other.

And although bettas are actually quite peaceful with other species, before you get them a tank mate, remember that they are truly unsocial and most certainly do not get “lonely.”

Should Betta Fish Have Tank Mates?

It is possible to keep bettas with other fish, although it’s not at all preferable.

The long fins of males make an especially tempting target for aggressive fish. Even little schooling fish, if nippers, can be a constant bane to a betta.

For this reason, bettas are best kept alone.

If you are set on getting them tank mates, the most compatible options are small, gentle bottom-dwellers such as Corydoras or khuli loaches.

If you do bring in tank mates, you should look into getting a larger tank to allow for adequate space for the fish. The common rule is 1 gallon of water per inch of fish. So starting at a 5-gallon or 10-gallon tank for your betta, you would need to increase the size for each new tank mate.

Set Your Betta Fish Up to Thrive

Bettas are attractive and charming. There are plenty of good reasons to want to acquire one as a pet.

However, they require the same amount of care and equipment as other fish. They should not be seen as low-maintenance alternatives.  

To the point, the only good reason to get a betta is because you really want a betta.

By: Kenneth Wingerter, Advanced Aquarist

Featured Image: iStock.com/ NatalyaAksenova