Should Fish Live in a Bowl?

Adam Denish, DVM
By Adam Denish, DVM on Sep. 13, 2016

By Adam Denish, DVM

I had finally done it. Each year at the school carnival, we could try to win a goldfish by throwing a ping pong ball into a small glass bowl. At the age of eight, I was allowed to have a chance. After two throws that went bouncing around the table, my last attempt was a winner. “Congratulations,” the game attendants said, then quickly netted a small goldfish and packaged him up in a plastic bag of water.

Herbie spent the night in a plastic container. Over the weekend, my father picked up a glass fish bowl, a small bridge and some blue gravel. We cleared a spot on a side table and Herbie lived in that bowl for about two years. We would laugh at Herbie’s silly antics as he kept manically swimming circles around the bowl. Sometimes I dropped too many food flakes into the bowl or even forget to feed him. When the bowl became so cloudy that we couldn’t see Herbie very well, it was time to change his water. 

While Herbie in his fish bowl is a nostalgic sweet memory, present day fish-owning has expanded, producing a variety of options for housing just one fish or an entire underwater community. While the simplicity of keeping a fish in a bowl may appeal to those hesitant to commit to pet ownership, educating yourself on the best housing appropriate for the fish you select is a necessary first step before bringing home a finned friend.  

Can Fish Live in Bowls?

While it is possible for a fish to survive in a bowl of water, consideration should be given to the quality of that fish’s life. Educate yourself first before any purchase to make sure you understand your responsibilities as a pet parent.  As an exotics veterinarian, I try to convince consumers to give all animals, including fish, the best life possible. Like other animals, fish breathe oxygen and release carbon dioxide, using their gills to extract oxygen from the water. In nature, the action of currents and photosynthesis by aquatic plants replenishes oxygen levels in water continually. Waste products are cycled naturally by bacteria, as well as a host of other creatures that serve as decomposers.

While replicating the conditions of a river or stream would be difficult to do in captivity, using an electric-powered filter helps to address the basic needs of providing oxygen in the water and removing waste products. Filters operate with a replaceable activated carbon bag or cartridge that cleans the water chemically and biologically by removing organic waste and harboring beneficial bacteria. Using a filter in your fish’s habitat will improve its living conditions immensely.

There’s a Filter for That

Whether you are looking to place a small, one-gallon-sized tank in your child’s bedroom or a large 300-gallon-sized tank in your living room, there are simple and very complex systems suitable for your situation. There are even filters made to fit a fish bowl. The size and kind of filter will depend on the size of the tank. Be sure to purchase a filter that matches the number of gallons that the aquarium holds to get the proper flow rate measured in GPH (Gallons Per Hour). As a general rule, the water in the tank should be processed five to ten times per hour. Filters can be under the gravel bed, in the corner of the tank or hanging in the back of the tank. 

Ideal Fish for Small Aquariums

If you are ready to take the plunge into fish ownership, use the guideline of one gallon of water per inch of fish (this does not take into consideration the requirements of more aggressive fish or the number of decorative pieces in your tank). Fish need space to swim, find food and hide, so allow more than the standard amount of water for the size of your fish. Betta fish are beautiful in color and classically sold as solo fish that can live in a small, filtered aquarium. Males are aggressive and must be kept alone or with small peaceful fish. There are various small housing options available to make a beautiful living space for a Betta.

Guppies, mollies and platies are small fish that can also live in a small space. These freshwater species travel in schools and easily breed in a home aquarium. If breeding fish is of interest to you, be sure to have enough space for the fry (baby fish) to hide or have a nursery tank available. Tetras are attractive fish that come in a variety of colors and prefer to be housed in groups of five or more. They are slightly more sensitive to water quality, so a filter is a must.

We can’t leave out the goldfish as an appealing choice for a small aquarium owner, either. If Herbie were in my care today, I would equip his home with a filter, as goldfish produce large amounts of waste. Goldfish have been bred to have interesting traits such as fancy tails and bulgy eyes and they can grow to be six inches in length. Goldfish are hardy and forgiving of many mistakes made by new fish owners, making them a terrific introduction to the aquarium hobby. As proof of this today, I am caring for a 350-gallon saltwater aquarium – quite a step up from the simple fish bowl.

S-F via Shutterstock 

Adam Denish, DVM


Adam Denish, DVM


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