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Diseases of the Siamese Fighting Fish, Betta splendens

By Bob Fenner

A nice xanthistic female Betta at the Aquarama Show in Singapore 09.
New Print and eBook on Amazon

Betta Success
Doing what it takes to keep Bettas healthy long-term

by Robert (Bob) Fenner


Though one of the most popular of aquarium species, likely second only to the goldfish, Betta splendens are to an enormous majority short-lived... killed off in captivity way before their time... largely from improper environment... to a lesser extent from improper nutrition/feeding... and next? From mis-medication by well-meaning aquarists. Actual deaths from pathogenic disease (bacteria, fungus, parasites) are in the very small minority of actual sources of mortality of Bettas.

    This short article is an attempt to label, identify and popularize the real reasons for this species troubles in human care... and to help you to avoid the overwhelmingly simple pitfalls to their loss.

It's THE Environment As In Environmental Stress & Disease:


    Make Mine Tropical: Betta splendens is a tropical fish... It lives in tropical water... in the upper seventies to eighties Fahrenheit.... Not in cold water, not in small volumes that vacillate wildly in terms of daily thermal range and water chemistry... This species if anything is TOUGH! But it cannot, will not live a quality life kept in cold, varying temperature circumstances. NOT. This fish can indeed live in small volumes of water... it is an obligate aerial respirator... needs to get to the surface to "gulp" air to breathe... though issues of diminished water quality need to be addressed in such tiny spaces. All Betta keepers should have an aquatic thermometer... and check their fish's water temperature... It should NOT drop below the low seventies F. and should NOT vacillate any more than 3-5 degrees in any given 24 hour period. As with your health, sudden and extreme changes in temperature (an environmental disease agent) weaken fishes resistance to other diseases.


    Make Mine Clean: Bettas are no dirtier than other tropical fishes, but they are often kept in totally unfiltered

 circumstances, or actually worse, ones that have no established "nitrogen cycling"... this last is absolutely critical... there are a few ways to "get going" this mix of useful microbes... most easily by moving water from another established freshwater system, having some live plants present, "old" conditioned gravel... there are even commercial products (some work, others are shams) that will magically "age" your system. However it is done, it is critical that your Betta's wastes be converted from the excreted and secreted (through the gills) ammonia, into nitrite and then nitrate... If not, your Betta is being poisoned... and yes, likely harmed... up to and including to the point of death. But, can't you simply dilute or change out all the waste water by changing it frequently? Yes... for one male Betta, in a nominal volume of a half gallon or so... if you religiously change all the water every 3-4 days, use conditioner (there is no need for distilled or other fancy water)... But, this isn't going to happen... the vast majority of people lack such discipline... or time.


    Make Mine Large: Super-Size Me If You Can: Yes, Bettas can live (for short whiles) in very small volumes of water... they are shipped in a mere teaspoon or two of water... and often displayed, sold in "Betta cups" and such.... They cannot, will not live long or quality lives in such settings. You see cars stacked next to each other on car lots, being offered for sale... but they don't "live" like this... Neither do Bettas. Larger volumes of water are inherently more stable... like living near the ocean or a large lake... water gives up and takes in energy more slowly than any other known substance... it mediates the environment and is in turn mediated by it... The point? By having a bigger space of water, temperature and water quality will not shift nearly as quickly or as much. How much is too little? Perhaps a gallon... but, "bigger is better". Oh, and an important note re death by jumping out... though they have long finnage, bettas can and do launch themselves out of containers... keep your water level low (a few inches) or a cover on your system.

    The popular "Betta Bowls", wall-mounted "Betta containers", "Betta Vase Set-ups"... are cruel hoaxes... If I could, I would have folks who promote, make such torturous devices be reincarnated as Bettas to live out their short, painful lives in these farces. Please don't cast your votes (by purchases) for such cruelty.  

Nutrition & Social Aspects of Betta Disease:


    Make My Diet Diverse: How nutritious, interesting is eating dried cereal for every meal? Not complete, not palatable. Yet, people feed "Betta Pellets" exclusively and wonder why their fish don't thrive. Do mix in, substitute some freeze-dried, sun-dried, frozen/defrosted, live... meaty foods occasionally. Small crustaceans, worms and insect larvae (Daphnia, Brine Shrimp, Glass Worms, Blood Worms... and many more) can make a huge difference in not only the color and behavior of your Betta/s, but their actual vitality. Short answer: No, they cannot live indefinitely on "just pellets". Remember, Bettas are carnivorous fish.


    Make My World Easygoing: Bettas, both male and female are not "brilliant" intelligent fishes, nor quick to prevent fin-nipping tankmates by biting their fins, eating all the food... They must need be housed with similarly peaceful livestock. Small tetras like Neons, small catfishes like Corydoras species, small livebearers like Endler's... are good choices... Feisty barbs, sucking Chinese Algae Eaters, all but the smallest cichlids... not. Male Bettas cannot be mixed, and only very large systems are suggested for mixing a male and female/s.

Actual Biological Disease: Rare:


    Given a decent, stable environment and proper nutrition, actual infectious (bacteria, fungus) and parasitic (protozoans on up) diseases of Bettas are exceedingly rare. Almost always the appearance of aberrant behavior and biological disease is predicated on deficiencies in their system, foods and general care. The two most common agents of disease with this species are "ich" or white spot, and velvet (aka Oodinium), though there are others...


    Ich! Ichthyophthirius multifilius ("Fish disease you can see with many children") is a protozoan (single-celled animal) that parasitizes most freshwater fishes. It appears as small, discrete (about pin head) white dots or spots on the fishes fins and body. This disease is easily treated with simply elevating water temperature to the mid to upper eighties F. (if your other livestock can tolerate this) and/or the addition of fish remedies made of malachite green, formalin or their combination. Some cautions re these compounds use... they may well be quite toxic to your other livestock, necessitating half doses... and you must remove chemical filtrants (e.g. charcoal/carbon) during their use.    


    Velvet/Oodinium, is a dinoflagellate algae that parasitizes many freshwater fishes, but Bettas and Killifishes are particularly prone... As the name implies, this disease appears as a sort of "velvety" coating on the host fish's bodies... often as a golden dust or "rust" (another of this diseases common names), that may be very hard to see unless the fish is brightly illuminated, and you glance it at an angle to its body. Other symptoms include rapid, heavy breathing and listlessness. This disease can be overcome in much the same ways as Ich... with elevated temperature and medications. Some authors encourage copper-based solutions (chelated rather than ionic are better), but I advise aquarists against copper use with Bettas (and most freshwater applications) as being too difficult to keep track of... sustain physiological doses. Instead, look to acriflavine or Methylene Blue as safe, effective treatments here.


    True Fungal Infections & Bacterial Fin Rot are almost exclusively "secondary" or "tertiary" in cause of disease... that is, they are opportunistic "decomposers" of very damaged, challenged fishes... Various writers encourage the use of antibiotics, anti-microbials, and preparations containing these. One such compilation is Aquatronic's BettaMax (250 mg capsules of water soluble Nitrofurazone, Methylene blue, PVP, vitamins, NaCl, and the Sulfas: Methazine, Diazine and Merazine). Other folks use just a Furan compound... added directly to their water. Again, simply changing water, raising temperature, adding a bit of salt... generally accomplishes the same if not better results.


    Body Bloat, Popeye: Though perhaps caused by several mitigating factors are treated the same... with the addition of Epsom Salt (aka Magnesium sulfate)... a level teaspoon per five gallons of water or equivalent should reduce swelling and help in passing blockage in the gut within a few days.  

Treatments & Mis-Treatments:

    First and foremost, if your Betta is acting "odd", hanging out at the top, bottom, not moving, showing signs of bloody marks, actual possible parasites... you should look to the environment for cause and cure. The old saw, "You don't get something for nothing" applies here... Bettas don't just "get sick" without something having gone awry in their world. Whatever "this" is, it needs to be addressed pronto. Almost always a quick water change, the addition of a bit of salt (uniodized sea salt is the best... about a level teaspoon per five gallons equivalent) will solve whatever is ailing them... along with restoring  their environment and nutrition. Beware that there are MANY "medications" targeted for Betta users... most all are more harm than cure... particularly in the hands of the unwary and uninformed. If you've found this article then please don't stop! Don't take my word for treatment regimens, nor just someone at a fish store... READ over the Net, books, magazine articles and MAKE up your own mind on how to proceed. But be advised: I assure you that many MANY more Bettas are "bumped off" by treatments than not...

    Again, where and when in doubt... change the water, add salt, elevate temperature.  




    Bettas will tolerate an amazing range of water quality... but not thermal swings experience in small volumes in non-tropical settings. These environmental factors are responsible for ninety some percent of Betta losses. A lack of nutrition makes up the rest of the cause of their loss, with a miniscule portion actually due to biological disease. Indeed, more Bettas are killed by well-meaning aquarists "treating" them than actual pathogens.


    As with all walks of life, endeavors, you should do your best to educate yourself in advance of "getting involved"... If you intend to keep a Betta, do so knowing what is actually involved... they need space, a homeostatic (heated, filtered) environment... or regular, twice-weekly water changes in gallon water containers in tropical settings... a mix of foods (not simply dry pellets), and your interaction to stay healthy.


    Well kept Bettas can live for four, four and a half, even more than five years in captivity... most live less than a month. The reasons are obvious. Keeping Bettas healthy is far easier than curing them.  


Bibliography/Further Reading:











http://www.bcbetta.com/Acclimatizing.html http://www.siamsbestbettas.com/ http://www.healthybetta.com/  

Anonymous. 1956. Fightingfish. TFH 3/4/56.

Bender, Nat. 1992. Health fish mean Betta sales in your store. The Pet Dealer 12/92.

Benn, John. 1993. Bettas- Custody, care and controls. An expert tells you how to do it. AFM 1/93.

Rainey, Arthur D. 1990. Soldiers of fortune. Betta sales can soar. Pet Age 2/90.

Saunders, Steve. 1988. The Betta revealed. AFM 12/88.

Tippit, Lovel and Joy. 2003. Timeline investigates: the great fighters of Siam, Betta splendens. FAMA 1/03.

New Print and eBook on Amazon

Betta Success
Doing what it takes to keep Bettas healthy long-term

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

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