By Dr. Becker
Aquatic animals, including fish, are the most popular pets in the U.S. if you calculate popularity based on the number of owned pets.1 Sadly, many spend their days silently circling mundane fish bowls that are undersized or improperly prepared.
Many also start out unhealthy and disease-prone because of overbreeding and selective breeding to create a certain aesthetic feature like long fins, bubble eyes or a round belly.2
Despite advances in many areas of animal welfare, fish are still widely regarded as ornamental and throwaway pets. But these creatures are far more complex than many people realize and are deserving not only of basic ethical treatment but also far more, including veterinary care, enrichment and stimulation.
Would You Seek Veterinary Care for Your Fish?
A commentary published in Clinician’s Brief brought up some important points about the ramifications of viewing ornamental fish as just that — mere “decorations” for your office or child’s bedroom.3 For starters, many fish owners do not seek veterinary care for their fish because they don’t know it’s available — or that they should.
In fact, when asked about fish conditions, some veterinarians, lacking in appropriate treatment options or know-how, may refer clients to pet stores, who may in turn give out inaccurate information in response.
As a result, “concern for the welfare of pet fish may not extend past their perceived economic value.” As noted by Clinician’s Brief, more research is needed into ornamental fish and there should be more education available for retailers, hobbyists and even veterinarians in the realm of fish medicine. In addition:4
“Pharmaceutical companies have not kept pace with advances for fish as for other companion species, and a proliferation of inexpensive over-the-counter treatments, how-to articles and general misinformation leads to sick fish often being treated (or mistreated) with chemicals and even invasive home surgeries without a proper diagnosis.
Protracted and unnecessary suffering often results. Prejudices and misconceptions may suggest that fish-welfare issues are grossly underreported.”
Why It’s Important to Consider the Needs of Your Fish
Many are surprised to learn that fish have “needs” beyond water and daily food, and that’s precisely the point. The fact that fish can feel pain, show emotions and “talk” using a wide range of communicatory methods is not widely known, though it should be — especially by those who choose to have fish as pets.
As reported in the journal Animal Cognition, there is a large gap between people’s perception of fish intelligence and the scientific reality, which is that fish have perception and cognitive abilities that rival, or exceed, that of other vertebrates.5 Fish, for instance:6
- Perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously (a trait that was once believed to exist only among humans)
- Recall the location of objects using “feature cues” (which humans figure out how to do around age 6)
- Have excellent long-term memories
- "Cooperate with one another and show signs of Machiavellian intelligence such as cooperation and reconciliation”
- Use tools
Culum Brown, Ph.D., associate professor at Macquarie University in Australia, who authored the Animal Cognition review, said in an interview with the Huffington Post:7
“The big issue here is that people don’t treat fish the same way as they do other animals. It’s complicated, but it boils down to the fact that most people just don’t understand them and can’t relate to them. If you don’t have that connection, you are less likely to feel any empathy …
Fish are similar to humans in so many ways. This is the message we need to get across … My mission in life is to make people think about fish as something other than food.”
10 Common Fish Owner Mistakes
Many fish owners do strive to take good care of their pets, but misinformation may lead to sick or stressed-out animals. Here are some top mistakes, compiled by PetMD, that many fish owners make:8
This may lead to excess waste, which in turn can interfere with water quality. A general guide is to feed fish the amount of food they consume in three minutes. Remove any excess with a net.
Scavengers like crabs can also help to clean up uneaten food. Be aware that not all fish feed the same way; some fish do better with two smaller feedings a day while others like to nibble plants.
Some fish scavenge for their food while others hunt, for instance. Consider the use of puzzle feeders and sinking feeders, or live prey, if applicable to your fish species.
2. New Tank Syndrome
Before adding fish to a new tank, bacteria must build up to process the nitrogen compounds in fish waste. Certain additives can be found to assist in this process, as can adding sand or gravel from an established healthy tank.
You should have water samples tested by an aquarium store to be sure you’ve got the right balance.
3. Mismatching Fish Species
Fish have different personalities and not all get along well together. It’s very important to be aware of whether the fish species you choose are known for being aggressive.
Aggressive fish can bully or fight more passive fish, even to the point of death or starvation (in which a fish is too frightened to come out of hiding to eat).
In general, fish need 1 gallon of water per inch of fish. Aggressive fish need double that amount, and be sure to take into account rocks and decorations, which, though important, take up valuable swimming space.
5. Vacation Care
If you leave for vacation, your fish need to be cared for while you’re away, just like other pets. In addition to carefully letting a pet sitter know how much food to feed, be sure to prepare the sitter for what to do in the event of tank issues and how to check water temperature.
6. Temperature Control
You’ll need to install a thermometer to monitor water temperature, which should generally be between 68 and 76 degrees F, depending on the species of fish. Be aware that drafts and sun can change the temperature of the tank, and smaller tanks are more vulnerable to rapid temperature shifts than larger tanks. Be vigilant in monitoring water temperature.
7. Overlooking Disease
If your fish is showing signs of disease, via appearance or changes in habits, transfer him to a quarantine tank and seek veterinary care.
Oftentimes, a new fish added to the tank may be a source of disease. Before new animals are added to an existing tank, a quarantine period of 21 to 28 days is recommended. To help relieve stress during the quarantine, a hiding spot (such as PVC pipe or stacked rocks) should be provided and water quality and temperature should be maintained.
Successfully caring for an aquarium takes daily care and regular maintenance. Make a point to mark maintenance needs on your calendar or use tools like automatic feeders or water-quality probes to help you stay on track. You can even track the water quality of your aquarium right on your computer via wireless monitoring devices.
9. Being Impatient
Building a healthy and beautiful aquarium doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to research and build the correct mix of fish, plants and ornamental objects, as well as learn how to monitor water quality and conduct maintenance. Acting impulsively may lead to choices that could harm your fish.
10. Using Tap Water
The water from your tap is treated with chlorine that can harm fish. Water for your tank must be treated with chlorine-removing tablets. Also be sure to avoid using soap in your aquarium. Most cleansing can be done with hot water and a small amount of bleach that’s thoroughly rinsed off.
Finally, provide non-toxic items for your fish to explore — plants, rocks, structures, ceramic objects and more — and change them regularly to provide new stimulation. Then, enjoy getting to know each of your fish. Many enjoy interacting with their owners and can learn to recognize you and even perform tricks.
If you decide ornamental fish sound like pets you may be interested in keeping make sure to only purchase captive-bred fish; leave wild fish in the ocean, where they belong.