Bettas or Siamese fighting fish stay at the top of an aquarium for a variety of reasons. They could be waiting for food, resting, or making a bubble nest. As long as they are not showing any signs of sickness or distress, staying at the top of the tank is all right.
Top Reasons Why Bettas Stay at the Top of the Tank
Your betta stays at top of tank because:
- They’re sleeping.
- They’re cold.
- They’re waiting for food.
- They’re making or have made a bubble nest.
- They’re sick.
Signs that a Betta Fish is Asleep
Bettas sleep up to 14 hours a day, according to veterinarian Claudine Sievert. They mainly sleep at night, but also take naps during the day. Here’s how to tell if your betta is napping:
- Their color is paler than usual.
- They will get into their usual sleeping position. This position differs from fish to fish. Some will curl up a little on their sides. Some will press their fins to their sides. Some will keep their fins open.
- The mouth and gills will move much slower than usual.
Note – not all Siamese fighting fish will sleep at the top of the tank. Some will sleep at the bottom. It’s important to know what the normal body position is and place in the aquarium where they usually sleep. This way, if your betta deviates from this behavior, you know something is wrong.
Signs a Betta is Cold
Forget about keeping bettas in bowls. That water gets far too cold for bettas. These are tropical fish that need temperatures of 78 to 80 degrees F. This means they need a tank with a heater.
Bettas can only survive in cold water, or water less than 78 degrees F, up to six months, but they usually die much sooner than that. If your betta is too cold, he or she will show these signs:
- The betta will not move much, and generally just hang at the top of the tank. Some bettas will go to the bottom of the tank to sleep all of the time. Where the betta hangs out depends on the fish’s individual sleeping preference.
- The betta will have pale coloring.
- The betta will not eat much. Since the betta isn’t moving about like normal, the appetite will be greatly decreased. Their digestive systems also slow down in colder water, making them more prone to getting sick with illnesses like swim bladder disease.
- If you have a heater, he or she will stay close to the heater.
Make sure you have an aquarium thermometer to make sure the heater is working. It’s good to have an extra heater available at all times, should the first heater stop working.
Signs a Betta is Waiting for Food
Bettas are intelligent fish. They learn quickly that if you walk up to their tanks, it’s most likely because you’re going to feed them.
If your betta is at the top of the tank a lot, or if he or she goes to the top soon after you walk up to the tank, the betta is expecting food.
Bettas may seem to dance at the water surface, twisting and turning, trying to get you to feed them. Many bettas will just wait at the surface, often with their heads pointed up, trying to give you the hint.
Try to stay more often in the room where the betta’s aquarium is, so the betta gets used to you being around and not feeding him or her. This way, he or she should start exploring other parts of the tank.
Bettas and Bubble Nests
You go to your betta’s tank and see a patch of bubbly foam on the surface. Directly underneath is your male betta.
He has made a bubble nest. This is an ingenious device for keeping betta eggs and newborn fry in. When the female releases eggs, the male fertilizes them, then quickly dives to the bottom of the tank, picks up the eggs in his mouth, and spits them into the bubbles of the nest.
Male bettas instinctively build bubble nests, even without a female present. The presence of bubble nests is a good sign that the betta is healthy.
Bubble nests break apart easily, so there may be several small patches of bubbles. Bubble nests vary greatly in size and shape, depending on the betta.
Signs of a Sick Betta
Sick bettas may lay at the bottom of the tank, or stay right at the top. Look for other signs of sickness. These include:
- Gasping for air.
- Pop-eyes, or eyes bulging out more than usual.
- White fuzz on the body or fins.
- Torn or damaged fins.
- Keeping the fins clamped to the sides of the body.
- Lying on one side.
- Raised scales, sometimes making the betta look like a pinecone.
- Bulging abdomen.
If your betta is clearly sick and in a community aquarium, he or she should be taken out and placed in a small hospital tank. This tank needs to be at least one gallon large, with a filter and a heater.
If your betta is in his or her own tank, do a 50% water change right away. This helps make the water quality better. Turn the lights off to prevent stress.
If your fish is clearly suffering from a disease, then you need to treat the tank with medication, depending on the disease. The most common disease to make a betta float on the water surface is swim bladder disease.
Treating Swim Bladder Disease
Swim bladders help keep fish the right way up. With swim bladder disease, they tend to stay sideways, float in a C-shape on the top of the tank, and struggle to swim. Sometimes, bettas will stay curled on their sides on the bottom of the tank.
Do not feed your betta for two days. Amazingly, bettas will still be able to eat while curled on their sides. Constipation often causes swim bladder problems, so any more food in the digestive tract makes things worse.
When you next feed your fish, feed only cooked peas. This helps clean out the betta’s digestive tract.
Remove hard ornaments from the tank, but keep plants or soft silk artificial plants. The betta may get hurt accidentally swimming into ornaments while trying to get right side up.
If fasting and peas do not work, do water tests. Shock from a sudden change could be the cause. Keep the lights out to keep the fish relaxed. Check to see that the heater and filter are working. Slowly raise the temperature to 80 degrees F.
Note: new fish are often prone to shock. Always float the bag a new fish is in for at least 30 minutes, adding a little aquarium water at a time, before tipping the new fish into the tank.
If you are going to change the gravel or substrate, never remove all of the old substrate. Keep a small amount. This retains beneficial bacteria. It also helps prevent shock.
Another cause of swim bladder disease is a bacterial or parasitic infection. Try a general medication for parasites to see if this helps.
So, Why Do Bettas Stay at the Top of the Tank?
Betta fish staying at top of tank because they are sleeping, the water is too cold, they are waiting to be fed, they are making a bubble nest, or they are sick.
Be sure to observe your betta every day to find out his or her normal behavior. Any change from this can let you know right away that the betta is sick or something is wrong with the water.
If you want to learn more about betta tanks, please visit our collection of articles here.
About the author
Hi, I am Rena.
I grew up in a house surrounded by fish tanks.
I have spent my life caring for and writing about fish.
I have studied journalism and worked for online and print magazines.
You can find the articles I wrote here