Bettas are one of the most popular fish in the aquarium trade today and have been for several hundred years. Their charming personalities, bright coloration, and relatively small space needs make them an excellent choice for beginners and experts alike.
The sheer variety of finnage makes them even more attractive. I myself have had everything from halfmoon bettas to crowns, double tails, and standards. Keeping and breeding bettas remains enjoyable, no matter how experienced you are.
However, betta fish care has a ridiculous amount of myths surrounding it. One being that bettas are highly aggressive and another being that they’ll happily eat fellow tank inhabitants. Another myth is that, because bettas can breathe atmospheric air, they only need a small space without filtration and heating.
In this betta care guide we’ll take a closer look at how to keep happy, healthy bettas, including:
- Their origins and natural habitat
- What they look like
- How to house them
- What to feed them
- Their temperament and potential tank mates
- Planted tanks for bettas
- And much more!
Since we have a range of articles about bettas, some sections will have a comprehensive overview, while others will have a brief look into the topic and then link to more advanced articles. Let’s get into it.
Betta Fish in a Nutshell
Origin: South-East Asia, including Cambodia and Thailand
Natural Habitat: Rice paddies and other small water bodies
Size: 2½ to four inches
Temperament: Males are aggressive towards each other, and towards fish with similar coloration
Tank Size: At least five to ten gallons
Water Parameters: 75-82°F, Soft water (50-100 mg/l), slightly acidic (6.5-7.5 pH)
Water Changes: Weekly water changes of around one quarter; monthly water changes of around one-half
Lifespan: Two to four years, but up to ten in exceptional cases
Betta Fish: Background and Origin
The betta fish, Betta splendens, belongs to the family Anabantidae in the suborder Anabantoidei. All the fish in this suborder have an organ called a labyrinth organ which allows them to convert atmospheric air into usable oxygen.
Siamese Fighting Fish, King Bettas, and Giant-type Bettas, commonly known simply as betta fish, originate in Southeast Asia. Originally, they inhabited rice paddies and other small bodies of water. Due to human intervention, however, they now have a far wider distribution and scientists are at a loss as to their original range.
Betta fish, along with their relative the paradise fish, are some of the fish that have been kept the longest. Historical records show that keeping and fighting plakat, or fighting fish, dates back to the 1800s.
Fun Fact: Historically, the word plakat simply referred to any type of betta kept in Southeast Asia. The meaning of the word is “fin biter,” and referred to the fact that bettas were originally kept and bred for use in fish fighting. Today, the word plakat is generally used for more aggressive strains, and those still used for fish fights.
Modern-day betta males have elaborate finnage with intense coloration. This is the result of intense breeding for size, coloration, and finnage. Wild-type bettas originally resembled their relatives, Betta pallifina or possibly Betta smaragdina.
Betta pallifina has muted coloration, rounded fins, and small size. The original Betta splendens may have been slightly less muted than we think, as in the case of Betta smaragdina.
Unfortunately, due to releases by breeders over the years, the wild type of Betta splendens has been removed from the face of the Earth.
Appearance and Color
Today, thanks to years of intentional breeding, Betta fish come in a range of colors and sizes. On average, they’re around 2½ inches long, though some varieties may reach up to four inches in length.
Females generally have less vibrant coloration than males, and also have shorter rounded fins.
Males have finnage that comes in an astounding array of shapes and sizes, including:
You can even find varieties that seem more “standard” or have rounded tails, like these:
Betta varieties are a topic unto themselves, though, so we’re not going to delve further into that in this article.
Temperament and Compatibility
Betta fish have a somewhat undeserved reputation for aggression. Betta fish males are aggressive toward one another, and sometimes toward fish with similar coloration.
While two male fish might fight to the death, and males may argue with similarly-colored fish (or even mirrors), they’re usually quite placid towards other fish.
In most cases, their long, flowing fins tend to make male bettas the victims of bullying, rather than being bullies themselves. That said, there’s always some margin for error and one fish may have a lot more innate aggression than the next.
You can keep female, and even male, bettas comfortably in community aquariums as long as you keep them with similarly-sized, peaceful fish that don’t nip fins.
Betta Tank Mates
Thanks to their undeserved reputation for aggression, there’s some confusion as to what you can keep with betta fish.
Some excellent companions include:
Companions that we wouldn’t recommend keeping with betta fish include:
- Tiger barbs
- Red Tail Shark
- Ghost shrimps
There’s a long list of fish to keep with bettas, and a longer list of fish to avoid. As a rule of thumb, aim for peaceful fish that aren’t larger than the betta, and don’t have nippish tendencies.
Peaceful bottom feeders like Corydoras are particularly good companions for bettas since they occupy a different layer of the water column. Bettas are mainly mid-level fish, so keeping them with bottom-dwellers helps limit their interaction.
Betta fish prefer many hiding places, and many can be quite shy and unobtrusive. They’re not fond of stressful environments (like tanks with little vegetion or ornamentation) and can easily get stressed out by too much movement around their tank.
Some studies have shown that Bettas can experience music, which is fascinating, but it’s likely that many other fish can as well.
Some people believe that bettas have truly sparkling personalities. Other people believe they’re more like guppies with long, flashy fins.
Personally, I think bettas are quite smart. They’re quick to learn when food is coming, and they can easily learn certain other behaviors (like eating fish pellets off your finger).
I’d say that if you want a fish that shows personality beyond breeding displays and beautiful fins, you’d be better off getting a puffer fish, or one of the medium-sized cichlids.
Fish like Jack Dempseys, Discus, and Pea Puffers make a habit of interacting with people, and Parrot Fish can even learn to recognize their owners.
Male Vs. Female Betta Behavior
Male bettas and female bettas differ significantly in appearance. Males have long, flowing fins (though not in all cases) while females have short, rounded fins.
Males will often interact with their own reflections, or if they can see other males, by gill flaring. This means that they puff out their gills in an attempt to make themselves look larger. Females rarely interact with other fish, and will often ignore you altogether, preferring the safety of a hiding place.
Some males are exceptionally bold, and will interact with you, but these males are usually the more aggressive types, and merely consider you a threat.
One of the more interesting things about betta behavior is that male bettas will build bubble nests even in the absence of females. If your betta is healthy, he’ll almost certain start blowing bubbles somewhere at the water’s surface, provided that the water isn’t too turbulent.
When the nest is finished, the pair of bettas will spawn underneath it, releasing many eggs that look just like the bubbles, except that they’re white.
In all fairness, bettas live to do three things: eat, fight for the right to breed, and breed. They’re more ornamental than interactive. That said, some people truly love their quiet displays of beauty, and appreciate their bubble-building immensely.
For this reason, and so they can see the full interaction between male and female bettas, many owners will keep one male with two to three females.
Some people even go as far as keeping a sorority tank, containing only a group of females. Unfortunately, without the attitude and showy fins of the males, females can be calm, unobtrusive fish. A sorority tank would be best with a few colorful companions to add visual interest, and goad females into more interaction.
Buying and Introducing New Betta Fish
When you’re looking to buy a betta fish, look for a fish that:
- Has vibrant coloration, muted colors may be indicative of disease
- Seems active and well-conditioned
- Isn’t extremely skinny, or bloated
- Eats readily, and has a healthy appetite
- Doesn’t have skin spots, tumors, or signs of parasites
Once you’ve found a healthy fish, you’re ready to take it home and get it settled in. Let’s take a look at how to introduce your fish with the least risk of disease.
Having a quarantine setup is one of the most important things when introducing new fish to your aquariums. You should have a relatively bare tank (so it’s easy to clean) that replicates the conditions in the main aquarium.
Use a decent filtration system, and a heater set to the same temperature as the main aquarium. Keep any new fish in this setup for two weeks, keeping watch for and treating any symptoms of disease or parasites.
If, after two weeks, the fish seems healthy you can introduce it to the main aquarium.
The 20-Minute Float
Whenever you move a fish from one aquarium to another, reducing stress is vital. To do this, you need to compensate for minor differences in the temperature of the two aquariums. Place the fish in a jar or Ziploc bag containing water from the quarantine tank.
Then, float the fish upon the main aquarium for 20 minutes. This allows the water in the bag to match the exact temperature of the water in the tank. Then, use a net to remove the fish and place it in the aquarium. You can return the water in the jar or bag back to the quarantine tank.
Betta Fish Tank Setup
Setting up a betta tank isn’t hard, though the idea of keeping them in bowls or vases isn’t ideal. It’s like living on ice cream. You could probably do it, and stay pretty healthy for months. But, eventually, it’s going to catch up to you, and it won’t be good for you.
Check out our article full of betta fish tank ideas to help you plan the best betta tank ever. Until then, let’s take a closer look at their general needs.
Contrary to popular belief, the best betta tank size is at least five gallons. While bettas can breathe atmospheric air using something called a labyrinth organ, they still do best in well-maintained water (which is easier to do with larger aquariums). A human could survive in a small, single room indefinitely, but it won’t give them a great quality of life.
As for specific tank dimensions please refer to our article Long vs Tall vs Cube aquariums
Betta fish have been kept in captivity for centuries, and are quite adaptable. However, if you want them to live their best lives, then there are a few water parameters you’ll need to maintain.
For any fish, if you’re using tap water, letting water sit for 24 hours is beneficial. Otherwise, you can use a dechlorinating liquid to remove chlorine and chloramine from the water.
Since bettas prefer softer water, you probably want to consider using spring water or reverse osmosis water instead. In addition to water hardness, the tank’s pH is quite essential. Aim for a Betta tank pH of between 6.5 and 7.5.
Finally, betta fish prefer a temperature range of between 75°F and 82°F. You can easily accomplish this with a small, inexpensive aquarium heater.
While the substrate isn’t as important to betta fish as it would be to a bottom dweller, it can still make a difference. If you look at betta substrate in the wild, it would be a mixture of peaty organic matter and sandy soil.
So, while sand would work quite well for a betta, a decent planted aquarium substrate might be good as well. It can potentially help to lower the pH slightly and open doors to do a planted aquarium.
Your betta fish will benefit from good lighting. We like to recommend full-spectrum LED lights for betta fish since they have a low power consumption and don’t affect the aquarium’s temperature too severely.
Full-spectrum lights are great because they help bring out all your fish’s colors and allow you to grow plants. For best results, and to ensure that your betta gets sufficient sleep, we recommend a 12-hour-on, 12-hour-off cycle. This means that you have 12 hours with light and 12 without.
That’s what your betta would have in the wild, and helps to emulate natural conditions. You can easily incorporate an automatic timer to switch the lights on and off at the correct time.
Filtration and Water Flow
Betta fish need a filter to help keep their water clean so they can stay strong and healthy. Most bettas don’t require a huge filter, since some filters are too strong for bettas, and these fish naturally come from muddy environments.
However, you need to control the nitrite, nitrate, and ammonia levels in the aquarium. A sponge filter or platform filter combined with an undergravel filter should do a great job.
Pro tip: Never use an undergravel filter while breeding betta fish. It can suck the fish fry into the substrate, breaking their spines.
Should You do a Planted Betta Tank?
Bettas naturally come from environments like rice paddies and roadside pools, which are usually densely filled with vegetation. If you want your betta fish to feel as comfortable as possible, then planted tanks are an excellent idea.
What Kinds of Plants Should You Use?
While bettas may occasionally nibble at plants or algae, they’re mainly carnivorous. That said, there’s a range of plants that are toxic to bettas, which you’d be better off avoiding. Check out the linked article for a detailed list.
There are many more, but you can use just about anything that isn’t toxic.
Betta Fish Feeding
If you’re new to bettas, you may be trying to figure out what betta fish eat.
While there’s a range of human foods your fish will love, bettas are primarily carnivorous. They thrive on a prepared betta food or flake food combined with plenty of live foods. You’ll need to feed your betta fish twice a day, giving them only as much food as they can finish in two to three minutes.
We also have an insightful article about how to feed your betta when you’re away.
Are Betta Picky Eaters?
Yes, and no. Bettas will readily eat most prepared foods as long as it has a high protein percentage.
Betta fish are mainly carnivorous, so they’ll do best on a diet containing plenty of live foods and prepared foods with a high protein percentage.
How Often Should Betta Eat?
Bettas should eat twice a day, or around once every 12 hours. You should feed them about as much as they can eat in three to five minutes.
If your betta is not eating there might be an underying problem.
What Is a Betta’s Favorite Food?
Every betta is different, but most bettas adore small live foods like bloodworms, tubifex worms, mosquito larvae, and brine shrimp nauplii.
Betta Fish Health
Fortunately, there aren’t very many Betta diseases that you’ll need to deal with. If you keep general conditions right, then you shouldn’t have to deal with diseases.
The keys for a helathy betta are to:
- Keep the tank clean
- Keep stress to a minimum
- Prevent sudden changes to water parameters
Check out our full guide to betta diseases if you want to learn more.
Signs That Your Betta Fish Might Be Sick
The best way to know when something is wrong is to study your fish so you know which behaviors are normal for your betta.
Sudden changes are often indicative of illness.
- If your betta is swimming at an angle, or struggling to stay upright, it might have swim bladder disease.
- If your betta is covered in small white spots, it might have white spot.
- If your betta keeps rubbing on plants, or even against the substrate, it might have parasites.
- If your betta has no appetite, it may also be ill, as many diseases manifest this way.
- If your normally outgoing betta fish is hiding behind the filter, or stays at the surface, it could be a sign of oxygen shortage or some other illness.
For a comprehensive list of common diseases and symptoms, check out our betta illness guide.
Since betta fish have been in the pet trade for so long, and there are so many different varieties to choose from, the prices can vary significantly.
A beautiful, yet ordinary, pet store betta may cost as little as $2. Higher-end betta fish not produced by specialist breeders may cost as much as $30. If you buy bettas directly from breeders who specialize in certain types, they may cost you as much as $100, depending on the variety.
One of the most expensive betta fish ever sold fetched a whopping $1,500 at auction.
Are Betta Fish a Good Choice for Beginners?
Definitely! Bettas are tremendously easy to care for and don’t have a long lifespan. You can easily keep a betta as a first fish, as you’re learning the ropes.
While I wouldn’t recommend keeping them in a bowl, you can easily keep a betta in a small five-gallon aquarium. Five-gallon tanks are just about the smallest viable aquarium size, and there aren’t many other things you can keep in them.
If you’re looking for companions for a betta in a small aquarium, or alternatives to bettas, consider:
- White Cloud Mountain Minnows
- Corydoras Catfish
I’ve kept many bettas throughout my fishkeeping career, and they remain one of my favorite fish.
There aren’t many downsides to betta fish, except that you have to choose their tankmates carefully. The betta’s long, flowing fins make it a prime target for fin-nipping behavior. Also, males may confuse fish with similar coloration for rival males.
Having kept bettas with various other fish, I’d say that it’s definitely not as hard as people like to claim. From peaceful cichlids to tetras and bottom feeders, you can easily build a community around your Betta fish if you’re so inclined.
The betta is a wonderful, peaceful fish (as long as you don’t keep multiple males!) and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a beautiful, yet affordable, pet fish.
About the author
Hi, I’m Johanan! I love animals of all shapes and sizes, but especially fish. I’ve gone from working at a pet store as a teenager to keeping and breeding Bettas and other fish at home. My passion for fish is endless!
You can find my articles here.