One of the number one reason bettas get placed with unsuitable tank mates is a poor understanding of their social needs as a species. A new owner purchases a betta, places it in a bowl, and notices it either lethargic or pacing within weeks; the automatic reaction is to assume that the fish is "lonely" and thus needs "friends." Bettas, however, are a territorial, aggressive, solitary species, and with a few exceptions due to the variability of disposition, are unsuitable community fish. More often than not, an attempt to remedy a betta's behavior with tank mates results in the betta or his new companions being stressed, wounded, or even killed.
If the fish aren't lonely, than what is the matter? Under stimulation. While captive bettas are fairly domesticated as a species, the focus has been more on appearance than temperament, which causes bettas to maintain most of their wild instinct. What's more, bettas are an intelligent species that require an enriching environment to prevent neurotic behaviors observed in chronically "bored" animals.
Small changes in your day-to-day routine can greatly improve your fish's well-being, and make him a more active, dynamic aquarium fish. Below are some tips for keeping your bettas enriched and occupied without the risks of keeping them with tank mates.
- The number one cause of death in bettas is liver disease, typically caused by a combination of fatty foods and insufficient physical activity. While the accepted minimum housing for a betta is one gallon (or 2-3g by the inch per gallon rule), a larger tank is a wonderful way to give your betta appropriate exercise if you have the space and money. Larger tanks can also have more decorations, be safely heated, and require less frequent water changes. A five to ten gallon aquarium with a mild filter makes a lovely centerpiece and a great new home for your betta!
- Unless you have a tail biter, many bettas find changes in their internal tank environment very exciting. You can do this in different ways. The easiest and most obvious is rearranging the ornaments/plants in the tank with each water change. You could also keep a spare plant or cave that you rotate in and out of the tank so that there is something new/different every cleaning.
- Another option is making the external environment more enriching. This could be done in many ways. You could periodically change the location of your betta tanks. This is great if you have multiple bettas being housed close together; by changing the order their tanks are in, they will be able to see and display to different bettas every time they are moved.
- Alternately, if you can't move the tank itself, you could place items outside of the tank that would be interesting; one thing my bettas love is a variety of differently colored and shaped plastic dogs. I put a new one there every few days, and they spend hours investigating this new thing outside of their tank. Shiny objects are excellent for this purpose.
- Toys can also interest bettas, though not all are responsive. The most popular is the ping pong ball, or a smaller floating non-painted ball of some sort. The bettas can flare at it, chase it, push it around with their nose, etc. and seem to be very interested by it. If your tanks are bare-bottom, you could also put a lightweight sinking ball (like a marble) for your fish to push around. There is plenty of room for creativity here; as long as it is nontoxic and your betta can interact with it somehow, it can be a toy.
- I personally feed 5 different types of pellet and 4 different types of frozen/live foods to my bettas. I'm a big believer in dietary variety for nutrition and for entertainment. Foods that have different shapes, textures, sizes, hardness/softness/etc. can be a cheap and fun way to captivate your fish. Making your betta look for these foods by placing them all around the tank's surface instead of clumped in one spot under the feeding door is a simple way to keep him or her occupied.
- Because bettas are predatory in nature, a wonderful form of enrichment is live foods, which can be cultivated with ease in your own home or purchased at your local fish store. If you really want to stimulate a natural hunting behavior, feed some live brine shrimp or mosquito larvae so they can chase and kill.
- Depending on your individual betta, your fish may enjoy being permitted to see another betta or a mirror for short periods of time daily. This will encourage aggressive and territorial behaviors natural to bettas, and will normally inspire them to patrol their tank, flare, bubble nest, etc. Just be cautious not to overdo this, as too much flaring can be stressful and harmful.
- Seeing other fish and other animals from the safety of their own territory is a good way to at least keep a betta interested in the environment. If you have a big community tank, see if your betta can be kept next to it without too much stress; the constantly changing movement will allow them to be visually stimulated without the stress of another betta, or another fish in the tank that they feel they must actively patrol against.
- YOU. Bettas tend to enjoy interacting with their owners, and by simply spending some time up at the tank, perhaps having them follow your finger or something of the like, can keep them occupied for short spurts of time.
- Bettas are highly intelligent and can be trained to perform simple tricks in a matter of weeks. Activities like swimming through hoops and tunnels, pushing a small ball into a plastic net, taking food from one's fingers, etc. are all wonderful ways to interact with bettas in a way that is challenging and rewarding for them. Here is a link to a site on training fish.
A variety of simple, cost-effective, and minimally time-consuming changes to your daily betta keeping routine can result in an environment that is stimulating and interactive. By simply rearranging decorations, feeding different foods, or taking time for a flaring session, you can prevent behaviors such as pacing or lethargy. In fact, some tail-biters, depending on their triggers, can even be stopped by creating an enriching environment! So please, consider doing for fish what you would do for any other captive animal - keep him entertained safely by providing daily behavioral enrichment!
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