September 22, 2020

How To Keep Fish: The Basics for People Who Can’t Have Dogs or Cats


By Matt Leighton,


Many people want pets, but owning a dog or cat is not always possible. Some people have allergies, or their lease may forbid pets. Other people have disabilities that make it impossible to care for a dog or cat.


But for those people who can’t have a dog or cat for whatever reason, a fish might actually be the perfect pet. They’re rewarding and interesting, and I’m going to give you a quick overview of what to expect when you get a pet fish.


Choosing the Fish


Fish have beauty on their side and many people find it relaxing to watch them swim.


But isn’t keeping fish hard? Don’t fish die easily?


Not necessarily. 


While everybody has a friend with a large and elaborate tank filled with delicate and colorful tropical fish, it is not necessary to go that route. In fact, somebody who has never kept fish before should not choose fish that are delicate and require a fancy set-up.


There are several different fish species that work well for beginners, as they are hardy and easy to take care of. Examples include:


  • Goldfish, 
  • Black mollies, 
  • Swordtails, and 
  • Bettas.


It’s also important to consider the size of the tank. Too many fish in a tank will lead to problems like stressed, sick, or even dead fish. A very rough rule of thumb is to get one inch of fish for every gallon of water (though this is sometimes misleading).


For the purposes of this article, we will assume you decided to start small and get a single betta.


What To Expect


The betta is a popular fish because of its beauty. It comes in a variety of colors and has large and impressive fins. It is also aggressive, particularly to other bettas, and should be kept by itself.


Bettas, which are also known as “Siamese fighting fish,” come from Southeast Asia. They typically live for two or three years, but some bettas have lived into their teens.



The cost of a betta will depend on the type and where you get it. Big box retailers like Petco or PetSmart usually sell betta for under $15.00 per fish. There are also many different types of betta with the more common types costing only a few dollars. By contrast, the rarer kinds can cost up to $1,000.


Keeping fish can provide multiple health benefits, too. The science journal “PLoS One” published a 2019 study in which researchers analyzed 19 studies and found that keeping fish promoted relaxation. One of the studies analyzed found that even just watching videos of fish swimming improved blood pressure and heart rate!


Fish do not require a lot of your time. You’ll need to feed them a little bit of food daily, and ensure that the tank accessories are operating properly, but otherwise you don’t need to do any upkeep except for semi-regular maintenance and cleaning.


What You’ll Need


A full-grown betta generally doesn’t get much longer than 2.5 inches, so it will need a tank that holds one to five gallons. Many people say that keeping a betta in a small tank is not appropriate, but in fact a tank that is too large is equally inappropriate – it can create too much pressure, which does not allow the betta to come up to the surface or swim properly.


Pet stores often provide a starter kit that includes the tank, a hood, and filter. Such kits cost around $12.00 to $40.00. The hood is the lid and keeps the fish from jumping out. The filter is a vital piece of equipment, for it keeps the water clean. Get one with an adjustable setting or that is rated “gentle,” since betta can’t swim against strong currents.


Bettas do best in warm water with a temperature between 78 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Their tank may, therefore, need a heater. A heater for a small tank usually costs $30.00 or less. Also, get a thermometer to keep track of the temperature.


Water conditioners removes toxins like chlorine from the water – this can be important if you’re filling the tank from a tap.


The tank should have a substrate lining the bottom. Sand or fine gravel works better than large pieces of rock, since it is less likely to trap waste or food debris. Bettas are happier with natural-looking substrate rather than a substrate with neon colors.


Plants and other decorations give the betta hiding places. Live plants also remove nitrates and provide oxygen.


Artificial plants can be made from plastic or silk. Silk plants are better because they don’t have the sharp edges that can damage a betta’s delicate fins, but we still recommend live plants.


A fresh water testing kit will enable you to check the water quality regularly to ensure a healthy fish.


What To Do


Setting Up the Tank


Rinse out the tank. Don’t use soap!


Place the tank somewhere that is sturdy enough to support it. Keep it out of direct sunlight and make sure there are five inches between the tank and the wall so there will be space for the heater and filter.


Install the filter, but don’t turn it on until after filling the tank.


Thoroughly rinse the substrate with cool water to remove dust which can damage the filter.


Add one to three inches of substrate to the tank. If you plan to use live plants, you will need at least two inches of substrate to support them. Marimo balls, Java fern, and Anubias nana are all good choices for a beginner as they don’t need a lot of light and are easy to take care of.


Put a clean plate on top of the gravel, and pour the water onto the plate, not directly on the gravel. The plate will keep the water from stirring up the gravel. Fill the tank about a third of the way and check for leaks.


After removing the plate, put the plants and other decorations in the tank with the tallest items in the back.


After filling the tank so the water is about an inch below the top, it’s time to start the filter.


Place the heater (if you need one) in the tank near the filter so the water will be heated evenly. Install the thermometer. Add water conditioner to dechlorinate the water.


Taking Care of The Betta


Feed the betta once or twice a day. Give it a mixture of pellets, live, and frozen foods, but avoid freeze-dried food if possible. Since bettas are carnivorous, their food needs to be protein-based. Note that many of the cheaper flake foods have way too many carbohydrates in them, so don’t use them to feed your betta fish. 


Remove any of the food that your betta doesn’t eat, to ensure that the water stays clean.


Change about ¼ of the tank’s water once a week, and clean the tank when necessary.


Test the water every week. It should have a pH of 7. Nitrates should be under 20 ppm, and nitrites and ammonia should be at 0.


Don’t tap on the tank, as that will upset the betta. Instead, draw your finger along a side and see if the betta will follow.




A betta is a good introduction to the world of fishkeeping. They look impressive and are fairly responsive to their owner and environment. 


Once you’ve mastered the basics of caring for a betta, you may find yourself becoming interested in more ambitious set-ups and exotic fish. Good luck!

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