How to Care for Fish

Behind cats and dogs, fish are the third most-owned pets in the U.S. There are over 57 million fish spread across nearly 8 million households, according to the U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook.

Part of the reasoning for that popularity is the fact that fish are beautiful, calming pets that add personality to any space in your home. However, owning a fish is far more complicated than bringing one home in a plastic bag, tossing it in a bowl and letting it swim. This guide will give you the basics of fish ownership so that you can decide whether these unique animals will be a good fit in your home.

Caring for the Health of Your Fish

Fish have been proven to reduce stress and improve the health of humans but caring for one requires an understanding of how and where they live their lives. In addition to regular and proper feeding, fish have very specific needs when it comes to their environments.

Keeping your fish in appropriately sized tanks with water at the proper temperature and the proper nitrate, nitrite, ammonia and pH levels will be critical to keeping them healthy. First-time fish owners may be surprised to learn that proper care of a new fish starts before the fish is ever submerged in the tank.

It’s recommended that you “float” your fish when you first bring them home, allowing the sealed bag containing the fish to float on the surface of the water before slowly filling the bag with water from the tank. This allows the fish to regulate its temperature while also acclimating to the chemistry of its new home.

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When it comes to the tank, it is recommended that fish owners replace at least a quarter of the water in the aquarium each month. Fish owners should also regularly use a gravel vacuum to remove dirt and debris from the tank.

This combined with regular cleaning of the tank’s interior and exterior glass is critical to maintaining a healthy aquarium. Algae buildup leads to oxygen depletion in your water, and just like you can’t breathe without air, dirty water can have detrimental effects on a fish.

What to Feed Your Fish

Many people are familiar with the jars of fish food commonly found atop fish tanks. At some point, most of us have probably fed a fish by dropping a pinch or two of those fish flakes into a tank and watching the fish gobble them up.

However, feeding fish is not necessarily that simple, and as with most animals, it starts with having a complete understanding of the dietary needs of each species. Fish can be omnivores, carnivores or herbivores, and it’s up to you to make sure you know which fish fall into each category.

Omnivores are typically considered the easiest to feed, as they can and will eat just about anything you drop into their tank, from flakes to bugs. However, herbivores — like plecos, for example — live on a diet of fruit, plants and algae and are not best suited for so-called “community” tanks as a result.

Similarly, carnivorous fish are also not ideal for community tanks. While some carnivores prefer to be in groups (like tetras) others are best kept alone (like puffer fish, Arowana or piranhas). Insects, beef heart, shrimp and feeder fish are among the delicacies enjoyed by these carnivorous fish.

Furthermore, the practice of “gut landing” is sometimes necessary to make sure your carnivores are receiving all the required vitamins and minerals for their diet. Carnivores also do not eat every day and should not eat more than three percent of their body weight in a given day.

Top 5 Pieces of Equipment for Fish Ownership

Fish spend all of their time in an aquarium, so it’s only appropriate that you make sure your fish have everything they’ll need to enjoy a safe habitat. Below, we’ve listed five must-haves for any prospective fish owner.

Tanks

Tank prices can vary, typically anywhere from $50 to $1,000. Popular brands of fish tanks include Marineland, Aquatic Fundamentals and Aqueon. Aquariums will vary greatly depending on the size and number of fish you’re looking to house. As such, they also vary greatly in price.

Typically, freshwater fish require more room than tropical and saltwater fish. A good rule of thumb is to always get more tank than you think you need in order to guarantee the safety of your pet.

Filters

There are many different types of filters for fish with various needs. Traditionally, filtration systems fall into one of four categories:

  • Power filters
  • Trickle filters (or wet-dry filters)
  • Corner filters (also known as box filters)
  • Canister filters, which are typically found in larger aquariums

Power filters are the most common types of filters used by everyday fish owners. However, you should research your specific fish before making a decision. Water filters for tanks range start at $25 and can go up to $500. If you’re not sure where to start, look at Fluval, Aquaclear or Marineland filters to find a filter that suits your fish tank needs.

Lighting

Lighting is an overlooked aspect of a healthy aquarium but is no less important than the other elements that make a fish tank complete. In addition to aesthetics, lighting impacts the growth of plants and corals in the tank. Improper or imbalanced lighting can cause many problems ranging from unwanted algae growth to incorrect CO2 levels.

Aqueon, Fluval and Coral life are good brands to start with when getting light sources for your fish tank. Lighting units typically start at $10 and go up to $150, although different setups and brands.

Substrate

Your aquarium will need a base layer of substrate, and the type you choose will depend on the type of fish in the tank. Gravel, aragonite and vermiculite are among the most common substrate materials to place on the bottom of the tank. Ultimately, the right choice will come down to whether your aquarium contains any living plant life.

CaribSea, Imagitarium and Nature’s Ocean are all great places to start when you’re looking for substrate material. Prices typically range from $5 to $20, depending on the brand and how much you need.

Vegetation

Whether it’s actual vegetation or synthetic plants, fish enjoy aquarium digs that resemble what they might typically find in the wild. Just be certain that any live plants you incorporate into your aquarium are compatible with the water and fish that will share the tank. You can find synthetic plants in many pet stores as well as online. Live vegetation can be grown in the tank itself or transplanted from a pet store.

Imagitarium, GloFish and RockGarden all have great vegetation options for your new pets. You can typically expect to pay anywhere from $3 to $30 for tank plants.

Pros and Cons of Owning a Fish

Owning a fish might sound simple, but it’s more than giving it a bowl of water and letting it swim. Before building a complex aquarium, be sure to understand the advantages and disadvantages you may encounter along the way. Equipment, filters and food costs can add up to a hefty amount.

Before investing your time and money into an aquarium, make sure you’re all caught up with what to expect. Here are some pros and cons to consider before you purchase a fish.

Pros

  • Studies have shown a variety of health benefits linked to keeping fish — from stress reduction and lower blood pressure to mood changes and improved eating habits in Alzheimer’s patients.
  • Fish are quiet, so they make for great apartment pets.
  • Though some fish can be costly, most are inexpensive.
  • Fish don’t take up much room.
  • Fish can be great teaching tools for children and inexperienced pet owners.
  • Fish and their aquariums are beautiful to look at and designing the habitat is fun.
  • Fish are easy and affordable to feed.

Cons

  • Many aquarium fish have short lifespans, although some can live for decades.
  • Most fish are not known to be affectionate.
  • An understanding of the chemistry of a fish habitat is required.
  • Aquarium maintenance and cleaning are necessary for the livelihood of the fish.

Economic Factors that Come With Fish Ownership

While fish themselves are not typically expensive, the upfront costs associated with housing fish and properly maintaining their habitats are not insignificant and can add up quickly. By the time you’ve paid for a tank, filtration system, lighting, substrate and other accessories, plus the additional energy used to power all these items, you could easily spend several hundred dollars. This number will multiply if you have different types of fish requiring different aquariums.

When it comes to food, most fish are fairly inexpensive to feed. However, like the actual fish — which can cost hundreds or thousands if you’re in the market for a specialty species — there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what their diets will cost on a year-to-year basis. Relative to other pets, however, fish are considered budget-friendly. The costs of maintaining a gorgeous aquarium are not often prohibitive.

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