Author: Mark Denaro
The former president of the International Betta Congress explains how to keep some of the most popular and recognizable group of fish in the hobby happy, healthy, and beautiful.
Bettas are among the most well-known fish in the hobby, largely because they are available in a wide range of colors and finnage types. They have been selectively bred to enhance certain characteristics for centuries. Initially they were bred to enhance their aggression so they could be fought as a form of entertainment and gambling. To that end, the most aggressive fish were bred, and the ones that weren’t as aggressive were frequently released back into the wild.
In addition to enhancing aggression, it became worthwhile to breed for heavier and stronger scales and fins to limit the damage incurred during fights. These fish are known as plakat or plakad bettas. The initial fish used may have been Betta splendens, B. smaragdina, or B. imbellis, but over time all of these species, along with B. sp.“Mahachai” and possibly B. stiktos, were crossbred to enhance the desired traits.
Eventually they were bred for color in addition to or instead of aggression. They were then bred to enhance the finnage to make them more beautiful, but they’d been bred for aggression through so many generations that it was pretty much built in, and it remained while the beauty increased. This focus has resulted in the fish we have today. The veiltail form is still the most readily available and popular in the hobby, though not favored by those who breed them for show purposes.
Wild Betta splendens
True wild Betta splendens are difficult to obtain because so many poor fighting fish have been released into the wild that many of the fish in nature are hybrids, particularly around populated areas. In true wild B. splendens, the males display some aggression toward each other, but it seldom results in anything more serious than the occasional nipped fin, and those are few and far between. Indeed, wild males can be kept together and wild females can be kept with the males at all times.
The domesticated betta requires different conditions and considerations from its wild counterparts. Care and maintenance is fairly straightforward, and many people who have never kept fish before and certainly would not consider themselves aquarists or fish hobbyists have, can, and will care for them quite successfully. This probably owes more to the adaptability and hardiness of the fish than to any knowledge or diligence on the part of the keepers.
Siamese fighting fish will do well in most water conditions, whether soft and acidic or hard and basic. They can survive across a range of temperatures from the upper 60s into the 80s. They will do fine even on a diet that is less than ideal. They do well in small containers with no filtration, though regular water changes are necessary to prevent ammonia burns. They are particularly disease resistant, especially when they are otherwise in good condition, so let’s take a closer look at what is best for them rather than the minimum that will keep them alive.
When discussions of hybrids arise among aquarists, the first fish typically mentioned is either the parrot cichlid or the flowerhorn. While these relatively recent developments still stir some controversy, there are several hybrids that have been in the hobby for a long time to which no one objects. The three that come to my mind are the swordtail, the platy, and the Siamese fighting fish. The myriad colors of the swordtails and platies were developed in part through crossbreeding the various members of the genus Xiphophorus. The fish we know as Betta splendens is actually a hybrid among the various members of the splendens species complex within the genus Betta.
The first thing to consider is the container. A single male betta (or several females) can be kept in a community aquarium with peaceful fish that will not nip its fins. Care should be taken when choosing tankmates to avoid any that will pick on or otherwise stress the betta. Consideration must also be given to the form of its tankmates. As an example, I do not recommend keeping male bettas with fancy guppies, as the betta will frequently interpret the male guppy’s finnage as the fins of another male betta and attack the guppy.
If you just want to keep bettas, there are still many container options available. These fish have been bred for large, heavy fins that weigh them down, so they do not need a lot of space, and high water flow can restrict the growth and development of the fins.
As a consequence, many people keep them in goldfish bowls, vases, or other similarly sized containers. Many breeders use clear plastic doll display boxes for their fish, and they are also used at most shows to display the show fish. They are readily available, fairly inexpensive, and of sufficient size for general maintenance. They are also easily drilled if the hobbyist decides to plumb them together onto a central filtration system or to put in an automated water change system.
Keeping Males and Females Apart
Various manufacturers offer a number of small aquariums designed for bettas that come with dividers to keep the males apart. Some of these include filtration and some do not, but all will work. If you are keeping multiple males, it is best to block their view of each other most of the time. This keeps them calm and relaxed. If they can constantly see other males, they will want to flare all the time and will expend a lot of energy unnecessarily. However, over time they become used to the other males and don’t flare as often.
In my experience, the best water conditions for domesticated bettas are slightly basic and moderately hard. They seem to develop fewer diseases in this water chemistry than they do in soft, acidic water. If your tap water is not suitable or you don’t want to have to deal with the chloramines typically used by most water providers, consider using bottled spring water. In most cases, spring water is very well suited for bettas and can be used without adding any additional water treatment chemicals. This is a particularly viable option if you are keeping one or a few bettas in small containers.
The trick is to be sure that the water you are using for water changes is the same temperature as the water the fish are living in. Water changes are absolutely critical to the long-term health of bettas. The smaller the container, the more frequent the water changes should be. Some hobbyists change the water on a daily basis.
In general, water changes should be carried out at least once a week, with two to three times a week being preferred. In filtered tanks, 25 to 50 percent of the water should be changed each time. In unfiltered tanks, all the water should be changed. Once a water change regimen is established, the hobbyist should be very careful to stick to the schedule. When deviations are made from that schedule, the fish will be exposed to decreasing water quality parameters, which will weaken its resistance to diseases.
Temperatures should be in the upper 70s, ideally about 78° to 80° for general maintenance and a bit warmer for spawning. One of the issues many betta keepers face is their lack of activity when kept in the typical bowl or vase at room temperature. Because fish are cold-blooded animals, they are less active in cooler water. A betta maintained at 78° to 80° will be much more active than one maintained at 70°.
There are many options for heating the water above room temperature. A number of manufacturers offer small heaters designed for bowls or nano tanks. If you are keeping a lot of bettas in small containers, it may be advisable to heat the room they are in (the approach followed by most serious breeders) or a row of containers can be heated by placing them on heating mats designed for use with seedling plants (a method followed by many small-scale breeders). The fish’s metabolism will also be higher in warmer water, so feeding a proper diet becomes even more important.
There are a number of pellet and flake foods marketed specifically for bettas, and many of these can serve as the basic diet for your fish. I prefer to alternate several types rather than rely on a single brand. Bloodworms in both the freeze-dried and frozen forms are also marketed as a diet for bettas, but these should be regarded as a supplemental or treat food and should not form the bulk of the diet.
For general maintenance, bettas should be fed once or twice a day. All the food should be eaten within one minute. If there is food remaining after this time, it should be removed. A little practice will enable the keeper to determine the right amount of food to feed.
Bettas are Carnivores
The idea that bettas will feed on a plant’s roots was a myth that was sold to unsuspecting keepers along with the vases while they were in vogue. Let’s put that idea to rest right now: Bettas are carnivorous! If kept in a vase with a plant and not fed, they will starve to death. Just as with any other fish, feeding the proper diet is essential to their health and well being.
Live foods are also beneficial and offer a great way to supplement the diet. One of the best live foods can easily be obtained by most hobbyists in the summer and fall. Mosquito larvae are a wonderful fish food and are particularly relished by bettas. Usually all that is required is to put a container of water outside. The mosquitoes will find it and lay their rafts of eggs in the container. When you see the larvae moving about, they can be easily netted out and fed to the betta.
Other live foods that are particularly good are brine shrimp and daphnia, both of which can be quite useful in improving the red to yellow colors in bettas, and various worms, of which the best is the easily cultured tropical redworm. The only downside to feeding redworms is that the larger ones will need to be cut into smaller pieces before feeding. The rolling cutters used by chefs to mince herbs work quite well. Pizza cutters are another useful tool for chopping the worms.
A well-fed, well-cared-for betta is exceedingly resistant to diseases, but occasionally things go wrong and disease can rear its ugly head. Bettas are susceptible to any disease that affects freshwater fish, but there are three diseases to which they seem to be at least somewhat prone.
The most common disease in bettas is velvet, an infestation of the parasitic dinoflagellate Oodinium pillularis. It is similar to ich in its progression but can be much more difficult to identify on the fish. It appears as a velvety coating and can be hard to see unless the light is just right. Any fish that is lethargic and/or has clamped fins should be checked carefully for this disease. It can be treated with a variety of medications but the most effective seem to be those containing acriflavine. High doses may be necessary to eliminate some strains of velvet. In general, velvet is more common in soft, acidic water. Adding up to 1 teaspoon of aquarium salt per gallon can also help in controlling velvet, but it will not eliminate it. Velvet is very commonly encountered in betta fry, and many spawns are lost to it.
When water temperatures fluctuate, stressing the fish, ich or white spot disease tends to appear. Ich is an infestation of the protozoan Ichthyophthirius multifiliis and is visible as white spots approximately the size of a grain of salt on infected fish. There are many medications available for the treatment of this disease, and all of them should work successfully. The trick is to catch it early and medicate right away.
Ensuring a constant water temperature will go a long way toward helping the fish fight it off and avoid its return. Many sources recommend increasing the water temperature during treatment, but I don’t agree with this approach. While the higher temperature will increase the speed of the parasite’s life cycle, possibly making it susceptible to the medication sooner, the problem is that at the end of treatment the water temperature must be lowered back to its normal range, which can stress the fish and make it more likely to come down with another case of ich.
Fin rot is another disease that commonly afflicts bettas. Fin rot can be caused by either a bacterial or fungal agent. In both cases, it is typically a secondary infection that gets a foothold where the fin has been torn or otherwise damaged. Fungal fin rot typically displays cotton-like growths, while bacterial fin rot can be seen as either a white or clear edge to the damaged fins. Determining the type of infection is important prior to choosing a medication. I have had very good results with a natural anti-fungal medication against both fungal and bacterial fin rot, so that type of medication would be the medication of choice if you are not sure what type of infestation you are dealing with. As with velvet, the addition of salt to the water can be beneficial. Being careful to avoid any decorations on which your betta can tear its fins, as well as any tankmates that may nip its fins, also goes a long way toward preventing fin rot.
Now that your fish are healthy and well cared for, thoughts of spawning may be entering their minds and yours. Males build a nest of mucus-covered bubbles at the surface and then entice the female to spawn below or near the nest. The male will wrap his body around the female. She will release one to several eggs during each embrace, which are then fertilized by the male. The eggs fall to the bottom where the male, sometimes with help from the female, will pick them up and then spit them into the nest. The embrace is then repeated until the female has released all of her eggs.
After spawning has been completed, the female will go on her way, and the male will care for the eggs and fry. When the fry are free-swimming, brood care is over, and the fry are left to their own survival instincts.
There are many approaches to spawning bettas. I’ll describe the one that I use, as descriptions of other methods are readily available in the literature.
The first step is to choose and properly condition the breeders. Many hobbyists report their best success when breeding young fish of three to eight months in age. Conditioning starts two to three weeks in advance of spawning with increasing the feeding frequency to two to three times a day. Add more live foods to the diet if you can. If that is not an option, add some frozen foods to the diet. Due to the increase in feeding, water changes should also be carried out more frequently.
A few days or a week before the spawning attempt, it is time to set up the spawning tank. I like to use 10-gallon tanks for spawning, though many breeders use 5½-gallon tanks or other similarly sized containers including plastic tubs. The water should be 4 inches deep and similar in water chemistry to the water in which the breeders are maintained. A submersible heater should be added, and the temperature increased to 82°.
Cut a hard foam cup in half from top to bottom, and add one of the halves to the tank. Float it so the inside of the cup faces down toward the water surface. This will provide a place for the male to anchor his bubblenest. Add some Java moss if you have it available. If not, other plants can be used. Good choices include najas grass Najas sp., hornwort Ceratophyllum demersum, or water sprite Ceratopteris thalictroides or C. pteridioides. I like to add some Java fern Microsorum pteropus in addition to the other plants.
Plants and Hideouts
The addition of plants serves several functions. First, it provides hiding places for the female if the male becomes a bit rough, or in some cases hiding places for the male if the female is particularly aggressive (and, yes, I have had females kill males on occasion). Second, the microfauna that accompanies the plants can provide a supplemental food source for the fry. I do not add any filtration, but if you would like to filter the water, add a well-seasoned sponge filter to the tank with a very low rate of airflow. Too much turbulence at the water’s surface will make it difficult for the male to maintain his bubblenest. One bubble every few seconds is sufficient. The addition of a well-seasoned sponge filter will provide another supplemental food source for the fry, as they can feed on the microfauna growing on the sponge.
A few small flowerpots or pieces of ¾-inch or larger diameter PVC pipe will provide additional refuges for any fish being picked on and will complete the setup. Next, a tight-fitting top is essential. For that, it is time to raid the kitchen. I like to use a strong plastic wrap to cover the top. A tight cover serves to increase the humidity in the air above the water. This will make it easier for the male to build and maintain his bubblenest, and will also be beneficial to the fry when they begin breathing atmospheric air.
When the female’s abdomen is visibly swollen with eggs and her ovipositor (tube through which the eggs are released) is visible, I’m ready to add the fish to the spawning tank. Add the male to the tank. The next day, put the female into a quart jar and stand the jar in the tank. This will enable the male and female to see each other, but the height of the jar will prevent the male from coming into contact with the female, so he can’t attack her if she is not receptive to his amorous advances. The male and female should be fed very lightly during this time, and only live food should be used to reduce the possibility of rotting food impacting the water quality.
When the female is ready to spawn with the male, she will jump out of the quart jar and into the tank. Spawning usually commences rapidly at that point, and chances are that when you see the female in the tank, spawning has already been completed. Check the nest, and if eggs are visible and the pair is no longer embracing, remove the female. I find that this method greatly reduces the chance of harm to either the female or male. If after several days the female has not jumped in with the male, try a different female. I like to keep a small light on 24 hours per day in the room with the spawning tank so the male can see the eggs or fry at all times.
Raising the Fry
Once the fry become free-swimming, remove the male from the tank. This is also the time to start feeding the fry. Due to their small size, infusorians make the best first food. Within a few days, the fry should be large enough to accept newly hatched live brine shrimp. Be sure to remove any brine shrimp that are not eaten so they don’t foul the water. The dead shrimp will sink to the bottom of the tank and can be siphoned out from there with a piece of airline tubing or something similar to reduce the possibility of siphoning out the fry.
As the fry grow a bit more, they can also be fed microworms and vinegar eels. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that feeding microworms exclusively can result in improper development of the ventral fins, so they should be used as a supplement to other foods. A number of prepared diets for betta fry are available, and these can be used either in addition to live foods or by themselves. I find my best results by combining these prepared diets with a variety of appropriately sized live foods.
After the first week or so, it is time to start performing small partial water changes on a daily basis. It is also time to add a small, well-seasoned sponge filter with a very low airflow if you haven’t already done so. Over the next two or three weeks, the water level can be increased until the tank is full. By the time the fry are a month old, it should be time to split the spawn into several rearing tanks. At this point, rearing them presents few problems, and crushed flake foods can be added to the diet. As males become apparent and start to show signs of aggression, remove them from the rearing tank and put them in individual tanks.
After you’ve bred your own bettas, you can show them off. Yes, there are betta shows all over the world, many of them held by member chapters of the International Betta Congress, with points accumulating toward year-end championships in various regions.
The show fish include the plakats in several finnage variations. There are also half moons, which are bred to have a full 180-degree spread to the caudal fin with commensurate finnage in the dorsal and anal fin giving the fish the overall shape of a circle, and crowntails, which sport decreased webbing between the rays in the unpaired fins with branching of the fin rays that extend beyond the webbing. Double tails feature two caudal fins, with one above the other rather than the fantail arrangement commonly seen in many goldfish varieties, along with a deeper, more muscular body that also supports a broader dorsal fin.
The range of colors is astounding, and new colors are regularly introduced by breeders all over the world. Because breeders continue to develop new colors and new finnage types, the show standards are constantly re-evaluated and adjusted to reflect the current state of the art in breeding.
The show classes are based on finnage type and then further subdivided by color pattern. In the current show year, there are 47 classes for these fish in North America, plus a class for color and form variations and a class for finnage and form variations. These two provide a place for newly developed fish that don’t fit the other categories to be shown, and each requires the breeder to describe the color, finnage, or form variation on the entry form. There is also a class for pairs, and six classes whose entry is restricted to new breeders in their first year of showing.
Wild-type bettas of all species are shown in two classes, one for bubblenest builders and one for mouthbrooders. The European show circuit uses 31 classes, plus a class for all color, form, and finnage variations, and a class for pairs. There are four classes for new breeders in Europe along with the same two classes for wild-type bettas. In Asia there are 41 classes plus a single class for all color, form, and finnage variations, and a class for pairs with six additional classes for new breeders. All show areas also include classes for photographs, illustrations, and crafts related to bettas. Year-end awards are given out for each of these three global regions.
Worth the Obsession
If you’ve reached this point, welcome to the world of the betta obsessed! It’s time to familiarize yourself with the show standards and start choosing your show fish. Remember the old breeder’s maxim: “Breed the best, and show the rest.” That ensures that your show success will continue into the next generation.