Your pet Betta fish needs oxygen to live – just like all animal life. A set of organs, called gills, acts like a pair of lungs for the Siamese Fighting fish. That is why it is a problem if your Betta has inflamed gills.
What causes gills to become damaged in the first place? Can you treat your Betta fish if it has gill problems? Why is my Betta fish’s gills red? A few things can agitate these sensitive organs, including ammonia poisoning, gill flukes, and gill hyperplasia.
We want to see you and your pet Betta succeed. What follows is information that will educate you as an aspiring fish keeper and enthusiast.
Fish gills are a group of tissues (an organ) that allows your pet Betta fish to absorb dissolved oxygen out of the water. That same organ allows the fish to release carbon dioxide. Simply put, fish gills are your Betta’s aquatic lungs.
Fish gills sit on either side of the throat. A plate, called the operculum, forms a protective cover over the organs. The operculum can open and close to control the amount of water that passes through the Betta’s gills.
Gills on a Siamese Fighting fish form filaments filled with a network of capillaries. A multitude of filaments creates a large surface area used for exchanging gases like ammonia, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and acids.
Betta fish pull in oxygen diffused water into their mouths. The water is pumped through the gills, allowing the exchange of acids and gases. Damage from ammonia poisoning, gill flukes, and hyperplasia prevents or restricts that exchange, causing problems for your Betta as it attempts to breathe.
Fish, including your pet Betta, require a lot of water movement to get the oxygen needed to live. Air contains an oxygen concentration of 200,000 parts per million, while that drops to four to eight parts per million in water. That is why you see Betta fish “gasping” for oxygen in dead zones that lack diffused oxygen in your aquarium.
Don’t Siamese Fighting fish use a Labyrinth gill to breathe?
Your pet Betta is also known as a Labyrinth fish. The name comes from the organ located in a chamber above the gills. That organ is a secondary (think backup) breathing system that allows your fish to exchange oxygen from oxygen-poor tanks or the air.
That allowed them to survive in fish bowls that now, thankfully, hobbyists consider as a cruel form of captivity (let’s hope the big-box stores grasp this one day). A labyrinth gill does not protect or circumvent breathing problems associated with damage from ammonia poisoning, gill flukes, or gill hyperplasia, however.
Why Is My Betta Fish’s Gills Red?
While a healthy set of gills will appear red naturally, you will be able to notice a difference in the colorization of your Betta’s gills that are damaged or agitated. Some of the more common causes for red gills on Betta fish are:
Today’s fish farms try their best to eliminate the possibility of dormant parasites in high-density populations found in their ponds or tanks. A noted side-effect is BGD (Bacterial Gill Disease).
It appears as bacteria attached to gill filaments. The bacteria misshape the gill filaments or fuse them. That makes it harder for the Betta to breathe as the damage inhibits gas diffusion.
As you might expect, BGD is treatable if caught early enough. Products like API’s Furan-2 specifically target bacteria that cause gill disease in Betta fish.
You can help to prevent BGD by avoiding an overcrowded tank. Maintaining water quality and weekly water changes of 15-25-percent volume also help. Isolating new fish for two weeks before adding them to your aquarium will also help to keep your Betta fish healthy.
Physical damage is another possibility as to why your Betta has inflamed gills. Accidental contact with the gills while cleaning or handling your Betta can irritate them, or aggressive tank mates might nip a gill. Your pet may have accidentally cut or rubbed its gills on something in the aquarium as well.
Inflammation and discolorization can highlight the contact point. The swelling may cause the protective plate (operculum) to stay partially open. That and the redness are clues that there is an issue.
A majority of minor agitations will often heal quickly and without aid. More difficult wounds can develop into gill hyperplasia as the scarring develops over the contact site (see gill hyperplasia below).
A treatment with aquarium salt can help fight off potential infections, increase electrolytes, and improve gill function. Do not use table salt, but select a product designed for fish tanks, like API’s Aquarium Salt and Epsom bath for Betta.
You can help prevent gill damage by avoiding overcrowded aquariums and offering plenty of hiding places for your Betta fish. Keep sharp decorations out of the tank and use substrates with round edges. Finally, do not handle your Betta fish unless it is necessary.
Ammonia poisoning/Nitrogen poisoning
One of the more common problems among new Betta keepers and newly established fish tanks is ammonia poisoning. Ammonia is a byproduct of fish waste and is in varying levels in all aquariums. It is not often a factor in healthy tanks with established biological filtration.
Some hobbyists will refer to ammonia poisoning as ammonia stress, nitrogen poisoning, or nitrogen stress. While nitrogen buildup is an issue of its own, many new Betta keepers use it to refer to large amounts of ammonia in the water column.
The symptoms of ammonia poisoning can include:
Changes in gill color
Gasping for oxygen
Red lines on body and fins
Inflamation at the anus or eyes
Loss of appetite
The gills on your Betta fish will become darker red or purple. It is one of the more pronounced symptoms that indicate a toxic intake of ammonia.
High concentrations of ammonia begin to burn the gill tissues. That makes it harder for your pet to breathe, and it begins to gasp to force more water across the damaged gills.
Discolored skin is also a possibility with this type of poisoning. Streaks of red may appear along the body or across the fins as the ammonia burns these anatomy parts.
A good water testing kit is worth its weight in gold. You can monitor water conditions and act upon climbing ammonia levels before they become an issue.
With community tanks, stick with the one-inch of fish per gallon of water rule. That will help to prevent more pollution than the water can handle.
Creating good bacteria colonies is a necessary first step to healthy aquariums for your Betta. It is not difficult to establish the nitrogen cycle, and it will keep ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites in check.
Doing a 25-percent water change each week will introduce clean water into the aquarium. It also allows established water conditions to maintain without having to start over with a complete water change.
Your research will show that gill hyperplasia is referred to as an increase of cells in an area, in this case, the gill tissues. Gill hyperplasia is deforming, fusing, or scaring of gill fibers.
Gills are sensitive organs, and they can become damaged with ease. That makes gill hyperplasia a more common issue with that part of the body. The tissue that makes the gill does not heal well and will grow new cells over the damaged area.
Toxins in the water column – Ammonia, nitrites, nitrates
Bad water quality – poor nitrogen cycle, parameters outside of Betta tolerance
Deficencies in certain acids – Pantothenic, for one
Why are my Betta fish’s gills red?
The answer is probably gill hyperplasia. Symptoms include, but are not limited to:
Changes in gill coloring
Gasping for oxygen
Gill covering will not close
Loss of appetite
The gill tissue becomes an unnatural tint of red. That is due to the inflammation at the damaged site and the new cells produced for protection.
The deforming, fusing, and growth of new cell layers will make it harder for your Betta fish to breathe. That labored breathing may continue for the lifespan of your pet Betta if the damage is severe enough.
One side-effect of gill hyperplasia is that the swelling prevents the operculum (gill cover) from completely closing shut. It appears that your Betta fish is flaring its gills continuously, and this might be permanent, depending on how much new cell growth occurs.
As with most health problems, your Betta fish may experience a loss of appetite and become lethargic due to gill hyperplasia. Both activity and desire to eat should return once the swelling from the gill hyperplasia subsides.
How can you treat gill hyperplasia?
Performing a 50-percent water change can help to eliminate toxins and other pollutants. Try to avoid water changes more than half the fish tank’s volume to prevent destroying good bacteria or other safe water conditions.
Treat your Betta fish and the fish tank with Aquarium Salt (See API’s product above). That will help gill functionality, increase your Betta’s electrolyte levels, and help fight-off potential infections while the hyperplasia runs its course.
Preventing gill hyperplasia
Monitor your Betta’s water conditions
Establish a nitrogen cycle and perform weekly maintenance
Remove sharp decorations or substrate
Isolate new Betta fish and do not overpopulate
You can reduce gill hyperplasia by maintaining proper water conditions. Use a water testing kit to help you do that consistently.
A good nitrogen cycle will prevent toxic levels of ammonia or other gases. You can also help with additional chemical and mechanical filtration methods.
Avoid placing sharp items in your Betta’s tank to reduce the risk of gill hyperplasia. Also, use a substrate with soft or rounded edges to avoid abrasions or cuts on the gills.
Isolating a new Betta or its tank mates can help reduce the chance of introducing an unwanted bacteria, fungus, or parasite into your aquarium. Use an isolation tank for two weeks.
Gill flukes are a parasite (Dactylogyrus) that can grow on your Betta fish. They usually target the soft tissues of your fish’s gills, though. They are similar to skin flukes, and both skin and gill flukes are treatable in the same way.
The gill flukes, or their eggs, can be introduced from newly purchased live plants from aquarium decorations from an infected tank. Most often, gill flukes enter your Betta tank from an acquired Betta fish or a new tank mate.
Unhealthy water conditions can also promote the growth and infestation of gill flukes. Polluted water columns can stress your Betta fish, causing its immune system to falter. That provides a path for the gill flukes to enter through.
Gill fluke symptoms include:
Damaged gills or mucus covered gills
Gasping to breathe
Scraping on objects
Gills can appear damaged, and the Betta may have produced mucus to cover them.
Gasping for breath or scraping on objects are two physical symptoms that your Betta acts out. Gill damage makes it harder to exchange gases, while the scraping is a sign that your fish is trying to rid itself of the gill flukes.
Ulcers or open wounds can appear. That is from the parasites destroying surrounding tissues.
How can you treat gill flukes?
You need to use an anti-fluke medication like API’s General Cure. You need a product that targets parasite infestations.
A salt bath is an option for mild cases of gill flukes, but it is not as effective as an anti-parasite medication.
Remember, you will need to treat the tank as well. Your Betta needs to be in a quarantine tank while you treat it for gill flukes.
Preventing gill flukes
Maintain good water conditions
Quarantine new Betta or tank mates
Perform 25-percent water changes weekly, and keep the Betta tank balanced chemically and in temperature.
Quarantine new fish or live plants. Clean any decor before placing it in your Betta tank.