Last Updated: September 19, 2023 by Flora Gibbins
Proper care is key to giving your betta fish a long and happy life. And while it can be demanding to care for bettas, more so than other fish species, most fish keepers have no problem doing so.
New betta fish keepers are more prone to error since they’re not yet familiar with their picky colorful pet fish. And unfortunately, this accidental negligence can cause destructive and sometimes fatal amounts of stress in betta fish.
But we’re here to help you identify the signs of stress in bettas and treat them, so keep reading for more information!
- The Short Answer
- What Is Stress in Betta Fish?
- What Causes a Stressed Betta Fish?
- Common Symptoms of a Stressed Fish
- How to Treat a Stressed Betta Fish
- Watch This!
- Frequently Asked Questions
The Short Answer
Betta fish need a spacious living space with pristine water quality to thrive. You should also isolate them from aggressive fish or other tank mates if they struggle to live in a community tank.
If betta fish are exposed to poor conditions for too long, they’ll get depressed, show their stress stripes and fin rot, and become lethargic. They may also lose their appetite and get ill, leading to their demise.
So make sure you give your betta fish a bigger tank with warm water temperature and keep it on a regular healthy diet. If necessary, you can also give it natural medication, like aquarium salt, or artificial medicine.
What Is Stress in Betta Fish?
Most species experience stress in different ways. For betta fish, stress is comparable to that of a human’s experience.
Stressed betta fish feel depressed and become inactive due to a loss of interest in leisure and life.
Unfortunately, many fish keepers don’t recognize the signs of a stressed betta and unintentionally fail to act upon it.
After prolonged exposure to stress, betta fish experience severe physical effects like loss of color and immune system malfunctions, which makes them more susceptible to disease and, in the worst cases, death.
What Causes a Stressed Betta Fish?
Betta fish care is crucial because they’re a delicate fish species that need to live in nearly ideal conditions to lead a stress-free life. Unfortunately, new betta owners tend to make some of these mistakes before learning how to care for betta fish.
You should learn what makes a stressed or aggressive fish to prevent it, so here are the most common causes for stressed betta fish:
Small Tank Size
One of the most common beginner mistakes is housing bettas in smaller tanks or fish bowls. In reality, betta fish will never live comfortably in tanks smaller than five gallons, and many expert fish keepers recommend at least a 10-gallon tank.
So if your tank is too small, you should give your betta fish a large new aquarium right away.
There’s no point in using a larger aquarium if you’re going to fill it with aggressive fish and fin nippers that will fight each other over fish flakes and living space.
Of course, you could accommodate several fish with a bigger tank, but you still need to ensure the tank mates are compatible.
Some of the best tank mates for betta fish include neon tetras, Siamese algae eaters, Cory catfish, Malaysian trumpet snails, and live plants.
Poor Water Quality
Maintaining an optimal water quality can be hard at the beginning since the signs of poor water aren’t clear.
The tank water pH levels shouldn’t veer too much from 7. The temperature should also stay around 80-85° F (just under 30° C).
And it doesn’t matter if you’re using fresh water or tap water; it should be clean at the particle level. Some betta owners use a water conditioner while filling up a new tank to do this.
After the fill-up, you need an efficient filtration system that helps introduce beneficial bacteria to the tank.
Lastly, make sure there’s enough light reaching the tank but don’t make it overwhelming either.
Sudden Changes in Living Conditions
Once bettas adapt to their living conditions, they get too comfortable there. As such, sudden water changes can cause shock, which is another betta stress factor, especially if the change is too drastic.
Water changes are inevitable. But to avoid severe shocks, you should maintain a regular schedule of partial and complete water changes.
Last but certainly not least, illness can cause bettas immense stress. Unsurprisingly, there’s a direct relationship between the illness severity and the effects of stress.
Illness is an inevitable part of life. The best you can do about it is promptly treat it and maintain a clean environment with minimal chemical, bio, or food waste.
Common Symptoms of a Stressed Fish
Most symptoms of a stressed betta fish are intuitive since the fish will generally look and act abnormally. Still, you should know that if your betta is showing signs of stress, then prevent it immediately!
Lack of Activity
When bettas are stressed, they can become lethargic and lose their normal activity levels, sort of like humans can stay in bed all day under stress.
A stressed betta will gravitate towards the aquarium bottom and show disinterest in swimming. This can also be a sign of old age, but it’s probably due to stress if the betta fish is still young.
Little to No Appetite
A happy betta fish won’t overlook a meal, even if it’s had enough food. In contrast, stressed bettas lose interest in food, even if they haven’t eaten for a while.
A lack of appetite can also signify depression or illness, though. So don’t take that as the only stress sign.
Hiding Too Much
Stressed bettas hide in their natural habitats to avoid being seen as vulnerable prey by a potential predator, and they carry this instinct into the aquarium.
However, your betta fish might be hiding from a stronger competitor in its community tank, so that’s another reason you should choose compatible tank mates.
Factoid: There is more to having stress that makes bettas hide a lot. Unveil the mystery of this peculiar behavior by reading our article on Betta Fish Hiding: 9 Possible Reasons They Play Hide-&-Seek to learn more!
Experienced fish keepers know to take care of their betta fish because a healthy and happy betta freely shows off its vibrant colors. In contrast, stressed bettas go pale and lose coloration, revealing their stress stripes.
Fumbling Around the Tank
Bettas are naturally aggressive when stressed, leading them to swim around the tank furiously in seemingly random patterns.
Betta fish do this to avoid threats or discomfort. This means there’s a problem with the water in the aquarium and the betta is looking for a cleaner spot.
Strange Swimming Patterns
Bettas love to swim a lot, but they can get frantic under stress. As such, they swim in abnormal patterns that might even hurt them.
For example, they might rub themselves against a surface, swim against rocks or gravel, or even crash into the walls or bottom of the aquarium.
Glass surfing — swimming up and down or side to side against the glass — can be an indicator of various issues, ranging from poor water quality to an inadequate environment or even social stressors.
When bettas exhibit this behavior, it’s essential to consider various factors. These can include water temperature, pH levels, ammonia, and nitrate concentrations, as well as other less quantifiable elements like lighting, tank furnishings, and even the fish’s social environment if you have more than one aquatic creature in the tank.
Healthy bettas love to swim freely and fan their fins open to wet them with every row. But it’s a sign of trouble when bettas swim with clamped fins.
This can indicate high stress since the betta is so tensed up it can’t relax its body and fan its fins, so it looks like it’s stuck in a tight jacket.
Again, getting ill is inevitable in all creatures. But if you notice your fish getting ill too frequently despite living in seemingly optimal water conditions, then there’s probably something slipping under your nose that you need to fix.
Check all the water parameters and devices to ensure no stress factors.
Factoid: Bettas also acquire stripes when distressed. Learn more about this natural occurrence by reading our article, Betta Stress Stripes: Detecting Health Problems Line By Line.
How to Treat a Stressed Betta Fish
Once you’ve figured out the source of stress in betta fish, it’s time to remedy it. Your treatment plan will mostly depend on stress factors, though. So here are the best ways to treat a betta and prevent stress in the future.
More Living Space
As we mentioned above, your betta fish needs adequate living space to thrive. We recommend a 5-gallon tank as an absolute minimum, but one male betta may require up to 10 gallons to live comfortably.
If you’ve just brought your betta from the fish store, you don’t want to keep it in the small transport tank for too long, so make sure the aquarium is ready for the new betta.
Changing Its Water
Sudden water changes may stress your betta, but they’re necessary to keep a clean, stress-free environment. Not changing the water isn’t an option since it’ll eventually succumb to contamination and toxic chemicals.
Make sure you completely change your betta’s water once every 1-2 weeks. But you can carry out partial changes (20-50%) throughout.
Installing a Better Filter
Water filters are vital in maintaining optimal water quality, but you need to pick the right system.
A good filter should enable mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration. We recommend looking at power or chemical filters if you use an average-size tank. But if you have a 30-40+ gallon tank, check out canister filters.
Adjusting Water Parameters
It’s hard to gauge factors like the water pH levels or temperature since we don’t live underwater, but you should maintain them at constant healthy levels to avoid stressing your betta.
The water pH should stay around 7, which is neither basic nor acidic. You can use litmus paper to measure pH, and if you notice it’s going too much in either direction, you can change the water or add balancing chemicals.
As for temperature, just put a thermometer in the tank on the opposite side to the heater to ensure the water is equally heated. Make sure the temperature stays around 80-85° F.
If you give your betta food that’s low in nutrients or not balanced enough, then you’re exposing it to several health risks, including stress, illness, weakness, depression, etc. Your betta fish needs a healthy diet of high-quality food with no additives or preservatives.
And since betta fish are carnivorous, you can rely on popular fish flake brands for their meals. Occasionally, you can throw in some worms, tiny fish, brine shrimp, pellets, or frozen food into the mix for protein.
Another point that people don’t talk about as often is the feeding schedule.
As we mentioned, betta fish adapt to their conditions and are prone to shock if sudden changes occur.
So if your fish is used to eating in the morning, for example, then don’t skip the following daylight to feed it at night.
Furnishing a Tropical Fish Tank
A bland tank with nothing but vast water is boring and can stress your betta out. So make sure to add aquatic plants and caves to give your betta fish some hiding spaces.
You can also add moss balls, gravel, or other decorations to give your betta fish a livelier tank.
Lastly, you can add natural or artificial stress-relieving medication to support your betta fish. Aquarium salt is a widely popular choice, but you can also use antibiotics if your fish is ill.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you cheer up a betta fish?
You can play with your betta fish to cheer it up if it looks depressed. For example, hover your finger above the tank to make it jump (without falling out), hold a mirror against the walls, or install some playful decoration in the tank.
Can bettas get depressed?
Yes. If a betta’s basic needs aren’t met, especially in the long term, it can get depressed and experience a general loss of interest in life. For example, it’ll stop leisure activities like playing and swimming, but it might also stop eating or get too sluggish.
Don’t worry if your betta fish shows signs of stress, as it’s remediable. However, don’t panic either and act on a whim since the wrong decisions can cause the bettas to feel stressed.
You can reduce stress in bettas by optimizing their water, giving them enough space, feeding them properly, and medicating them if and when needed.
In the future, you can keep your betta happy by playing with it and maintaining its optimal living conditions. Lastly, remember the signs, such as betta stress stripes, and watch out for them, as it’s much easier to treat stress if you detect it early.