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How to Help Keep Your Pet Fish Alive

fish tank with sand substrate, plants, and a school of fish

No one likes to see their fish die, but sometimes it does happen. Fish get old, equipment failures occur, the aquarium cover gets left open and they jump out, and sometimes we just don’t know why. That said, there things we can do to prevent unnecessary fish losses or at least make sure we give them the best chance for a long, healthy life.


Scientists believe that fish have a longer life expectancy in captivity than in the wild because there’s no predation, food is always available and their environment is less harsh. Life is just easier in an aquarium! (In theory). All those conditions, of course, are up to us to meet as proud owners, which is why it’s so important to understand what fish need to thrive and provide those things every day.

At Aqueon, we take pride in providing educational resources and information for hobbyists of all ages. Below we highlight some of the most important information to keep your new fish friends healthy and most importantly, alive, in their new environment. And trust us when we say, it’s easier than you think! It just starts with the right information.

Fish Tank Care

Set-Up Your Aquarium to Maximize Fish Health

Perhaps the most important step in fish-ownership is choosing the right fish tank and aquarium supplies for your home or place of business. Make sure the aquarium is big enough for the fish you’re going to buy. Bowls and small aquariums may seem like a good idea, but they’re a lot harder to take care of and are often an early death sentence. If this is your first attempt at fish keeping, unless you’re starting out with a betta, consider an aquarium kit of at least 10 gallons that has all the equipment you’ll need. Remember, the fish you buy probably won’t be full size, so make sure there’s room for them to grow! Get the largest aquarium you can afford or have room for.

If you do not live in a climate that’s warm all year round, you’ll need an aquarium heater. Most tropical fish do best between 75° and 80° F (goldfish 68° to 74° F). You will want to purchase the right heater wattage that will 1) be strong enough to heat the volume of water inside the aquarium and 2) elevate the aquarium water as needed according the ambient room temperature.

Select the Right Filter for Your Aquarium

Fish go potty in the same place they live, so a good aquarium filter is essential! Most filters today do all three stages of filtration pretty well and are usually rated for specific tank sizes. If you want fish that are a little messier, like goldfish or cichlids, or fish that might have babies or get a lot larger, buying a slightly oversized model is a good idea. If your filter uses a drop-in cartridge, rinse it weekly and replace it once a month. If you have a canister filter, check media regularly and clean or replace them as necessary.

large fish tank with blue background filled with various fish, rocks, and plants

Stressed Fish

Reduce Fish Stress with Natural Cover and Hiding Places

Some fish are open water swimmers, but most need cover in the form of plants and other decorations to feel safe and find a home. They may hide or get picked on if there isn’t enough structure in the tank and fish that are stressed out all the time are more likely to get sick. When you start stocking your tank, add one or two new decorations each time you add new fish so the newcomers have fresh places to go.

Fish Compatibility

Research the Right Types of Fish for Your Aquatic Environment

Always research fish before buying them to make sure you have the right conditions, adequate skills to provide proper care, and they’re compatible with any existing fish. When you are selecting new fish, check for signs of stress or disease and avoid fish that don’t appear healthy. Are they swimming oddly or huddling on the bottom (except for catfish). Or hiding in the decorations? Be especially observant of clamped fins and shimmying being displayed by livebearers. Do they have torn fins, bloody patches, or little white dots like grains of salt on their fins or body? Are they breathing rapidly or gasping at the surface? Most importantly, ask how long they’ve been at the store. Never buy a fish that just came in; they’re most likely stressed from their journey from the wholesaler and moving them again will just add to that. Let them settle in for a week before buying them.

Certain types of fish are schooling fish which means that they should be purchased in groups of no less than 6, and preferably 10 or more. Some examples are tetras, barbs, danios, rasboras and corydoras catfish. If your tank won’t accommodate that many, consider a different kind of fish.

Yet other types of fish are known for not getting along well and this means you would only put one inside your fish tank. Some examples are redtail and rainbow sharks, knifefish, and others.

image of a stripetail fish inside of an aquarium

(Stripetail)

Adding New Fish to Your Tank

Acclimate New Fish Appropriately to Maintain Good Health

When you bring your fish home, acclimate them to your aquarium slowly, don’t just dump them into the tank! There are different techniques, but basically you want to adjust new fish to your water gradually so as not to add to their stress level. A common method is to turn off the aquarium light and float the bag in your tank, adding small amounts of tank water to the bag every few minutes for a half hour before gently netting them into their new home. Never allow store water to enter your aquarium, discard it after you release the fish. Leave the aquarium light off for the first few hours they’re in the tank to give them a chance to settle in. Keep a close eye on them for the first few days to make sure they’re eating, not getting harassed, and show no signs of disease.

Finally, be sure to turn the light off every night. Fish can’t close their eyes to sleep so leaving the light on 24/7 stresses them and also encourages nuisance algae growth. If your light doesn’t have a built-in timer, get one at the aquarium or hardware store and program it for 6 to 8 hours if you don’t have live plants, and 10 to 12 hours if you do.

Aquarium Water

Perform Partial Water Changes to Keep Fish Healthy

In nature the water is either flowing – as in rivers and streams – so waste is washed away, or the volume is much higher versus a home aquarium – as in ponds and lakes. In both natural environments waste is quickly diluted. In an aquarium, waste by-products, such as nitrate, will build up over time no matter how good your filter is. (And no, catfish, plecostomus and other scavengers don’t get rid of that – they poop in the water just like everybody else!) Water changes are the number one factor in maintaining a healthy, balanced aquarium. You’ll get different answers when you ask how much and, how often you should perform them, but 10% weekly or 25% bi-weekly is a good rule of thumb. At least once a month, try to vacuum debris off the bottom, even going into the gravel a little. And remember, when water evaporates all the bad stuff stays behind, so constantly topping off your aquarium is not the same as a water exchange. Don’t forget about the importance of aquarium water care! Use an aquarium water conditioner to neutralize chlorine compounds and heavy metals BEFORE you put new water in your aquarium.

Optimize Fish Health by Feeding Your Fish the Right Foods at the Right Time

They say you are what you eat -- that applies to fish too! Fish can be herbivores (vegetarian), carnivores (meat eaters) or omnivores (both). Different fish need different nutrients, and even though fish foods today are far superior to what was available in “the old days”, you still need to know what your fish’s nutritional needs are, and give them variety. It is optimal to have different kinds of fish food and treats on hand and to rotate them into your fish’s diet. Feed only what they can completely finish in 2 minutes or less, and skip a day once a week. Feed once a day for the first 4 to 8 weeks after you set your tank up to avoid ammonia and nitrite build-up and then go to twice a day if you like. Small active fish need to eat more often – but smaller amounts than large, slow-moving fish.

Keeping fish alive isn’t difficult but understanding what they need and providing it consistently will ensure you and your fish enjoy many happy years together!

Are you looking for more helpful facts and information to keep your fish happy and healthy? Watch our short 3 Tips to Succeed Video to get the most basic, but helpful, information about feeding and maintaining a fish tank.

More knowledge can be found by reviewing our Fish Care Sheets or checkout out our most Frequently Asked Questions.

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