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So, You Just Bought A Pet Fish, Now What? Tips For New Fish Owners

Updated on March 4, 2010

So, you have your first fish. Congratulations! You have embarked on a great hobby that may very well consume your life. This is an article for people who have bought a fish and don't know anything about them.

You will need:

  • A filter ( a MUST for all fish.)
  • Water testing kit for ammonia, nitrites, nitrites and pH. (another MUST have.)
  • A heater (for tropical fish.)
  • A big enough tank. A goldfish needs a 20 gallon. Small tropicals may need less, but unless you plan to get a single betta fish, you are wasting your time with anything smaller than a 10 gallon. A five gallon is a good home for a single betta.

What's next?

Water Changes, Water Changes, Water Changes

Odds are that as a newbie, you have either too many fish or too large a fish in too small of a tank. If somebody has told you that a golfish can live happily in a bowl, you have been sadly misinformed. Common beginner fish like goldfish actually need far more space, filtration and care than many other species of fish. If you have a goldfish, upgrade to a 20 gallon as soon as possible (like, within the next week. If you cannot, return the fish and bowl and thoroughly chastise the idiot who sold it to you.) Failure to do so will result in a miserable, stunted and short lived fish. Nobody gets a pet intending to torture it to death, but unfortunately, many new fish owners do that.

If you've brought a new fish and a new tank at the same time, you have another problem on your hands. Established fish tanks are what we call 'cycled', this means that they have built up naturally occurring bacteria that convert ammonia in fish wastes into nitrites and then into less poisonous nitrates. Your new tank has none of these bacteria and your fish will suffer, and perhaps even die because of it. So, what can you do? Well, if you can, give the fish to someone with a cycled tank until you sort yours out. If you cannot, you will need to buy a water testing kit that tests for ammonia, nitrites and nitrates (you will need to do this regardless, it is a staple of the fishkeeper's arsenal,) and test the water daily.

Ammonia and nitrites are highly poisonous to fish. At best they burn them and make them sick. At worst, they kill them dead. You must change the water often enough to ensure that the ammonia stays below 0.2 ppm, and that the nitrites stay below 0.2 ppm also. Anything higher than this is not acceptable and will harm your fish.

Eventually, after about 4 to 6 weeks, you will find that you no longer need to do daily water changes. The bacteria will have established itself and the ammonia and nitrite levels will stay low on their own. Does this sound like a lot of hard work? It is. Fish keeping is hard work. Once your tank is established, you will still need to do water changes every two weeks at the longest, and many keepers prefer to do water changes every week.

If you have an uncycled tank, resist the urge to buy any more fish until it is cycled. Now that you know better, it is not acceptable to subject any more fish to poor water quality. This might sound alarmist and annoying, but believe me, it is not worth it. Fish kept in poor water conditions invariably become sick and there is nothing more miserable looking than a bunch of suck fish slowly dying off due to neglect.

The most important and best thing you can do for your fish is to keep their water clean. When I say clean, I mean below 0.2 ppm for ammonia and nitrite. It is possible to have crystal clear water that is entirely toxic to fish. Stay on top of your water quality, don't be afraid to do water changes, and your fish will thrive.


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