How to Buy an Aquarium as a Gift
Is an aquarium a good gift?
Buying someone an aquarium can be tricky, and the success of your gift depends largely on how well you know the person and how far you want to go in preparing the tank for their home.
Fish are great pets for people who are allergic to other animals or those who live in dormitories, apartments, or condos where furry or feathered pets are unwelcome or impractical. Aquarium keeping can be a great hobby for anyone, and could be especially nice for someone who is retired or for children who are ready to learn the responsibility of pet ownership.
Setting up an aquarium with kids can help teach them about nature and that they should respect living beings of all kinds. Many kids will love creating a world for the fish and giving them each names.
However, an aquarium is not really the type of gift that is simply purchased, wrapped up, and handed over. It takes thought, planning, preparation, and confidence. Before considering giving an aquarium to someone as a gift, you should try to determine whether or not this would be suitable for them. As much as you think this person could benefit from having a new pet, some people really just don't want the extra work. Make sure you know the person well enough to feel confident that this would be a good idea. If you're a parent and it's for your kids, then it's easier for you to decide since the tank will be in your home and you will still need to at least supervise to ensure that the fish are being cared for properly (or take over maintenance if the kids lose interest).
A fish tank as a gift can be very hit or miss. The recipient might really enjoy it, and keep it up and running for many years, or it might end up in the garage or in the classified ads after a few months or years of neglect. My siblings and I pooled together to purchase my dad an aquarium for Christmas a number of years ago, and it was a great success. He loved the tank even though it was a complete surprise, and still takes great care of it years later. It still sits in the same place where we quietly set it up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve.
Giving an aquarium as a kit
By far the easiest way to give someone an aquarium is to simply go to the store, buy a package kit, wrap it up and let them do the rest.
Kits or empty aquarium package deals are ideal for someone who will probably like aquarium keeping as a hobby, or someone who is particular about things and likes to do it themselves. If you know the recipient has the time and would want to set the tank up, cycle it, and buy the fish on their own, then this is probably the best way to do it. Many people love this kind of thing and would be thrilled to get the equipment but disappointed if you took the setup process away from them.
Giving an empty kit is also a great option for parents purchasing the tank for their children. Setting up the aquarium and learning about the needs of fish can be like a fun science project.
If you know a little about fish keeping or want to do the research, you can also buy the components separately on your own and put together a kit yourself.
- Tank (Note: bigger tanks require less maintenance)
- Substrate, such as gravel or sand
- Decorations (optional)
- Tap water conditioner
- Fish net
- Fish keeping books (optional)
- Fish (optional)
Giving a prepared tank
This will be more work on your part, and requires planning ahead at least a few weeks, but if the person you're giving the tank to doesn't have a lot of time on their hands, this is how you can give them a fully complete aquarium that is ready to run that day. See my other hub on low maintenance aquariums to learn how to choose a setup that doesn't require a lot of work to keep clean and healthy.
- Buy the aquarium, stand, and accessories first and set them up in your own home a few weeks before you want to give the gift.
- Cycle the tank properly (this can take a few weeks). Read this article to learn about how and why you need to cycle an aquarium before using it. Basically, the idea is to start up some colonies of bacteria that will help break down waste and toxins in the tank before they become harmful to the fish. Skipping this step will likely result in many sick or dead fish until the bacteria become established on their own.
- When the aquarium is ready, you can select and add the fish yourself. This is optional; you can also give a tank that is cycled and ready to go, but let them choose the fish. In that case, it might be nice to include a gift card to the pet store. If you do buy fish yourself, you can keep the fish bags for transporting them again later. Ziploc bags can work as well. If you don't want to use plastic bags you can also use a large bucket with a lid to transport the fish.
- When it comes time to give the gift, put the fish back in the airtight plastic bags with plenty of water. Don't do this too early, you want them to survive until the gift-exchange!
- Drain the tank, giving the water to your houseplants. Leave some of the original water in the bottom. The gravel or sand needs to stay wet in order to maintain those beneficial bacteria that colonized the gravel when you cycled the tank.
- Transport the aquarium filter in a bucket with some tank water in the compartment (do NOT use tap water) so the bacteria inside don’t die and the tank stays cycled. It is important that you do not use tap water, especially if you live in a place where the tap water is chlorinated as this will kill off much of the beneficial bacteria and undo all that time spent cycling the tank. It is always better to use tank water for this, even if your water does not contain chlorine or you have a conditioner.
- Decide how you want to present the tank, and you’re ready to go!
How should you present the aquarium gift?
There are a number of ways you can do this, depending on who the gift is for and how far you will have to transport it, among other things.
When we gave my dad an aquarium as a Christmas present, I had set it up in my house a few weeks before, so that it would be properly cycled and ready to go by Christmas. On Christmas Eve, I told my dad I would be coming over late and not to wait up. We packed up the tank and drove over late in the night, snuck in, and set it up in the living room while he slept. It was as 46 gallon tank, and I had to fill it up using a small bucket and tip toeing back and forth from the kitchen sink, gently pouring each bucket in to make as little noise as possible. It felt like it took years to fill, but it was totally worth the surprise. Note: it was safe to use his tap water because he is on a well and the water is not chlorinated. If you are filling it up where there is chlorinated tap water, you will need to use an additive with each bucket to dechlorinate it first.
Once the tank was full I arranged the decorations, added the fish, and covered it up with a sheet. He knew what it was immediately when he got up in the morning (especially since the filter was running and you could hear water), but it was still a lot of fun to add a bit of an extra surprise to it.
This was how I did it, but there are many other possibilities.
If the tank is empty:
- simply wrap it or cover with a sheet and leave it with the other gifts
- hide it in another room, the car, or the garage until it's time, then bring it out for the surprise
- Simply bring it out and bring it in when you arrive, it doesn't necessarily have to be hidden
If you want the tank to be full you will have to set it up in place, because water is very heavy, so even a small aquarium is a pain to move around once filled up.
If you want the tank to be cycled and ready to use but not actually filled (and without fish), you can use the methods suggested for an empty tank but leave the gravel and filter wet to keep those good bacteria happy. This way the person getting the gift can decide where they want to place it and do the setup themselves, without having to wait weeks before getting actual fish.
Notes and Tips:
- Never buy someone an aquarium as a gift unless you know they actually want one. It’s a beautiful gift that can give many years of enjoyment, but for some people it might be just a burden and another household chore. Aquariums are expensive, and you don’t want to end up spending hundreds of dollars to see the tank fill up with algae and dead fish, then emptied and sold at the next garage sale for $10.
- If you plan to buy a kit and let the recipient set up the tank, consider including a card with a gift certificate for the pet store so they can get the fish without having to spend their own money.
- For kids or anyone who isn’t too experienced with aquarium keeping, perhaps include a good beginner's book on keeping aquarium fish happy and healthy. Anyone who is comfortable using the internet can find everything they need to know via websites and fish hobbyist forums.
- If you want to set up the tank yourself, be considerate of the recipient and try to make it as low-maintenance as possible.
- Do some research if you’re planning to select the fish for them. I do not recommend goldfish. They are an unfortunate and misunderstood creature. Each goldfish should have ten gallons of water all to itself because they have a high metabolism and produce a lot of waste, and they can get very large. This severely limits the number and variety of fish you can include in the aquarium. Set up an interesting community tank but as mentioned before, do your research! Make sure you try to find fish that co-habitate well together and won’t kill each other off.
- If the person is not very experienced with fish and probably won't get into it as a hobby, go for hardy beginner species such as Tetras, Barbs, or Danios and avoid more difficult ones like African Cichlids or Discus. These fish are less resilient and require a little more knowledge and experience to keep successfully.
- It might be tempting, but do not purchase a saltwater tank. They are incredibly beautiful but far more expensive to buy and maintain and significantly more work. The fish are usually not bred in captivity so are instead captured in the wild and flown to your local pet store, causing large numbers of fish loss, and significant harm to their natural ecosystem. It is simply not worth it. Saltwater fish are also very sensitive to water chemistry and can be difficult to feed. They are not a good idea for anyone who is not interested in the hobby on a very experienced level. If that is the case, then you should give only the tank and some basic equipment, and perhaps a gift card so that they can do the rest themselves.