Many families enter the pet-ownership circle with an aquarium. After all, fish are inexpensive and easy to replace, and once established do not require daily attention. Setting up an aquarium properly can prove difficult, and attention to detail can make the difference between live and dead fish. However, the sense of accomplishment in setting up a mini-ecosystem and relaxing entertainment make aquariums well worth the effort.
The quality of care received determines the health of fish. Novices should stick with tried-and-true species. As the keeper gains experience (and equipment), they can keep more sensitive and specialty fish. Typically, the larger the tank the more “learning room” the tank can provide. Kept in a quality environment, most species can live at least two years, with some species living twenty or more years.
Fish require an aquarium of sufficient size for the adult fish. Fish do not grow to “fit the tank,” their growth is simply stunted by smaller tanks, meaning they are small because they are sick. The general rule of thumb is one gallon of water per inch of fish, but this is not accurate either, as it does not take into consideration fish larger than about two inches long, or with thick bodies, nor does it consider the temperament of the species in the tank. Generally, the larger the ratio of water to fish the better, and the more often the water changes, the better.
In addition to the physical tank, most aquarium fish require a heater, filter, substrate (gravel or sand), and hiding spaces. Unlike most pets, I strongly recommend that you purchase at least your initial setup from a specialty fish store. It will be more expensive than the “aquarium kits” found at big-box stores, but you will get quality equipment and knowledgeable staff. Finding your tank overheated, with dead and floating fish, hurts badly, and is preventable with a quality heater.
The difficulty in keeping fish is balancing their need for food with their need to have clean water. Leftover food as well as waste matter rots in the tank. Filters remove most of this by growing helpful bacteria, but most tanks require weekly water changes. Also, live plants require nutrition as well as the removal of waste. Carefully balancing live plants with fish provides the most natural environment.
Fish do not require any social behavior from humans. A few species learn to recognize their owners, including Bettas (Siamese fighting fish) and some Cichlids. They may interact with their owners on some level. Most other fish do not have true consciousness. Do not expect your fish to interact with you, greet you, or otherwise acknowledge your presence.
Individual species, however, have different social needs. Some fish, such as most tetras, do best in schools. Others, like Bettas, prefer to live without any company at all. Some species will kill other fish if possible, such as most cichlids, while others are easygoing, like corydoras catfish. Talk to the folks at your local fish store to learn more about specific species and how to mix them.
Care & Feeding
Every species has unique needs. General tropical flakes are fine for most community aquariums, while more rare or expensive fish may need specific diets. Pet stores also stock frozen and fresh diets. Some species, like the plecostemous catfish, love fresh zucchini and lettuce, while others need specific feeders.
Aquariums cost as little as $10 and as much as several thousand. Supplies, especially for small to medium sized tanks, often appear in the classifieds used. If your family has never owned an aquarium before, a tank of about 30 gallons and all supplies for freshwater fish costs around $100. This is enough water that you can work with the chemical balance while you learn, but small enough that it will not take over a room.
What kind of home suits an aquarium?
- You vacation regularly and want to be able to leave for a day or two without hiring a pet sitter.
- You have a stressful life and want a pet that will be calming and soothing, but do not have time to interact with a pet.
- You want to create an artistic masterpiece.
- You are interested in chemistry or biology, and want to learn about the balance of nutrients.