With flashy colors, iridescent scales, and long fins that flow around them like underwater ball gowns, betta fish are some of the most eye-catching creatures you might see for sale at a pet store or flea market. They’re cheap, too—the fish are sold for as little as $2 each. It may seem tempting to buy these little gems as captivating, swimming decorations.
But living animals aren’t decorations, and some animal welfare advocates are concerned that the betta’s reputation as an “easy” pet is exaggerated. Critics argue that such popularity and misconceptions about their care and biology can lead to them being some of the most commonly mistreated fish in the pet trade.
A new campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) aims to highlight the problems with betta sales and ownership, so National Geographic is taking a closer look.
Is it hard to keep a betta?
There are no “easy” pets, but to be fair, bettas are easier to care for than many other types of fish. Bettas do, in fact, need less space than other fish, and they’re hardier. Like other fish in the same taxonomic suborder, they have a “labyrinth” organ, which allows them to take gulps of air from the surface, so they can survive in water with lower oxygen levels than other types of fish. Bettas also live in freshwater, which requires an aquarium environment that is easier to set up and maintain than saltwater.
Still, rumors of their ease of care are exaggerated. Bettas don’t thrive in tiny puddles in the wild—though during the dry season when streams dry up, some wild bettas do survive by puddle-hopping—and therefore prefer a tank of at least 2.5 gallons. But more is better. They will not be healthy or happy living in so-called “self-contained ecosystems,” confined in a vase with nothing but a plant on top to feed them—their natural diet is insects and larva, not roots. Bettas need filtration, warm water, enrichment like plants and caves to explore, and regular feeding and tank cleaning. Many fish tanks that you can buy easily, including this fish tank in a stuffed animal, are nowhere near the appropriate size to keep a fish happy. Without proper education, some fish owners will even keep the animals in the tupperware-like containers that they come in.
“We encourage everyone who owns or cares for animals to consistently monitor their living conditions,” wrote four industry organizations— Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the European Pet Association, the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, and Ornamental Fish International—that emailed a joint statement to National Geographic.
What can make your pet betta unhappy?
In 2017, researches at Ghent University in Belgium identified several common issues among betta fish welfare. They wrote that bettas can become stressed from sharing a tank with fish they see as rivals, especially when they are confined and can’t escape, or from seeing them in other nearby tanks. Too-small tanks, a lack of environmental enrichment, and mycobacterium infections also harm the quality of life for many bettas.
Christel Moons, one of the authors on the paper, explained that it’s especially important to set up a tank where the betta has companionship with fish that it gets along with, and also has the option of avoiding them. “You want to look at species compatibility and you also want to make sure that it has the option for hiding,” Moons said. “Having said that, it’s the same for all fish.”
And, yes, fish are capable of being happy and unhappy. Historically, science has gone back and forth a few times on whether fish feel pain. However, enough experimentation has taken place now that veterinarians generally believe that they do experience pain and suffering—an entire book on the subject comes to the same conclusion. Fish have the correct anatomy to receive pain signals, they produce the same natural chemical painkillers that mammals do, and they consciously choose to avoid painful stimuli.
They also experience emotions with which we humans can identify. In a 2016 paper published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers argued that “fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates.” Fish cooperate, recognize other fish, solve puzzles, and sometimes raise their own young. The idea that fish only have a three-second memory is a myth.
“We do know obviously that fish in general are more than what we thought they were, in a sense that their cognition is more developed than we previously thought and that they may even experience emotions, for example when in pain,” Moons said.
Protesting betta sales
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims that customers purchase bettas flippantly, even giving them out as party favors. Because of widespread mismanagement of bettas, and because of concerns over the welfare of animals during breeding, shipping, and distribution, PETA is asking consumers not to buy the fish at all. They’re organizing protests against PETCO for selling them. The first one was held Saturday in San Diego.
“Ideally we’d like to see no animals sold in pet stores,” PETA Tricia Lebkuecher said. “But we’re focusing on bettas at the moment because they’re routinely subjected to insufficient care, because of the way PETCO markets them.” Lebkuecher notes that PETCO markets their bettas as a way to “help kick start a budding aquarist hobby in anyone” and “to brighten up the office.”
Four industry groups—tPet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the European Pet Association, the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, and Ornamental Fish International— provided a joint statement to National Geographic, criticizing PETA for investigations they say are “generally sensationalized and either staged or highly edited.”
In their statement, the industry groups criticized PETA for investigations they say are “generally sensationalized and either staged or highly edited.”
Pet store responsibility
PETCO sells the animals strategically in the hopes of minimizing the amount of time bettas have to spend in their tiny transportation cups, according to Jonathan Williamson, VP of animal care and education at PETCO. The stores don’t order huge quantities of fish, because ideally, each fish should only be in a store for a short period of time before being moved to a larger, permanent home.
Still, it’s not uncommon to see several dozen bettas stacked in cubes set closely together in pet stores. Formerly known as “Siamese fighting fish,” male bettas instinctively display and will fight with other brightly-colored fish that they see. Moons’ paper suggests that it’s stressful for them to see all the other flashy fish in a pet store display when they can’t escape, and that visual barriers should be set up between each one.
PETA also criticizes the state in which bettas are found at the stores: not just stressed, but sometimes dead or dying. The organization cites dozens of online complaints from Yelp, Facebook, and Reddit, in which users complain about seeing injured, dying, dead, and decomposing fish on PETCO shelves. In a recent advertisement, PETA showed bettas lying at the bottom of their containers. In undercover footage posted in 2013, PETA showed bettas transported in tiny bags in stackable crates, on their way to distributors. Many of the fish shown had already died, the tiny amount of water in their bags murky with decomposing bodies. Reviews and complaints on Customer Affairs leave PETCO with a rating of less than three stars out of five, but PETCO is not formally accredited with the website.
Holly Rutan, vice president of Betta Breeders United, and a member of International Betta Congress, noted that not all PETCOs have sick and dying fish. “The corporation as a whole is very concerned about the welfare of their animals,” Rutan said. “However I’ve noticed that from location to location, care does vary wildly.”
Rutan said that she’s mostly concerned that the fish at major distributors like PETCO aren’t being kept warm enough, but if you see dead fish or unclean water, you should tell the PETCO corporate office. “Corporate will address those concerns, but they have to know about it.”
She also notes that transportation in small bags is the safest option for small bettas. Large tanks can put too much water pressure on a small fish.
PETCO's Williamson also points out that staff are trained in animal husbandry, and if they believe that a customer can’t or won’t take care of an animal properly, the store is expected to refuse to sell that pet.
That means that customers must ensure that they have, or will buy, an appropriate home for their bettas. “At any point, if the customer says, ‘No, I’m just going to keep [the fish] in this cup,’ then we’re going to refuse that sale,” Williamson said.
To their credit, at least breeders can raise their own betta fish instead of catching them in the wild. Many of the species of pet fish available—especially tropical saltwater aquarium fish—are wild-caught, and their trade is largely undocumented. It’s common, but illegal, to catch tropical saltwater fish from coral reefs using cyanide, which has devastating ecological consequences. Still, breeding large numbers of betta fish in small containers at a major operation comes with its own concerns over animal welfare, stress, and inbreeding.
The trade in “ornamental” fish is filled with unanswered questions, and some of the most significant concerns about the fish trade are about traceability, animal handling, destructive fishing methods, overexploitation, and introducing non-native species to an area, consultant VK Dey wrote in his 2016 report The Global Trade in Ornamental Fish.
Even so, many appreciate having pet fish as a fun hobby, and looking at an aquarium is known to reduce stress in humans. The question is, when you get your own fish, can you be certain you are not creating stress for them?
This story has been updated with a joint comment from the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the European Pet Association, the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, and Ornamental Fish International. It has also been updated to provide additional information about wild bettas living in puddles.