So you think you want a fish tank?


Photo courtesy of Jason Baliban

So you think you’re ready for fish! A nice tank with swimming friends would be a great accent piece for your living room. Your child really wants a pet, and fish don’t poop all over the house or need to be walked. Fish tanks of a certain size are the only pets allowed in your dormitory/apartment. Mom or Dad have Alzheimer’s and you’ve been warned that they typically don’t react well to television as their condition progresses, but fish are nice and calming – after all, they have that nice tank in the nursing home or the hospital that everyone likes to look at. Yep, fish sound like the perfect fit for you.

Hold on a minute. Let’s look at this fish tank thing a little more closely, just to make sure they are the right pet for you. That way you’re not in over your head before you realize it. What are the pros of keeping fish? They look pretty. They’re soothing. It’s nature in your house. They have personality. They don’t set off people’s allergies when the tank is properly maintained. They don’t need to be toilet trained or taken for walks. You can go to work and not worry about them chewing the carpet or the window blinds. They are entertaining to watch. They’re a conversation piece. They give your kids something to do other than television and video games, and can be used to instill responsibility and learning, as well as teaching concepts of preservation, environmental awareness, biology, and chemistry. They are highly relaxing to watch.

What are the cons of fish keeping? Well, let’s start with the obvious. There can be quite a lot of cost in starting up a tank. You’ll need the tank, filter, heater, substrate, decorations, tank lid, tank stand, possibly an air pump depending on the type of filter or personal preference, liquid chemical test kit, food, gravel vac or python, buckets, old towels, liquid ammonia without surfactant, dechlorinator, and let’s not forget the fish. That’s quite a lot of things. There is more to fish than just putting the animals in water, watching them swim, and throwing in some food every day. Purchase the largest tank you can afford to maintain, both financially and time wise. A larger tank is actually easier for beginners, as there is a higher water volume.

This means there is more room for error – water pollutants are more dilute and easier to control. Be careful here – make sure what you buy meets your space requirements. The size of your tank controls the size of your filter and heater, as well as how much substrate is needed and how large of a stand you need. Remember, fish tanks are heavy. Putting them on regular furniture, such as a desk or dresser that is not designed to hold the weight of all the water in the tank can lead to a wet disaster in your home. The liquid chemical test kit (which is easier and less intimidating to use than it sounds) can range anywhere from around twenty dollars US to around 100 dollars US depending on your location. For example, test kits in Australia are extremely expensive because they must be imported, with import tax and fees, which cause them to cost in the one hundred dollar range. In the United States, the same test kit will cost around twenty dollars and can be bought off the shelf of many pet supply stores.

Another con of fish keeping includes maintenance time. While some individuals love their maintenance time, others find it to be an arduous chore they would rather avoid. If you don’t do the maintenance, you end up with a skanky, smelly tank and dead fish. When you first set up a fish tank, the tank needs to establish its “cycle” – an ammonia source must be provided to prompt the growth of a biological filter.

This can take as long as a month and a half in some tanks – time in which no fish are present and ammonia from a bottle is added to “feed” the bacteria while they form colonies in the filter. When this process is complete, water can be changed and fish added. Not everybody likes having an empty tank with no fish for a month and a half in their home. It takes a lot of patience, and some monitoring with the liquid chemical test kit to get it right. The process is typically not difficult – it is just a long time to wait for fish and does not yield the instant satisfaction that you would get with a cat or a dog. When the cycle is establish and fish are added, the tank requires a weekly water change of approximately 50% with a gravel vac. This is a suction powered siphon used to remove water from the tank and clean fish poop and uneaten food from the substrate. Some siphons attach to a water faucet.

These siphons are more expensive but are faster to use and in my opinion do a more thorough job of cleaning the substrate. Other siphons are cheaper and do not attach to the faucet. While they are effective, they cannot be used to refill the tank, resulting in a “bucket brigade” as a clean bucket is used to haul water from a sink or bathtub to the tank. Some tanks are so heavily stocked that this maintenance is required more than once a week to keep water quality within acceptable parameters.A final con of fish keeping involves the amount of time and resources required to research fish species and their individual requirements. Many fish cannot be housed together. Some are schooling or shoaling and must be kept in groups. All fish have specific food, temperature, sizing, temperament, and water quality requirements that are specific to their species that need to be followed.

After all, a fish tank is not enjoyable if all the fish are constantly sick, dying, or attacking each other due to inappropriate tank size, inappropriate food or water quality, or inappropriate tank mates. You cannot rely on a store which sells supplies and fish to give accurate information regarding their care. The store is in existence to make money, not to give you accurate advice. If the store can “sell” you a product to “fix” your tank rather than simply tell you to increase your water change schedule, they most likely will. A store will typically sell you any animal they have in stock, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate for your tank. While there are some exceptions to this rule, they are few and far between.

The employees at the store are typically working for minimum wage and are trained by the store – the place which can obtain a direct financial gain from illness or fish deaths in your tank. Animal cruelty laws are typically not written with fish in mind, and overwhelmed animal control/law enforcement facilities are more focused on fluffy, furry, scaly, or feathered friends than they are on fish. The old adage “buyer beware” is in full force when it comes to aquarium fish.

If you’ve read all this and still want fish, congratulations! This pet may be a good match for you. Please do some research on the process of cycling a fish tank and what specimens are appropriate for your tank before purchasing. There are excellent websites regarding the care of aquarium fish – such as this one – out there on the internet. Look for independent websites that do not sell fish aquarium products for unbiased advice.

You can also take the scientific name of a fish – that’s the long, unpronounceable name that looks scary – and type it into the search engine of your choice for more information on each individual species. As with any animal, it may be best to make your own pro and con list as you research to decide if this is the right pet for you. J Remember, the informed consumer is the empowered consumer!

By: Robin Richardson

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