Betta fish can sometimes be very strange fish! You might see them laying on the bottom of your tank or sticking towards the surface of the water. You might even see them burrowing themselves in the rocks!
If you see this, you have all the right to be concerned: is this normal behavior? is your betta fish dying? how do you fix it? Most times, betta fish really are just that strange, and burying themselves in the rocks is part of their normal behavior. However, if other strange behavior accompanies this, it may be time to consider the possibilities of disease, stress, or boredom.
Keep reading to find out why your betta fish might be burrowing in rocks and how to fix the problem if it’s not just a part of their personality.
What is normal betta behavior?
Whether you have a male betta or female betta, it is important to know the normal behavior of your fish and know when something might be wrong at the first signs of trouble. A happy and healthy betta has a few ways of showing that it is receiving the care that it needs to live a long and happy life.
One of the best ways to tell if your fish is healthy is by looking at the colors and shape of the fish. The male betta has been bred for decades to achieve vibrant and bright colorations; if you find that your male betta has dull colors or there is some blotchiness on their body otherwise, this might be a sign of stress, poor diet, or disease.
The male betta has also been bred specifically for enhanced finnage and quality. Fins should be just as colorful as the rest of the body and should flow majestically in the water; fins should also be able to stand on their own and should not droop over or look tattered otherwise. These could also be signs of something being wrong with your fish and/or with your tank.
Unfortunately, some male bettas have been overbred to the point where their fins distract from their ability to swim correctly. This may lead to your betta involuntarily scraping its fins against rocks or the gravel and getting fin rot from being weighed down so much.
While the female betta may not be as colorful or as ornate as the male betta, betta care requirements are still the same. Ensuring that your female betta is living in the best conditions possible will guarantee the strongest and healthiest colors.
Most times, a healthy betta will have a voracious appetite. In order to give your betta the best diet possible, flakes, pellets, freeze-dried, frozen, and live foods should be interchanged regularly and offered on a daily basis. If your once-hungry fish suddenly exhibits a loss of appetite, this could mean that something is wrong, from disease to constipation to other stress factors.
Betta fish can be silly fish. They are known for having very bold personalities and might be seen flaring up at their own reflections or sitting idle at the bottom of the tank. However, normal behavior for a betta is usually exploring around the tank and regularly taking to caves and hiding spots. If you find that a bad habit persists, this could also mean that something is wrong with either your fish or with your water.
If you’re lucky, you may even get to see your male betta build a bubble nest if conditions are ideal! As long as your betta fish looks healthy, is excited to eat, and acts like how a normal fish should then there is little reason to worry. Though, it is always a good idea to run tests on your tank from time to time for extra security and quarantine new additions!
Why is my betta fish burrowing in rocks?
There are a few reasons why your betta fish might be burrowing in rocks and could be a symptom of a serious underlying problem either with the health of your betta fish or as a byproduct of the parameters of the tank. Some causes we’ll be looking at are disease, stress, and boredom. We will also further discuss betta personalities and how to distinguish a natural behavior from an unnatural behavior.
Disease, parasites, and other infections
Just like any other fish, betta fish are susceptible to all the diseases, parasites, and other infections commonly found within the aquarium trade. Most of these problems will cause your betta to act out of character, with common signs being lethargy, loss of appetite, discoloration, and the scratching against items in the aquarium. In specific, we’ll be looking at ich, velvet, gill flukes, columnaris, and anchor worms.
Otherwise known as white spot disease, ich (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis) is a very common aquarium parasite that sometimes expresses itself in the form of white dots on the body of your fish. Ich is most commonly introduced into the system by an infected fish and spreads quickly. Stress and poor water quality can make spreading the parasite between fish faster and can cause more damage and/or death more immediately.
Some of the symptoms of ich are lethargy, loss of appetite, and labored breathing. External white spots are the easiest way to determine if you’re dealing with ich, but may not always be easily seen and can resemble velvet; the severity of the ich can often be measured by how many white spots are present on the fish.
Because ich often displays as white spots, you may notice your fish rubbing on aquarium decorations as well as the substrate to try to remove them. Sadly, this often leads to over-exhaustion and sores on the side of the fish which can become infected. However, this could be the answer to why your betta fish appears to be digging in the rocks and should be treated immediately.
For more information about ich, including treatment, make sure to check out our betta fish ich disease – symptoms, treatment, and prevention guide here.
Velvet disease, sometimes also called rust or gold-dust disease, is caused by a dinoflagellate parasite; more specifically, Amyloodinium ocellatum affects marine fish and Oodinium sp. affect freshwater fish, which are what we will focus on in this article. These parasites enter the aquarium mostly by way of another infected fish and the effects are exacerbated by poor aquarium conditions.
Velvet is very similar to ich in that the main symptoms are lethargy, loss of appetite, and labored breathing; however, velvet presents as very small dots that are much more numerous than ich. Sometimes these spots are so tiny that they are actually nearly impossible to see before it is too late.
Like ich, fish will try to scratch off these external parasites by rubbing against aquarium decorations and the substrate. If you notice that your fish has changed behaviors recently, make sure to examine their body closely.
For more information about velvet, including treatment, make sure to check out our betta velvet: rust and gold dust disease treatment guide here.
Another parasite, gill flukes (Dactylogyrus sp.) are similar to ich and velvet, but specifically, attach to the gills of the fish. Like the others, gill flukes will most likely enter the aquarium by way of an infected fish. Poor water conditions and unmaintained tank setups will usually result in faster infection rates and more serious symptoms.
Unlike ich and velvet, gill flukes are basically impossible to see with the naked eye; in most cases, you will need to make an educated guess based on symptoms, and even then, you may never know if it was definitely gill flukes or another parasite. The most common symptoms include your betta fish gasping for air at the surface, noticeable damage or other discoloration around the gills, the gills appearing to be covered in mucus, and/or your betta fish scraping against objects in the tank which can lead to further injuries and infections.
However, these symptoms overlap with many other aquarium diseases, which can make the correct diagnosis difficult to find. If your betta fish does have gill flukes, then expect to see localized damage to the gills and head area; if you notice white spots or other sores along the rest of the body, you might be dealing with something else.
The first step to treating gill flukes is by removing the affected fish from the main display and into a quarantine system; this way, you can safely monitor the fish and administer more localized treatments. Some hobbyists find temporary dips to be more effective.
There are many different theories for treating gill flukes, but additional chemicals will be needed in most cases. Some recommended solutions are Prazipro and flubendazole.
Columnaris is the result of the bacteria Flavobacterium columnare entering the mouth, gills, or open sores of freshwater fish. It is also known as cotton-wool, cotton-mouth, mouth fungus, mouth-rot, and saddleback; it can be external or internal and can follow a chronic or acute course. Columnaris is also highly contagious and other fish in the tank will most likely also be affected if it is introduced to the system.
Columnaris can be a little difficult to correctly identify and catch in time as the bacteria tend to progress at different rates. The most common first symptom is fraying fins, which are often confused with other fungal infections and mistreated. Shortly after this, ulcers and other abrasions may begin to develop on the skin. This may be accompanied by lethargy, loss of appetite, and discoloration; like the other cases, fish with columnaris will usually gasp for air at the surface of the tank and scrape against decorations.
Columnaris moves fast and can unfortunately kill your fish in a matter of days. For more information about columnaris, including steps towards immediate treatment, make sure to check out our columnaris betta: ID, treat, and prevent guide here.
Yet another parasite, anchor worms (Lernaea sp.) are not as common as the others, but may still be the cause behind your betta fish burrowing itself into the gravel substrate. These copepod crustaceans are large enough that they will be able to be seen with the naked eye and are most likely to occur in pond environments on goldfish and koi.
Anchor worms bury themselves under the scales of fish, mainly around the base of the fins. Apart from being able to actually see the worms on your fish, there may be some discoloration in the area. Your betta fish may also scrape against objects in the aquarium in attempts to remove the parasite. Other symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, and difficulty breathing.
For treating your fish, it is recommended to set up a quarantine tank where you can easily administer and monitor treatment as well as watch out for additional secondary infections. It is then suggested to gently remove as many anchor worms as possible, making sure that no pieces are being left behind in the skin; keep in mind that this will stress out your fish and should not be done too frequently or over large periods of time.
One of the best products hobbyists have found helps eliminate anchor worms is Dimilin-X Koi & Goldfish Treatment. This insecticide should be regularly dosed in small amounts until the fish begins to return to its original character; this product may harm invertebrates and/or plants and should be used with caution.
While scraping and burrowing behavior is usually a sign of disease or parasites, there is a chance that your betta is just stressed out. Every fish will react to stress differently, and it may just be that your betta is taking to this particular bad habit out of stress. Some causes for this might be that there are no places to hide in the aquarium, your betta is frightened by its own reflection, or the parameters in your tank are off.
Limited places for hiding
While bettas mostly swim in the foreground of the tank, sometimes your fish simply needs some alone time. Contrary to popular belief, betta fish need plants and decorations in their tank for both enrichment purposes and for hiding. If your betta is left with no other options, it may try to bury itself in the gravel or sand out of self-defense or from pure stress.
However, your betta should not always be hiding. If you find that your betta is hiding most of the time, there may be problems with water flow or other parameters.
Frightened by reflection
As silly as it sounds, betta fish can be frightened by their own reflection. Male bettas are especially known for showing signs of aggression towards other male bettas; if they see their own reflection on the side of the tank, they may either become aggressive and start flaring or retreat to a safe place thinking that there is a threat.
In either case, this could cause your fish to become stressed. Your fish could try to find safety in the gravel or act out and scrape against the rocks in frustration as a result; if your betta fish is over-flaring, it could also cause the gills to become irritated and may result in the fish rubbing against something in the tank. While this is not a very likely situation, bettas can definitely do some crazy things that don’t make too much sense sometimes!
If you find that your betta is getting frightened/stressed out by its own reflection, it would be best to cover that side of the tank somehow. Some ways to do this are by adding plants or lining the outside of the tank with dark paper. This usually happens when a betta fish is first introduced to a new tank where the lighting is brighter than the previous tank. Hopefully, your betta should calm down by itself within a couple of days without any needed intervention.
In the aquarium hobby, water parameters are everything. If your water parameters are off, then the whole system will suffer.
Ideal aquarium standards are 0 ppm ammonia, 0 ppm nitrite, and <10 ppm nitrate (however, many hobbyists run their aquarium systems as ‘dirty’ and allow for large amounts of nitrate to be present). Any traces of ammonia or nitrite could prove to be fatal to fish and invertebrates.
Ammonia is an essential part of the nitrogen cycle but, in excess, can prove to be lethal. If too much ammonia is present in the aquarium, the fish may experience ammonia poisoning. This is when ammonia starts to burn the gills of your fish, and eventually leads to sores appearing throughout the rest of the body. At the same time, you may see your fish gasping for air and laying at the bottom of the tank.
Due to irritation, you may see your betta rubbing against the gravel and other decorations until it is too exhausted to move. Fish that are exposed to high levels of ammonia for too long can end up unable to breathe correctly, which can actually result in the fish drowning.
Nitrite is similar to ammonia, and can quickly kill your betta fish if left unaddressed. Excess nitrites can also sadly cause your betta to drown.
When present, nitrite enters the bloodstream of the fish and binds to the part of hemoglobin where oxygen should have attached instead. This leaves your fish with not enough oxygen in its bloodstream to live and the fish slowly and painfully dies. Again, the irritation could cause your fish to gasp for air, rub against decorations, and stay towards the bottom of your tank.
Luckily, both ammonia and nitrite are relatively easy to fix and should be present in a new tank (fish should not be added until it is gone, though). But in order to fix the problem, you must first understand why they are happening. Ammonia is usually the result of overcrowding, overfeeding, poor filtration, die off, or a combination of all four. Make sure that your tank is never overcrowded; remember that a betta fish requires at least a 5 gallon (18.9 L) tank to be kept alone or with one or two snails with a good filtration system. Also, make sure that you are not feeding too much and any leftover food is being removed.
On top of this, good aquarium maintenance and husbandry is a must. Filter media should be changed every 3-4 weeks and a water change should be performed every 1-2 weeks. If you’re experiencing influxes of ammonia and/or nitrite, your first step is to perform a water change to decrease those values immediately. After that, you can look at your tank a little closer and try to find the problem.
There is one other parameter that you might not immediately consider to be the problem: water temperature.
Ideal water temperature is just as important as the other parameters in your tank; it needs to be stable and it needs to be accurate. The best water temperature range for a betta fish is between 78-80° F (25.5-26.5° C).
Bettas kept in cooler temperatures will have slower metabolisms and will be sluggish. If kept in warmer temperatures, bettas might swim more erratically and could scrape against aquarium decorations, whether intentionally or not. Both cases will lead to a shortened lifespan for your betta and could lead to even more immediate death if not addressed.
While betta fish don’t get lonely, they may get bored. Just like any other animal, bettas need enrichment and stimulation to keep them fully happy and healthy. Sadly, bettas may actually turn to self-injury if they become too bored, so it is always important to keep an eye on the behavior of your fish!
Too often, beginner hobbyists think that a couple of gallons is enough for keeping one betta. Unfortunately, this misbelief about proper betta care is still present today and causes a lot of unhappy and dead fish.
At the bare minimum, betta fish require a 5 gallon (18.9 L) tank or larger. Even though they are small fish, they need space to swim and explore. In such a small aquarium, it can be difficult to get excited every day, and your betta will definitely feel that!
If you currently have a betta in a tank that is smaller than 5 gallons, try to upgrade as soon as possible. If you have an appropriately-sized tank and you still find your betta injuring itself or sticking to the bottom of the tank in general, it might be time to add some other enrichment.
Betta fish can have huge personalities if you give them enough space and enrichment to thrive. One of the best ways to add some enrichment to your betta tank is by adding live plants; betta fish love to rest on and hide in plants! Floating plants and logs especially allow for your betta to feel safe while being near the surface of the water where it prefers to be in the water column.
A few other tricks for giving the best possible betta care is by adding enrichment items. While we mentioned before that bettas can become stressed out from seeing their reflection on the side of the aquarium, some hobbyists actually find that putting a mirror next to the tank is good for the health of the betta. However, this should only be done maybe once or twice every two weeks and for never more than just a few minutes. Hobbyists have also found that bettas react well to other enrichment items being placed close to the tank, like holiday decorations, drawings, and other changes in scenery.
Some other creative ideas might be ping pong balls and PVC piping installments. While your betta may seem to enjoy pushing a ping pong ball around, make sure that the interaction never becomes overly aggressive. PVC piping installments, like makeshift mazes and caves, could also be temporarily added to the tank every now and then.
One of the best ways to cheer your betta up is by offering new types of food; most betta fish absolutely love trying new foods and will readily accept whatever is offered. Note that some betta can be frustratingly picky, and a varied diet might take some time to achieve.
If you’re only feeding one kind of food to your fish, it is possible that your betta will lose interest just like humans do. In order to keep your betta as healthy as it can be, a good betta diet will consist of flakes, pellets, frozen, freeze-dried, and live foods. Ideally, a different kind of food would be offered with every feeding.
Bettas are also prone to obesity since they are sometimes offered food too frequently don’t get enough activity otherwise, especially in a smaller tank. An obese or constipated betta may stay towards the bottom of the tank; feeding habits and routine should be readdressed immediately if there is any sign of either. However, in moderation, live food especially can help bring excitement to mealtimes and get your betta swimming around the tank.
While it is true for the most part that bettas do best by themselves if you have a large enough tank, you might be able to add additional fish or invertebrates. In order to house other fish with your betta, a 15 gallon (56.8 L) tank or more is necessary.
One of the best species to keep with bettas is the pygmy cory (Corydoras pygmaeus). These small fish need to be kept in schools of at least six or more but don’t tend to grow more than an inch (2.5 cm) long. They are especially great for bettas as they stay towards the bottom of the tank, away from where betta fish usually like to stay in the top and middle water column.
However, if you have a small tank, fish won’t work as tank mates as there simply isn’t enough room to allow for aggression and natural swimming space. There are two main options for betta tank mates when it comes to a small tank: shrimp and snails.
Shrimp can make fantastic tank mates for your betta! However, some betas have been known to see shrimp as food and the pairing ends up as a failure. Interestingly, some hobbyists use this to their advantage; if a betta is especially aggressive or more likely to display predatory inclinations, hobbyists usually supplement feedings with ghost shrimp. Not only are ghost shrimp a good source of food, but the enrichment from hunting can make your betta much more active and excited to eat.
If your betta doesn’t particularly have an appetite for shrimp, then you might have success keeping them as tank mates instead. Some popular species are Amano shrimp (Caridina multidentata), cherry shrimp (Neocaridina davidi), as well as ghost shrimp (Palaemonetes paludosus). For more information on keeping a betta with these small shrimp, make sure to check out our complete guide here.
If you don’t trust your betta with a shrimp, then you can always go with snails; similarly to shrimp though, some hobbyists have taken to feeding their betta’s pest snails in order to provide natural enrichment. Otherwise, some compatible species are ramshorn snails (Planorbidae family) and nerite snails (Neritidae family); nerite snails are especially favored as they cannot produce/mature without salt water, making it very unlikely that baby snails would overtake your tank.
It is important to note that while tank mates might help cheer your betta up, they can also cause additional stress if the given addition is more active than your betta. Always try to match temperaments between fish and be prepared to remove one at the first sign of trouble.
Last but not least, bettas can have some pretty amazing (yet slightly weird) personalities! Many betta enthusiasts love their bettas due to being able to interact with them more than other fish; some hobbyists have even had patience and luck training their betta with various tasks. Not only do their personalities shine but, when given the best betta care possible, these fish can also be some of the most beautiful within the aquarium trade.
Even though you may be giving all the proper care, keeping up with tank maintenance, and fulfilling dietary needs, you might find that your fish is still burying itself in the gravel. If water parameters are in check, the tank is a good size, and nothing else seems to be wrong, why is your fish still behaving oddly?
Simply put, it might just be your betta. Every fish is different from the next, and there’s no way to tell how your fish will turn out once provided a loving home. If there doesn’t seem to be any signs of injury and your betta looks healthy otherwise, just continue to monitor the fish and provide the same amount of care that you have been giving.
If you notice that your fish starts rubbing against rocks or gravel or the overall demeanor of your fish changes, revisit some of the possible problems listed in this article; something may have changed.
Searching for food
Bettas are known to be very opportunistic feeders that won’t hesitate to eat when given the chance. If you notice that your betta fish is spending a lot of time around the bottom of the tank, it could be searching for food that has gotten stuck in the substrate.
However, this does not necessarily mean that your betta is hungry. As long as you are feeding your fish a varied diet 1-3 times a day, then your betta should be just fine! What this does mean, rather, is that food is getting stuck in the gravel and under rocks and other decorations in your aquarium. This could lead to some water quality issues as the food decays and leaks excess nitrates and phosphates into the water. In order to prevent this from happening, it is recommended to either vacuum or otherwise disturb your substrate when doing a water change to remove debris.
How do you know if your betta fish is dying?
It is very sad to see that your betta is dying. Usually, their fins will be all tattered and torn, their colors will be ghostly, and they’ll be laying helplessly, gasping for air on the bottom of the aquarium. Sometimes this can be a relief and an end to suffering, but it can also mean losing a best friend.
If your betta has been struggling with illness for a while, there may be nothing else that you can do; if you’ve tried every medication and every remedy, then it might be time to say goodbye. Most times, you will witness your fish dying as it rarely happens immediately. Some hobbyists opt to humanely euthanize their fish instead of watching it suffer any longer.
How do you know exactly if your betta fish is dying? It is usually pretty clear. If you see that your betta doesn’t have much longer, you may choose to move it to a container and place it in the freezer.
There are many reasons why your betta fish might be trying to burrow into gravel or scraping against rocks in your tank. Unfortunately, most of the time, this is due to disease, parasites, and other infections. However, sometimes it can be due to stress, poor water conditions, boredom, or simply be a part of the personality of the betta.
While this is not a favorable betta behavior, most of the listed situations can be remedied in one way or another. Give your betta the best possible care that you can and your fish will reward you with an outstanding personality and brilliant display of colors!
If you have any further questions about why your betta fish might be rubbing up against rocks or your substrate, or have had experience with behavior like this, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!