If you’ve suddenly found your betta fish very sick or dying, it may still be possible to save its life.
Although there are times when there’s nothing more you can do for a dying betta fish, it’s important to do everything you can to try to rescue a sick fish and return it to a healthy life.
Here are some ways that you can diagnose a sick betta fish and recover a dying betta fish. We also discuss how to prevent these issues from happening in the first place. Let’s get started.
How Do You Know When a Betta Fish Is Going to Die?
Here are a few signs of illness that may indicate that your betta fish is seriously unwell and could be dying.
One feature that makes betta fish so popular is their bright colors. But your betta fish needs to be in peak health to be at its brightest. A sick or dying betta fish’s colors will fade and become dull.
If your betta becomes extremely pale, it’s a definite sign that your fish is severely ill or dying and needs immediate attention.
Another good indicator of your betta’s overall well-being is its activity levels. A happy betta fish in prime health will swim about its tank energetically, showing interest in its surroundings and aquarium features.
However, if your betta becomes unwell, it will begin to lose vitality, and energy levels will drop. A betta fish that is hanging around at the top or bottom of the tank without moving much is almost certainly sick and needs your urgent response to improve its condition.
Lack of Appetite
Bettas are greedy fish, so if your betta loses interest in food, you know that something’s up!
Loss of appetite is another tell-tale sign that your betta is unwell and needs a swift diagnosis that could save its life.
If a betta fish is overfed or is suffering from an internal bacterial infection, it may become seriously bloated or develop a condition known as ‘dropsy.’
In severe cases, a betta’s scales may begin to protrude, giving them an appearance almost like a pine cone.
‘Pine coning’ and severe bloating are serious health issues that can be fatal or lead to swim bladder problems. Serious bloating needs addressing immediately – it might save your betta’s life.
Certain health conditions can cause a betta fish to have trouble swimming normally.
A betta that is severely bloated or suffering from swim bladder disorder (aka. swim bladder disease) may get stuck at the top or bottom of the tank or may swim on its side or even upside down.
Swim bladder issues are, sadly, all too common in betta fish that have been overfed or are suffering from internal bacterial infections. They are often treatable but may cause your betta fish to die if left untreated.
A betta’s pectoral fins are the pair of fins on the fish’s sides, just behind its gills.
As well as remaining fairly motionless, a betta fish that is feeling under the weather will often lock its pectoral fins into its body.
This behavior is known as ‘fin clamping’ and is exhibited by many types of fish when they’re feeling unwell.
Many of the most common serious health issues confronting captive betta fish result in breathing problems.
As a ‘labyrinth fish,’ bettas have the remarkable ability to breathe oxygen from the air as well as from the water. This means you’ll see them taking breaths from the surface of the water between one to five times every 20 minutes.
If your betta is gasping for breath from the surface more often than this, however, it indicates that something’s wrong.
Potential problems include ammonia poisoning, a lack of dissolved oxygen, or infectious diseases like gill flukes that affect a betta’s breathing abilities.
How Do You Recover a Dying Betta Fish?
First, Test Your Aquarium Water
When you notice something is not right in your betta tank, your first port of call is to test your tank’s water.
Even if your fish has an infection or another health condition, poor water quality can often make it worse.
In other cases, a perfectly healthy betta fish could have its life threatened by a sudden ammonia spike in the tank, chlorine in the water, or very low oxygen levels.
Always have a reliable aquarium test kit at hand so that you can monitor water conditions on a monthly basis and make tests whenever your betta looks unwell.
Most of these tests will measure ammonia and nitrite levels, which should always be kept at zero. It’s also possible to test for oxygen, chlorine, and other elements that can impact your betta’s health.
Make an Emergency Water Change
If ammonia or nitrites are above zero, you must make an emergency water change to prevent your betta from getting very sick or dying.
To do this, swap out 40% of your tank’s water with fresh, treated water that perfectly matches your aquarium’s water temperature.
Keep a close eye on ammonia and nitrite levels over the next few days, and continue to make water changes as necessary while you work to resolve the underlying cause of the problem.
10-30% partial water changes should be a regular part of routine aquarium maintenance – see my notes at the end of the article on keeping a betta fish healthy!
Diagnose and Treat Any Diseases
One of the most common causes of death in betta fish is infectious diseases. Ich (aka. White spot disease), velvet, and columnaris are just a few of the many parasitic, bacterial, and fungal infections that betta fish can suffer from.
Check your betta over for any unusual spots or blemishes on the skin, reddening around the gills, or cloudy eyes. Also, look out for behavior like your betta fish scratching against rocks or aquarium gravel.
Because there are so many betta fish diseases, it’s a good idea to at least familiarize yourself with the symptoms of the most common ones.
If you identify a disease your betta is suffering from, then work swiftly and treat it. Treatments range from raising the temperature of the water and adding aquarium salt to treating your fish with antibiotics in a hospital tank.
Each disease requires a specific treatment, so it’s important to get it right. In an emergency, consider contacting your local exotics vet.
Relieve Constipation, Bloating, and Swim Bladder Disorder
Overfeeding is a common cause of betta health problems, including digestive disorders and constipation. When a betta is constipated, it will often become bloated and may develop serious swim bladder issues.
If your betta appears to be bloated, you can try feeding it cooked garden peas. These act as a laxative and can do wonders to clear out a betta’s digestive tract.
In more serious cases, your betta may be refusing food and struggling to swim, suggesting swim bladder issues. In this case, you may need to treat it with Epsom salts.
This can be done by adding Epsom salts to the entire tank or making a smaller Epsom salt bath for your betta.
You can find out more about treating bettas with constipation and swim bladder issues on our dedicated page here.
Why Do Betta Fish Die Suddenly?
There are several reasons why a betta might become very sick or die suddenly without any apparent signs of ill health beforehand.
Bettas are tropical fish that need the aquarium heater’s thermostat to keep the water at a stable temperature.
If the heater breaks, or the water temperature changes by more than 3°F over an hour period, your betta fish may experience thermal shock and die unexpectedly.
Small fish tanks are notorious for this since the water temperature changes much faster than larger tanks. Thermal shock is also very common when introducing a new fish to your aquarium without acclimatizing it first.
Get yourself a reliable thermometer, and check it at feeding times to make sure nothing has gone awry.
Bullying or Injury from Other Fish
Another reason a betta fish might die suddenly is when it has suffered an attack from one of its tank mates.
Although bettas are highly aggressive fish dubbed the ‘Siamese Fighting Fish,’ their long fins and slow speed also make them vulnerable to attack from other fish.
If an attack occurred when you weren’t looking, your betta might suddenly appear very shocked and breathing fast. Such an incident can easily lead to a downward spiral for a betta fish, with death especially likely if repeated attacks occur.
Even first-time fish keepers need to understand the basics of the nitrogen cycle in a fish tank.
Toxic ammonia and nitrites are produced by fish waste and rotting debris and need to be swiftly converted into relatively harmless nitrates by beneficial bacteria in your filter.
If the beneficial bacteria colonies are missing or damaged, ammonia can build up and poison your betta tank very quickly. If there is especially poor water quality, ammonia burns could kill a betta fish within days.
Internal Bacterial Infection
Many fish diseases are fairly easy to spot and diagnose, but others remain hidden. Internal bacterial infections can be among the hardest to diagnose swiftly when there are no clear external symptoms.
Although some internal bacterial infections will result in dropsy and your fish bloating, others will have more subtle symptoms. Your fish may simply stop eating, look poorly, and die a few days later.
Luckily, good routine aquarium maintenance and keeping the water quality high can usually prevent internal bacterial infections.
The same applies to most diseases that your betta fish might otherwise bump into. So let’s find out how to prevent betta fish diseases.
5 Ways To Prevent a Betta Fish From Dying Young
You can maximize the lifespan of your precious betta fish by following these five simple steps to keep your betta in optimum health.
Correct Tank Setup
Firstly, provide your betta with a large enough tank. 5 gallons is the minimum tank size for a single betta fish, and 10 gallons is better.
Make sure your tank’s water temperature and water parameters match our guidelines. Provide plenty of hiding places for your betta to take refuge.
Densely planted tanks are especially good for betta fish since they love to explore and hide among aquarium plants. Live plants can also work to improve the tank’s water quality.
Your betta fish will live much longer when you provide it with the best possible water quality and keep your tank clean:
- Provide your betta with a good filter and clean it every 2-3 weeks.
- Vacuum your substrate every 1-2 weeks.
- Make partial water changes of 10-30% every 1-2 weeks, with treated water of matching temperature.
- Get yourself a reliable heater and thermometer. Make daily checks to ensure the temperature is within the ideal range for all of your fish.
- Test your aquarium’s water at least once a month or any time your fish seem unwell.
Your betta fish will be much happier, healthier, and better looking if you provide the right diet.
Bettas are fairly carnivorous fish, so can hugely benefit from a healthy diet with regular helpings of live and frozen foods.
Maintain a strict feeding schedule and, most importantly, avoid overfeeding! Never feed more than your fish can eat within 2 minutes!
Bettas are intelligent fish that benefit from plenty of attention from their owners.
Spending plenty of time with your betta also enables you to catch any health issues before they become too serious.
Suitable Tank Mates (Optional)
If you wish to keep your betta fish with other tank mates, they must be of compatible temperament and have similar tank preferences.
The best choice in small tanks of up to 10 gallons is shrimps and snails. I’d particularly recommend nerite snails and amano shrimp since they don’t breed in freshwater and won’t overpopulate your tank.
In a larger, 20-gallon aquarium, you could also add schooling fish such as peaceful tetras, rasboras, and Corydoras catfish to give your betta some benign company.
Betta fish are some of the most adorable and intelligent aquarium fish out there, so it can be very distressing to find your pet fish very sick or dying.
With swift, well-informed action, however, you may be able to save the life of a sick betta before it’s too late.
Prevention is always better than a cure, though, so always try to keep your tank in tip-top condition for the longevity of your precious betta fish.