Is My Betta Fish Dying? (5 Signs)

It’s never easy losing a pet, but having a fish die after a very short period of time has unfortunately become normalized. The truth is that most species of fish in the aquarium hobby can live for years on end given proper conditions. When those conditions aren’t met, hobbyists end up with a tank full of dead fish. Betta fish husbandry is no different.

Did your betta fish die shortly after introducing it into your tank? Here are some of the reasons why your betta might have died suddenly and how you could’ve prevented it. We’ll also provide signs that will help you answer the question Is My Betta Fish Dying.”

Key Takeaways

  • Bettas have the ability to live for 5 years or more in an aquarium with proper care and maintenance.
  • A sick betta fish will show signs of lethargy, heavy breathing, and fading color.
  • A dying or dead betta fish will be difficult to find in the aquarium. Once found, they might be ghostly white and stiff.
  • There are many ways to prevent a betta fish from becoming sick in the first place, but it’s important to be prepared for health issues and water problems before they happen.

The Reason Why They Are Short Lived

Betta fish aren’t usually treated like other tropical fish species. They’re often pushed into too small tanks with poor water quality and an overall improper setup. Bettas are beautiful fish that will thrive and live for a considerable amount of time in the right aquarium.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen new hobbyists with get a betta and stick them in a bowl or a “starter tank” that is smaller than 5 gallons, often with no heater1. It’s understandable why this misconception is made as it’s typical to see these fish in cups at chain fish stores. I’m hoping after reading his article you will see there are many ways to increase their lifespans and general health by learning more about their needs.

How Long Are They Supposed To Live?

Popular thought is that betta fish only live above 2 to 3 years. While this might be the average hobbyist experience, betta fish can actually live closer to 5 years.

There are a few reasons why there is a gap between popular belief and their actual life span. One of the major considerations that needs to be taken is the initial age at which the betta is purchased.

More than likely, your pet betta fish will already be a couple of years old once you add it to your tank. That means that, on average, you will only have another couple of years left with it. This leaves many hobbyists with the impression that betta fish live shorter than other fish.

However, if you find that your betta fish is dying after a few short months of having it, then there’s most likely a problem in your tank or with the fish. Some of these reasons include water quality, disease, and stress.

But if nothing seems outwardly wrong with the fish, how can you tell that it’s dying?

Is My Betta Fish Dying (5 Signs)

Betta with Fin Rot

Unless something wrong happens very fast, fish will often give signs that their health is declining. Here are some of the signs that your betta is dying, along with the reasons they might be displaying these symptoms.

1. Lethargy

The most common sign of a dying betta fish is lethargy. Betta fish aren’t the most active fish to start with, but a lack of activity can quickly become a concerning behavior.

Common betta fish behaviors include occasionally swimming around the tank, coming to the top of the tank for fish food, and inspecting new items that enter the aquarium. However, normal behaviors can also include laying on their side, floating to the bottom of the aquarium, and resting on objects and plants in the aquarium.

How can you tell the difference between a resting or sleeping healthy fish and one that’s floating unnaturally?

A healthy betta fish will regularly take breaks and rest on a leaf or at the bottom of the substrate. In fact, some bettas sleep so heavily that their owners think they’re dead!

Problems arise when your betta fish wants to be doing something else but is too weak to move or swim. Along with laying on the substrate or an object, your fish might be discolored, breathing abnormally, or with tattered fins. There are common symptoms of many aquarium fish diseases, like ich, swim bladder disease, or dropsy. An older betta fish might also struggle to swim around the aquarium as they once did.

2. Slowed Reactions

Alongside lethargy might be slowed reactions. While your betta fish might still be able to move around the tank (albeit at their own pace), they might be slow to react to food or other stimuli.

In most cases, slowed reactions are a result of old age. As eyesight, smell, and mobility decrease, your fish might need some help.

While eyesight decline or even blindness does happen with elderly fish. Fish can live normal lives without their site. I have had to build routines so that my blind bettas could continue to eat and swim safely in the tank. Check my article on Dragon Bettas as I drive into that subject as these fancy betta do experience a blindness condition known as diamond eye and I discuss these routines that help.

However, if your fish is showing little to no interest in food or other things they once enjoyed doing, then there might be an underlying cause. This is especially concerning if your betta fish loses its appetite. Loss of appetite is a very common symptom of most aquarium diseases. A compromised fish may continue to become sicker if they don’t get the nutrients they need to recover.

3. Heavy Breathing

Heavy breathing is a sure sign that something is wrong with your betta fish. And sadly, once a fish starts to breathe rapidly, there is often little time to act.

Often seen alongside lethargy, rapid breathing can be noticed as a fast movement in the gills and mouth. In most cases, this is due to issues with water parameters, but can also be due to disease and illness. It is uncommon for an old betta fish to show signs of heavy breathing.

There is no other reason why a fish might be showing signs of heavy breathing. Even swimming quickly in the aquarium is unlikely to leave your betta gasping for air. As mentioned before, this symptom is one of the last seen in a betta fish that is dying.

4. Fading Color

The good news is that fading color is one of the least alarming betta fish symptoms on this list as it can be caused by a magnitude of other factors, some of which are easily fixable.

The main reason why betta fish lose color is due to stress. Most often, bettas lose color during transfer and acclimation. Stress is why your betta fish gains so much color in the first week of having it as opposed to its washed-out appearance at the pet store.

Other stress factors, like incompatible tank mates, can also cause your betta fish to lose color. If keeping a female betta, then she might even develop dark lines across her body that are known as stress stripes.

Stress factors may not be the only reason your fish loses color, though. Loss of color is a common side effect of most aquarium illnesses, especially fin rot, which is one of the most common betta fish ailments.

Another reason your fish might be losing color is due to an improper diet. Though this change in appearance won’t be as significant as that of a sick or dying betta fish, intensity and vibrancy can definitely suffer if not given quality food. In addition to a high-quality protein-based diet, betta fish should also be given a variety of live, frozen, and freeze-dried options, like brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, and bloodworms.

5. Disfigurement

Another obvious change in appearance that could lead to death might be disfigurement. This is especially noticeable in betta fish suffering from dropsy, swim bladder disease, or tuberculosis (fish TB).

Unfortunately, most cases of disfigurement are permanent and lead to decreased quality of life or death. There are several rare cases of betta fish owners intervening and creating devices to help their handicapped fish once all other problems have been fixed.

However, I have typically seen these devices used for Fancy Goldfish as their bulk allows for them to be placed in swim bladder wheelchairs. These wheelchairs allow them to swim properly. Bettas, unfortunately, are too thin to be housed in these devices.

Reasons For An Early Death

As mentioned before, betta fish should live for at least 2 years with most having the potential to live up to 5 in their permanent home. There is no reason why you should experience your betta fish dying after just a couple of weeks of owning them.

If you experienced a very premature betta fish death, then disease, water quality, stress, or other factors were most likely the cause.

Disease

One of the main reasons why betta fish die is due to disease. Unfortunately, disease is rampant in the aquarium hobby, and betta fish are especially susceptible due to less-than-ideal housing conditions in commercial pet stores.

Whenever bringing a fish home from the pet store, it is safe to assume that the fish has been exposed to a disease or illness. Because of this, most hobbyists quarantine their fish before adding them to their main aquarium. As betta fish are often kept alone, this is usually unnecessary, though a quarantine system makes dosing medications and controlling water conditions much easier.

If your betta fish develops disease after adding it to your tank or if new tank mates bring in disease to a mature system, then all contaminated fish need to be treated.

Quickly diagnose the disease and start treatment. Luckily, betta fish are resilient fish that often bounce back with the correct treatment.

Water Quality

Poor water quality is also one of the major reasons why betta fish die prematurely.

As betta fish are seen as beginner fish, many fishkeepers new to the hobby are not fully aware of the importance of water parameters. This, in addition to betta fish being seen as hardy fish that don’t need much to survive, often leads to an early betta fish death. The #1 reason for early death is beginners will place these fish in bowls without a filter.

Like other fish, betta fish need a fully cycled aquarium with 0 ppm ammonia, 0 ppm nitrite, and low to moderate nitrates. Water temperature must be stable between 78-80° F with pH relatively neutral at 7.0.

Sadly, some inexperienced hobbyists are not aware that their betta fish is a tropical species. This can lead to overly cold, hot, or unstable water temperature conditions. A cold betta will quickly become lethargic while a hot betta may become erratic and breathe heavily. Some of the deadliest betta diseases are caused by incorrect temperatures. A heater is a must with a betta.

At the same time, incorrectly treated water can also cause a sick fish. Luckily, most pet stores sell water conditioners along with a new fish. This is an easy way to remove otherwise deadly chemicals, like chlorine, from the water. A betta fish exposed to chlorine may sink to the bottom of the tank and start to breathe rapidly.

My Personal Story On Water Quality And Early Deaths

I have a sad story to share about one of my friends I knew who lived in Austin. She got a Betta fish and was new to the hobby. Everything was going great for the first few months, until one day, when she was cleaning the tank, she forgot to put the water conditioner into the new tank water. She went out of town, and I called a friend of mine to check in on the tank after finding out about it.

The fish was in a 5 gallon tank, and within a couple of hours, the fish had passed away. It’s that quick if you don’t treat your water!

Stress

Normal betta fish behavior is relaxed swimming with an inquisitive nature. If your fish starts swimming erratically, becomes uninterested in its surroundings, or changes in physical appearance, then it is most likely stressed.

Stress can arise from a number of factors, including tank conditions, tank mates, and disease.

Some of the common causes of environmental betta stress come from poor water quality and tank size. These poor fish have been pushed into small tanks for decades. It wasn’t until recently that the aquarium fish industry started advocating for keeping betta fish in correctly sized aquariums that are at least 5 gallons. Otherwise, a small aquarium can lead to sick fish due to poor water conditions or an overall lack of enrichment.

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Very active fish or aggressive tank mates can also cause a betta to become stressed. While most betta fish are kept alone, some hobbyists try introducing supposedly compatible species. While these species might work in some setups, a lot depends on the tank setup and the individual betta. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work, and the betta is left stressed.

Lastly, health issues can greatly stress out a betta. Possible pain and discomfort can bring additional agony to bettas, while the change of scenery and conditions in a hospital tank can bring temporary stress. In most cases, the temporary stress from treatment is often worth the recovery.

Other Factors

In some cases, there’s no way to know that your betta fish is dying. Sometimes, conditions change so quickly that there is no saving your fish.

Some of these factors include changes in source water, introduction of outside chemicals, tank leaks, and aquarium hoods.

Source water is everything for aquariums. Healthy tank water is the best way to keep your fish healthy. But what happens when your tank isn’t healthy, and you have no way of knowing?

This can happen if you use tap water or well water in your betta aquarium. While these tank water sources can largely be trusted, sometimes unknowns happen, and contaminants enter the system. Unannounced to betta owners, these unknowns can be deadly for fish. The worst part is that you may never know what went wrong without ordering an in-depth water analysis.

Likewise, common household chemicals may also lead to sick betta fish. This happens when using aerosol cans, which can readily deliver toxins into the aquarium. For this reason, it’s strongly advised to keep all potential chemicals far away from the aquarium and to open windows when using spray chemicals.

Another unexpected death could be due to a tank leak. While this is more unlikely to happen in smaller aquariums, sometimes tanks burst a leak in the middle of the night. You may find your betta fish struggling to breathe in whatever pockets of water remain in the tank the next morning.

Lastly, you may find your betta fish dead on the floor the next time you go to check on your fish. Even with an aquarium hood, bettas are excellent jumpers that can easily fit through a small open crack. This jump may be unprovoked or the result of stress. Regardless, the result is the same, and you end up with a dead or dying betta.

Confirming Your Fish Has Passed

It’s one thing to question whether or not your betta fish is dying, but it can be somewhat challenging to make sure your fish is actually dead.

If you’ve been monitoring your betta fish closely for a few days, then it can be very alarming to not find it swimming out front when the tank lights turn on. Prepare for the worst and start searching the tank. Check in between plants and under decorations. Look at equipment and other suction areas. More than likely, you’ll find a very sick fish or a dead fish.

A dead betta will lack color, have dilated eyes, and be motionless or stiff. If a cleanup crew is present in the aquarium, they may have already started to break down the body. At this point, the fish can be removed from the aquarium and disposed of.

Remember that your aquarium may still be infected if the fish suffered from viral, parasitic, or bacterial infections.

FAQs

How do you save a dying betta fish?

The best way to save a dying betta is by identifying what it’s dying from. Immediately check the betta fish’s body for signs of disease and then test the water parameters. Treat accordingly but not hastily as aggressive treatment could lead to a premature death.

What does a sick betta look like?

A sick betta may lack color and have its fins folded. They may also exhibit unusual behaviors like lethargy and trouble breathing. If left untreated, new symptoms will continue to appear and worsen as time passes.

Do betta fish float or sink when they die?

Everyone has seen a cartoon of a dead fish with X’s over its eyes. Contrary to popular belief, though, betta fish sink when they die. They are often carried along with the current once they have passed and get lodged into a hard-to-reach space in the tank.

How do you treat a sick betta fish?

There are many ways to treat a sick betta fish. As said before, the best treatment is first finding out what’s the problem. Courses of treatment can include a water change, dosing medications, or comforting an old fish in its final days.

How do you know when a betta fish is going to die?

Betta fish death is sudden but gradual. These fish often show signs of dying over the course of a few days or a couple of weeks. Common signs of decline include lack of appetite, loss of color and vibrancy, as well as hiding and laying on the substrate.

What is the most common way betta fish die?

The most common ways bettas die are due to diseases and poor water quality. With good aquarium husbandry, both of these ways can largely be avoided.

Conclusion

You can never be prepared to lose a pet, but you can always be prepared to treat a sick pet. The best way to keep a betta fish from dying is to prevent it from getting sick in the first place. Be familiar with the common signs of disease and poor water quality and purchase fish from reputable sources. However, sometimes fish die of old age and unknown causes that could have never been foreseen.

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