Why is my Betta Breathing Heavily & Rapidly? (With Solutions)

As a fan of betta fish, I do everything in my power to keep my pet satisfied. However, more than once, I have noticed heavy and rapid breathing in my betta tank. As I saw the phenomenon didn’t resolve on its own, I began to research the topic a little deeper, looking for answers. 

Betta fish typically breathe heavily and rapidly due to low oxygen concentrations, secondary to high water temperature. However, surface breathing could also be due to stressful conditions, such as an underlying disease, elevated ammonia levels, and chemical corruption.

As we move forward, besides all the possible reasons for the phenomenon, I will share with you a few tips to solve the issue. I will also show you what the actual warning signs that may indicate that your betta fish is dying.

Why is my Betta Fish Breathing Fast and Heavily?

Fish are supposed to swim in the middle, at the bottom, or within the tank’s top layer. They shouldn’t linger at the surface, and neither should they lie at the bottom. Admittedly, some fish will lie still on the substrate while they sleep.

But if you notice such behavior in the daytime, on top of hard and rapid breathing, you have every reason to worry. It should be noted that bettas are a particular case. They have more reasons than most other fish to linger at the surface and stick their mouths out of the water.

They have an organ called the labyrinth that allows them to breathe outside water for a short time.[1] But that shouldn’t encourage you to ignore a betta that is lingering at the surface, especially if it is also hyperventilating.

Panting in fish is a sign that they cannot breathe. Such an occurrence can be credited to either internal or external elements. That is to say; a fish will struggle to breathe either because of an oxygen deficiency or an anomaly in its body (which won’t permit it to extract and utilize the oxygen in the water).

The factors causing these deficiencies and anomalies in a betta tank will vary, and they typically include the following:

1. Inappropriate Temperature

Bettas live in waters ranging between 76 and 85 degrees F.[2] If the water is too hot, your bettas will struggle to breathe. That is because hot water releases oxygen too quickly. A warm tank is going to create an oxygen deficiency. That will cause your betta to either lie helplessly at the bottom or rush to the surface.

Scenarios like this tend to manifest in tanks without heaters. Once the summer season comes around, a spike in the ambient temperature will result in a similar spike in the tank. Though, in some cases, a malfunction with the heater is to blame.

2. Elevated Ammonia Concentrations

Every fish owner knows that ammonia could be harmful. But some do not truly appreciate the damage high ammonia concentrations can do. Ammonia will burn the gills, compromising a betta’s ability to breathe. That will cause the panting that you sometimes see in a dirty tank.

Leftovers, waste, and rotting plants in the water can cause ammonia levels to elevate. The same goes for overstocking. The more fish you have in a tank, the more waste they produce, the more difficult it becomes to keep ammonia levels under control.

3. Underlying Disease

Certain diseases and parasites can compromise your fish’s ability to breathe. One example is slime diseases. There is also velvet disease to consider, not to mention hemorrhagic septicemia, dropsy, lymphocytes, and the like.[3]

Fortunately, diseases and parasites are generally accompanied by additional signs, so they are relatively easy to identify. For instance, on top of heavy breathing, you might notice a loss of coloration and lethargy in your bettas.

4. Stressful Conditions

Stress is just as dangerous to your bettas and can directly cause labored breathing. Diseases cause stress, and so do aggressive tank mates. You sometimes observe panting in fish that haven’t yet recovered from the shock of being transported.

Some bettas rush to the surface when they are stressed. Others will simply hover in place or lie at the bottom, depending on how extensively their health has deteriorated. Either way, you will notice that your betta is breathing heavily.

5. Chemical Corruption

Quite frequently, people accidentally introduced soap, deodorant, liquid detergent, and the like to their tank. That can happen when you use a contaminated bucket to add water to the tank or wash the aquarium’s inner walls with the wrong products.

The chemicals in these products are dangerous. They will harm your fish’s health, potentially damaging its gills and affecting its ability to breathe. Even if the water appears clear, soap and detergents could still be dissolved within it. 

6. Poor Water Quality

Ammonia is not the only threat to your bettas. If you cannot keep the water parameters within the appropriate range, your bettas’ health will suffer the negative consequences. Parameters that have to be monitored and maintained in the tank include the pH, salinity, and hardness, not to mention the nitrates and nitrites in the water.[4]

Poor water quality will induce stress in fish. And as was noted above, stress can cause labored breathing. To make sure that isn’t your case, I highly suggest checking the API Reef Master Test Kit (link to Amazon). That is the precise bundle that I use to test my water quickly and effectively.

How to Treat Bettas That Are Having Trouble Breathing?

If your betta is struggling to breathe, you have to take immediate action before the creature suffers irreversible damage. Though, no one solution can solve every single cause of labored breathing in bettas. 

The actions you take have to vary depending on the situation, for instance:

1. Keep The Temperature Stable

The easiest way to determine whether or not the temperature is to blame for your betta’s panting is to test the water with a thermometer. Again, the temperature should be between 76 and 85 degrees F. Once you determine that the temperature is too high, investigate your heater to ensure that it is functioning optimally.

If you don’t have a high-quality one, I recommend checking my recommendation for an aquarium heater. That device keeps my water temperature within the desired range and prevents fluctuations (which can also contribute to heavy breathing among bettas).

If the heater is taking too long to adjust the temperature, use a fan to blow on the tank’s surface. However, if the water is too hot, do not use ice. It will cause a dramatic change in temperature that will harm your bettas.[5]

If you have lights in the tank, switch them off during the hottest periods of the day or night. You should also reduce the number of bulbs you have. Lastly, avoid illuminating your tank for more than eight to ten hours. 

2. Use a Proper Filter

Study your filter to ensure that it is functioning as required. If you don’t have a filter, get one. I recommend the MarineLand Penguin 200 BIO-Wheel (link to Amazon). If your filter is too weak for your tank, you should get a better, more powerful model. A filter will create a disturbance in the water that will allow oxygen to distribute evenly. 

This disturbance will also permit more oxygen to enter the water, combating the oxygen deficiency. You can also add air stones. They are perfect for smaller tanks and will efficiently bring oxygen to the depths of the aquarium.

3. Surface Area

Consider getting a new tank. A small surface area is one potential cause of oxygen deficiency in an aquarium. If you think that your tank lacks the appropriate surface area, find one that is large enough to meet your needs.

Generally, the aquarium should be wide instead of tall. When choosing one, calculate the surface area by multiplying its width and length. The one that features the highest value is also the one that dissolves oxygen most effectively.

You may also check my recommendations for an aquarium kit. At the top of the list, I reviewed the bundle that I use. Getting all the different parts as a whole was the most cost-effective choice I made in the field of fishkeeping (and the surface area is just perfect).

4. Maintain High Water Quality

A filter is supposed to remove contaminants from your aquarium. But a filter cannot maintain the quality of your water. This is why you are encouraged to carry out regular water changes. In fact, a water change should be your first step once you conclude that the water quality is responsible for your betta’s labored breathing. 

You should also limit the number of fish in the tank. Overcrowded tanks are difficult to maintain because they are so messy. A less crowded tank doesn’t generate as much waste. Keep an eye on parameters like pH and nitrite concentration. Carry out periodic tests to ensure that all the parameters are within the required range.

5. Eliminate Stress

You can only fight stress by finding and removing the source. If your betta has violent neighbors, remove them. If you have a new betta, take the time to acclimate it properly before adding it to the tank. 

Be sure to feed all your bettas on time and in the right amounts. If the tank is overcrowded, take some fish out. You should also consider adding plants and decorations to the water. Your bettas will feel calmer and safer if they have places in the tank where they can hide.

6. Reduce Ammonia & Treat Diseases

A water change will bring your ammonia problems under control. To prevent this situation from happening again, remove leftovers, waste, dead plants, and any other elements that can increase ammonia concentration. If your bettas have suffered severe injuries, you should quarantine and treat them with antibiotics.[6]

Quarantine protocols are also necessary for situations where your betta’s labored breathing is the result of a disease or parasite. You should only apply the appropriate medication once the betta is in a separate tank. Consult a vet on this matter. 

If you suspect that your betta is sick, you can also raise the temperature by two to three degrees F. Depending on the illness; it might also prove necessary to stop feeding the betta, at least for a while.[7] That is mainly if your bettas appear bloated.

Here are a few related articles that I’ve written that may also indicate your betta is at risk. I highly recommend checking them out and follow the preventing measures:

How do You Know When a Betta Fish is About to Die?

It is difficult to tell whether or not your betta fish is dying. Some symptoms are less severe than they appear to be. Though, if you ever notice the following signs, you should probably worry. 

These signs indicate that your betta fish is about to die:

  1. Lying motionlessly at the bottom of the tank.
  2. Lethargic behavior and indifference to feeding times.
  3. Heavy and rapid breaths.
  4. Lack of Appetite.
  5. Faded colors.
  • Lack of Motion – If your fish is lying motionless at the bottom, if it isn’t dead or asleep, it is about to die. You have to look at the betta’s gills to determine whether or not it is breathing. If it is still alive, then it probably doesn’t have long to live.
  • Lethargy – If your bettas are not as active as they once were, their health has probably deteriorated. If they are so sluggish that they can’t be bothered to run after the food you’ve dropped in their tank, their situation is dangerous.
  • Breathing Issues – Labored breathing is never a good sign in fish. Some fish will simply open and close their mouths rapidly, while others will run to the surface to gasp for air. Regardless of whether your betta is reacting to an oxygen deficiency in the water or cannot breathe as a result of internal complications, labored breathing is a severe symptom.
  • Lack of Appetite – Like most fish, bettas love food. They will keep eating for as long as you keep feeding them. Therefore, a betta fish that refuses to eat runs the risk of dying soon.
  • Color – A betta’s color tells you a lot about its health. Happy bettas have vibrant colors. If your betta’s color has faded considerably, it is probably in the throes of a severe medical condition that impacts its endocrine system.[8]

Conclusions

Betta fish breathe heavily due to numerous reasons, such as inappropriate temperature or toxins concentration, ammonia in particular. Since the phenomenon indicates your fish is suffering, you should take action to solve it.

Fortunately, most cases are reversible. The first way of choice would be carrying on water changes. That will increase ammonia levels if that is the issue. You should also test your water regularly, ensuring that the pH, nitrates, and nitrites are within the desired range.

References

  1. https://books.google.co.il/books?id=pELbM7ixgBQC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Caring+for+Betta+Fish&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi2n7fQ6srqAhVORRUIHVGZCaIQ6AEwAHoECAUQAg#v=onepage&q=Caring%20for%20Betta%20Fish&f=false
  2. https://www.aqueon.com/information/care-sheets/betta
  3. https://modestfish.com/fish-disease-guide/
  4. https://www.petco.com/content/petco/PetcoStore/en_US/pet-services/resource-center/health-wellness/why-is-my-fish-breathing-at-the-surface.html
  5. https://aquanswers.com/betta-fish-lays-at-bottom-of-tank-reasons/
  6. https://www.thesprucepets.com/treat-fish-for-ammonia-burns-2925396
  7. https://www.wikihow.com/Save-a-Dying-Betta-Fish
  8. https://petcentral.chewy.com/how-to-spot-signs-of-distress-in-your-fish-before-its-too-late/

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