Why Is My Betta Gasping For Air? (With 4 Practical Solutions)

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As I saw my betta fish gasping for air, I was left utterly confused. Was it just my imagination? Was there something stuck in its mouth? As it turns out, there are many reasons for bettas to gasp for air, and I was able to find out what was at the bottom of the mystery.

Betta fish tend to gasp for air due to oxygen deficiencies. That typically occurs in stagnant water, overcrowded tanks, and warm environments. However, bettas may also be gasping due to an infection or ammonia spikes, compromising their gills functionality.

As we proceed, I will share four steps you should take to fix the issue of gasping bettas. Then, I will present the signs of a dying betta fish. These typically require a more immediate approach. Otherwise, you may be left with a fish that will not make it through the next following days.

Why Is My Betta Fish Gasping For Air?

Betta fish have a labyrinth organ that allows them to extract oxygen from the air. However, if they are gasping, you cannot blame this organ. Gasping in fish is concerning because it is normally a symptom of a more serious problem. And if you cannot solve that problem, your fish could die. 

Some common causes of gasping in fish include:

1. Your Water Doesn’t Hold Enough Oxygen

This is the first problem that people consider when their fish start gasping, and for a good reason. If a betta is gasping, you are going to assume that it cannot breathe. The most apparent cause of labored breathing is oxygen deficiency.

You will find oxygen deficiencies in stagnant tanks with either weak or absent filters, pumps, and air stones. You will also find them in aquariums with high temperatures. Bettas in oxygen-deficient tanks will either rush to the bottom or swim at the top.

2. The Betta Fish Caught A Disease

Labored breathing is one of the most common symptoms of illness in fish. Labored breathing shows typically that a fish’s respiratory functions have been compromised. Columnaris is one example of a disease that can cause gasping.

The disease may infect the gills.[1] Everyone knows that fish use their gills to extract oxygen from the water. As such, any ailment that harms the gills will affect the betta’s ability to breathe. Many bacterial and parasitic infections will change the color of the gills.

If the disease in question is serious enough, it may generate mucus that can block the gills, preventing the fish from getting the oxygen it needs to survive.[2] Unless you intervene, the fish will die.

3. Your Water Contains High Amounts Of Ammonia

You cannot avoid ammonia. Not only is it a by-product of fish waste, but bettas produce the gas whenever they exhale. Ammonia is poisonous to bettas. It burns them. Their gills will take on a red or purple tinge. In the worst-case scenario, the betta’s gills may start bleeding.[3]

Symptoms of ammonia poisoning include loss of appetite, inflamed eyes, red streaks, and lethargy, to mention but a few. Ammonia is a problem in tanks that are poorly maintained. If you keep permitting dead organisms to decay in your aquarium, the ammonia concentration will keep spiking.

But don’t be so quick to assume that you have ammonia in the tank unless you have tested the water. Other toxins and chemicals can cause gasping in bettas. That includes detergent, soap residue, lead, copper, etc. Every time you change the water, you run the risk of introducing toxic elements to your tank.

4. The Water Quality Is Low

Ammonia is not the only possible cause of gasping in a betta tank. A tank with the wrong parameters is going to make your bettas sick. The wrong parameters can also cause stress. Gasping is one of the symptoms you may notice in a stressed fish.

You have to maintain the right pH. Bettas will not appreciate wild swings in the pH. They will also respond negatively to the wrong temperature. The water can’t be too hot or too cold. Both extremes will harm your fish, forcing the betta to either gasp while lying still at the bottom or gasp while it floats at the surface.

Some people understand the importance of maintaining the right temperature, but they do not realize that a water change can alter the temperature. It hasn’t occurred to them that adding warm or hot water to a tank can harm their bettas.

5. Your Tank Is Overcrowded

Overcrowding will introduce three complications to your tank. First, it will cause oxygen deficiencies because you have too many fish in a tank, and they are all fighting for the limited oxygen in their aquatic environment.[4]

Second, a large fish population makes a small tank more challenging to maintain because you have too many fish, all regularly producing waste. This puts them at risk of ammonia poisoning. Third, overcrowding causes stress which can lead to gasping.

What Should I Do If My Betta Fish Is Gasping For Air?

A gasping fish may die if you fail to resolve the factors responsible for its symptoms. The exact treatments you will use will depend on the problem you are trying to resolve, for instance:

1. Enriching The Water With Oxygen

If the betta is gasping for air because of an oxygen deficiency, you have to start by performing a water change. Aim for 50 percent.[5] A water change will add oxygen to the tank. But that is only the first step. You should add air stones and powerheads. 

They will ensure that the oxygen is evenly distributed throughout the tank. I personally use the Hygger Aquarium Air Stone Kit (link to Amazon). All you have to do is put the device in the middle of your tank, and it will take care of the rest. It is also incredibly quiet.

In many cases, a filter is enough. Filters agitate the water. Agitation will increase the gaseous exchange that occurs at the surface. A powerful filter will prevent the water from becoming stagnant. Don’t forget to eliminate the factors that caused the oxygen deficiency.

For instance, check the heater to ensure that it hasn’t malfunctioned. If the heater is fine, but the temperature is still too high, a partial water change will give the bettas some relief. You can also remove the lid and lighting. Some people use fans to blow across the surface of the water.

2. Treating Sick Betta Fish

If your suspect that the gasping betta is sick, start by placing it in quarantine. You should do this for every new fish just in case it has a disease. By placing gasping bettas in quarantine, you can prevent them from infecting the other fish in the aquarium.

Once the bettas are in the hospital tank, you can look for signs of illness. That includes white spots, discolored gills, lesions, bloating, etc.[6] Even if you don’t know anything about fish diseases, if you can describe the symptoms to a vet, they may identify the disease ailing your fish.

Many aquarists use ultra-violet sterilizers in tanks with sick fish.[7] The sterilizers kill the organisms that cause diseases. They will also eliminate suspended algae, making your water cleaner and healthier.

Hygiene is essential. Where possible, move all the bettas to a separate tank so that you can thoroughly clean their aquarium. Wipe every surface and vacuum the substrate. Such thorough cleaning should accompany a water change.

Once your vet identifies the disease ailing the bettas, you can take the appropriate steps to treat them. For instance, parasites like Costia and Trichodia will respond positively to Malachite green and copper sulfate.[8] You can fight gill flukes, which inflame the gills, using praziquantel.

Here is an excellent Youtube video that discusses the five most common betta fish diseases. That video will also give you a better understanding of how to identify the disease and treat it correctly:

3. Reducing High Ammonia Concentrations

The first step here would be measuring the water parameters. I personally use the API Master Test Kit (link to Amazon). This kit will accurately measure your pH, nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia in your tank. As a rule of thumb, ammonia should be at 0 ppm.

You can respond to ammonia poisoning in a tank with gasping betta by changing the water.[9] This won’t remove all the ammonia. But it will remove enough. The rest will be diluted. But a water change won’t help you unless you remember to use a conditioner on the new water. I use the Seachem Prime (link to Amazon) in my tank.

Otherwise, you ran the risk of introducing other toxins into the tank, including chlorine. You can also use a conditioner to neutralize the ammonia in a tank with gasping bettas, especially if those bettas need immediate relief.

You can prevent ammonia poisoning in the future by cycling your tank to completion and preventing overfeeding.[10] The more food you give your bettas, the more waste they produce. As you now know, ammonia is a by-product of fish waste.

4. Setting The Right Aquarium Conditions

The first step here would be to keep a clean tank. This goes without saying. I highly suggest maintaining a pristine tank with the correct pH (6.5 to 7.5), temperature (76 to 84 degrees F), and soft-medium hardness.[11]

Bear in mind that bettas also need at least 10 gallons of water. If you’re growing multiple betta fish, please check this article, where I discussed how many betta fish should be kept together in a tank. This article will help you pick the right tank so that your bettas aren’t suffering from overcrowding.

The tank should be long, wide, and low, not deep and narrow. Keep a lid on the aquarium to keep the creatures from jumping out. Give them plants and decorations to hide behind. Avoid objects with sharp edges that may cut them. Don’t keep male bettas in groups. They will kill each other.

Is It Normal For Bettas To Gasp For Air?

It is not normal for bettas to gasp for air. Labored breathing and gasping are signs of illness, stress, poor water conditions, or oxygen deficiencies. There are no good reasons for a betta to gasp for air.

If you noticed that your betta frequently gasps for air, the first step would be to enrich the water with oxygen and check the water parameters. You should also observe your fish and search for signs of illness.

What Are The Signs That Your Betta Fish is Dying?

You can’t always tell that a betta fish is dying. Some bettas will go into hiding before dying quietly without your knowledge. Others will advertise their impending death by manifesting symptoms that are difficult to ignore.

Either way, if your betta fish doesn’t look good, it might be dying. If that is your case, I highly recommend that you check this article I wrote. In there, I discussed how to identify dying betta fish and how to save them before it’s too late.

One example is inactivity. A betta that spends its days lying still should concern you. Such inactivity tells you that the creature isn’t eating, which means that it is at death’s door. The more time the fish spends lying still, the more likely it is to die.

Some fish will simply become lethargic. That is to say, rather than lying still, they will keep swimming. But they will do so very slowly because their energy levels are very low.

Another sign that should concern you is discoloration. A betta’s colors will fade if it is seriously sick. The discoloration is occasionally followed by ripped or clamped fins. I also suggest keeping an eye on the betta’s appetite. Fish with serious illnesses will stop eating altogether, which is bad because bettas need food to survive.[12]

If you found this article helpful, these may also interest you:

Conclusions

Betta fish gasping for air is a sign that something has gone wrong. A wide range of problems can cause symptoms like this. They can be caused by poor water conditions and stress, for instance. Or they can also be the result of an impending illness or early stages of infection.

If you suspect that your betta is gasping for air because something has gone wrong, conduct water tests and observe how it behaves. I also urge you to read the articles I mentioned above. That way, you can diagnose what is wrong with your fish and save it before it’s too late.

References

  1. https://pethelpful.com/fish-aquariums/diseases-of-a-Betta-fish
  2. https://www.theveterinarynurse.com/review/article/how-can-you-tell-when-a-fish-is-sick
  3. https://www.bettacarefishguide.com/betta-ammonia-poisoning-complete-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://www.thesprucepets.com/low-oxygen-in-aquarium-water-1381215
  6. https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/petcare/got-sick-fish
  7. https://www.aqueon.com/articles/aquarium-disease-prevention
  8. https://www.petsmart.com/learning-center/fish-care/is-my-fish-sick/A0029.html
  9. https://animals.mom.com/treat-ammonia-poisoning-aquarium-fish-9314.html
  10. https://www.thesprucepets.com/ammonia-poisoning-1378479
  11. https://www.vivofish.com/betta/
  12. https://www.wikihow.com/Tell-if-a-Betta-Fish-Is-Sick

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