Cute But Deadly: The Truth About Fish Bowls

Kate Barrington
by Kate Barrington

They may be compact and stylish, but there’s nothing cute about fish bowls. Small space and toxic water conditions are just a few of the things wrong with this popular fish habitat.

If you have ever gone to the fair or a carnival, you’ve probably seen goldfish or betta fish being given away as prizes. In many cases, the fish are just given away in bags, but some places give them away in small fish bowls. The image of a goldfish in a rounded fishbowl is a popular and stereotypical one, but the fact that they are portrayed this way in so many places doesn’t mean that it’s right! What many people do not realize is that keeping a fish in a fish bowl is tantamount to animal cruelty.

Why Fish Bowls are Bad

Keeping a betta fish or goldfish in a small fish bowl is equivalent to soaking in a bathtub contaminated by your own waste – there simply isn’t enough water to dilute the waste. These bowls are not only keeping the waste contained in a smaller space with your fish, but they also fail to offer any filtration to cycle that waste out of the water. The key to keeping aquarium fish healthy is to maintain high water quality in the tank, and that simply isn’t possible with a fish bowl unless you change the water every day.

As your fish eats, it naturally produces waste and in a fish bowl there isn’t anywhere for that waste to go. As a result, it accumulates in the bottom of the fish bowl where it will have a negative impact on water quality. If you don’t change the water in the bowl, the accumulation of waste can quickly lead to toxic conditions which could kill your fish. This is why many goldfish only last a few days after being brought home from the fair.

Related: Tank Stocking: The Truth About The 1 Inch Per Gallon Rule

In addition to promoting toxic conditions, here are just a few more reasons why fish bowls are bad:

They don’t offer enough swimming space.

Betta fish grow up to 3 inches long and goldfish can grow much larger. The recommended tank size for a single betta fish is 5 gallons. If you are incorporating live plants or significant décor, the size needed is even greater. Meanwhile, the recommended tank size for a goldfish is at least 10 gallons for each goldfish. A small fish bowl simply doesn’t offer enough swimming space to keep a fish healthy.

The small size that we often associate with the goldfish is part of a hazardous cycle. Keeping a goldfish in a smaller fishbowl will stunt its growth. They simply stop growing because there is no space to grow into. As a result, society sees goldfish as small fish without the need for a larger habitat and continues to place them in smaller fishbowls and tanks. But, if you break free from this cycle and provide your goldfish with enough room to grow, you may be surprised by how large they can be!

They have rounded edges.

If you have ever tried to look through a fish bowl you probably noticed that it distorted your vision. Keeping a fish in a rounded bowl can be disorienting. This distorted view of the world around them can be incredibly stressful for your fish. Like with humans, high levels of stress can contribute to physical health problems and complications. Recognizing how cruel and inhumane this is for the fish that are kept in these conditions, some locations have banned their use. For example, in Rome, a bylaw was passed to ban spherical goldfish bowls. They have also banned the use of goldfish as prizes.

There aren’t enough beneficial bacteria.

We often associate the word ‘bacteria’ with negativity and problems, bacteria is actually needed in a fish tank to create an optimal environment. In order to keep the water quality in a fish tank high, you need beneficial bacteria to convert the chemicals produced by the breakdown of waste into less harmful substances. In a fishbowl, there simply isn’t enough water or space to cultivate an adequate colony of beneficial bacteria.

They aren’t big enough for heaters or filters.

A fish bowl isn’t designed to accommodate a tank heater or filter. Without a heater, the water temperature in your fish bowl is subject to fluctuations which could stress or kill your fish. While some species of fish can adjust to a wider variety of temperatures, they still need their environment to be kept at a steady temperature that they can adapt to. For example, goldfish should be kept in a tank that is kept between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit to thrive. There are also many species of fish that need a warmer or more ‘tropical’ environment. This is impossible to create without the use of a heater.

Without a filter, the water quality will quickly decline and even small changes in water chemistry could be deadly. This makes it much more difficult for you to care for the tank and maintain water quality, even with regular testing. For those that do try to incorporate a filter or some form of aeration into the tank, the system will take up a considerable amount of space limiting the available space for your fish to swim around even further. Plus, there are many types of fish (like the betta) that can be stressed by the bubbling that comes from aeration and therefore need to be able to move away from it to be comfortable in their habitat.

They generally don’t come with lids.

Betta fish can jump up to 6 inches in the air – it is a natural adaptation they have from living in shallow pools and puddles in their native habitat. If you don’t keep a lid on your fish bowl (and most of them aren’t designed with lids), you run the risk of coming to feed your fish one day and discovering him dried out on the floor. If you have any other pets in the home, a lid is an important safety feature to consider. This will protect your fish even when you’re not present to keep an eye on the situation.

Related: How to Properly Acclimate New Fish in the Aquarium

Bigger is Better

If you are new to the aquarium hobby, you might think that a small fish bowl is easier to maintain than a large tank. Unfortunately, you would be mistaken. Sure, it might take more money to set up a large aquarium than to fill a fish bowl, but the maintenance will be easier in the long run. With a larger aquarium, you have a larger water volume – this means that wastes and toxins are diluted so you don’t have to perform water changes as often as you would to maintain water quality in a fish bowl. A larger tank also means that you will be able to accommodate a filter and a heater which will keep the conditions stable for your fish. Finally, if you do happen to make a mistake in regard to water chemistry, having a higher water volume means that the mistake could be relatively minor and you should be able to remedy it before it affects your fish. A minor mistake in a small fish bowl could be deadly for your fish in a matter of minutes.

If you really want to do what is best for your fish, you won’t even consider a fish bowl as an option. It might take a little more time and money to cultivate a larger fish tank, but it is definitely worth it for the health and wellness of your fish.

Kate Barrington
Kate Barrington

Kate Barrington is the loving owner of two cats (Bagel and Munchkin) and a noisy herd of guinea pigs. Having grown up with golden retrievers, Kate has a great deal of experience with dogs but labels herself a lover of all pets. Having received a Bachelor's degree in English, Kate has combined her love for pets and her passion for writing to create her own freelance writing business, specializing in the pet niche.

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