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I apologize if this post belongs in the Hospital section but I didn't feel like this was an emergency. I also hope it's not too long but I wanted to make sure anyone willing or able to give me advice has all the facts leading up to my assumption that Jack has ongoing constipation issues because if I learned anything from this experience it's that as much as I've learned over the last few months, I've only scratched the surface:p

I am new (only about 3 months) to fish keeping and my first fish is a betta named Jack. As happens to many newbies I imagine, I trusted and was misinformed by the big-box pet store in my area regarding best care practices for bettas. So here is a rundown of his life with us so far.

We bought Jack the same day we bought a 26g bowfront aquarium kit. He lived in 4 cups of treated tap water which had about 80% water changes daily with a siphon for 3 days. The pet store told us we could put him in the big tank right away but we wanted to make sure the filter and heater were working properly before we introduced him to the big tank. We bought a package of frozen blood worms and I began feeding him once per day for as much as he could eat in about 2 mins. On day three we put Jack in a bag and floated him for about 1.5 hours adding tank water every 20-30 mins and then we released him. He LOVED it!

I began researching bettas and quickly learned that big-box people just want to sell you stuff and seem to do it at the cost fishes well being, particularly bettas We were led to believe that bettas are iron fish and could easily withstand the cycling of our tank if we used the water conditioners designed to speed the process and doing weekly 25% water changes. We quickly found how untrue that was and bought ammonia, ph, nitrite and nitrate tests (liquid tests, not strips) and immediately began testing our water every second day and continuing with 25% water changes weekly. If the tests showed any ammonia we did an extra 25% water change that day as quick as we could treat and heat a bucket of water. We watched the nitrites but only added a water change if the color change was creeping above the first level of detection. We felt like this was a better option for Jack then dropping him back in 4 cups of water with no heater or filter until our tank could properly cycle. We felt bad as our knowledge increased but it was the best we could do with knowledge and funds at the time.

I spent a lot of time with Jack getting to know his habits, personality and body over the first month and he seemed to be doing well. I think he would have preferred a little less water current than he was living in and I also think he might have preferred a shallower tank. He was very active, friendly and curious though and his appetite always good. I bought him a betta hammock to rest on at the surface in the calmest corner of the aquarium to ensure he could if he wanted to. He seems to like the whole tank though, particularly the area near the bacopa at the bottom and the heater at the top:p Life and 2 months goes on with the same processes as described above except we began adding Flourish excel (5ml/day) and flourish comprehensive (2.5mls, 2x/week) after about 1 month. Things seemed to be going well and we didn't get any readings on nitrite or ammonia for a week and so we thought we were cycled. This was at about 2 months after startup. According to our research this was a reasonable amount of time and clear tests to assume so. We cut our testing back to 2ce a week.

I was excited to get Jack some tank mates as he has a very easygoing temperament. We chose Cherry Shrimp. Just 4 to start as we knew there was a good chance that problems could arise between them and Jack. We acclimated via floating bag over 1.5 hours adding a little water every 15 mins or so until we released them. All 4 lived for a full week and we thought we might be in the clear. We bought some Malaysian driftwood and some spider wood to add to the tank the day we bought the shrimp but we soaked them both in tap water for a week. We then set to adding them to the tank on water change day. We rinsed them well and placed them in, moving a few plants around to make room for them. Things seemed well when we were done. This was Sunday.

Wednesday is my midweek flourish comp and excel day. Jack and the shrimp looked well when I added the 2. I accounted for all 4 shrimp and I noticed one shrimp exoskeleton. About 6 hours later it was feeding time and I looked in to see ALL 4 shrimp dead at the bottom of the tank! I checked Jack thoroughly and he seemed his active, friendly usual self so I chalked it up to Cherry Shrimp being fairly dainty and sensitive. I tested the water and had no dangerous levels, if any, of ammonia or nitrite and nitrates were in safe levels. I kept a close eye on Jack over the next few days. He seemed fine until Saturday. I woke on Saturday to find Jack very unwell. He was laying flat on his side at the bottom and would not come to me as he usually did. I finally managed to rouse him and he was swimming very awkwardly, panting hard, turning grey underneath, struggling to surface and then skimming along the top gulping air, then sinking like a rock back to the bottom to lay flat on his side again. I hit google and found that it could have been so many things. Swim bladder, constipation, TB, ammonia/nitrite poisoning, bacteria, parasites...seems they all start out with the same symptoms.

I went to my lfs (not the bigbox we got him at, these people seem to line up with the generally accepted information on the internet) and described what was happening and asked what to do. They believe that my tank was not truly cycled and to get Jack out of it. They said to put him in his 4 cup container with 1/8 tsp of epsom salt and to do 100% water changes daily. I went home and did this immediately. At this point he wouldn't eat, was blown up like a beach ball and still couldn't swim normally and kept sinking. He was also still panting, although not so much, but his breathing was still clearly labored. Research, research, research! No bulging eyes, pinecone scales, lesions, holes or anything of the sort. I continued with water changes although I dropped to 80% because it just seemed too stressful for him to come out and in every single day. He would turn very grey and his breathing would really get labored. After 4 days he hadn't eaten and he hadn't pooped. I do a 100% water change with .5 tsp of epsom salt per gallon of water this time. I finally get Jack to eat a tiny bit of pea and a tiny bit of freeze dried daphnia. I wake the next day to a VERY large poop. FINALLY! It was very big. My husband and I were just....I don't know how that came out of him but YAY! Things start to get back to normal with him but he only poops like every 2-3 days. I've been monitoring for a good week now. He comes to me, he's eating, his color has returned, except for water changes, they seem very hard on him.

So with lack of any other physical issues presenting themselves I think he was constipated horribly and it was affecting his swim bladder or he got ammonia/nitrite poisoned. We started monitoring the 26g daily again and saw ammonia and nitrite showing face again. Always safe levels but they are there. The lfs thinks that we might have a case of too-much-love tank:p She said it's possible that we were so diligent with water changes to protect Jack and they thought our tank could possibly have NOT completely cycled. They believe that it kept getting "almost there" and then we'd change the water and mess with the cycle. They said they think we have an unstable cycle which is why we would have seen negative tests.

So now we have gotten a 10g tank for Jack that we are cycling. He has been upgraded from 4 cups to 1g with a heater but no filter. I test his water daily and I complete about 70% water changes daily and 100% when I show ANY color in the ammonia test. I check many times throughout the day for feces and siphon it out immediately. Currently, he seems to have made it through his brush with death. His color is back, he can sit upright and swim and he is eating. He also comes to the top of his bowl to say hello. He seems perfectly normal again except for the pooping only 2-3 days. What goes in must come out, that's the old saying and it worries me that he isn't regular. I've cut back on his feeding dramatically and I keep an eye to see if he loses any weight. I fear that overfeeding may have been the main cause of his issues but I'm still not sure since gulping for air and heavy breathing doesn't seem to be listed as a symptom of swim bladder or constipation and the mysterious mass death of the shrimp.

I can't seem to find any consistent info on best foods for bettas except that they should have a varied diet to help prevent constipation. I'm still feeding him frozen blood worms regular in much smaller portions and freeze dried daphnia a couple times a week. I fast him once per week as well. There is a lot of debate on whether freeze dried food is good at all, some says blood worms blood worms while others say they can't survive on just them. I don't know what to feed this guy to keep him healthy! I definitely owe him the best I can offer since whether I fed him too much or poisoned him, it was all on me and my lack of knowledge that put him in such a bad place. Jack will be placed in the 10g when it is properly cycled to live out his days with us and we will do our "practicing" of ferts, co2, plants and decorations in an empty tank from this point forward until we are confident that we can maintain a safe tank for living creatures.

Once again, sorry this is so long. I am still unsure if I'm missing something and wanted any advice to be as educated to my situation as possible in case my assumptions are still plagued by misinformation and inexperience. Thanks in advance.

145 Posts
You did the right thing keeping him in the 26 gallon tank rather than moving him back into the smaller tank because neither are cycled. A larger uncycled tank is better than a small uncycled tank since the larger volume helps dilute the toxins.

For feeding I'd suggest only feeding him bloodworms 1-2 times a week and only about 3 per meal. For the other days, I'd use pellets as a staple food. New Life Spectrum, Omega One and Hikari are good brands for pellets (or flakes). Along with the frozen bloodworms, I'd also feed frozen daphnia (freeze dried is alright as long as you soak it well beforehand). Daphnia helps to act as a laxative. Peas are also laxatives, but since bettas are insectivores/carnivores, I wouldn't feed them peas if possible. Fasting him once per week would also help with digestion.

(I'm typing as I read your post). I'm now at the part where you said you moved him back to the small tank. I'd move him back into the 26 gallon. As I said, a large uncycled tank (it sounded cycled to me) is better than a small uncycled tank. You're also right, 100% water changes can be very stressful for the fish due to the constant moving.
You can still do daily water changes on the 26 gallon, but just not 100%. I'd do 50% PWC (partial water change).

In my opinion, you can never really do too much water changes. During fish-in cycles you actually want to do more water changes to dilute the ammonia/nitrite. Yes, you're taking away the food source for the bacteria, but keeping your fish in a toxic environment isn't good either and the number one priority is your fish. The bacteria will just grow slower.

10 gallons is a good size for a betta. I'd move him into that if that's going to be his final home. If you want help cycling, you could buy bottled bacteria. I'd suggest Tetra SafeStart or Seachem Stability. Or even better, maybe you can find someone local to help you out with a piece of seeded filter media.

I'd also like to point out that the bacteria need a source of food (ammonia/nitrite) to grow and survive. If the empty 26 gallon tank doesn't have an ammonia source, any bacteria that you've built up will die. Since it's empty right now, I'd suggest doing a fishless cycle with pure ammonia (decomposing fish food for ammonia will work, but it's not as accurate and a little more messy). Something like this would work
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