Help for a Goldfish Killer?
June 1, 2007 9:08 PM   Subscribe

Oh god, I've murdered my son's goldfish. Poor Mike, Jim and Poopy, I never meant to cut your lives short. Aquarians, please help!

I know nothing, and I mean nothing, about keeping a simple aquaruium. I am a fish killer, pure and simple. My son's aquarium holds 10 gallons and has a (irksomely loud) filter motor, we fed the fish sparingly, and tried to keep them occuppied. I suspect some of the chemicals we added to the tank were just too much-- I added a teaspoon of Auqusafe, but there were a couple of other 'sample' additives, too.
I want to start over but I want to do it right this time. Goldfish! Holy cats, how hard can that be?
posted by maryh to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
If you use one of these all-in-one jobs and follow the instructions, I have a hard time believing you could screw it up.

That being said, an aquarium purist might tell you this is the Honda Civic of aquarium set-ups. But screw those guys.
posted by frogan at 9:17 PM on June 1, 2007

I don't know if this has anything to do with your problem but we had several goldfish that lived in simple bowls (not real aquariums.) Generally they did fine as long as I let the tap water sit out for 24-48 hours before I added to the bowl. Rushed it and the fish died each time.
posted by metahawk at 9:27 PM on June 1, 2007

Here's a guide for a basic goldfish aquarium. In my experience a lot of little "feeder" goldfish (the kind we used to win at school fairs) die within a couple of weeks of coming home. They're stressed and handled a lot in their lives before coming to your house, and then even basic aquarium management is pretty complicated. Don't feel like you're the only one who has had a hard time keeping them alive.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:44 PM on June 1, 2007

Whenever changing water, keep distilled water handy. I know it is not recommended for long-term use, but it sure comes in handy if you have to save a couple of fish quick.
posted by humannaire at 10:11 PM on June 1, 2007

Referencing water quality suggestions above: to deionize water (this is a good thing) all you need is to put tap water in something and leave it uncovered for 24 hours. Alternately, you can get RO/DI (reverse osmosis deionized water, which is what I use for my saltwater setup) at your LFS or, even more easily at the outdoor dispenser at many drug stores like Long's.

I second the suggestion of getting a very basic all-in-one setup. Have you considered a nano cube? The smallish ones are incredibly cute and decorative, quiet, and pretty cheap.

Last suggestion: take a sample of your water to your LFS and ask them to test it for you prior to starting up your tank again. The presence of non-zero levels of chemicals like nitrites can be a real killer- and you'll get a clue as to what might have been going on with the tank last time.

Good luck- and as Ms. Lynnster and others have said, don't take it too personally!
posted by arnicae at 10:19 PM on June 1, 2007

Best answer: I was away from home for 90 days as a kid one year, and my mom decided to clean my fish tank one day, promptly killing the goldfish I'd managed to successfully keep and actually grow for a couple of years. These were originally fair prizes, so I expected them to die quickly like LobsterMitten mentioned, but they really thrived.

A basic setup like frogan suggested is what you should start out with. Make sure there's a filter, and replace its cartridges on schedule. I used active carbon filters that hung in the back of the tank.

You should stick to the general rule of one gallon per inch of fish, so a ten gallon tank can safely hold five 2-inch fish or two 5-inch fish, or any combination you like. If the fish grow, you might have to acquire a second setup. Mine grew, but I only had two of them, so they were fine.

Never overfeed, though it seems like you didn't.

As far as additives go, generally, for goldfish, you don't need fancy additives. Just make sure your water is distilled or carefully sits for long enough before you put the fish in. 24 hours works. Make sure the temperature doesn't dip too much (you can get a cheap tank therm that sticks to the outside). Keeping the tank clean goes a long way. If you do wind up needing to add something (and rule other things out first), it might affect tank pH, which could cause problems. So at that particular time, you might want a pH test strip.

For more cleanliness issues, there's always an aquarium pump, but I never had one and they didn't seem too necessary. It's good for poop though, especially if you don't have a scavenger (like a crayfish) in the tank.

More basics: isolate sick fish, look for spots on tails and fins, and basically any other signs of illness.

I'm not some kind of aquarium expert or purist, this is just what I found, through reading and experience, is what works for successful goldfish raising. Hey, if I managed to keep two fair prize fish alive for a few years...
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:25 PM on June 1, 2007

And by aquarium pump, I meant a siphon aquarium vacuum.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:27 PM on June 1, 2007

Best answer: 10 gallons is a little bit tight for goldfish, especially for the more "natural" varieties, since they grow, eat, and poop an awful lot. However, you would probably be safe with two or three of the fat, stubby kind. Be aware, though, that they're prone to constipation, which in turn causes them to go all screwy and float sidewise (not dead, just drunk-looking, because their bloated intestines push on the organ that helps them control their depth in the water).

I'd caution against the bubble-eyed varieties, though. Sometimes they can get their eye-bubbles caught in the filter; I don't know how old your son is, but it's pretty traumatic to see even if you're a grown-up.

To help prevent this, it's good to soak their flakes in water for a few minutes, so that the flakes sink in the water right away, and the fish don't accidentally gulp down air while trying to get food from the surface. Even better is to feed frozen shelled peas occasionally. Small orange slices and bits of blanched zucchini also might be good.

Feed the fish sparingly; you say you're already doing that, but try feeding about half of what you're already feeding. Also, take a day or two off from feeding each week (fish can go about a week with no food without having any problems).

Don't go too heavy on the chemicals; a little bit of dechlorinator (I use AmQuel) and possibly a conditioner for their slime coat, but follow the instructions carefully and don't add too much. You shouldn't have to use any other chemicals, and you certainly wouldn't need to use anything marketed to change the PH of the water. Goldfish aren't really sensitive to PH in the first place, and a lot of those products work pretty poorly anyway. What you can do, though not all aquarists recommend it, is to add a little aquarium salt to the water, which supposedly promotes healthy fish. Follow the instructions on the carton, and if you err, err on the side of caution.

Water changes of 10-15 percent once a week or so are good, and will help to keep your tank clean. Suck the obvious grunge off the surface of the gravel, but don't go all crazy with that; the gravel surfaces provide dwelling places for bacteria that help process ammonia in the tank.
Water changes should also be the only time you add any chemicals to the water. Rinse your tank filter pad when it gets gross, making sure you rinse it in treated water before you put it back in the tank.

Goldfish come from rivers, so they do well with moving water. They also need lots of oxygen in their water. Get a small pump with an airstone if you don't already have one. Unfortunately, this will not make the tank any less irksomely loud.

Don't use a tank heater. Just don't. Goldfish don't need them. They like it cold.

Don't get an "algae eater" of any kind. They don't thrive in the same conditions as goldfish, and some of them prefer to suck on goldfish instead of algae. Goldfish do just find eating algae on their own. They like it.

Don't use a bowl. Despite their popularity, these really aren't an ideal environment for goldifsh, which are descended from carp that dwell in big, fast-rushing rivers. If you want a fish in a bowl, get a betta (Siamese fighting fish).

If you've got any more specific questions, hit me up here or via e-mail; my address is in my profile.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:34 PM on June 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

You should stick to the general rule of one gallon per inch of fish, so a ten gallon tank can safely hold five 2-inch fish

This is indeed the general rule of thumb, but there is a caveat, and that's the surface area of the water. Although both tanks may have the same liquid volume, a vertically oriented tank (taller than wide) with a low surface area will support less fish than a horizontally oriented tank (wider than tall) with a wide top and larger surface area.
posted by frogan at 10:34 PM on June 1, 2007

Oh, one last thing: everyone who's mentioning that all you need to do for your water is leave it to sit overnight may or may not be correct. If the tap water where you live has chlorine in it, leaving it out all night won't get rid of the chlorine, but a basic water conditioner (like I said, AmQuel works pretty well for me) will get rid of it. Chlorine is really bad for fish; it irritates their gills to the point where they will suffocate. A simple test at your local fish store (PetSmart does this for free) should tell you if your tap water has any dangerous additives in it.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:37 PM on June 1, 2007

You should stick to the general rule of one gallon per inch of fish, so a ten gallon tank can safely hold five 2-inch fish

Actually, this rule doesn't work so well for goldfish, as they come from a different environment from other tropical freshwater fish. In short, goldfish eat more, pea more, poop more, and grow more than other freshwater fish. Like I said above, for the sleek, wild varieties of goldfish, you want about 10 gallons of water per fish, but two or three stubby round goldfish would probably be OK in the tank you have.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:40 PM on June 1, 2007

Best answer: I worked in a pet store for three years as a fish, insects and reptiles specialist.

Most goldfish that die drown in their own piss. Goldfish are herbivores and should be fed goldfish food, not generic "fish food" or "tropical fish food". Generic fish food has too much protein, which the goldfish can't process efficiently and excrete as uric acid and urea.

Urea, when dissolved in the water, turns into more uric acid and quickly breaks down into ammonia (and a few other byproducts), both of which corrode the mucous coating on the gills and scales, leading to suffocation.

So, the main trick to keeping goldfish alive is keeping the ammonia (and eventual ammonia byproducts like various nitrites and nitrates) down.

Making sure you have the right food is the first step. You want goldfish pellets (because they won't sink and rot in the bottom of the tank) that are small enough to be swallowed whole (goldfish don't have teeth). Hagen makes an ok brand called "Nutrafin Plus Goldfish pellets" that's about a buck more expensive than the regular stuff. There are multiple sizes of it - you probably want the "small pellets" if you're getting new fish.

Even with the right food, don't overfeed them. Many people don't think they're over feeding fish even though they are. In nature, fish eat small amounts of food constantly throughout the day, and you want to replicate this when possible. It's also more fun, since fish feeding is fun to watch. Basically, you want to dribble in five or six pellets per fish at a time, and watch (or have the kids watch) the fish eat them all. You can do that two or three times a day and they should be fine.

The other big thing you want to do to keep ammonia down is control the water quality. That means two things:

1) Giving the fish enough room. The "one inch per gallon" rule is good for tropical fish (which are omnivorous, and thus process protein more efficiently) but goldfish should have two gallons per inch. In fact, bigger tanks are easier to take care of than smaller tanks, because they contain more water to dilute the toxic byproducts of the ammonia cycle.

I'd recommend a 20 gallon tank even if you only want two little goldfish in it. It's about two cubic feet big, and will give them enough room to live for the rest of their lives in. They'll be more active in a bigger space too. Plus, a 20 gallon tank kit normally comes with a fluorescent light mounting that makes them look prettier and gives off less heat (which is good, because goldfish are cool water fish and because with an incandescent light you get weird temperature fluctuations that stress out the fish).

2) Change the water at least once a week. Don't change all the water, just somewhere between a third and a half. Don't change it by dumping out the water either while the little guys are in a pail. Keep them in the tank, and scoop the water out with a big cup.

Municipal tap water contains chlorine and chloramine in it, neither of which are good for fish. Leaving water out for a day gets rid of chlorine, which is a volatile gas, but not chloramine, which is put in precisely because it's a more stable but equally-toxic version that won't evaporate out (that's useful to a city because it means they can leave the water in reservoirs during periods of low demand without having to worry about bacteria building up).

In order to get rid of chlorine and chloramine, you want to get a chemical. I used Hagen's "Aqua Plus" stuff at my job, but Marina makes a good version too. Dump about twice what they say on the bottle into the pail with the water in it, stir it around a bit, and let it sit for twenty or thirty minutes.

The chemicals work in less time than that, but you want to give the water a chance to reach room temperature before you add it.

Frequent water changes, proper feeding and a big enough tank are the best and most effective ways to avoid die-off.

A few more random tips:

Goldfish don't need filters or thermometers. That stuff is more for tropical fish. Filters with live bacterial media can help, but frequent water changes are far more important than a filter. Charcoal won't do jack to get rid of ammonia, and ammonia remover (the little white pellets) is a stop-gap measure, and it clouds the water anyhow.

Keep the tank away from drafts, and things that will change the temperature drastically (like incandescent lights, direct sunlight, heater vents, etc.) It's better for the water to be a little cold consistently than for it to be too cold one day and too hot the next day.

The most common time for goldfish to die is right after new tank is set up, and right after a water change. In both cases, it's because the ammonia level spikes right afterwards (there's a complex ecological and chemical justification for this, but I'll spare you it).

When you set up a new tank, try putting in a little plant (another thing the fluorescent light is good for) and leave it be for a few days (72 hours minimum). The plant will kick the ammonia cycle off, but isn't really hurt by ammonia. So you'll get your spike before any fish are in the tank. The plant will also suck up some of the toxic byproducts of ammonia as the cycle goes along.

For regular water changes, frequency usually compensates for the ammonia spike. If you change the water, then even though there's a spike (usually within 12 to 36 hours), it never gets a chance to build up to a toxic level.

Anyhow, that's a lot of info, I know. Here's the basic ideas: Plenty of space, only a little bit of the right kind of food, and change the water frequently. Do that, and your fish should be fine.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:06 PM on June 1, 2007 [106 favorites]

Best answer: Three words:

Under gravel filter.

Under-gravel filters basically simulate the process by which flowing water in a creek would keep itself clean.

All they are is a hollow plastic base that sits in the bottom of the tank, with slots in the top. You put a layer of 1" polyester wool (the same stuff you'd use to stuff a quilt, or insulate a wall) over this, then an inch or two of gravel over that. Two under-gravel filters will pretty much cover the entire bottom of a two-foot tank (which is about the smallest tank you should probably use; less water than that, and mistakes get pretty bad pretty fast).

Each of the bases has two tubes in the corner than stick up through the gravel. You connect an air line from your tank pump to the smaller tube, and bubbles come out of the bigger one.

As well as aerating the tank water, these bubbles draw water up the tubes from inside the hollow base. You end up with continual, gentle circulation of all of the tank water downward through the gravel.

The spaces gravel and the polyester fibres, build up a population of beneficial aerobic bacteria that do an excellent job of breaking down fish poo and generally eating up stuff that would make your water cloudy and your fish sick - it's the same kind of magic that happens in a compost heap. And if you mix a bit of shell grit with your gravel, that will help by buffering excess acidity.

The only maintenance an under-gravel filter needs is an occasional swoosh through the gravel with the bottom of the same siphon you'd be using to do a partial water change.

Something else that does a good job of soaking up excess nitrogen (from fish pee) is actively growing green plants in your tank. You need good tank lights to keep these healthy, and if you're going to install those, you probably want a rock formation or a terra cotta pot on its side to make a shady spot for fishy to use when he feels like it. Tank lights will also promote the growth of green algae, which looks a bit gross but, like green plants, also does an excellent job of fixing loose nitrogen (and produces goodly amounts of oxygen as well). Fishy will eat algae, too. So will snails.

Put enough green plants in there, and you will scarcely need to feed fishy at all. If you don't see him nibbling at the plants occasionally, you're feeding too much.

Also, if you see him swimming around with half an inch of turd hanging from his little fishy arse, he's constipated, which means you're feeding him too much. Really, goldfish do best with an astoundingly small amount of food.

If you manage to establish a healthy population of greenery, and leave at least the back and side walls of your tank to grow a nice coating of green algal slime, and have undergravel filters covering the base of a big enough tank, and only feed fishy his dinner if you've seen him eating his greens, then goldfish will actually do OK even if you never change the water at all.

Goldfish don't actually appreciate being fiddled with. They don't like chlorine, they especially don't like chloramine, and they especially extra specially don't like rapid temperature and chemistry changes. Set up a healthy tank ecology and aim for benign neglect.

If you try to be nice to your fishy by giving him regular doses of straight tap water, you will probably kill him. Also, don't put water-treatment chemicals into the fish tank. The way these things generally work is by provoking a chemical reaction with gaseous byproducts, which then diffuse out of the water; until they've done so, that water is not fit to breathe.

For a two-foot tank, treat a bucket of water (or use a bucket of rainwater, if you've got a collector), then let the bucket stand for 24 hours in the same room as the tank before part-siphoning the tank and topping it up from the bucket. Err on the side of not exchanging enough water. If you haven't got many plants, change less water more often.
posted by flabdablet at 1:39 AM on June 2, 2007 [13 favorites]

If you have further questions, Fish Geeks is the best message board I've found for this stuff.
posted by SampleSize at 7:21 AM on June 2, 2007

I did all of this. Everything. To keep my son's goldfish (that he won as a prize) alive.

He stayed that way for a long time.

But then he somehow swam into a conch shell (pretty, right?) and got stuck and died.

I thought he had disappeared.

So... what they told me (AquaSafe and frequent water changes and ammonia and goldfish-only fish food and cold water and filters and vacuuming) was good, but what they should have said was: Don't put ocean shells in the tank. In fact, I won't be putting anything in the tank except what I bought at the fish store.
posted by eleyna at 8:38 AM on June 2, 2007

Also, I have a Whisper filter, and it's *very* quiet. Highly recommend it.
posted by eleyna at 8:41 AM on June 2, 2007

The rule of thumb I have heard for goldfish is 1 per 10-15 gallons. So in a 10 gallon tank i'd probably only keep 1. There are small fish such as White Cloud Mountain Minnow which can be kept in a small school (5-7 fishes) in your tank. They have similar water requirements as goldfish. Maybe you should try those if you want more fish in a tank.
posted by rsol44 at 9:30 AM on June 2, 2007

Response by poster: I'd like to thank everyone for thier advice, especially Pseudoephedrine. I really did EVERYTHING wrong, right down to the fish food! (Looks like I was, gulp, overfeeding the lil' swimmers after all....) I'll be cleaning out the tank and starting over fresh, and, thanks to you guys, the new fish will have a happier, healthier life than Mike and Jim and Poopy ever enjoyed.

BTW-- I'm gonna give my business to a different guppy merchant, too. The guy at the last pet store was actually pushing me to buy six goldies for that 10 gallon tank.
posted by maryh at 10:10 AM on June 2, 2007

God do I sympathize. I'll never forget my 4 year old kid realizing that we had replaced Samantha I with Samantha II, after a frantic trip to multiple pet stores to find a ringer for Samantha I, who went belly up one night, before the end of the preschool day (and after explaining that Samantha was "sleeping" all through breakfast).

"Daddy, why is Samantha smaller today? And her eyes are a different color . . ." Gulp. Time to explain death at last.

I thought they looked the same, but my kid can tell the difference between the three female sea lions at the local zoo, which look entirely alike to me, and knows them by name (confirmed at feeding time, when the trainers identify each one by name -- the kid is always dead on.) Never underestimate the power of child to recognize a specific animal. It's freaky, like some reptilian brain ability that atrophies when you reach puberty.

Hell, bottom line: never lie to kid. They know.
posted by spitbull at 1:26 PM on June 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to jump in and recommend that you DO NOT get an undergravel filter. They seem like a great filter when you first start to use them, but unless you are gravel-vacuuming your tank weekly, debris and other detrius tends to get sucked underneath the filter, where it gets trapped and decays over time, slowly worsening your water quality until your tank "crashes", usually accompanied by rampant fishy death. And then you have to dismantle your tank to clean out under the filter, which is an imperfect process anyways. I would stick with a hang-on-back or power filter, or even a canister filter, if you go with a larger tank. But please stay away from undergravel filters. That was a lesson I learned the hard way.
posted by internet!Hannah at 7:16 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

That will happen if you leave out the layer of polyester wool between the filter plate and the gravel. With the wool in place, the only stuff that gets to the underneath is microscopic and doesn't clog.

Our two foot tank had a UG filter, installed as I described, in place for a year before we moved house, and we were slack as hell about scruffling the gravel (basically we never did it). When I took the tank apart to do the move, the underneath of the UG filter chamber was pristine. It smelled like low tide, but it was certainly not the least bit clogged. It wasn't even slimy.
posted by flabdablet at 11:02 PM on June 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

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