Easiest pet fish?
January 23, 2008 5:02 PM   Subscribe

I want to get a small aquarium. What are the types of fish that are the cheapest and easiest -- read: low maintenance -- to take care of in terms of feeding, changing the water, etc, but at the same time, are pretty to look at? Any additional advice on tanks/filters is welcome too.
posted by bondgirl53001 to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
For a small tank, a Betta is probably the way to go. Healthy ones will tolerate conditions that would be horrid to most other fish, and if you go to a good fish store, there's the chance you can get a really pretty one.
posted by drezdn at 5:21 PM on January 23, 2008

I've had good luck with tiger barbs, sword tails and gouramis.
posted by electroboy at 5:39 PM on January 23, 2008

zebra danios are hardy, but might be a little too active if your tank is small. How small is small?
posted by jquinby at 5:47 PM on January 23, 2008

Great suggestions above. i don't keep fish but a brother (saltwater) and my mom (freshwater) do. I enjoy the mollies (last item in link), particularly the Blacks. The 'literature' says they need brackish water. I see them thrive in both fresh and saltwater environments.
As for tanks, I'd recommend a 5 gallon for your wants. 10 tops. Is there a Petsmart
type store nearby? You can 'browse' the fish and usually the people who work there are high pressure working on commission, so they work w/ you.
posted by dawson at 6:01 PM on January 23, 2008

usually the people who work there AREN'T high pressure & etc :)
posted by dawson at 6:03 PM on January 23, 2008

A 29 gallon tank is a better size for chemical stability than a 5 or 10 gallon one - without being quite the committment of a really big tank. I like the kind of filter that sits outside the tank - they're easy to change and do a good job of both filtering and aerating the water. Under gravel filters are a pain to clean since you have to take the whole tank apart. Also depending on how hard your water is will have some bearing on what kind of fish do well. I'm far too lazy to be constantly fixing our very hard water so I've avoided fish that are picky about it. This is something to ask at your local fish store - although people at the big box stores are often not knowledgeable about it.

When you buy fish, be sure to choose breeds that are good community fish. Tiger barbs and gouramis can both be aggressive which is fine if they're with other aggressive fish but not so good if the others are timid. Fish are happier if you get at least 2-3 of each species so they can school. Not true w/male bettas though! The other breeds mentioned are all good, as are platys. I would avoid angelfish - they're aggressive.

I also recommend getting a couple plecostemos - they're bottom feeders so they'll help keep your tank clean and they're very cool looking. Catfish or algae eaters work as well. Cheapest fish of all are feeder guppies. You will have a population explosion with them though. We have several kinds of tetras in our tank as well and they've been very long-lived and good community fish.
posted by leslies at 6:20 PM on January 23, 2008

Ditto on the large tank: Anything less than a 30 gal is more trouble than it's worth.

The easiest way IMO to make fish easy is to make maintenance easy. Bucket with a big comfy handle, marked off in gallons, and a siphon. Put the siphon and dechlorinator in the bucket and store it under the tank so you don't have to look for it.

I'd suggest ornamental goldfish, personally. Big filter, maybe an inch of small gravel on the bottom, with maybe two or three small decorations. The goldfish will root EVERYTHING up, so stick them to a plate of plexi with tank repair epoxy, and bury the plate in gravel. I had (basically) this tank for over seven years, and usually kept fish for over three-four years at a time.

Whatever you get, you might want to consider a Pleco as well - Just one. He'll grow to his environment, and take care of the tank algae in the bargain.
posted by Orb2069 at 6:33 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Putting in an alternative to fish: hermit crabs. A half-dozen will be happy in a 10 gal tank, no filters or water changes needed (just keep their substrate moist with dechlorinated water, give them a heat source and do a weekly poop scoop), long-lived, they eat whatever you've got leftover (hello, scavengers), they are social: they do silly stuff like swap shells, click at each other and are, IMO, far more personable than fish (except chiclids and koi, which abound in personality but require big spaces). Here's some inspiration.
posted by jamaro at 6:36 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dittoing odinsdream re neon tetras: they're pretty, inexpensive, and tolerant both community-wise and environment-wise. They swim around in a neat shoal, flashing their neon. They are also small, and I've had them live very happily in a ten-gallon tank.
posted by anadem at 6:36 PM on January 23, 2008

Leslies has good advice - a medium-sized tank is actually a lot less work to maintain.

If you get a plecostomus, look for a bristlenose pleco as they only get to be about 5 inches in size. The normal ones get to be about 18" long, which is too large for anything smaller than 50 gallons.

I really enjoy livebearers, such as platies, swordfish and mollies. The baby fish are interesting to watch, and if you can find a male sailfin molly they are truly majestic fish. If you add a betta to your tank he will keep the population of the babies under control while not harming your adults. Livebearers - especially mollies - love to nibble on live plants. They are just cute, cheerful fish!

A lot of the barbs can be fin-nippers, so keep this in mind if you want any long-finned fish. A tiger barb can tear a betta up.

I love corydoras catfish! They stay small, love to swim in little schools, and clean up the bottom of your tank. They are peaceful fish, unlike some of the larger catfish species.

Remember to set up your tank, wait a few days, and then add a couple of fish. You need establish the biological cycle to have happy fish and plants.

And please don't buy any of the fish that have been injected with dye.
posted by Ostara at 6:43 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Our local Wal-Mart just started selling little puffer fish, which are crazy cool for 10 million resons, but they're so CUTE with their big eyes and little side fins that flap like hummingbirds. I was all WOW COOL until this short fat Wal-Mart drone brought a tall skinny Wal-Mart drone over and said "watch this" as she stuck the dipper net into the tank and shook it to make all the little puffer fish puff. I wanted to throw a pickled sausage at her, but didn't. In other news, puffer fish are cute! But I don't know anything about them. The only thing I ever kept in a fishtank was a large mouth bass fingerling that we thought was going to die from a swallowed hook goring that wound up living a long time. We fed him goldfish. That was fun.
posted by TomMelee at 6:45 PM on January 23, 2008

when I had my small fresh water aquarium, the guy at the store recommended buying Platy/swordtails (swordtails being a variety of platy). They are cheap, easy to take care of, have a relatively wide range of conditions that they are comfortable at, and they come in different colors (yellow, orange, black, silver, +combinations of those). I had 3 in a 10 gallon tank.

also, ghost shrimp are pretty entertaining. although I've had them jump out of the tank. and they are a tasty snack for whatever fish you may have (but really, really cheap).
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:52 PM on January 23, 2008

I would suggest one of those "bioOrb" fish tanks. I am a fairly experienced fish keeper so I was skeptical of any all-in-one thing but my girlfriend got one and it actually works really well in addition to looking cool. The larger one is 14 gallons (I think) which is small but not too small.

They use a biological sponge filter instead of a mechanical one so it doesn't need much maintenance, all I do to ours is siphon out about a third of the water (and suck up any poop/food on the bottom) once a week and add back clean water and our water stays crystal clean. Supposedly the sponge filter needs changing but I'm going on over a year now without any problems.

I was also surprised that the included, wimpy-looking lightbulb is strong enough to grow real aquarium plants. We have 3 in ours that are thriving (fish-wise we have 3 small neon-like fish and one female Kribensis).
posted by bradbane at 7:22 PM on January 23, 2008

Well, you should still do 10-20% water changes every other week (minimum) no matter what type of fish. Look for peaceful community fish that do NOT want brackish water (mollies are brackish) and prefer the same temperature. Don't get all your fish at once; start with something like zebra danios, barbs or bleeding heart tetras that will tolerate a new tank's biology (not all tetras are tolerant of high ammonia levels that can happen in a new tank). Algae eaters and plecos should be added after there is algae for them to eat. Goldfish are cold water, not tropical, so choose one type of fish or the other. Get it all set up a couple weeks before, and add some hardy fish, then maybe a couple others. Rule of thumb is 1 inch of fish per gallon of water. Most fish prefer to be in groups of five, so you will have happier fish with just a couple types in a small tank- it's unnatural and unfair to have a solitary fish of a schooling species.

Don't skimp on filtration; you will kick yourself if you get one of those kits with an undergravel filter only. Weak filtration just makes more work and sick fish. I like the bio wheel type filters myself, and my live plants do well with undergravel circulation.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:45 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to skip goldfish and betas, because those are the easy answers.

So: freshwater, definitely, and a larger tank for stabilization. Then get yourself some ciclids. They come in interesting colors, are larger and a bit more interesting than your swordtails or neons or danios, and they're tough as nails. Can't do much tank sharing with other kinds of fish, though, as they're aggressive.

Alternatively, go with swordtails; they breed easy in captivity and you always know how many males/females you have (it'd be hard not to!) so even if some die you'll likely have births sooner or later (the trick is to catch 'em and separate the babies from the adult fish quickly to avoid them getting eaten.)
posted by davejay at 10:19 PM on January 23, 2008


All fish take the same amount of upkeep, more or less, but some kinds are more forgiving when you screw up. Livebearers like the guppy or the platy are great for a small tank. Guppies come in many beautiful varieties, are inexpensive and personable, and they are easy to care for. They will eat floating pellet food, flake food, sinking algae wafers, lettuce, and brine shrimp (live or frozen).

Platys are good little guys, too. You can find beautiful Sunset Platys with yellow heads, orange middles, and red tails. Livebearers are generally friendly community fish, although a male guppy might get a bit fin-bitey.

I have successfully kept these types in tanks from 2.5 gallons and up. As people mention above, bigger tanks are easier to keep. Your little mistake (forgotten water change, temperature fluctuations, dirty filter media) in a little tank is a bigger problem for your fish than a little mistake in a big tank. You don't mention exactly how big a tank you are looking for, but I would advise a ten gallon tank at the minimum until you get familiar with how things work in there. It is a better life for your fish, and not any more work for you.

If you have a really little tank (one or two gallons) on an office desk, you might choose a betta, or look into getting a killifish. Killis are harder to find, and maybe not very flashy, but they're happy in a small tank, forgiving of both temperature and water quality issues, and they eat just about anything.

My favourite fish have been the puffer fish TomMelee mentioned. They were cute, smart, and when they swam, they moved like little helicopters or bumblebees. They ate live snails and were wonderful. However, I had them in a very small tank, and although my own upkeep was good, leaving them for two weeks with a friend cost their tiny lives. If I get more, I'll be keeping them in a much larger environment.
posted by Sallyfur at 10:30 PM on January 23, 2008

As you didn't specify tank size I would say a 30 gallon tank isn't all that big and can aid in easing the upkeep. I have this tank size and went with a variety of tetras, plecos, angelfish and catfish. Now that I have it and have a little experience under my belt I would suggest African Cichlid as the ultimate fish to keep in an aquarium. I have a friend that keeps them and they are by far the most interesting fish in a tank to watch. They will mate, fight for territory and generally create an ecosystem (especially if you make the tank interesting with rocks that create hiding places) that is far more interesting than the above mentioned fish. They are slightly more expensive and aggressive depending on size but in my view will create an intriguing tank rather than one you set up and lose interest in rather quickly. On the other hand if you just want a small <10 gallon tank look to the suggestions above as they will fit your needs better. Good luck.
posted by Odinhead at 12:05 AM on January 24, 2008

Goldfish! They're the best. It is amazing how something that costs a few bucks can wind up becoming a prized friend. They are smart AND beautiful!

Here's a terrific little entry-level goldfish page that is fairly inclusive ("What other fish can I pair goldfish with?")

Have fun!
posted by humannaire at 3:43 AM on January 24, 2008

I started a 30 gal aquarium recently and went the planted-tank route. My take so far is that low maintenance is not the same as no maintenance. Do expect some work (1-2 hours a week min., including vaccuming crap from the tank). Do expect to be battling algae and snails. Do expect massive disasters when you go away for a few weeks.

That said, tetras, guppies, ottos and gouramis are all relatively hardy fish that will likely survive your initial mess-ups.
posted by magullo at 5:55 AM on January 24, 2008

I haven't seen anyone mention them (maybe I missed it) but I've always enjoyed white cloud mountain minnows, which are small tetra-like fish from Asia. They are cute and do not require a heater, can handle not-so-great water and amazingly small tanks, and if the water is reasonably clean and flowing, they will even breed for you (they drop eggs into vegetation, so provide some, even if it's just a (clean!) plastic kitchen scouring pad).

I've had small schools of these survive and reproduce for years in tiny tanks.

Another interesting little fish is the Japanese killifish (medaka) which has actually reproduced in orbit! They are used in scientific research.

Don't let people convince you that you need a huge tank. Big tanks work better, it's true, but guppies, killies, and white clouds can live in amazingly small tanks. Have fun, try different things, experiment!
posted by metabeing at 7:24 AM on January 24, 2008

I was in this situation about 18 months ago. The most robust fish I have are scissortail rasboras, followed by clown loaches (which are very inquisitive, click loudly when they're busy, and snooze on their sides or upside down - but are very susceptible to ich, need a biggish tank, and sadly most of them are wild-caught), and threestripe corys (which are cute, gregarious and good cleaners, if mostly nocturnal).
I don't necessarily recommend platys; all they do is eat, reproduce, and poop. It's easy to get over-run with them. I also wouldn't go for algae eaters; they grow big fast, become aggressive, dig everything up and eat very little algae.
posted by scruss at 7:57 PM on January 24, 2008

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