Betta Fish Care Tips for Beginners: Expert Advice from Mary McCauley

Betta Fish Care Tips for Beginners Expert Advice from Mary McCauley

Caring for a betta fish can be a rewarding experience, but it also requires knowledge and attention to detail. Whether you’re a new betta owner or considering becoming one, understanding the basics of betta care is crucial.

Mary McCauley, a renowned betta fish expert, shares her insights to help beginners provide the best care for these beautiful fish.

From spotting signs of illness to setting up the perfect tank, Mary’s tips are invaluable for ensuring the health and happiness of your betta.

Her advice, rooted in years of experience, is simple yet comprehensive, making it accessible to all betta enthusiasts. She is also the owner Mary’s Magic Bettas, an Arizona-based betta fish rescue center.

Mary McCauley
This is Mary McCauley!

“I run Mary’s Magic Bettas, an Arizona-based betta fish rescue center. We’ve rescued 60 betta fish since March 2023 alone! And I have diagnosed and  medically treated the majority of those.I also have 10 betta fish/tanks of my own, in addition to the 8 tanks I maintain for my rescue intakes. I am also a moderator of the Facebook group “Betta Fish Keepers”, a great place to go for questions or advice! My family and I also care for a number of rescued dogs, cats, and a hamster. If you’re in the market for a new betta, consider supporting a rescue local to you!”

– Mary McCauley

Let’s dive into the world of betta fish care with Mary’s expert guidance.

Later down the article, I am providing the full interview with Mary McCauley. If you have the time, I’ll seriously recommend you to go through the interview questions and answers!

1. Spotting Illness in Betta Fish

Watch for these signs:

  • Swimming issues: erratic, pacing, sinking, or laying on their side.
  • Breathing changes: fast, heavy, or shallow.
  • Other signs: lethargy, no eating, weight loss, poop changes, fin damage, color loss, bloat, pineconing, wounds, fuzzy growths.

Action steps:

  • Test water for ammonia.
  • Change the water.
  • Seek advice from experts.
  • Never feed peas or use ‘fix’ medications.

2. Creating an Ideal Betta Tank


  • Tank: Minimum 5 gallons, better 9-10 gallons.
  • Gentle Filter: Sponge filters are best.
  • Heater: Keep temperature at 78-82 degrees.
  • Decor: Safe plants and hides.
  • Substrate: Optional, but beneficial.
  • Light: Good for plants and visibility.
  • Lid: Prevents jumping.
  • Water Test Kit and Change Tool: Essential for health.
  • Water Conditioner: Removes harmful chemicals.
  • Bacteria Starter: For cycling the tank.
  • Food: High-protein, appropriate size servings.

3. Common Betta Diseases and Remedies

  • Check water parameters.
  • Increase water changes.
  • Add tannins.
  • Try fasting and epsom salt baths.
  • Medications are often needed.
  • Set up a hospital tank.
  • Seek expert advice for severe cases.

4. Tank Mates for Betta

  • Bettas prefer solitude.
  • Tank mates often cause stress and disease.
  • Possible mates: nerite or mystery snails, maybe shrimp.
  • Bettas enjoy human interaction.
  • Bettas are over-bred with poor genetics.
  • Breeding risks fish health and life.
  • Responsible breeding requires extensive knowledge.
  • Support ethical breeders instead.

Remember: Bettas are delicate and require careful, informed care. Avoid over-breeding and prioritize their well-being.

Interview With Mary McCauley

Q1. What are the most common signs a betta fish shows when it is approaching death? Or getting sick? If a beginner sees any of these signs, what should he/she do?

Signs of illness to watch out for include:

  • Difficulty swimming, such as swimming erratically, pacing the glass, involuntarily sinking or floating, and/or involuntarily laying on their side.
  • Changes in breathing such as breathing fast, heavy, or shallow
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Wasting or losing weight despite eating
  • Changes in the appearance of their poop, especially if it becomes white/light and stringy
  • Changes to their fins, like if you see pinholes, black or red edges, if they start looking tattered or are deteriorating/tearing
  • Loss of color, especially if the betta starts turning grey/white and looses previously vibrant colors
  • Bloat or constipation
  • Pineconing (look at the betta from a birds-eye view to see if the scales are lifted away from the body)
  • Wounds or other sores or red spots
  • Anything fuzzy – either woven and matted, or sticking straight out. Can be from a wound, from the gills, even from the mouth.
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There can be a lot of symptom overlap between different infections and diseases, so it’s important to review symptoms as thoroughly as possible to determine what may be happening to your betta.

Also, a great first line of defense is always to test water parameters (especially ammonia!) and do a water change. You can reach out to experienced betta keepers for advice on what may be happening, and how to treat it. 

You Can Learn More Reading This Guide:

Whatever you do though, never feed a betta peas, and never use medications with “fix” in the name as these contain botanical oils that are inappropriate for for fish with a labyrinth organ like bettas. 

Q2. What does an ideal betta tank look like to you? What items should the setup include to make it an ideal betta habitat?

While personal tastes vary from tank to tank, there are some essentials that every betta fish keeper needs in their tank. I also have an article about what a betta needs on my website here: 


Bettas require a 5 gallon minimum tank, though females and plakats (short-finned bettas) tend to do a little better in 9 or 10 gallon tanks as they overall are better/faster swimmers and enjoy the space.

Gentle Filter:

Bettas require a filter. It’s a common misconception that they can live in cups or vases since they have the unique ability to both gill breathe and surface breathe.

This is because they have a labyrinth organ. So yes they need to surface breathe, but they also need oxygenated water. The best way to do this is with a filter. That said, bettas (especially long-finned males) need pretty gentle water.

They aren’t the best swimmers and in the wild they typically spend birth to death in approximately the same 5 foot radius.

So, in my experience, the best filter for a betta is a sponge filter. For this you need the actual sponge filter, airline tubing, a small air pump, and an airline control valve (this allows you to turn the bubbles down so they aren’t too strong).

These filters also last nearly forever so don’t need to be replaced.

They can be cleaned as needed by gently swishing/squeezing them in a bucket of dirty tank water during a water change (vs. tap water, which contains chlorine that can kill the beneficial bacteria that consumes ammonia in the tank, which primarily live in/on the filter. More about this later).


Bettas are tropical fish and need constant temperature in the range of 78-82 degrees, so they require an aquarium heater.

Even in the summer as evaporative cooling ensures the tank water will be cooler than the ambient air temp. Also, all aquarium heaters have auto-shut off features once they get to the desired temperature.

I prefer adjustable heaters (HITOP makes an affordable reliable one on Amazon) so that if the heater is struggling to keep up in the winter, or causing temps to rise too much in the summer, it can be adjusted up or down.

For this reason, it’s also important to purchase an aquarium thermometer so you can monitor the temperature daily and ensure there are no unexpected fluctuations or heater malfunctions.


Bettas love clutter and places to rest and hide. It’s also important to provide a resting place approximately 2 inches below the water line so it’s easy for them to rest and surface breathing without constantly having to swim the entire height of the tank to do so.

Popular solutions for this are suction cup betta hammocks, and floating logs. I personally use both in my tanks. Because bettas have such delicate fins, like tissue paper, they are easily ripped by plastic plants and decor with sharp edges or small holes.

They are also like cats, they’ll try to squeeze into any opening they can, and can injure their fins if it’s too small.

For these reasons, it’s necessary to purchase either silk, silicon, or live plants, and check all decor carefully for sharp edges.

I personally use a combination of round stone hides and coconut shells as hides in my tanks. Live plants aren’t as hard to maintain as you might think, and I find it quite rewarding to grow them. They also help consume ammonia in the tank.


This isn’t strictly necessary, but visually it looks nice, it helps the tank maintain temperature to insulate the bottom of the tank, it’s necessary if you use live plants, and substrate is a great place for beneficial (or nitrifying) bacteria to live and grow (they exist on surfaces, not in the water column).

Because my personal tanks are all live planted, I prefer Caribsea Eco Complete, but other options include sand (which can be quite messy), or regular river rocks intended for tanks. I would avoid the painted rocks popular in big box pet stores as over time the paint can fleck off and cause issues.


Technically, a betta doesn’t need an aquarium light, but it’s fun to see them with good lighting. If you have live plants, you do need a good full spectrum light. It’s good to limit lights to 6 hours a day to avoid algae overgrowth, and to keep tanks out of direct sunlight for purposes of algae growth and temperature regulation.

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Most tank lids come with built-in lights, though I replace these for more full spectrum lights in my planted tanks.


Bettas are great jumpers and can even be trained to jump for food and jump through hoops! That said, they can jump 3 inches on average so it’s good to have a lid, or keep the water level 3 inches below the surface of the tank to avoid tragedy.

I prefer using lids for safety, and to decrease water evaporation.

Water Test Kit + Water Change Tool:

The safest way to keep fish is by having a cycled tank. I also have an article about this on my website The most harmful thing in any fish tank, for any fish, is ammonia. Ammonia is produced by fish waste (and excess food, dying plants or animals).

Ammonia can only be removed in 3 ways. 1) live plants (which can’t remove it all). 2) water changes and 3) nitrifying bacteria aka a cycled tank. This means establishing a colony of bacteria large enough to be able to consume 100% of the ammonia the fish produces, and then converting it to less harmful nitrites and nitrates, which live plants also require to thrive and will help absorb.

Even with live plants and a cycled tank, regular water changes are still important for the health of the tank. Even if ammonia is reading 0, regular changes can help reduce excess nutrients that algae feed off of, and help introduce new minerals to the tank that the fish, snails, and live plants all need.

For example, an uncycled 5 gallon tank typically needs once weekly 50% water changes, and a cycled 5 gallon tank typically needs once weekly 25% water changes.

That said, I can’t express how important it is to purchase a reliable water testing kit and to test your water at least once per week once it is cycled.

The most reliable one in the fishkeeping hobby is the API Master Test Kit, which tests pH, ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites. It’s also helpful to purchase a water exchange tool, especially one with attachments so you can gravel-vacuum the substrate while you are also water changing.

Purchasing a bucket is also helpful (I have 2.5 gallon collapsable buckets I use for water changes so they’re easy to store).

Water Conditioner:

It’s also important to purchase a good water conditioner, this is something to remove chlorine and other heavy metals from tap water. Seachem Prime is hands down the best water conditioner on the market. You add this to new water any time you add water to the tank. 

Bacteria Starter for Cycling:

If you cycle your tank, you will also need a bacteria starter. I can’t recommend the refrigerated bottle of Fritz Turbo Start 700 enough.

You can purchase it on Amazon. Regular shelf-stable bacteria starters like Seachem Stability take on average 6-8 weeks to colonize a tank, and if you’re doing a “fish in cycle” this means testing ammonia and nitrites every 24 hours for 6-8 weeks.

No fun.

This is because the bacteria is in an inactive state. Fritz Turbo Start 700, on the other hand, is live and active (and smells horrific) and cycles a tank on average in 7-10 days. I’ve cycled over 15 tanks using this product. It’s a huge time saver.


Unlike many other freshwater fish (like goldfish), bettas are obligate carnivores/insectivores! This means they cannot digest plant matter, and they need high protein from whole food sources (vs. fish meal).

Unfortunately, most of the food marketed for bettas are full of inappropriate ingredients that can cause constipation, bloat, and even blockages, such as wheat flour, gluten, corn, soy, etc…

Bettas do best with a high quality pellet such as ultra fresh betta pro shrimp patties, or fluval bug bites, and thrive if they are also supplemented with frozen food like frozen brine or mysis shrimp, which can be found at most big box pet stores (frozen is better than freeze dried) though this isn’t 100% necessary.

In addition, bettas stomachs are approximately the size of their eye. Over-feeding is a very common cause of disease and bacterial infections, so it’s very important not to over-feed. My primary food that I use is the Ultra Fresh Betta Pro Shrimp Patties and my bettas typically get around 8-10 micro pellets twice daily.

I also supplement throughout the week with frozen mysis or brine shrimp. Bettas are also opportunistic eaters by nature, so they will over-eat if you let them and they will always act hungry. Don’t believe them. Within reason, a hungry betta is a healthy betta 😉

Q3. What are some of the common betta diseases and are there any home remedies that a beginner can apply immediately to help the betta?

This is a tough one, because there are such a wide variety of bacterial, parasitic, and fungal infections that a betta fish can contract. 

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A good first step is to always check your parameters with something like the API Master Test Kit to make sure ammonia and nitrites are 0, pH is between 6.4 and 8 and not rapidly changing, and that Nitrates are no higher than 20ppm. 

Another good step is to increase water changes to keep the water pristine, and to add tannins. You can add things like Indian Almond leaves or Alder Cones directly to the tank, or make a dark tannin tea with them and add it to the tank after water changes (once cooled of course).

Fasting for up to 4 days, and 4 days of epsom salt baths can also be a good first step for some issues..

That said, in my personal experience, most severe infections – be it bacterial, fungal, or parasitic – do require medical intervention. Medications aren’t without risk and can cause internal organ stress so should only be used when necessary, and very carefully.

Accurate dosing is key, and a hospital tank is almost always recommended. Always remove carbon from the filter before medicating, and know that some medications are not safe for live plants or inverts.

A hospital tank is anything between 1 and 5 gallons, no substrate, no need to cycle, with a baffled air stone and heater. A plus would be a silk plant or hide. And when in doubt, ask an expert for help!

Q4. What tank mates can a beginner keep with a betta? Suppose in a 10 gallon setup?

To house a betta and any schooling fish together actually requires a minimum 20 gallon long tank. BUT.  Many people don’t understand that bettas are solitary, territorial, and aggressive.

They truly enjoy being by themselves the vast majority of the time, and were never meant to be a community tank fish. Bettas are easily stressed (and fin nipped) by tank mates, and stress is a huge cause of an immune system crash, and then often leads to disease or infection.

While there are some species of fish that some bettas will be peaceful with, my advice is never to house a betta with tank mates.

If you do try it and you see any signs of aggression from the betta (chasing – fish don’t “play” -, nipping, pacing the tank, being chased, being nipped, etc…) believe them! They are communicating to you the only way they know how that they are NOT interested in having tank mates.

Bettas can never be housed together (small exception for sororities which I do not recommend for a wide variety of reasons I can get into if you want), and for the most part they truly do not want tank mates. 

That said, in a 5 or 10 gallon tank it would be fine to have a nerite snail or mystery snail as a tank mate. Shrimp would be acceptable as well, though you risk causing bloat or constipation in the betta if they treat your shrimp as an expensive snack.

In addition, while bettas don’t like friends, they love to interact with their humans! They are pretty smart in terms of fish intelligence and can learn individual human voices.

My bettas all swim to the front of their tanks when they hear us approaching or talking, and sometimes do little dances for food (or flare because they’re angry little fish).

Q5. If someone wants to breed betta fish or take care of the fries, what are the 5 most important things he/she should do for success?

I never recommend breeding bettas. These are one of the most abused fish in the industry, and they are already over-bred. The bettas you often find in pet stores are so over-bred that they have poor genetics and immune systems, get sick easily and often, and have shorter life-spans.

Breeding is also dangerous for the fish, often ending in permanent injury or death, and most people aren’t equipped to manage hundreds of fry, individually house them, sell or rehome them, or cull fry that show signs of genetic abnormalities.

If someone is determined to try breeding, it requires an extensive amount of research, and should never be done with two common pet store bettas, whose genetics are already questionable. There are plenty of reputable and responsible betta breeders on the market, and I personally don’t think we need more.

For example, in the U.S. alone, more than 100,000 bettas are shipped per WEEK to big box pet stores, with thousands dying before they even reach distributors, and thousands more dying while they are housed in in appropriate ammonia-poisoned cups, and countless more dying after being purchased due to poor education about how to properly care for a betta fish.

My dream come true would be to have to shut down my betta fish rescue because there are no more bettas that need saving.

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Muntaseer Rahman

About Author

Hello, I’m Muntaseer Rahman, the owner of I’m passionate about aquarium pets like shrimps, snails, crabs, and crayfish. I’ve created this website to share my expertise and help you provide better care for these amazing pets.


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