Betta: The Alpha Male Fish

By Dr. Anndrea Kapke
Olive Branch Parke Veterinary Clinic

I’ve always thought of Betta Vases as being a kind of Feng Shui method of bringing life into a small office. You have probably seen them: clear vases topped with a plant, containing a brightly colored fish with flowing fan-like fins. I’m great with animals: with plants, not so good. The thought of a living plant that I can’t forget to water is pretty enticing.
That lovely fish is a little deceptive. He is called a Betta, like Bet-ta, not like coming in second in the Greek misspelling alphabet races. He is also called a Siamese Fighting Fish. That is why you only see a single male Betta in a vase. The males are aggressively territorial and will fight each other to the death. The Betta splendens’ wild ancestors came from the rice fields of Cambodia and Thailand. Thailand was called Siam until 1939; hence the “Siamese” part of the name. Male Bettas have longer fins and are more brightly colored than the comparatively drab females. They use these physical characteristics to try to appear larger in order to frighten away challengers to their territory. The Bettas you see in the little bowls at pet stores are usually males that have been selectively bred for brighter colors and longer fins. They are like lyrical dancers with really short fuses. If you hold a mirror up to a Betta, he’ll flare up prettily and try to attack his reflection.
Bettas, unlike some other fish, can live in poorly oxygenated water such as in rice paddies, puddles, and vases because they have a specialized organ called a labyrinth that allows them to go to the water’s surface and also take in some atmospheric oxygen. In the wild, Bettas eat zooplankton like crustations and mosquito larvae. In a vase, even if with a live plant, you should feed them Betta food pellets daily. Betta will grow to around five centimeters long and live two to five years. The water temperature should be 70-75°F, so indirect sunlight is best (direct sunlight may result in fish soup.) If you keep a Betta in a filtered tank, make sure the water current isn’t too strong or it may damage his delicate fins.
We used to have a Betta named Alpha that I kept in a glass pitcher in the kitchen. (Yes, if you haven’t guessed already, veterinarians can be a little weird. Would you like some lemonade?)
If you’d like to make your own Betta Vase, here are some tips so you don’t flounder. Choose a large vase, with a relatively narrow top. In the bottom of the vase, you can put aquarium gravel, glass pebbles, marbles or polished rocks. Fill the vase about three-quarters full with distilled water or tap water that has been treated with aquarium water conditioning tablets. Plants that are often recommended to set in the narrow top of the vase with their roots in the water include: Dieffenbachia (Dumb Cane), Philodendron, or Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily). I like the thought of a Siamese Fighting Fish swimming through the roots of a Peace Lily. Very yin and yang. Any of those plants will work unless you have cats, since all three are poisonous to them. Cat lovers might want to try Hygrophilia instead, or an artificial plant. I just left the top of our pitcher open. It was wide enough for our cats to lap enviously at Betta-flavored water, but not wide enough for them to go fishing in. When you bring your new Betta home, put him and some of the water he came in, into a plastic bag. Float the bag in his vase for fifteen to thirty minutes for the temperature to equalize before you pour him into his new home. You’ll need to change his water every one to two weeks. Don’t clean the vase with detergent or other cleaning liquids, just rinse it out and refill it with distilled water.
A Betta is an interesting pet for a small space. His beauty contrasts with his aggressive nature, which is so severe that he spends nearly all of his life alone.

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