Can Betta Fish Get Depressed?

Your betta fish is far from a creature of pure instinct, swimming obliviously and without memory around your fish tank. Modern studies suggest that far from being coldblooded and unfeeling, fish like your betta have brain systems with many similarities with mammals, including the human brain. But how deep are the similarities? For example, can a betta fish suffer from a depressive state?

Studies suggest that betta fish can become depressed, with the corresponding decrease of serotonin found in the depressed human brain. Behaviors such as lack of exploratory drive and listlessness in fish correspond to the human experience of depression. 

Fish lack the means of expressing their inner state in a way that humans can easily interpret, but that does not mean that they have a complex inner world. Fish have the ability to learn and show spatial memory and problem-solving behaviors that mark intelligence. Here’s why your betta may experience the blues and how you can tell if your finned friend needs a change of scene.

Betta Fish and Depression

Recently, researchers in biological psychiatry have turned their attention to fish (in this case, the Zebrafish) as models for human anxiety response. Scientists have begun to uncover the deeper inner life of fish once relegated as simple organisms and their similarities with the human mind.

The similarities between fish and the human anxiety response are uncannily similar. Scientists are now using fish as a model to explore human states such as anxiety and depression.

Evidence suggests that Zebrafish anxiety parallels that of rodents, and they have evolved a complex system of neural circuits that regulate learning and emotion. Fish also exhibit spatial memories of their environment, a hallmark of intelligence in animal species.

Fish also have a strong habit-forming capacity and exhibit complex processing of the sensory information of their environment. In experiments introducing Zebrafish to a new tank, the fish showed strong stress responses. These included freezing behaviors, remaining low in their tank, and reduced exploratory behaviors indicative of a depressed state.

These studies suggest that your betta fish may be far from ‘dumb’ and can experience conditions such as depression similar to that of human beings.

Pink and Red Betta

The Fish Depression Test

Researchers kept a fish drunk on ethanol for two weeks in a scientific experiment and then cut off the fish’s alcohol supply. The withdrawal state mirrored the human condition of depression with decreased serotonin levels.

The fish exhibited low movement and exploratory behaviors and a lack of interest in food and stimulation, which mirrored the classic human depressive behaviors.

The scientist administered an antidepressant to the ‘depressed’ fish, which increased their serotonin levels, and the depressive symptoms were reversed. The fish emerged from its depressive torpor and once again exhibited exploratory behaviors.

Signs Your Betta Fish Is Depressed

Unfortunately, betta fish exhibit similar signs when they are depressed, and they are ill. Keepers should ensure there is no physical cause for their betta’s behavior such as:

  • The chemical levels of the tank
  • Aeration
  • biological filter damage
  • Temperature
  • tank water quality.

Keepers should also look for white spots and blemishes on their betta’s body or browning gills. Signs of rapid gill movement or abnormal swimming behaviors may be symptoms of illness.

If there is no evidence of illness, you should monitor your bettas for symptoms that mimic the behavior of humans in a depressive state.

  • Your betta is listless and inactive
  • Your betta keeps to the bottom of the tank
  • Your betta keeps floating at the top of the tank
  • Your betta hides inside and behind plants and ornaments
  • Your bettas color is dull and fading or exhibits stress stripes
  • Lack of interest in feeding times
  • Lack of appetite.

How Can I Cure My Bettas Depression? 

According to Dr. Victoria Brathwaite, an expert in fish behavior, the leading cause of depression in fish is lack of stimulation. Much like a person placed in a bare cell for months, your betta will suffer similar symptoms to human depression.

Get Some Tank Mates

Fish are curious creatures and seek out new things to explore and experience boredom. Although bettas are solitary creatures, they can function well and thrive in tanks with other appropriate fish such as:

  • Feeder Guppies
  • Cory Catfish
  • Neon Tetras
  • Clown Plecos.

Make Your Tank a Great place to Live

Nothing makes me sadder than when I see bettas living in a tiny bowl with only a plastic plant and gravel. Yes, technically, they can survive, but so can a human in a 2m b 2m cell, but that’s hardly a condition to thrive!

The smallest tank size you should consider is a 5-gallon tank for your betta. The bigger the tank, the better when it comes to your betta, as studies show that increased exercise has the same effect on fish as humans in reducing stress.

Sustained swimming at optimal speeds refuses the stress hormone cortisol and increases fish growth and health.

Make Your Bettas Environment Interesting

Your betta is an intelligent and curious creature, and placing new and exciting objects in your tank will give your betta something to explore. Alternatively, it would be best if you frequently changed around things in the tank to stimulate your betta’s curiosity.

Lots of interesting plants and cages to swim through provide your betta mental stimulation that reduces stress and promotes brain growth and immune response.

Vary Your Bettas Diet

Much like humans, bettas enjoy sampling a variety of foodstuffs, not just their required commercial feed. Much like you would suffer if you had to eat the same chicken and potato every single night, bettas thrive on trying different foods and flavors.

Mix up your feeding program and introduce a variety of frozen and live feed such as:

  • Brine shrimp
  • Mosquito larvae (serves them right!)
  • Daphnia
  • Bloodworms (in moderation).

Closing Thoughts

As the experts argue whether fish are genuinely conscious, there is proof that fish experience pain and stress just like we do. With more and more evidence backing up the fact that fish are neurologically and psychologically similar to humans, you should treat your betta like the little finned person he is.

Think about how you would react to the environment that you place him in and make changes accordingly, and your betta might just emerge from his funk.