Why is My Betta Breathing Heavy?

While betta fish are naturally pretty resilient, it’s not at all uncommon for them to breathe heavily – especially when they aren’t feeling well.

Responsible fish owners will want to make sure that they keep an eye on their betta fish, specifically looking for labored breathing.

If you see your betta fish struggling to get air the odds are pretty good something has gone wrong. Your betta is stressed, may not be getting enough oxygen, and is telling you that something has to be fixed ASAP.

Why is My Betta Breathing Heavy?

Anytime you see your betta fish breathing heavily it means that they are (no surprise here) having a difficult time breathing.

There are a couple of different reasons your betta fish may be out of breath or struggling to get air, including (but definitely not limited to):

  • Stress
  • Water temperature issues
  • Tank toxicity problems

… And the list goes on and on.

Purple and Orange Betta

At the end of the day, anytime you start to see your fish struggling to breathe it means that they are in danger and need help as soon as possible.

You’ll want to do everything you can to quickly diagnose the problem, remedy the situation, and get them into happier (and healthier) living conditions right now.

Common Causes for Heavy Breathing in Bettas

Below we breakdown some of the most common causes for heavy breathing in betta fish that you might bump up against.

For the most part these issues can be managed and mitigated with just a little bit of attention.

There may, however, be situations that cause your betta fish to breathe heavily that you have to play a waiting game with.

Those are always uncomfortable and unpleasant. Hopefully, though, your betta will pull through!


Anytime your betta fish is shocked – which almost always happens when you transfer them from one body of water to another – you run the risk of them having really labored breathing.

The very first time that you bring your betta fish home you’ll probably want to dunk them into their new tank ASAP.

You should only consider that if you’ve already worked to purify the water, oxygenate the water, get that water to the right temperature (between 75°F and 80°F), and have eliminated any of the potential toxins your tapwater might have brought to the table.

The last thing you want to do is simply run a tap into your tank when you bring your betta fish home and then flip them into the new enclosure.

That’s a fast track to shock.

Sometimes your fish will bounce back – but sometimes you might not be so lucky.

Take the time to acclimate your fish, not just when your tank is new but every time you change the water as well, and you’ll be able to avoid this problem.

Water is Too Hot

Water that is too warm starts to lose oxygen rapidly – and that’s obviously bad news for your fish.

Betta fish need oxygen to survive and if the oxygen levels in the water that they live in start to deplete because of high temperatures they are (quite literally) going to suffocate underwater.

It is hugely important that you make sure the water in your betta fish enclosure is always between the temperatures of 75°F and 82°F (give or take a degree or two).

If you’re not able to maintain those temperatures with ambient heating and cooling sources it’s not a bad idea to invest in a water heater or cooler in order to take advantage of other solutions that maintain those temperatures highlighted above.

Keep a thermometer in your tank to track this information. Take proactive steps to cool or warm your water as necessary, keeping your fish happy and well oxygenated.

Tank pH is Out of Balance

Over time your fish is naturally going to leach out potentially toxic chemicals, especially as they evacuate waste the same way that we do.

Betta fish (especially female betta fish) are also known to release a histamine that can turn their water toxic when they are particularly stressed out.

You need to be sure that you keep a close eye on the pH level of your water, but you also need to make sure that you are eliminating higher levels of ammonia as well.

Ammonia (from fish waste) can build up faster than you would have thought possible. Even worse, ammonia goes immediately to attack the gills of your fish as well as the rest of their respiratory system.

The only “fix” for this problem is regularly switching out the fish tank water.

You’ll need to be sure that you prepare the water you’re going to swap out for your fish in advance, though. You can’t go from a specific tank water condition to freshwater right out of your tap and expect everything to go swimmingly.

You need to bring that other water up to temperature. You need to eliminate hard minerals and other additives that might have been in your water supply. And you need to get that pH balanced straightaway, too.

Serious Underlying Health Conditions

Sometimes betta fish start to breathe heavily because they are dealing with other underlying health conditions.

Fish can become sick, and betta fish have been known to come down with respiratory diseases known as columnaris, velvet, ich, and can even begin to develop tumors throughout their respiratory system that force them to work harder and harder to breathe.

You may be able to add certain chemicals and medicines to the water (or water conditioners) to try and turn things around. You also want to make sure that you are changing the water out on a regular basis to keep things as clear and as healthy as possible.

At the end of the day, though, there may not be a whole lot else you can do to help your betta fish breathe easier if the problem is caused by underlying conditions.

That’s just one of the sad and unfortunate realities of owning these beautiful fish.