Betta fish are hardy, but they usually only live between two and five years. If you feel your pet is reaching the end of their life, you may wonder what behaviors indicate that a betta fish is dying. A betta who is gasping for air rapidly at the surface, swimming upside down, or has a very swollen belly may be close to death. Discover the signs your betta fish is dying and whether there's anything you can do for them.
Common Betta Fish Behaviors Before Death
How do you know when a betta fish is dying? The following three symptoms mean a fish is incredibly sick and will likely die without immediate treatment.
1. Swimming Upside Down or Sideways
A betta who is swimming upside down or sideways likely has a swim bladder issue. When there's a problem with a fish's swim bladder, it affects their buoyancy, which can result in flipping upside down. Tumors, parasites, and constipation can cause swim bladder disease in bettas. Often these swim bladder issues can be successfully treated, but if you've tried everything and your betta is still upside down or sideways, they may be close to the end.
2. Gasping for Air
If your betta fish is lying on their side and gasping or appears to be hyperventilating, they might be close to the end. Trying to take in air usually means your betta fish isn't getting enough oxygen. This might be a result of high ammonia in the tank, overcrowding, or inadequate water temperature. Test your water conditions right away. If all parameters are within normal limits, it's possible your betta fish may be dying.
Betta splendens have a "labyrinth" organ, which allows them to actually breathe air at the water surface, so just because your fish is open their mouth at the water surface, that doesn't mean they're dying. They could just be breathing normally. The time to be concerned is when they are gasping rapidly at the surface, much more frantically than normal.
3. Swollen Belly
Bloating of a betta's belly could mean they are constipated or might be a sign of a life-threatening condition called dropsy. You'll see obvious swelling of the betta's abdomen, and their scales will flare out; some people describe this as their betta fish looking like a pinecone. Dropsy can be caused by a bacterial infection in the tank from poor hygiene or organ failure from old age. If you're able to catch dropsy early, there's a chance you can treat your betta with antibiotics, but in the later stages, dropsy is fatal.
4. Lack of Energy
Fish that are totally unresponsive may be in the process of dying. However, bettas can be deceptive here too - just like with their breathing at the surface - because bettas sometimes like to lounge around without moving. So don't assume your betta is a goner if they are just resting. If they won't respond to feeding or your usual betta enrichment games, then you might have a problem.
If a fish hasn't been kept in clean aquarium conditions, the stress on their system can build up. They will appear ill and weak, and not act like their normal selves. Changing the water and maintaining it properly is the best way to prevent this sort of stress.
Bettas who refuse to interact and hide all the time are likely not feeling well. They could just be old, or something else might be wrong with their setup. Check water quality and make sure you have provided for all of their needs. If nothing brings them out, they may be dying.
7. Not Eating
A betta who refuses to eat at all is likely not feeling well. This could be a symptom of poor diet or intestinal blockage, and feeding a single boiled or steamed pea can actually give them the fiber they need to keep their digestion regular and healthy. If this doesn't resolve the problem, your fish may be terminal.
8. Lack of Color and Fitness
If you notice your betta's color seems off, like their scales are dull compared to their normally bright appearance, or they are looking very thin, they may be close to death. Try feeding a high-quality, varied diet to see if that revives them.
9. Signs of Illness
General signs of illness could indicate your fish is in the process of dying. Bettas with bulging eyes, open wounds, or torn fins may not be well. Try to treat their condition as best you can, but be ready to accept that your fish isn't going to make it if normal treatments don't help.
How to Help a Betta Fish Pass On
Watching any animal suffer is devastating. If you've confirmed your betta is at the end of their life and there's no treatment for their illness, you may feel called to help them pass on. Most veterinarians, regardless of whether they specialize in fish medicine or only see small mammals, will euthanize a dying betta fish.
Some fish hobbyists choose to use clove oil as a way to compassionately sedate and euthanize fish that are suffering. Avoid traditional ways of killing fish, like flushing them down the toilet or placing them in the freezer. These are considered unethical and can cause the fish even more pain.
Dying Betta Fish Behavior Explained
Noticing unusual behaviors in your betta fish can be stressful, especially if you're unsure whether you can do anything for them. Contact a veterinarian or aquatic specialist at your pet store to report these behaviors and get guidance. In some cases, there may be a treatment that can give you a few weeks or even years with your betta. However, if your betta is dying, the kindest thing may be to say goodbye.