Dropsy In Bettas: How to Identify, Treat, & Prevent This Condition

Dropsy might sound like a cutesy name, but it's actually a life-threatening issue seen in betta fish.

Published April 19, 2023
Betta splendens swimming in planted aquarium.

Even though bettas are generally resilient fish, they can get sick. If you notice your betta hanging around the surface of the water, not eating as much, or developing a bloated belly with flared scales, they probably have dropsy. Dropsy in bettas can be fatal if it's not treated quickly and correctly. Take action to help your betta and give them the best chance at a full recovery.

What Is Dropsy?

Dropsy isn't technically a disease. It's really just a name for a set of symptoms that betta fish develop as a result of an infection. In some fish, the infection is caused by bacteria. In others, it might be from a virus or parasite.

Regardless, the betta's body will retain fluid, which gives them a swollen "pinecone" appearance and makes them incredibly ill. Bettas can die if dropsy isn't treat quickly.

Fast Fact

There's always an underlying sickness or infection that triggers dropsy, so it's not something that just spontaneously happens in healthy fish.

Dropsy Symptoms

Betta showing symptoms of dropsy.

If your betta fish has dropsy, you'll notice both physical and behavioral signs. These can be very subtle during the early stages but worsen very quickly (often in a matter of days).

  • Bloated belly
  • "Pinecone" appearance in belly area, with scales flared out
  • Curved spine
  • Low or no appetite
  • Low energy
  • Staying at the top of the tank
  • Bulging eyes
  • Color loss
  • Clamped fins
  • Stringy feces

Causes of Dropsy in Bettas

Because dropsy is a collection of symptoms rather than a single disease, it doesn't have one specific cause. It can be caused by many different things, including:

  • Bacterial infection
  • Viral infection
  • Parasites
  • Poor water quality
  • Poor nutrition
  • Stress
  • Tumors

How to Treat It

Your betta will have the best chance of a full recovery if you initiate treatment as soon as possible. That means at the first signs of dropsy, initiate this treatment plan:

  1. Prepare a quarantine tank. If you have a community tank with several fish, you'll need to remove your sick fish to prevent any bacteria, parasites, etc., from spreading to the others. Prepare a separate tank to use while treating your betta for dropsy and while they recover.
  2. Treat the water with aquarium salt. Add about 1 teaspoon per gallon of water to the quarantine tank.
  3. Turn up the O2. An air stone agitates the water surface, which can help oxygenate the air in the water and allow your ill betta to breathe with greater ease.
  4. Acclimate them to the tank. Slowly introduce your betta to the quarantine tank to keep their stress level at a minimum. Remember, stress can trigger and exacerbate sickness.
  5. Treat the water with antibiotics. Because bacteria can cause dropsy, an antibiotic can address the underlying cause. Use an over-the-counter fish antibiotic from an aquatic or pet store, or contact your veterinarian to prescribe one.
  6. Keep checking the water quality. Check the water parameters in your betta's quarantine tank - including ammonia, nitrates, nitrites, which should all be at zero - daily to make sure the water conditions are ideal.
  7. Perform daily water changes. Do a 25 percent water change every day to keep the water free of any waste or pollutants while your betta recovers and to avoid potentially giving them too much medicine.

How to Prevent Dropsy

Most of the time, all you have to do is practice proper husbandry to keep your betta from getting sick. If you keep water quality high, quarantine any new fish you add to your aquarium, and feed your betta high-quality foods, you should be able to avoid this condition most of the time. Focus on keeping your fish happy and healthy, and they'll live a long, full life.

When to Worry

Dropsy is always worrisome in betta fish. If your fish looks obviously bloated and has the classic "pinecone" appearance, or has a curved spine because of the swelling, they're probably in the later stages of the condition.

It's never a bad idea to have a vet examine your betta for signs of dropsy. Not all vets specialize in aquarium fish, however, so spending time to find an exotic pet vet who has experience treating aquatic species is a good idea. They can prescribe more personalized treatment and might even have the resources to hospitalize your fish and treat them at the vet clinic.

Need to Know

If you've started treating your betta for dropsy and they're either not improving or getting worse, it's time to see a vet or consider saying goodbye.

Is Dropsy Fatal to Bettas?

Yes, without treatment, dropsy in bettas can lead to death. But if you're able to catch it early enough and begin treatment right away, your betta can make a full recovery.

Minimize Your Betta's Stress

Prevention is the best way to protect your betta from dropsy. After you notice symptoms, your betta's condition is already advanced. There is hope, however. If you do notice any signs of dropsy, start treatment immediately and contact your vet if you're concerned to give your betta the best chance at survival.

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Dropsy In Bettas: How to Identify, Treat, & Prevent This Condition