Five things I learnt owning goldfish
The humble goldfish
Many have experienced what it’s like to have a goldfish in their lifetime. For some people, like me, they are a fond, distant memory from childhood. But for others, goldfish are their pride and joy.
For a long time, this was something I could never understand. It wasn’t until I inherited three large goldfish through SPCA, that my perspective on owning them shifted entirely.
In October 2017 a long-time SPCA supporter and legacy donor sadly passed away, leaving her three much-loved goldfish behind. Her request was that they would be rehomed together through SPCA’s Pet Legacy Programme.
I immediately put my hand up to take them on. Over a year later, I realise everything I thought I knew about goldfish growing up was completely false. For starters, I now get excited when there is an aquatic special on at pet stores, and often find myself talking to them just like I would a cat or a dog. Whilst I thought I knew what I was in for when the three goldfish entered our SPCA office, I could never have foreseen how much of mark these cold-blooded, scaly, orange fish would leave on my heart.
On my goldfish journey I learnt some important things that everyone considering owning a goldfish should know. I encourage you to read on to find out the truth.
Bacteria is a good thing
After the important business of deciding their names – Squishy Anne, Susie Sausage, and Bertie Bubbles – was over, it was time to learn the art of fish. To my surprise I found out that when it comes to fish, bacteria is good.
For example, although it seems logical to take everything out of a fish tank and wash it under the tap when it gets dirty, it isn’t. What I didn’t know was that gravel and ornaments are covered in trillions of helpful bacteria colonies that grow overtime. If you do a full-tank clean, you will kill them. Without enough of this ‘beneficial bacteria’, the filter won’t be able to remove the fish waste, uneaten food, or rotting plant matter, and the tank will become polluted. This will make your fish very sick and can be fatal.
Much to my distress, and not for lack of love or trying, any fish I had owned as a child didn’t live for long. But as soon as I made sense of this ‘bacteria cycling process’, I realise it was because they lived in a bowl with no filter, and I scrubbed everything clean once a week.
- Start the cycling process before adding your fish – set everything up, add a small amount of fish food (bacteria source) into the water, and leave it for at least a week (with the filter running) for the ‘beneficial bacteria’ to start growing. Be sure to check ammonia and nitrite levels before adding your fish.
- Clean little and often – not by doing a full-tank clean, but by doing regular water changes. Invest in a syphon which is a tube running from the tank to a bucket. Depending on your tank set up, you should replace about 25%-50% of the water, at least once a week. The syphon can also suck up the dirty water on the bottom of your tank, without sucking up the gravel.
Goldfish are worth investing in
Yes, goldfish can grow up to 45cm long. Yes, the oldest goldfish on record is 49 years old. And yes, if you don’t want to continuously spend money on their long-term maintenance, it’s worth investing in them from the beginning.
After my first lesson about bacteria and tank care, my second lesson was fairly large. It was about the size of the aquarium, size of the fish, and ultimately the size of my wallet. When Squishy Anne, Susie Sausage, and Bertie Bubbles first arrived, they ranged from 5-10cm in size and were already far too big for the 30L tank they came in. Their only ornament was a tunnel they could no longer swim through. Luckily, SPCA was gifted a 70L tank, and I headed to the pet store to buy them some larger hiding places.
Most goldfish commonly seen at retailers or on TV are small, either because they are young, or they have had their growth stunted by poor care. While they are adorable, they do not give a realistic view of their potential size. Just six months after the trio arrived into our care and transferred to their larger tank, SPCA staff had to band together to fund an even bigger home. Squishy Anne, Susie Sausage, and Bertie Bubbles were relocated to their new 160L aquarium, and couldn’t be happier.
Out of the five things I learnt, this is probably the most significant. It is 100% worth investing in proper equipment from the beginning. If you spend money on a large tank, a decent filter, and good quality accessories, both you and your fish will be better off.
You form an unexpected attachment
With the housing of the goldfish sorted it was time for the most rewarding but hardest lesson of all. Emotional attachment. I didn’t completely understand how much these three fish meant to me, until I had to say goodbye.
Squishy Anne had a condition called ‘swim bladder’. This is a disorder which affects the swim bladder of fish, a buoyancy organ that helps fish maintain their depth without floating upward or sinking. Squishy Anne struggled to maintain a normal upright position and had a distended belly. Despite our best efforts to manage it over the year, she ultimately succumbed to her sickness.
Squishy Anne was admirably a fast swimmer despite her disability, and even when she was face down in the sand of the aquarium, she was still determined to keep going. She is the first animal I ever had to make a call to humanely end their suffering, and I will never forget it. The sadness you feel is no different to that of any other pet you might own. You’re stuck between ending their pain, and keeping them alive because you don’t want to say goodbye.
I also find myself worrying about them when I am on holiday, if they are lonely, or if they are happy. I want to feed them the best food I can buy, or buy them the biggest coral shaped hide-outs I can find. I am unexpectedly attached.
They are smarter than you think
The fourth thing I learnt was that people definitely don’t give goldfish enough credit. There is a detachment between common companion animals and fish, so we often fail to acknowledge fish are smarter than we might think.
Goldfish can recognise people, learn who feeds them, and at what time food usually comes. As well as a sense of time and routine, goldfish can learn tricks (YouTube search videos of fish jumping through a hoop) and hold memories for up to five months. If you’re reading this and you’re a goldfish owner, take note of how fast your fish swim when you walk by their tank compared to when someone else does. It’s comparable to a dog wagging its tail when you arrive home from work. I can personally attest how heart-warming it is to be recognised by your fish, even if it’s cupboard love.
Hardy but sensitive, and not low-maintanence
Last but not least, while they are hardy fish capable of surviving in a range of conditions, goldfish are still sensitive to water conditions and environmental changes.
Goldfish create a lot of waste, tend to be very messy, and eat a lot. When my fish loving co-worker told me not to bother buying expensive live plants, I didn’t believe her. Until the next morning when I arrived to work, and they were no longer perfectly placed around the tank. A goldfish plant party had occurred overnight.
When it also comes to adding new friends, please keep in mind that not all fish can be housed together. Things as little as a different shaped tail means one fish can get the food faster, and the other might starve. Tank mates need to be picked carefully, taking size, age, and tail shape into consideration.
Goldfish need an aquarium with proper filtration, aeration, water volume for dilution of waste, room to grow, and a home for good bacteria to mature. Although I don’t have the hassle of temperature control, I pay for it with water changes and waste clean-up.
Pride and joy
Just like I have with my furry animals at home, I have tuned in with their goldfish needs, routines, and personality quirks. Susie Sausage is the leader, always the first to grab the food, or guide the others over their bridge. Squishy Anne was a lover of peas and could often be found hanging with our resident yellow apple snail, Herb. Meanwhile, Bertie relies on his fellow fish for safety, but can sometimes be found bobbing in the bubble machine.
Goldfish were once only a fond distance memory of my childhood, but now I can openly say they are my pride and joy. And if you give them a chance, I know they’ll be yours too.
For more information about Goldfish, check out our myth busting article here: https://www.spca.nz/advice-and-welfare/article/debunking-goldfish-myths