7 beginner’s tips for buying healthy fish

by Owen James

A healthy female guppy (Image by: judhi)

A healthy female guppy (Image by: judhi)

I was in a local fish store recently, when my girlfriend pointed to fancy goldfish that was turning in somersaults as it tried to move through the water.

“That’s a funny way of swimming,” she said.

I was shocked, of course; by the state of the fish, but also because my girlfriend wasn’t actually concerned about the fish’s motion. She simply didn’t realize there was anything wrong with it.

I was inspired then to write a few quick tips for buying healthy fish, aimed particularly at newcomers to tropical freshwater fishkeeping.

Physical checks for a new fish

1. Look at the fish’s eyes

Healthy fish have bright, clear eyes and an active look about them. You may think this is a ridiculous thing to say about a fish, but with time you’ll agree. In particular, avoid fish with cloudy eyes.

2. Check its body for lumps or white spots

White spot disease is one of the easiest diseases to see on tropical freshwater fish. Look out for pin-sized white spots raised away from the body of the fish. Don’t buy any fish from that tank (or any other tanks it’s connected to – ask somebody at the store).

3. Look for complete fins and tail

Damaged fins might be a sign of disease, or they could be a symptom of in-fighting between the fish in the same tank. Fish are often packed in large numbers into shop tanks, so a bit of scrapping and minor damage is always going to occur. But as a newbie its safer to avoid any damaged fish, especially as you might be looking at fin rot and not realise it.

4. Avoid fish with missing scales

Same as torn fins, really. A few missing scales aren’t fatal, but it’s better to avoid damaged fish to be sure you’re not buying a fish with built-in problems, or worse looking at a disease. Fish with huge bite marks should be avoided completely!

Fish behaviour and tank checks

5. Active fish should be active, docile fish docile

This is hard for newcomers, who don’t know fish behaviour yet. Basically, fast-moving or active fish such as barbs, danios, and platies should be busily moving about the tank – a Zebra danio lurking around the surface of the water is almost certainly sick. On the other hand, a Corydorus catfish will often sit motionless on the substrate, while dwarf cichlids typically move with a start-stop motion. Until you get more experience, the best bet is to compare your potential purchase’s behaviour with other similar fish in nearby tanks.

6. Look out for loners

On a similar note, most freshwater community fish should be out and about, taking an interest in the tank. Any fish lurking on its own should be viewed with suspicion; even non-shoaling species should usually look like they’re aware of the tank and its inhabitants. This is only a general principle – there are many common tropical fish that will lurk under a piece of wood all day, or hide in the weeds – but when it comes to more common fish it’s a good rule-of-thumb.

7. Ask to see it feeding

Very few freshwater tropical fish that are suitable for beginner’s will respond when a few flakes or a chunk of frozen food is placed in the aquarium. Not eating is definitely a bad sign, so ask to see your fish being fed whatever it’s been eating since arriving at the store. Avoid fish that don’t eat.

Bonus tip!

Always ask to inspect your fish in the bag

A difficulty with some of these tips is that you may be choosing fish from a tank of 40 or 50 other near-identical fish, and the store assistant could catch any one of them.

It’s unrealistic to ask the assistant to capture a particular Neon tetra in a tank full of them for you, so in such instances you’ll have to accept you won’t be able to handpick each fish.

Do ask to see the selection of fish that have been caught, however, before agreeing to buy them. Look out for the physical warning signs above.

Behavioural warning signs are harder to judge, since all fish are traumatised by being caught and popped in a bag.

As I wrote a couple of times above, it’s safer to avoid tanks with any suspect inhabitants in it altogether. Plenty more fish in the sea!

Check out Katy's Tropical Fish Guide for more aquarium info.

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