Have You Thought About the Emotional Wellbeing of Your Pet Fish?

pet fishFebruary is Responsible Pet Owners Month. Let’s talk pet fish.

Caring for an animal means feeding it properly and making sure it has regular health check-ups.

But that’s just for starters. Things like environment, love and companionship are equally important to their wellbeing. 

A couple of years ago Sporty and I popped in to visit some friends. 

We don’t get out much, it’s sad.

As parents of two young children, our friends’ small suburban home was predictably chaotic. Everyone seemed happy though, despite the explosion of kid paraphernalia.

My inner-Kon Marie was hyperventilating, but that’s just me.

Looking around, I noticed a fish tank in the bookshelf. Surrounded by an eclectic mix of reading material, artwork and photo frames, it appeared to have been placed there for purely aesthetic purposes.

In sharp contrast to its design-inspired surroundings, the tank was —bar for a fine layer of pebbles at the bottom— completely barren. 

Its sole inhabitant swam slow, listless laps along the front of the tank. With three sides blocked to the outside world, the poor fish was restricted to one point of view.

I know our friends to be kind, thoughtful and compassionate people and wondered if the state of the fish tank was perhaps just a temporary one.

“What’s going on with your fish tank?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” they looked perplexed.

“Well, you only have one fish and there’s nothing in the tank to enhance its environment, like plants or other structures. The poor guy must be bored and lonely.”

“Oh my word, we never even thought about that!” 

To their credit, they both looked suitably mortified.

A few days later I received an email. Along with a mate, their fish now had a lush garden and its very own castle. They’d also relocated the tank to the top of the bookshelf, where it enjoyed a broader vantage point.

Obviously Sporty and were pleased, but it did make us wonder. Why do we humans struggle to view the animals in our lives—fish in particular—as living beings with feelings, emotions and personalities, rather than objects we own?

Fish Have Feelings

In his book What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives Of Our Underwater Cousins, author Jonathan Balcombe provides compelling evidence that fish not only experience pain, but are also capable of recognizing individual humans and have memory.

Stories abound of fish ‘demanding’ attention from divers, proving that they also enjoy being petted. Certain species of shark love a good belly rub. Moray eels will happily snuggle up to humans they know and trust. And groupers have been known to swim up to a diver and request a little lovin’.

Fish Are Smart (and Creative)

Fish are more clever than we give them credit for. Take the unassuming Frillfin goby: at just five inches in length this tidal pool dweller has been known to memorize the layout of a rock pool simply by swimming around it once during high tide. Even more impressive, it can still remember the layout more than a month later. 

I’m not sure how many humans could pull that off.

Our finned cousins are also adept at using tools, a domain once thought to belong only to humans and primates. The orange-dotted tuskfish, for example, prepares its clam dinner by carting the mollusk in its mouth to a nearby rock, where it then smashes the shell by flicking its head from side to side. 

Environment Matters

Anne Gro Vea Salvanes, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, conducted a study using two fish. Presented with a maze, one of the fish quickly figured out that three of the four exits were in fact dead ends and subsequently escaped. The second fish got stuck at the first exit, where it swam repeatedly into the cup blocking its way out.

The difference between the two? Houdini was raised in a mentally stimulating environment with rocks, pebbles and plastic plants. Dory, on the other hand, grew up in a barren tank.

Thinking of Getting a Pet Fish?

I don’t think we should be holding animals hostage for our pleasure. Fish, reptiles, rodents, birds, etc. do not deserve to be cooped up in an unnatural environment. 

Given that I had budgies, mice, rats, goldfish and rabbits growing up, this is somewhat hypocritical of me. If I could go back and explain to my younger self that keeping animals in cages wasn’t okay, I would.

Actually, I’d probably just email her. I’m an introvert and she’s a brat.

If you are thinking about getting fish, you need to give the matter careful consideration before diving in. To begin with, don’t just get one fish. Imagine if you were forced to live in a cage by yourself, with no other humans for company.

Actually, that wouldn’t be so bad, come to think of it.

Secondly, make sure you get a big enough tank, so that the fish have ample room to stretch their fins. In addition to a layer of pebbles at the bottom, add some plants and other bits and pieces to make their environment interesting.

How would you like to live in an empty house?

Finally, don’t just dump the tank or bowl on a sideboard or bookshelf and forget about it. Interact with your new friends, make them feel like they’re a part of the family. You’ve gone to the trouble of adopting them, so it’s up to you to make them feel at home.

Fish aren’t something you acquire for décor purposes. If you’re looking to fancy up your home, you can always get a gurgle pot.

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