The age-old goldfish bowl is getting competition from tiny aquariums in a variety of interesting shapes and sizes. Even the smallest apartment or college dorm room can now be graced with live fish. But are mini aquariums a healthy habitat for the fish? If properly set up and well cared for, yes they can be. If haphazardly put together and marginally cared for, the fish will be doomed to a very short and unpleasant life.
The good side of mini aquariums is that anyone can have one. The monetary investment is small, and the space requirements so minimal that virtually everyone can find a place for one. College students in dorms, nursing home patients, apartment dwellers, even the most crowded of school classrooms all have space for a mini aquarium. Often apartment building 'no pet' rules don't apply to fish. Fish are very relaxing to watch and can provide an opportunity for children to care for a pet in situations where larger pets are not allowed.
Mini aquariums do require maintenance, and should not be purchased with the notion they can be ignored for long periods of time. However, the biggest downside of small aquariums is that problems can occur swiftly, and are often fatal before they can be rectified. This is due to the small volume of water in which the fish live. Changes in water chemistry and temperature can happen in a matter of a few hours, or in some cases, just minutes.
Therefore it is critical to monitor the water conditions closely and perform water changes faithfully.
First-time fish owners should be particularly careful during the initial break-in stage of the mini aquarium. Toxins in the water will rise sharply as the biological system is first being established.
If water changes are not performed, the levels will become lethal very quickly. Testing is a must, so have water-testing kits on hand or make arrangements with a local pet shop to do the tests for you.
So-called closed systems (ie: aqua-babies) are becoming widespread in the pet market. The premise is that the system has everything needed to completely sustain itself, with only the occasional feeding of a flake or two of food. That notion is one of the most misleading and disturbing ideas I've seen for quite some time. The argument used is that "In nature, there are no food pellets, and the fish must get their nutrients from the environment". Of course, that is true, but in nature, fish don't live in a few ounces of water devoid of other living things.
In nature, fish live in a very large and well-developed ecosystem. You can't get much larger than the great outdoors. The water supply is massive and is constantly refreshed via rain and moving water currents. That is hardly comparable to a few ounces of water that is rarely if ever changed. Food is not limited to a single plant, with a few supplemental flakes of food every week or two.
In nature, fish have access to a wide variety of plants, as well as insects, worms, and even other fish.
Closed systems contain a plant or two, and that is all. Over time the fish will not have a well-balanced diet. They will either slowly starve to death or succumb to disease which they are more susceptible to as the result of stress.
What Should You Choose?
Ideally, choose the largest aquarium you have room for. Any system that is so small that it cannot accommodate a filter or heater should be used with great caution. A better option is to look for a full-featured aquarium. One of the best is the Eclipse system, which includes a filtration system as well as a built-in light and hood. They are now available in sizes as small as 2 gallons.
Some stores will provide packages in which small aquariums or bowls are sold with all the necessary items accompanying them. Keep in mind the needs of the fish you want to keep.
If they are not cold-water fish, you'll need an aquarium that can accommodate a heater to keep the temperature in the proper range.
Fish are cold-blooded, which means their body temperature will be whatever the water temperature is. Therefore the water temperature the fish requires is a critical factor to consider when making your choices. The other crucial factor is size. Small fish are the only appropriate choice for a mini aquarium. For that reason, goldfish are not a viable choice, as they are fairly large and produce a lot of waste. A few fish you might consider for a mini aquarium are:
Bloodfin Tetra - Tolerant of cool water, best if several are kept in a school
Guppy - Small, and very tolerant of water conditions
Platy - Very adaptable and usually brightly colored
White Cloud - A very hardy fish that actually prefers cool water
Zebra Danio - Very hardy, they tolerate cooler temperatures fairly well
A Word of Caution
Systems under one gallon that are advertised as "closed" or "low/no maintenance", should be avoided completely, as they are not healthy for the fish. Examples of these types of systems are:
Betta in a Vase