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There is something quintessential about the goldfish bowl- you see it often in movies and TV shows as the standard pet fish. It seems like a super easy and low maintenance solution- no electric cords, can fit on a shelf, and makes a great decoration for your room. Besides, aren’t goldfish the most popular beginner pet? They sure do make it look easy.

The truth is that goldfish cannot live in a bowl. Sure, you might win small goldfish in a bowl at a carnival, or see fish bowls advertised as the perfect home for your fish, but the facts are that goldfish simply grow too large to be kept in a bowl forever. In fact, even smaller fish such as Bettas, who are also claimed as being perfect for a fishbowl should not be subjected to fishbowl life. A fishbowl has an aesthetic appeal, but if that is what you are after, I would use it for plants instead of fish.

The Truth: Can Goldfish Live in a Bowl?

Goldfish are often touted as the best pet fish for a beginner. At first glance, it can be easy to see why they got their easygoing reputation. Goldfish are extremely hardy, coldwater fish- no heaters or fussy water requirements for these guys. Genetically, goldfish originated in east Asia where they were domesticated from wild carp. Although the types of goldfish that you find today are much more flashy than their wild ancestors, they have maintained some of the traits from their carp cousins.

For example, their size! Many folks who keep their goldfish with the intention of keeping them in a fishbowl purchase them as juveniles, usually only a couple of inches long. However, a common goldfish can grow up to 10 inches long at maturity, and a fancy goldfish can often clear 8 inches! Obviously, fish of this size would fair far better in a large tank or even a pond- definitely not a tabletop fishbowl.

There is some truth that a fish will remain small depending on the size of its container. A goldfish that is kept in a small tank will likely never reach its full size due to stunted growth. Although your goldfish might seem to be perpetually tiny in its bowl, the truth is that it is likely not healthy or happy. There are, of course, stories from fish owners who kept their goldfish in a bowl for years. While this seems like a success story, keep in mind that a properly cared for goldfish can live up to 10 years!

Another reason that goldfish are poor candidates for fishbowl life is that they produce a lot of waste. Compared to other fish of their size, they will dirty their tank in far less time. Without a filtration system or enough water to dilute the waste, your fishbowl is going to get extra dirty in a record amount of time. When fish produce waste, they release chemicals in the water like ammonia and nitrites. Once those levels get too high, they can poison your fish! Even if you are dedicated enough to do a large water change for your fishbowl every day, the odds of your fish staying healthy are minimal. Large water changes can be stressful on your fish, which can lead to disease or injury- not to mention a plain unhappy fish.


The Truth about “Fish” Bowls

Sure, goldfish are too big and dirty for a fishbowl, but surely there are other fish that can be kept in bowls, or else they wouldn’t continue to be sold- right? Similar to goldfish, there are other species of fish that are often described as a great candidate for life in a bowl. Unfortunately, while there is plenty of fish that can survive in a bowl, there are zero species of fish that can thrive. Bowls have some fundamental design flaws which make them bad choices for keeping fish alive and healthy for the long term.

We have already touched upon how goldfish need a filter- but is that the case for all fish? The answer is yes- all fish will benefit greatly from a filtration system in order to keep their environment clear of toxic waste. There are some filters that might be able to fit into a fishbowl, depending on the size, but keep in mind that it takes more than just a filter to create a good habitat for your fish.

With the exception of cold water fish-like goldfish- many fish sold in pet stores come from warm climates and need water to be kept at a certain temperature. Betta fish, which are often sold in small cups of water and marketed as the perfect bowl fish, is a classic example. Fish who hail from tropical climates need some sort of water heater, or else they are going to have a dramatically decreased lifespan. It can be hard to fit a filter in a bowl, let alone the addition of a heater- making it a poor choice for these types of fish.

On top of the extra equipment needed to make a fishbowl adequate, there is also the matter of oxygen. Most fishbowls are designed with a smaller opening at the top and have a smaller surface area than a regular tank design. It’s important to have a large surface area in order for oxygen to enter the water, and moving water helps even more (another great reason for a good filter). Even if your fishbowl can accommodate a filter, a heater, and a fish, it’s likely still not going to have the good oxygen flow needed for long and enjoyable life.

The Minimum Requirements for a Pet Goldfish

Many people are drawn to the fishbowl idea because it seems so easy and affordable. There are enormous aquariums out there that can take up an entire room and cost thousands of dollars- definitely out of scope for a beginner. However, it can be easy to set up a beginner-friendly goldfish tank without resorting to a bowl or breaking the bank- you just need to cover the basics.

  • 20 gallons or more. It might seem counter-intuitive, but the larger your tank is, the less maintenance it will be to take care of. Water changes will be less frequent, and there will be enough space to establish a colony of good bacteria to keep things stable for your fish. A simple, glass tank of this size can be found at pet supplies stores for less than $20- and sometimes, the larger sizes can be a better bargain than the smaller ones. A goldfish is recommended to have 20 gallons of water for one fish, and an additional 10 gallons per fish after that.
  • A filter. Filters come in all shapes and sizes to fit your aquarium, so you can feel free to shop around for one that fits your budget. Even a small, sponge filter is preferable to no filtration at all. A decent hang-on back filter for a small tank will likely run around $15.
  • Live plants (optional). Although some live plants are not a hard necessity for keeping goldfish, they are extremely helpful in absorbing waste chemicals. In addition to keeping your tank clean, they have the added benefit of adding some interest for your fish.

As you can see, it is totally possible to get your goldfish tank set up on a budget without resorting to a cramped and dirty fishbowl. However, maybe a 20-gallon tank just isn’t feasible for your space or you are really set on using this fishbowl you got at the flea market. I hear you, but a goldfish is not the right choice.


Candidates for that Fishbowl

If you are looking to put a fishbowl to good use, there are some other creative ways to get the ambiance of an aquarium without harming a living fish.

  • Marimo moss balls (available on Amazon). These interesting plants are not a moss at all, but a rare form of algae that grows into an interesting sphere shape. Marimo moss balls look great in a simple fishbowl, have a modern flair, and require no feeding- just make sure to top off the water every so often.
  • Some shrimp varieties. There are some species of shrimp, such as ghost shrimp and cherry shrimp, who can do pretty well in a fishbowl. Be sure to add some plants and hiding places.
  • There are some species of snails with striking colors that can be an interesting addition to a fishbowl, like Malaysian trumpet snails. Make sure you choose tough plants like Java moss, or else they might be eaten by these interesting creatures.

While a goldfish is not a great candidate for a fishbowl, it is still a great pet fish and very low maintenance when given a proper habitat. Though a bowl is out of the question, a larger tank to keep your goldfish happy and healthy can be budget-friendly and low maintenance. If you choose to go forward with a fishbowl, be sure to populate it with something small that can survive and thrive in such a small environment.


Hi, my name is Jordan. I've been in the fishkeeping hobby since my childhood. Welcome to my blog where I help fishkeepers enjoy the hobby by offering free guides, advice, & product reviews. Read more...