Clown fish swimming in water with background out of focus

The Ultimate Guide to Having a Pet Fish in College

Having a pet in college is a big responsibility, but a fish is a great option to satisfy your need and not have to worry going about your life. Learn more here!

For many reasons, college is often a difficult time to embark on the adventure of owning a new pet. For one, taking care of an animal is just another responsibility to put on students who are still struggling with doing their own laundry for the first time. For another, dorms and tiny apartments are not often welcoming of traditional pets like cats and dogs. Luckily, they’re the perfect place to find your feet with fishkeeping. A fish is the perfect pet for people strapped for space or with an irregular schedule, like college students. Here’s a starter guide to help you keep your new pet fish happy and healthy.

Choosing your fish

One of the first things to consider when setting up a fish tank is what type of fish to fill it with. With hundreds if not thousands of options to choose from, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, not just by choices but by recommendations on how to choose. Should you prioritize fish that are happy at room temperatures over fish that aren’t picky eaters? Hardiness over temperament? Looks over lifespan? Fortunately, there are many popular beginner fish that shine in all these categories and make for a rewarding first fish. You’ll have to decide for yourself which factors are the most important for you personally, but for the most part, a beautiful beginner aquarium can be had with relatively few compromises in the fish department. 

Related: 3 Small Animals You Can Actually Keep at College 

Decorating with plants and features

Of course, fish aren’t the only attraction in a beautiful aquarium—plants and features, like logs and rocks, are an important part of the aesthetic appeal as well as necessary for building a healthy habitat for your fish. Which plants work best for which aquariums will depend on both the size of the tank and the fish living in it. Some fish like plants like water wisteria or water sprite, which grow tall enough for them to hide in; others like plants they can munch on or soft mosses they can lay eggs in. Owners should also make sure the plants and their fish are compatible in their water needs, thriving in similar water temperatures, pH levels, and salinities. 

Feeding your fish

Fortunately, fishkeeping has moved beyond the days of only offering live prey to your fish and hoping for the best. While carnivorous and omnivorous fish will enjoy a chance to chase live food as an occasional treat, prepared foods are the best, easiest, and healthiest option for daily feeding. Commercial dry foods come in many different formulations that are designed to meet the nutritional needs of different kinds of fish and to float at different heights in the tank, depending on where the fish likes to eat. (Some species are exclusively surface feeders, while others will only eat off the bottom of the tank.) There are also frozen and freeze-dried fish foods. While the debate rages as to which one is nutritionally superior, the best advice is to offer a variety of foods to make sure the fish’s needs are being met. 

Related: List: Colleges and Universities That Allow Pets on Campus 

Understanding tanks and bowls

Size is the main component to consider when choosing a tank, and it will have an impact on pretty much every other decision you make when assembling an aquarium. The size of the tank will put boundaries on what kinds of fish and plants can thrive there and how many you can have. It may be tempting to splurge on the largest tank that will fit in your dorm. However, new enthusiasts should keep in mind that larger tanks can mean more work and expenses. It’s often best to start with a smaller tank, and then decide some months down the line if a larger, flashier one would still be sustainable. A fish “bowl” is any container for fish without a filtration system. While bowls are less expensive than tanks, they’re actually more work because the lack of filtration means the gravel should be cleaned and the water should be changed daily to prevent your fish from swimming in a sewer. 

Getting the right filters

Perhaps the most important piece of equipment in any aquarist’s toolkit (other than the tank) is a good water filter. Water filters keep water moving around the tank, which prevents it from growing stagnant and gross while also cycling nutrients, beneficial bacteria, and oxygen throughout the tank to all the plants and animals living in it. A good filter is crucial in all but the smallest of tanks. Choosing a filter is largely a question of tank size. Small tanks can get by with a sponge filter, though many aquarists find them unsightly. The most popular kind of filter is a hang-on-back model, which is great for any tank size (although, larger tanks may require more than one) and is also easy to maintain. People working with larger tanks (more than 30 gallons) might also consider a canister filter—but this is more oomph than most hobbyists, and certainly most first-timers, will need.

Related: How Can I Make My Dorm Room More Comfortable?

While there are many steps to setting up your first fish tank, keeping a fish is one of the most rewarding (and easy) ways for anyone to have a pet in college. And while they may not be as cuddly, a fish will almost certainly be more calming during finals week than a rambunctious puppy.  

If fish aren’t your thing, you could consider keeping an emotional support chicken in college. Check out the article! 

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