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Up to Your Gills! Fish as First Pets  
With the kids indoors for the cold winter months, they'll have time to learn how to care for their first pet.


As your children get older and become more mature, there will come a time when you want to test their ability to handle responsibility. For most families, the time comes when questions like, "can I have a puppy?" or chants of "I want a turtle, I want a turtle!" fill a parent's ears. If you're thinking about a first pet for your child, why not consider an aquarium and fish? Although they still require daily feeding and regular maintenance, a basic aquarium with a small selection of hardy, colorful fish may just be the way to try out the concept of pet care.

fishIn general, fish in an aquarium setting require daily feeding, light weekly tank cleanings, and more extensive monthly tank cleanings combined with partial water changes. There are two types of aquariums: freshwater and salt water or marine. The latter is a much more complex undertaking and, although the exotic breeds of fish are fascinating and colorful, their specific demands of water temperature, special live foods, biological filters, and high fish prices make them a choice best reserved for the advanced aquarist. Our attention will focus on the basic freshwater aquarium for the beginner in order to increase the likelihood of a successful aquarium experience.

Choosing a tank and the necessary supplies will be your first step. Many pet stores and department stores have complete aquarium packages for beginners, which simplifies the process. Although small aquariums may seem a logical starting point, many experts agree that a larger aquarium is more forgiving of temperature fluctuations and diseases and may mean a more successful experience.

Among the items you will need (purchase items separately if they are not included in the kit you select):

  • An aquarium (with hood)
  • Air pumps and an under gravel filter
  • Lighting (typically special fluorescent bulbs which enhance the colors of the fish)
  • Gravel
  • Heater
  • Thermometer
  • A dechlorinator or chlorine remover (drops that neutralize chlorine in tap water to make it safe for fish)
  • Plants for tank decoration (live or plastic)
  • Underwater decorations (to make the tank more interesting for both your family and the fish)
  • Fish food
  • Fish
  • A small fish net

Another beneficial purchase is a beginner's guidebook to help with the set-up of a new aquarium and to provide guidance in troubleshooting any problems that may arise. Be sure to keep the aquarium out of direct sunlight and away from any heating or cooling source that could cause extremes in the tank temperature and kill the fish.

fishThe American Humane Association recommends setting up the aquarium (prior to adding fish) a few days before you purchase your new pets to give the water temperature time to stabilize and so that the toxins in the water (chlorine) have time to dissolve. The aquarium, as well as anything going into it (including the gravel) should be rinsed thoroughly with tap water. Do not use soaps or cleaning solutions of any type as they contain toxins that can be hazardous to the new tank inhabitants. Install the under gravel filter and air pumps per the instructions that will come with the aquarium, filter, or air pump. Add the gravel and tank decorations before adding water (they will displace water and make a mess if added afterwards).

When you are ready to add water to your tank, place a small glass or plastic bowl on the floor of the aquarium and pour the water into the bowl. This will help keep your gravel from being disturbed and floating into cracks and crevices in your aquarium decorations (or leaving a large pit in your gravel). Add the recommended amount of dechlorinator according to the package instructions. Once the water is in place, plug in your air pump, filter pump (if one is in place), and heater and make certain everything is operating properly.

fishAfter a few days of operation with no problems, the tank should be a stable home for new fish. Choose two or three hardy fish to start such as goldfish, tetras, or guppies. Choose fish from a reputable pet shop where the fish appear bright and healthy. Float the bag holding your new fish in your established tank for five to ten minutes to allow the temperature to equalize. This prevents additional stress on the fish when introducing them to their new home. The AHA recommends opening the transport bag and adding small amounts of tank water from the aquarium until the water volume in the bag doubles. After another five minutes, gently remove the fish from the bag with a fish net and place it in the tank. Avoid dumping foreign tank water in your aquarium as it may contaminate your tank.

The AHA recommends the following regimen of care for fish in an aquarium:

  • Make sure filters are working and that the heater is maintaining a water temperature between 70 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Check your new fish daily to make sure all are present and healthy. If one happens to "expire," scoop it out immediately with a net.
  • Feed as recommended and do so in small amounts. There should be little, if any, food left floating in the aquarium after feeding.
  • Clean algae from the inside glass of the aquarium.
  • If you have live plants, remove any excess growth or dead leaves.
  • Use a siphon hose (available where aquarium supplies are sold) and gently "vacuum" the aquarium gravel to remove excess food and waste. This should remove approximately one-third of the water. Replace the water with an equal amount of dechlorinated tap water at an equal temperature.

So if you think your kids may be ready for the experience of pet ownership, consider "testing the waters" with an aquarium.

American Humane Association—

Articles are provided for the general interest of our readers. Gerber Life Insurance is not responsible for any content and recommends that you consult the appropriate professional with any questions or concerns you may have concerning any financial or health related issues.

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