A Humane Goldfish Bowl

By Jeffrey the Barak

You can spend five-thousand dollars setting up and stocking a huge tropical reef aquarium, and the bastards won’t even look at you. But put a one dollar goldfish in a five dollar bowl, and that little fish will await your return twenty times a day, eager to play follow the finger and he or she will gaze at you and love you like a puppy dog.
Ethics.
If you ever play the game, or perform the exercise of, Word Association, then the the most common response to “Goldfish”, is “Bowl”.
The typical picture of a goldfish, in photographs, cartoons and on film, is a picture of a goldfish in a bowl. But if you let people know that you have a goldfish in a bowl, they will consider you cruel, and they will tell you that a goldfish needs to live in a long tank with an elaborate filter system, and then move to a pond when it matures.
There is probably one pond around per million goldfish. Most live, and die, in aquariums or in bowls.
So the question arises, how can a goldfish be humanely kept in a bowl? Is it automatically cruel, reprehensible and impossible, or is the noble rescue of a commercially bred goldfish from the pet store, and the keeping of such an animal in a bowl justifiable.
It’s all about the water.
Actually, it is humane to keep a goldfish in a bowl, as long as the water is good, and as long as the fish can be relocated to a pond or large habitat when it becomes mature, as in too big the live in the bowl. It is not automatically cruel to keep one in a bowl.
But a goldfish aquarium has features that are missing from a simple empty glass bowl full of water. There are many elements that remove or convert toxic chemicals from the water, and also elements that support living bacteria that help keep the water healthy for your fish.
These elements include gravel, biological media, cotton filters, carbon filters, air stones, bubble wands and more. Each has a duty as part of a system to remove harmful wastes from the water and to keep it clean, oxygenated and nourishing to the skin and gills of the fish. Even if you have a nice large aquarium with elaborate filters, gravel and air systems, it is quite easy to mismanage the systems and end up with cloudy, uncomfortable water that will make the fish sick or even cause them to die.
So then, if an aquarium system costing hundreds of dollars can be that bad, how could a bowl be better? The answer is simple, the bottom line is the state of the water. The fish only depends on the quality of the water and it does not matter if this perfect water is introduced as-is or if it relies on a system to make it so. In fact it is less cruel for a goldfish to be in a bowl of perfect water than it is to be in a less-than-perfect larger aquarium.
The way to have water in a fish bowl that is as good as or even better than the water in an aquarium system is to have a second vessel. Water can be obtained by buying bottled water, which is often called mountain spring water, or it can come from a tap water filter, as long as it is not the reverse-osmosis kind. It cannot be distilled water, de-ionized water, or water containing municipal chlorine or other chemicals designed to protect human consumers from food poisoning.
But this is easy. If you have drinking water at home for the human occupants, it can usually sit in a bucket for a day and become safe for a goldfish to live in. But to be extra sure, you can add a drop or two of aquarium water conditioner and a granule or two of aquarium salt before it sits, so that by the time your fish is living in it the next day, it will be nourishing and comfortable.
So one simple way to have a goldfish living in perfect water is to have two bowls. Each day the fish can be moved to the other bowl, while the first bowl can be emptied, wiped clean and refilled with water that will be ready for the fish to live in the next day. As long as your home never gets freezing cold inside and you do not feed the fish more than it can eat in a minute, or more than two to six times a week, the fish should remain in healthy condition and be quite content with it’s environment.
Better yet, to have a similar system that does not involve removing the animal with a net, and potentially causing stress from the move, you could empty most of the water, leaving the goldfish in the remaining water, and then introduce the clean water from the second vessel. Using this method, you can even have a small, lightweight rectangular tank, such as an affordable plastic “Lee’s Kritter Keeper” and a cheap plastic bucket as the second vessel. If you have a water filter on your kitchen faucet (not reverse-osmosis) then you can refill the bucket from that and use it the next day. For this system you don’t even need a net. Just one bowl/lightweight tank, and a second bucket.
As long as the goldfish has not reached a size where the bowl is too small for it to swim freely in one direction for a couple of seconds, and you are able to offer it some visual stimulation from outside the bowl a few times a day, then you will have a happy healthy fish in clean water at all times. Just be ready to bid farewell to your beloved friend when it’s time for it to move to a big pond for the rest of it’s, hopefully long, life. If there is no sign of such a pond within a hundred miles of your house, then most aquarium stores will be willing to take in a donated healthy-looking large goldfish in exchange for another one-dollar feeder to rescue from a certain date with death. Hopefully they’ll sell it to someone with a big pond or aquarium.
So we have to remember a few things to justify a goldfish bowl. Goldfish are not natural. They were bred by man to become attractive golden fish and were originally hardy river carp, scavengers that could survive in ponds, streams and rivers, eating anything and everything, and since they don’t have a stomach, but rather just a long intestine, they would excrete the waste quickly and make the water dirty. An expensive and complicated aquarium system intended to condition the water may fail to do so for many reasons, and it is very easy, or even highly likely, to have a goldfish in such an aquarium, suffering distress from a less than optimal water quality. A bowl can contain clean, healthy, comfortable water if you have the two bowl system, or a bowl and bucket system. The water in this bowl can be, at all times, better than the water in most people’s aquaria. And lastly, even if your goldfish dies after a few months, as they may do through no fault of the owner, it can be a few months of a good life that it would not have had as food for an aquarium carnivore.
Aside from the well-being of the fish, the advantages of a goldfish bowl over an aquarium are many. They don’t cost much, they don’t weigh as much as your sister riding a bike, they don’t require electricity or reinforced furniture, and you can move them from room to room in order to spend more time interacting with your pet.
While it is always nice to see healthy goldfish in a clean, healthy large aquarium, it is also not so good to see them suffering in a cloudy, dirty tank and exhibiting spots, sores and nervous behavior.  Your happy healthy bowl fish will be better off than most goldfish alive today.
What does the fish need in it’s bowl?
Goldfish are bred from carp, which are scavengers. This is why goldfish can be seen constantly sucking pieces of gravel into their mouths and spitting it out. You may assume they are playing or trying to keep busy or wishing they had something to eat, or extracting some nutrients from the bacteria on the gravel, but they just can’t help this natural behavior. In an aquarium system the gravel can be a medium for the growth and support of healthy bacteria, but it is also a hiding place for fish waste that breaks down and introduces harmful elements into the water. So if you can stand the inevitable sight of a few strands of fish poop in your bowl, don’t bother with the gravel, because let’s remember, it’s all about the water quality, not the objects.
And speaking of objects, goldfish are more intelligent than most people assume and they love to follow your finger and look at you and play with you, but they have no need for decorations or toys. In fact such objects can cause injury because part of the natural behavior of a fish is to be occasionally startled and move several inches at a remarkably high speed. Better if there is no castle or treasure chest to collide with.
The minimalism of a clear empty bowl and a healthy fish in clean water is ideal. If you want to landscape the habitat, then set up a large aquarium system.
So if you would like a little golden friend to interact with while you sit at your desk all day, don’t be put off by people telling you a goldfish bowl is a cruel habitat. Remember it’s all about the water, and if the water is always good and there is enough of it to permit a little swimming, your fish will be content.

bowlsYou can spend five-thousand dollars setting up and stocking a huge tropical reef aquarium, and the bastards won’t even look at you. But put a one dollar goldfish in a five dollar bowl, and that little fish will await your return twenty times a day, eager to play follow the finger and he or she will gaze at you and love you like a puppy dog.

Ethics.

If you ever play the game, or perform the exercise of, Word Association, then the the most common response to “Goldfish”, is “Bowl”.

The typical picture of a goldfish, in photographs, cartoons and on film, is a picture of a goldfish in a bowl. But if you let people know that you have a goldfish in a bowl, they will consider you cruel, and they will tell you that a goldfish needs to live in a long tank with an elaborate filter system, and then move to a pond when it matures.

The majority of goldfishes live out their lives without ever becoming mature pond dwellers. Most live, and die, in aquariums or in bowls.

So the question arises, how can a goldfish be humanely kept in a bowl? Is it automatically cruel, reprehensible and impossible, or is the noble rescue of a commercially bred goldfish from the pet store, and the keeping of such an animal in a bowl justifiable.

It’s all about the water.

Actually, it is humane to keep a goldfish in a bowl, as long as the water is good, and as long as the fish can be relocated to a pond or large habitat when it becomes mature, as in too big the live in the bowl. It is not automatically cruel to keep one in a bowl.

But a goldfish aquarium has features that are missing from a simple empty glass bowl full of water. There are many elements that remove or convert toxic chemicals from the water, and also elements that support living bacteria that help keep the water healthy for your fish.

These elements include gravel, biological media, cotton filters, carbon filters, air stones, bubble wands and more. Each has a duty as part of a system to remove harmful wastes from the water and to keep it clean, oxygenated and nourishing to the skin and gills of the fish. Even if you have a nice large aquarium with elaborate filters, gravel and air systems, it is quite easy to mismanage the systems and end up with cloudy, uncomfortable water that will make the fish sick or even cause them to die.

So then, if an aquarium system costing hundreds of dollars can be that bad, how could a bowl be better? The answer is simple, the bottom line is the state of the water. The fish only depends on the quality of the water and it does not matter if this perfect water is introduced as-is or if it relies on a system to make it so. In fact it is less cruel for a goldfish to be in a bowl of perfect water than it is to be in a less-than-perfect larger aquarium.

The way to have water in a fish bowl that is as good as or even better than the water in an aquarium system is to have a second vessel. Water can be obtained by buying bottled water, which is often called mountain spring water, or it can come from a tap water filter, as long as it is not the reverse-osmosis kind. It cannot be distilled water, de-ionized water, or water containing municipal chlorine or other chemicals designed to protect human consumers from food poisoning.

But this is easy. If you have drinking water at home for the human occupants, it can usually sit in a bucket for a day and become safe for a goldfish to live in. But to be extra sure, you can add a drop or two of aquarium water conditioner and a granule or two of aquarium salt before it sits, so that by the time your fish is living in it the next day, it will be nourishing and comfortable.

So one simple way to have a goldfish living in perfect water is to have two bowls. Each day the fish can be moved to the other bowl, while the first bowl can be emptied, wiped clean and refilled with water that will be ready for the fish to live in the next day. As long as your home never gets freezing cold inside and you do not feed the fish more than it can eat in a minute, or more than two to six times a week, the fish should remain in healthy condition and be quite content with it’s environment.

Better yet, to have a similar system that does not involve removing the animal with a net, and potentially causing stress from the move, you could empty most of the water, leaving the goldfish in the remaining water, and then introduce the clean water from the second vessel. Using this method, you can even have a small, lightweight rectangular tank, such as an affordable plastic “Lee’s Kritter Keeper” and a cheap plastic bucket as the second vessel. If you have a water filter on your kitchen faucet (not reverse-osmosis) then you can refill the bucket from that and use it the next day. For this system you don’t even need a net. Just one bowl/lightweight tank, and a second bucket.

As long as the goldfish has not reached a size where the bowl is too small for it to swim freely in one direction for a couple of seconds, and you are able to offer it some visual stimulation from outside the bowl a few times a day, then you will have a happy healthy fish in clean water at all times. Just be ready to bid farewell to your beloved friend when it’s time for it to move to a big pond for the rest of it’s, hopefully long, life. If there is no sign of such a pond within a hundred miles of your house, then most aquarium stores will be willing to take in a donated healthy-looking large goldfish in exchange for another one-dollar feeder to rescue from a certain date with death. Hopefully they’ll sell it to someone with a big pond or aquarium.

So we have to remember a few things to justify a goldfish bowl. Goldfish are not natural. They were bred by man to become attractive golden fish and were originally hardy river carp, scavengers that could survive in ponds, streams and rivers, eating anything and everything, and since they don’t have a stomach, but rather just a long intestine, they would excrete the waste quickly and make the water dirty. An expensive and complicated aquarium system intended to condition the water may fail to do so for many reasons, and it is very easy, or even highly likely, to have a goldfish in such an aquarium, suffering distress from a less than optimal water quality. A bowl can contain clean, healthy, comfortable water if you have the two bowl system, or a bowl and bucket system. The water in this bowl can be, at all times, better than the water in most people’s aquaria. And lastly, even if your goldfish dies after a few months, as they may do through no fault of the owner, it can be a few months of a good life that it would not have had as food for an aquarium carnivore.

Aside from the well-being of the fish, the advantages of a goldfish bowl over an aquarium are many. They don’t cost much, they don’t weigh as much as your sister riding a bike, they don’t require electricity or reinforced furniture, and you can move them from room to room in order to spend more time interacting with your pet.

While it is always nice to see healthy goldfish in a clean, healthy large aquarium, it is also not so good to see them suffering in a cloudy, dirty tank and exhibiting spots, sores and nervous behavior.  Your happy healthy bowl fish will be better off than most goldfish alive today.

What does the fish need in it’s bowl?

Goldfish are bred from carp, which are scavengers. This is why goldfish can be seen constantly sucking pieces of gravel into their mouths and spitting it out. You may assume they are playing or trying to keep busy or wishing they had something to eat, or extracting some nutrients from the bacteria on the gravel, but they just can’t help this natural behavior. In an aquarium system the gravel can be a medium for the growth and support of healthy bacteria, but it is also a hiding place for fish waste that breaks down and introduces harmful elements into the water. So if you can stand the inevitable sight of a few strands of fish poop in your bowl, don’t bother with the gravel, because let’s remember, it’s all about the water quality, not the objects.

And speaking of objects, goldfish are more intelligent than most people assume and they love to follow your finger and look at you and play with you, but they have no need for decorations or toys. In fact such objects can cause injury because part of the natural behavior of a fish is to be occasionally startled and move several inches at a remarkably high speed. Better if there is no castle or treasure chest to collide with.

The minimalism of a clear empty bowl and a healthy fish in clean water is ideal. If you want to landscape the habitat, then set up a large aquarium system.

So if you would like a little golden friend to interact with while you sit at your desk all day, don’t be put off by people telling you a goldfish bowl is a cruel habitat. Remember it’s all about the water, and if the water is always good and there is enough of it to permit a little swimming, your fish will be content.

12 Comments

  1. Well first of all merry xmas. As a goldie enthusiast I search for and read anything I can find on the subject, usually every day, and to find this article was quite a shock. Initially I wanted to leave a negative comment about how it is wrong to keep a goldie in a bowl, but I re-read this and then re-read it again, and I have to say I cannot disagree with your logic here. You have changed my mind.

  2. However… after posting my comment earlier, I found this article: http://www.hennet.org/docs/newsletters/HEN_2009_01.pdf in which Cynthia Hua writing for the Humane Education Network says, “In small spaces, they excrete a growth-stunting hormone and this leads either to organ compression or organ underdevelopment.”

    She does not name the hormone and I find no other mention of it, but I think that if such a hormone really exists, that could be another argument against even the cleanest bowl.

  3. I’ve been wondering the same. More than one mention of this un-named hormone around the www, but no qualification. It may be an urban legend hormone. Maybe someone imagined it and others took it as true. Some say it stunts growth and the internal organs then grow too big, and others say it stunts the growth of the organs. Both sound cruel, but is this real? Perhaps if someone has a fact rather than a viewpoint we might get somewhere with this.

    I like the idea of keeping a small one in a clean bowl and then returning him to the store when it grows to a certain size. Sounds like a rescue to me.

  4. A goldfish only exists because it was bred. But it’s still a living being that deserves and depends on our husbandry. Occasionally a goldfish will live long in a big tank or a pond, but 99% of goldfish die small and young due to poor care or because they are fed to other pet fish. So if you rescue a little feeder fish from the pet store’s death tank and put it in a bowl for a year and keep the water clean, then relocate it when it grows larger, you are doing something good, not something cruel. But one day for the water is about the maximum so it’s a commitment.

  5. Passing on a comment at the writer’s request because she cannot spell well in English language.

    “I think it’s okay to put one in a bowl when it is very small, as long as it is relocated when it gets to about 5 cm maximum length including tail. If the water is always clean, then it’s okay and it’s great to have a portable pet”.

    Admin.

  6. The Spam comments are getting so silly that some even forget their URL link, making them a double waste of time. Who knew Bush was into goldfish?

  7. Okay, I know this is old, but something has to be said. This article is incredibly misleading and needs to be taken down immediately. You are giving people the idea that it’s okay to keep goldfish in conditions that are not appropriate for them. There are three things you forgot to take into consideration:
    1) Goldfish produce so much ammonia that their water can become dangerous in a matter of hours if you keep them in a small, unfiltered bowl. An un-cycled tank is dangerous enough
    2) The shape of the bowl does not allow for proper oxygenation. There isn’t enough surface area for it. Goldfish need water that is very rich in oxygen.
    3) Keeping a goldfish in a vessel that’s too small will cause stunting. Because of this, no one is going to give their fish up when it gets too big, because it’s not going to get too big! Not only is this unhealthy for the fish as it causes skeletal problems and weakens the immune system, it also makes people think that they can keep their fish forever. It will never make it into a pond. It will live out its life in a bowl, and said life will be painful.

    You tried to convince people that keeping a goldfish in a proper environment is a lot more difficult and complicated than it actually is (or that people who keep fish aren’t smart enough to keep everything in order; I’m not sure which one you meant). As someone with multiple aquariums, I can tell you that that’s completely wrong. Is it time consuming? Yes. Is it work? Absolutely. Is it pricey? Hell fucking yeah. BUT, is it complicated? Nope. Not at all. It is totally understandable if someone feels that maintaining a proper setup for a goldfish is too much for them. However, if that is the case, that means that they shouldn’t get a goldfish! If you want a pet, accept the fact that they all require work and money. There’s no “easy way out”.

    A great alternative for someone who wants a fish that doesn’t need too much space or maintenance is a betta. While they still can’t be kept in bowls (once again, the shape is bad, not enough surface area for oxygen), they can be kept in tanks that are small enough to fit on a desk. 2.5 gallons minimum. All they need is a heater and a cover (bettas are known to jump). A low powered filter is a good idea (too much power and you can hurt their fins), but it’s not required if you change at least half of the water every day. They’re not nearly as filthy as goldfish, so it’s much easier to keep their water in good condition.

    Contrary to your ludicrous claim, it’s not “easy to mismanage all of the systems”. Just change some of your water every week, siphon the debris out of your substrate if you have any, clean any decorations if you have any, and make sure to clean the filter every few weeks. Occasionally, you’ll have to replace some of the filter media, but that’s no biggie.

    Your entire argument is based on the assumption that goldfish enthusiasts simply set up their tanks and equipment and then ignore them. But let’s be logical here, do you really think that we’d spend all of that money on large tanks and filters and whatnot only to not follow through with care?

    I wrote a very long rebuttal to your article here, if you would care to read:
    http://fishneedlove.tumblr.com/post/75535979646/everything-wrong-with-the-article-a-humane-fish-bowl

    I hope that you can open your eyes and see that there’s no such thing as a “humane” goldfish bowl. The only time someone should take your advice would be if they already have a bowl and there’s absolutely no chance that they can move their fish into a proper home. However, that does not mean that their fish is living in an appropriate environment. It just means that they’re doing better than the average person who has a fish in a bowl, but that doesn’t say very much.

  8. Pamela,

    I wrote this article but you are quite right about stunting and it is not all about the water.

    A bowl is not the best place for a goldfish. It is however a better place than the shark feeder tank that I would rescue my fishes from. I only kept a tiny goldfish in a bowl once and then I bought him a series of ever larger tanks and he had a canister filter big enough for a pond. He lived about 5 years, and if he did have any stunting, he never mentioned it. He died, most likely from toxicity when electrical power was cut to the filter system one night, 5 inches long. I was very sad to lose him.

    During his brief bowl period he was small enough to be able to swim back and forth at will and was not yet big enough to dirty the water in two days.

  9. I’m glad to hear that you took care of your fish and that the bowl was very temporary. I’m also glad to know that you know how to properly care for goldfish, and I apologize that I assumed otherwise. I’m also very sorry for your loss, but it sounds like you provided him with a great life, which is always nice to hear. Almost everyone I know who has kept fish has had a technical mishap that resulted in tragedy. It comes with the territory.

    Unfortunately, I have seen multiple people use this article to justify their use of a fish bowl, and I got fed up. And like I said, they’re not moving their fish to ponds or large tanks because their fish aren’t growing, so they simply think that they can keep it in the bowl forever. As someone who works hard to fight against misconceptions when it comes to fish care, it’s very frustrating. I realize that there is not much you can do about that, but if you care about fish like I do, it’s something you should be aware of.

    People do not listen and are shocked when their fish die. They think that it’s normal and that they did a good job taking care of their fish because “goldfish don’t live very long”, but you and I both know that that’s untrue. All of those fish died a horrible, painful death. Basically, they were suffocated by their own waste and deprived of oxygen. They would have been better off if they were eaten, at least that’s a quick death.

    I was literally told by someone that her fish was healthier than mine because she changes all of the water every day and I only do partial water changes every few days. Granted, I could not help but laugh because it was a silly thing for her to say, but the fact that she genuinely thought that is what scared me.

  10. because this article was brought to my attention via a tumblr blog:

    aside from your full-prostration begging of the question, your argument is as follows: “the quality of life of a living creature is defined and dictated by the quality of the environment in which they respirate”

    you have not defined any differences between a goldfish and other assorted living beings, so there is no reason to believe that this broad of an argument pertains only to goldfish, not just goldfish in particular. now please read through your old article once more, but instead of “goldfish” insert “human child” , and instead of “bowl” and “water” insert “sanitary plastic bubble” and “air”.

    pretense smashed. tighten up.

    -H

  11. My dad had a goldfish named Ernie who lived in a large bowl for 8 years. No observed signs suggesting pain or agony. Perhaps he was putting on a brave face for my benefit.

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