Getting a Pet Saltwater Fish

Many people love having fish tanks in their homes because of how beautiful pet fish and their aquariums are. It’s important to remember that fish are not “low maintenance” pets and do require specific care. Additionally, saltwater fish have different needs than freshwater fish.

What to Know Before You Get Saltwater Fish

There are many things to consider before you get a pet saltwater fish.

Fish tank. Also called marine aquariums, saltwater fish tanks take more care than freshwater tanks because they are considered an ecosystem. A saltwater tank mimics where a fish would live in the ocean, so maintaining proper salt and pH levels is important. Saltwater fish cost more than freshwater fish because you have to invest in maintaining specific water quality. Because fish like to hide, make sure there are real plants your fish can swim between when they need a quiet break. 

The good news is, if you set your tank up correctly the first time, it’s easy to set up a maintenance routine.

Committing to proper care. Fish have a bad reputation for short lives, but with proper care, they can live for at least three to five years. Some breeds live a decade or longer. For this reason, it’s important to consider your pet saltwater fish a long-term commitment. Take cost into consideration so you don’t get in over your head. 

Preparing your home for a fish. Consider where you’ll place the tank in your home. Your fish may enjoy a quiet room versus one that sees a lot of family activity. If you have other pets, like cats or dogs, keep them away from the tank so your fish doesn’t feel threatened.

Feeding your pet fish. Each breed has different nutrition requirements. While flake and pellet food are most commonly used for freshwater fish, most saltwater fish require more specialized food that meets their nutritional needs. Types of food your saltwater fish may like include:

  • Brine shrimp
  • Chopped fish
  • Krill
  • Ghost shrimp
  • Guppies
  • Mollies

Changing aquarium water. Do water-quality checks daily to ensure that the tank has proper levels of salt and pH. Over time, water will evaporate. When you add water to the tank, don’t add saltwater because salt doesn’t evaporate and is left behind. The addition of fresh water will ensure that your tank’s salinity isn’t too high.

Caring for Your Pet Saltwater Fish

You may not think of fish getting sick or needing specialized care, but they sometimes do. If you want your fish to live a long and healthy life, be sure to have a vet on call for questions and check-ups. Because not all veterinarians treat fish, you’ll want to do some research and find a specialist in your area. 

Seeking out the help of a fish veterinarian before establishing a tank in your home will give your pet the best chance at a healthy life. Varying breeds of fish aren’t always compatible with one another, and a vet can help you figure it all out. 

When you do adopt new fish, it’s a good idea to keep them separated for a few days to a week. This gives each one time to acclimate to their new home and ensures that they are healthy so they don’t introduce an illness to your other fish.

Signs of fish illnesses. There are a number of signs you should watch for that may indicate your fish is sick:

  • Being disoriented
  • Swimming in an odd pattern or upside down
  • Not eating
  • White spots appearing on scales or gills
  • Discoloration
  • Trouble breathing, such as staying at the surface of the water
  • Bulging eyes
  • Mucus appearing on the body
  • Rubbing against hard surfaces
  • Isolating from other fish
  • Sores
  • Bloating
  • Change in shape, size, or appearance

If you have any concerns about your fish’s health, check with your veterinarian. Illnesses affecting your fish may include:

  • Physical injury
  • Parasites 
  • Bacterial infections 
  • Fungal infections 
  • Fish pox that are caused by a fish herpes virus 
  • Ammonia or chlorine poisoning because of poor water quality

Show Sources


American Association of Fish Veterinarians: “Find a fish vet.”

American Veterinary Medical Association: “Got a sick fish?” “Selecting a pet fish.”

It’s Not Just a Fish: “Lifespans of fish and other animals.”

Reef Tank Resource: “Saltwater Tank Care for Beginners.”

The Spruce Pets: "How Often Should I Feed My Saltwater Aquarium Fish?" “How to Maintain a Saltwater Aquarium.”

University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine: “Freshwater fish 101.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info