While we would always advise you to obtain your pets from a reputable pet store or breeder, many parents over the years have found themselves the surprise owner of one or more goldfish. Whether a well-meaning relative or friend has taken your children to the fair or they’ve visited with a friend, suddenly being faced with a goldfish in a bag – especially if you’re not an experienced fish keeper – can be something of a stressful experience!
So, while we hope it won’t happen to you, it pays to have some frame of reference for how to act in these situations in the hope of giving your child’s new pet a long and healthy life. Knowing what to do can also be useful for avoiding the fallout if you wake up the next morning to “Goldie” floating upside down on the surface of the water.
The Uncomfortable Truth
Fish won at fairgrounds are often in pretty bad shape. They may have been in their little bag for hours and in that time have been exposed to all kind of stress. From the rapidly overheating water, to the lack of oxygen, to the bright sunlight, to having all manner of children poking and prodding it. The odds for survival are therefore pretty slim. Much of the damage has already been done. This is why visiting a proper aquarist is a far smarter idea.
However we mention this warning to set your expectations. Don’t be surprised if, after all your efforts, the new fish doesn’t last long. Additionally you may want to warn your child of this fact too, to lessen any future blow that a death could cause.
With that warning out of the way, let’s get into action!
Take Action Fast
A goldfish in a little bag on a hot day is a recipe for disaster. Therefore the sooner you can act to get your fish into a more appropriate environment the better. In essence we want to prevent your fish from over-heating, we want to remove it from the water it is stewing in and we want to leave it well alone to unwind and relax as stress is such a major killer in fish.
That means no hanging around the fairground. No stopping to do the weeks grocery shopping on the way home. Instead, you should get your fish home as soon as possible; via an aquarium shop for supplies in an ideal world.
As a quick shopping list, at a bare minimum you’ll want a fish tank, filter, flaked goldfish food and dechlorinating liquid. If your fish survives the first few days you’ll probably want to add a variety of other supplies but these are the bare minimum right now. Got it? Great, then let’s get going…
Suitable Emergency Fish Tasks
Normally the first question that accidental fish keepers ask relates to suitable fish tanks. Standard glass or plastic tanks from your local pet store are almost certainly the best idea. Larger tanks are better than smaller tanks – even for a single small fish – as they reduce the chances of rapid water changes so are safer for sensitive fish like goldfish.
Goldfish bowls are really a no-no as they don’t provide enough space even for small goldfish so I would urge you not to be tempted despite their far lower cost.
In an emergency – such as you living nowhere near any proper aquarium shops – any sizable, water-tight container may be used as a temporary home so long as it hasn’t been exposed to potentially deadly household chemicals. That means no bleach, no polish and so on. Just pure water.
Water: Your Biggest Battle
Arguably the single most complicated part of keeping goldfish happy and healthy is maintaining the right aquatic environment for them.
Each aquarium has what is known as a “nitrogen cycle”. At its most basic, when your fish goes to the toilet it excretes ammonia – clearly not something particularly pleasant for your fish. Fortunately there is a solution in the form of nitrifying bacteria in your aquarium filter and gravel, which slowly break down this toxic ammonia into far less dangerous nitrate. This nitrate is then prevented from building up with regular water changes.
It’s a beautifully effective system, but if you’ve just come home with a goldfish from the fair there are two distinct disadvantages. Firstly there will have been no cycling going on in the bag that your fish is in – it is therefore swimming in water that is turning more and more toxic all the time. Secondly, these beneficial bacteria that do all the hard work for you, simply won’t be present in enough numbers in a brand new fish tank to actually break down the ammonia effectively.
This is the key reason why professional fish keepers recommend that you set up a new fish tank and leave it for a few weeks before actually adding any fish. In this time the helpful bacteria can slowly build up so the tank is ready when you add your fish.
So what’s the “emergency” solution? There are a number of options. You could, for example, ask around if you know any existing fish keepers to see if you can borrow their filter or at least have some of the gravel out of their tank to “seed” your own with. A second option is that aquarium shops sell a variety of products which either claim to help establish a bacterial colony quicker than normal, or that will absorb ammonia from the water for you. Speak to your friendly fish shop owner for a recommendation.
Lastly remember that the larger the amount of water in your tank, the more this ammonia will be watered down and so the safer your fish will be. Once again, bigger fish tanks prove more useful than smaller tanks.
The Introduction Process
Hopefully by now you’ve gathered a suitable container for your fish. Now let’s get him out of danger and into his new home before we sit back and cross our fingers.
Let’s start with the water. You’re going to want to fill the tank with fresh water, but be aware that the chlorine we add to our water supplies is harmful to fish. The solutions are either to use bottled mineral water, use tap water that has been treated with a dechlorinating solution (available from pet stores) or to simply let your tap water stand for 24-48 hours before use. In an emergency situation like this, investing in a bottle of dechlorinating fluid is probably easiest; simply follow the dosage instructions on the bottle.
Let the water sit for half an hour or more so that it can reach ambient temperature – a significant difference in the water temperature between the your tank and the bag your goldfish is in could lead to shock – and eventual death.
Once the water in the two containers seems to be a similar temperature, place the bag into your tank and leave it floating there for another half hour or so. This will further allow the water in the two containers to reach the same temperature and reduce any risk of temperature shock.
Finally cut the bag open and allow your fish to swim out, and into his new home. Remove the bag, close the aquarium lid, close the curtains to keep your fish calm (over cover the tank) and then cross your fingers. The first 24 hours are the riskiest so the more time that goes by, the safer you should be. Good luck!