Goldfish – An Uncomfortable Truth?

Goldfish are a quintessential part of childhood; often the first pet a child is allowed, perhaps won at the fair, they are surely the perfect pet – they don’t take a lot of care, don’t require a lot of space, they are cheap and short lived. Or so a lot of people are led to believe.

Now please don’t take this post as me being condescending, I too was once one of the people I have just described. A couple of goldfish won at the local fair was my first exposure to fish keeping and we were amazed a few years later when they were still alive (look how well they are doing!) The sad truth is that peoples expectations  of the lowly goldfish are woefully low, and they are capable of so much more. I will now try to break down some of the myths that I once believed, and I have had to dispel in my friends over the years.

Myth: Goldfish dont get very big.

Truth: This is a tough one to cover due to the sheer variety of goldfish available. The “original” goldfish is simply a selectively bred sub-species of the wild prussian carp, in fact goldfish and carp remain so similar that they will still interbreed if given the chance. Given optimum conditions a goldfish will not get as large as a common or mirror carp, however they are certainly capable of achieving  an impressive size far in excess of what most people give them credit for – the average fish is certainly capable of achieving lengths in excess of 30cm. That being said there are many, many varieties of fancy goldfish that come in a variety of sizes, however I would go as far as to say that almost all types of goldfish are capable of exceeding most peoples expectations in terms of size.

Myth: Fish only grow to the size of the tank.

Truth: This may not be as straightforward as some people believe – many people believe it to be true while many people believe the polar opposite. While it is certainly true that fish will outgrow small tanks it isn’t quite that black and white and the reason is quite sad. The fact is that most (non fancy) goldfish SHOULD outgrow the average tank but there are a few factors at play as to why they might not. The first is that they simply do not live long enough to grow that big. Goldfish in unsuitable aquaria will often only live for a couple of years so simply do not have the time to grow to their full potential.  The other most significant factor is that in small aquaria the fish do not have sufficient space to exercise, limiting their growth – this might sound like proof that “fish grow to the size of their tank” however they will eventually outgrow it, but tying into the first point, they probably wont live long enough.

Myth: Goldfish are short lived.

Truth: Goldfish are short lived because most aren’t cared for properly. A well cared for goldfish is capable of living up to around 20 years or more. I personally have goldfish that must be approaching 10 years old and still going strong. There seems to be an opinion that if you get 4 years out a goldfish it’s “done well” – that may be a relatively good age but only because so many goldfish are not given the appropriate care they need. Think of it like this, if you had a kitten and it died after 2 years that would be tragic – goldfish have broadly the same life expectancy of a cat but rarely attain it in an aquarium.

Myth: Goldfish won from fairgrounds won’t live very long anyway…

Truth: Despite my opposition to giving out live fish as prizes, I try and win (save) at least one fish from my local fair each year. I put these fish into my pond and while it is true that they don’t all survive the winter (my fair comes in September) the ones that do then go on to live long and full lives. I have fair goldfish approaching ten years old and a lot of people find it shocking that a goldfish would live that long, let alone one won from a fair.

Myth: Goldfish make a good gift

Truth: Basically a summary of what I’ve said already – think of it as buying someone a potentially 20 year commitment and you might think again. You wouldn’t buy someone a kitten out of the blue and expect them to look after it for a couple of years before it dies from neglect so don’t do the same for a poor goldfish…In fact i recently persuaded my friend to allow me to adopt her goldfish that was bought for her as a gift while at university. It was living alone, in a small aquarium with no lighting and a filter that was rarely cleaned and barely working. She was worried that being a fancier goldfish (fantail) it would not survive in my pond however I eventually persuaded her that even if it didn’t survive the winter it would at least have the best 6 months of it’s life in my pond before winter comes, and I’m happy to say it is still going strong. The fantail being a smaller and fancier goldfish is better suited to an aquarium than, say, a comet, but alone in a  dark poorly filtered tank is not a happy home.

Myth: Goldfish are easy to care for

Truth: They CAN be easy to care for (in a pond) but goldfish are incredible messy animals and when kept in the confines of an aquarium will require a powerful filter and regular water changes. Personally I don’t consider anything but the largest of aquaria a suitable home for goldfish, and even then the stocking should be much lower than most people expect. With aquaria, as with all bodies of water, the larger they are the easier it is to maintain stable conditions – a messy eater and producer of a large amount of waste in a small tank is a recipe for poor water conditions and a slow and probably torturous demise.

Hopefully one day the goldfish will lose it’s undeserved reputation for being essentially disposable, but until then it is the job of responsible fish keepers to educate the masses about the humble goldfish and the challenges they pose, and their true potential as a large and beautiful fish.


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