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If there is one thing you can be certain of when keeping fish, it is that you will receive terrible, terrible advice if you ask questions. I only have experience with the fish I have kept, therefore, those are the only fish I feel I could advise others about. In a pet store they have people who have never kept a particular fish being asked to give advice and more importantly, trying to make sales while doing it.

Water, temperament bad advice experiences: Dragon Fish

The worst advice I have ever gotten when buying a fish would be on my Dragon Fish (also known as Violet Gobies). I bought this fish from Petland in Bolingbrook, IL. At the time of purchase I had a freshwater 55 gallon with 15 Tiger Barbs and intended to put the Dragon Fish in as a ‘center piece’ or focal point of the tank. I knew Tiger Barbs were aggressive, so I wanted a large fish that the Tiger Barbs would be afraid to attack and that is what the staff in Petland told me I was buying: They said that the Dragon Fish was “semi-aggressive” and would “eat Ghost Shrimp, Guppies and any other feeder fish” I cared to provide it.

Dragon Fish/Violet Goby - Intimidating, but harmless.

My Dragon Fish/Violet Goby - Intimidating, but harmless.

In actual fact, Dragon Fish are almost blind, cannot hunt and are the most placid fish I have kept thus far (and I’ve kept Neon Tetras!) The advice from the store could not have been more wrong about not only how the Dragon Fish would act, but also what it would eat. They said Ghost Shrimp and Guppies? Mine eats Bloodworms and Brine Shrimp, he also occasionally eats snails (shell and all). When he feeds he pulls the sand and food into his mouth and then blows the sand out of the side of his head. Definitely no hunting of anything alive, unless they are swept up in the sand like snails.

He also isn’t freshwater, he’s brackish. Brackish fish live where the ocean meets rivers and therefore require a slightly salty environment in their aquarium. They can adapt to full freshwater for a little time (as they would in the wild) but eventually do require a salinity of around 1.005 to 1.008 to be healthy. When he was sold to me, he was sold to me as freshwater and this was not only incorrect, it was not the right environment for me to keep my purchase from Petland healthy.

But the biggest problem I had with the advice I was given upon purchase of this fish was his ability to defend himself. He is BLIND: As I said above he cannot hunt and this also means he cannot defend! During the first day he was in my 55 gallon freshwater tank I saw him constantly attacked and because I work from home I was able to stop most of these attacks by moving my hand toward the Tiger Barbs. I found this inexcusable.

Upon proper research (thanks to Google) I found out the truth about this fish and was able to set him up in his own Brackish tank. He now lives happily with snails, Bumblebee Gobies, Guppies and Platies – all of which co-exist perfectly. During that research I also saw horrifying pictures of Dragon Fish which had been mauled by other fish because of a bad fish store.

Disease/meds bad advice experience: Neon Tetras

I lost 18 Neon Tetras that I had had without any issues and 5 Cardinal Tetras thanks to a Petsmart in Tinley Park, IL. Those fish survived their time in MA, they survived a 30-hour road trip when we moved to IL, they survived being in the tank as it cycled after our move and they survived quite happily here in IL. Until, that is, I added some Cardinal Tetras from Petsmart.

I know, I know, I should have quarantined them before adding them to their final home, but I didn’t. I actually didn’t even inspect them closely, but i distinctly remember the person who caught them and handed them proudly over to me doing so… Whether he was counting them or looking at those little white spots, he should have recognized the issue. Either he chose to ignore the fact that two of them had little white spots, or he didn’t do his job and wasn’t properly trained to act upon it.

I put those fish in my tank and it was then that I noticed those little white spots. Not knowing much about Ich (White Spot) at the time I didn’t really know what to do about it, it was my first time with any kind of problem like this and I – deep breath – trusted Petsmart. I enjoyed the fish in my tank for a few days until eventually the problem seemed to get worse and worse. I noticed the behavior of the Cardinals to be erratic and knew that it was a serious problem.

I bought the treatment from Petsmart and was told very confidently by the assistant that I should follow the directions on the bottle and that my fish would be fine. So I treated the tank – to the letter of the bottle – and I lost all 18 Neon Tetras and 5 Cardinal Tetras. Upon research (again, thanks Google) I found that Tetras are very, very sensitive to medication and will quite often die from the medication if the white spot does not do it first. They can be given a smaller dose and most of the time this will do the job without killing the fish, but for me that nugget of information came too late.

So, while I could have saved myself this heartache by using a quarantine tank, I also could have been saved from receiving a ‘defective product’ or incorrectly treating these fish if Petsmart either inspected fish prior to sale, knew their fish diseases or knew their medications.

The facts

The fact is, the fish store needs to sell fish to continue being a store. I have to ask myself, would a pet store sell a dog/cat/fish that has a visible problem? Unfortunately, I think they probably would. To a large chain store like Petland, Petco or Petsmart the animals are almost worthless as they make far more money from the accessories. While individual members of staff may have very good knowledge, the huge majority will not and this means that you put yourself at greater risk buying from them. Whether it’s a cheap filtration system for fish, or a puppy mill where dogs are inbred, you put yourself at risk of buying a ‘defective product’. And yes, I don’t like calling them that.

How to research

Google. Whenever I am in a store I simply use my phone and type in the name of the fish. Most of the time by reading two or three of the first 10 results I get a great picture of how the fish may or may not fit into any of my tanks. If you already have fish in those tanks, a search for the name of the fish and then “with”, then the other fishes name seems to work just as well.

Where to buy

My advice is to find a small store which seems to sell more animals than accessories. Try to find one that is not part of a chain of stores. This store is more likely to appreciate the animals they sell as a business asset and therefore is more likely to care for their wellbeing. You may, occasionally, find a chain store with good staff who know what they are doing and really know their fish, but I would advise always getting a second opinion from the best source you can find: An internet search.

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AquariumsAquarium Category Information
Left: Rotkeil 'Severum'.

My first word was "fish", and my earliest memory is of the fish tank my parents had while I was a baby. Starting with a 10 U.S. gallon tank and easy fish like Zebra Danios, and some Cory Catfish, I quickly upgraded to 55 then 125 gallon tanks, and at one time had seven tanks in a relatively small apartment.

I've had some interesting experiences with my fish, such as moving them 1000 miles across the country and of course going through that lesson everyone needs to learn; not to trust the fish store. I've ordered fish online, but now primarily use a store called Animal Island in Midlothian, Illinois. This store accepts fish returns for partial store credit, so I have used this to my advantage and kept many different types of fish, gaining experience in a short time about a huge number of species.

My favorite fish so far is the Vulture Catfish, which is an absolutely beautiful long-whiskered and active catfish. My current biggest fish is a Fahaka Puffer.


Tim is British and lives in the United States with his wife and kids.

He works for software developers Image Space Inc. and Studio 397 on their racing simulations, and is a fan of Gaming, Motorsports, and photography.

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