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Can Goldfish Live in a Bowl? Here’s the Surprising Answer

Lindsey Stanton Profile Picture

By Lindsey Stanton


I get this question a lot: “Can goldfish live in a bowl?” Well, I’m going to shock you by saying this:

Goldfish bowls are not evil.

There. I said it.

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Yes, Goldfish CAN Live in a Bowl

You may have been told that fish bowls make terrible homes for goldfish.

goldfish jumping out of the water_Mikael Damkier_shutterstock
Image Credit: Mikael Damkier, Shutterstock

There is a nugget of truth to that. They CAN—but the problem isn’t the bowl, but the poor conditions inside it. Big tanks can be just as deadly to goldfish with poor living conditions.

There IS a way the bowl can be made into a safe environment. When set up and maintained properly, your fish can live a long, healthy life—maybe even outliving the family dog. And those of you who are 100% anti-fishbowl, please hear me completely out before you give me the heat. I used to be too, but there are two sides to every story. My goal is to give a logical, balanced view of things as best as I can.

During my experimentation with keeping fish in bowls, I found firsthand it WAS possible to cycle a bowl just like you would a regular tank and keep the ammonia & nitrite at constant 0 with “messy” goldfish. I’ve also kept two goldfish in a 3-gallon planted bowl that were so happy and healthy they even spawned!

And it’s not just me…Many other fishkeepers have come to me over the years sharing their fishbowl success stories as well. Some have lived for decades in them (goldfish, not owners). The oldest goldfish on record in recent history (named Tish) actually lived for 45 YEARS in one. Wow!


Today I’m going to talk about the RIGHT way to use a bowl for your fish, and also how to avoid the problems most people have using them. Are you ready?

There is a way you can get that little fish to live in an “undersized” bowl for longer than a few weeks. It actually IS possible to have:

  • Sufficient oxygen exchange
  • Acceptable water quality
  • Enough bacteria to establish a “cycled” state and reduce the need for water changes

Set your bowl up properly, to begin with, and you can have a pet that brings you enjoyment for years to come!

5 myths people have about bowls:

1. Goldfish Get too Huge to Live in a Bowl

It’s very true, goldfish can grow to be really big, given certain genetic factors and living conditions. But goldfish also have the ability to regulate their growth in a small space. While a full-grown Common goldfish might get to be 12 inches in a pond with tons of fresh water and room to swim…

goldfish in a bowl
Image credit: Unsplash

That same fish won’t get bigger than 3–5 incjes in a bowl, even after many years (provided the water is not constantly changed). Such a fish is said to be “stunted.” (More on exactly what causes stunting later.)

So in a sense, the old saying is true, a goldfish CAN grow to the size of its home.

Read More: Do Goldfish Grow to the Size of Their Tank?

2. Bowls are Impossible to Keep Clean

Image credit: Unsplash

This is a common myth. When the bowl is equipped with a proper filter or live plants and a substrate that supplies enough surface area for beneficial bacteria to grow, a bowl can house a surprisingly large colony of nitrifying bacteria that keep the parameters within safe levels between water changes. An  undergravel bowl filter also supplies oxygen to the water, preventing anoxia.

Besides all that, plants can be added to help absorb excess nutrients and add oxygen. They make a great primary or secondary filter. People who have difficulties keeping bowls clean usually have no filter (while not changing the water enough) and/or are overfeeding. As long as you follow our guide on setup, keeping your bowl clean for your fish is easier than ever.

It’s also a good idea to go with something like a large plastic goldfish bowl—to help keep the water cleaner and allow for more swimming room.

3. There isn’t enough Oxygen for the Fish to Breathe

It used to be that lots of plants and frequent water changes were the only ways to keep the oxygen levels high enough in a bowl (hint: it still does.) Modern filtration also helps overcome this problem.

An undergravel bowl filter or power filter creates constant surface agitation and water movement, allowing gas exchange to take place around the clock. Even with a very small surface area, provided the temperatures are not too warm, a filter is probably the best way to keep the water full of oxygen for your fish (and a few extra plants won’t hurt for an extra boost!).

4. It is Harmful to Stunt a Fish’s Growth

Yes, fish kept in smaller enclosures are often stunted (though not from the enclosure itself, but from the more concentrated growth-inhibiting hormones). The question is, is it cruel due to causing harm to the health of the goldfish?

My take on this is no, and I wrote a whole new post about it you can read here.

Goldfish Ryukin_Moo teaforthree_shutterstock
Credit: Moo teaforthree, Shutterstock

5. Goldfish Won’t Live Long in a Bowl

Given the right care, a goldfish can actually live several decades in a bowl. Can… and have. Sadly, most people aren’t told how to set up and care for a goldfish bowl properly, and consequently, their fish don’t last more than a year (unless they just happen to get an invincible fish).

The typical range is probably somewhere around 5–10 years. Their lifespan can even be longer than those who are grown quickly in a larger environment. Just look at Tish, the oldest documented goldfish in the world. He made it to 45! In a bowl. 

6. Bowls are Cruel Because of their Smaller Size

small goldfish in goldfish bowl
Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock

I get it, surviving does not always mean thriving. Obviously, poor care can cause a bowl to become a “torture chamber” for a fish as it remains alive while suffering from oxygen deprivation, ammonia poisoning, or stunting. But the same is true of big tanks.

Is it just cruel to keep a goldfish in a bowl, regardless of having all of its basic needs met, correct living conditions, and behavioral stimulation—just because it’s in something smaller than a tank? By definition, something that is “cruel” intentionally causes pain, harm or suffering to the animal.

So if it’s true that proper care can make bowls a safe place for goldfish that does not cause them harm—they can’t be considered cruel. So far, all the arguments I’ve heard aren’t grounded on facts—just that person’s personal opinion and feelings.

Who is really able to determine what constitutes “too small?” (Provided the fish has sufficient swimming room to prevent muscle atrophy, of course.)

goldfish in bowl
Image Credit: DJ Srki, Shutterstock

The term small is subjective, considering that even a 40-gallon aquarium is small in comparison to a lake or river that contains thousands of gallons in the wild (a fish’s natural habitat). If it comes back to what’s the most natural for the fish, then no goldfish could be kept in captivity!

There’s no doubt about it: goldfish keeping takes work. It requires responsibility, attention, and care. As far as I can see, the opinion that tanks are better than bowls when proper husbandry is implemented still remains an opinion, and is not substantiated by fact.

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Fish Bowls through History

It’s been done by many goldfish owners in recent times, and even in ancient times—from Japanese goldfish breeders trying to groom their ideal Tosakin, to the Victorians with their “goldfish globes.” There are even records of goldfish that were kept in bowls living seven years and upwards while continuing to grow normally.

Without electricity. 

Now, if they could do that back then with such success, why can’t we do it now – or even BETTER? NOW we have the convenience of advancements in filtration technology at our back, which greatly helps to fight against the problem of rapid oxygen depletion and poor water quality—making it less work than ever before.

We have test kits we can use to closely monitor the conditions in the tank. We have equipment that does most of the work for us—even to the point of feeding our own fish so we don’t have to remember!

They also understood the importance of controlled feeding. Some historical sources recommend twice weekly feeding of a few small earthworms or a few ant eggs once a day. This means a lower ammonia output. They also changed the water at least once daily. And the importance of plants was understood—especially important when they didn’t have access to modern filtration methods.

“Hence the reason why we can not keep fish any length of time in an ornamental basin or in any piece of water where there are not vegetables [plants] growing.” It wasn’t until recent times that fish bowls have become widely socially unacceptable.

This quote from 1898 is interesting:

“We want to say a word in favor of the much abused round fish globes. It is difficult to find any book on the subject which does not condemn these globes, but the leading book on the subject now on the market is published by a manufacturer of square aquariums. It is easy to see why he should hunt for objections to the round globes; the statements in other books on the subject are apparently copied from the first one.” (Source)

The book goes on to caution readers against the abuse of the fish bowl, such as using too small of a bowl (they recommended at least 10 inches in diameter).

goldfish bowl
Credit: LUIS PADILLA-Fotografia, Shutterstock

Problems with Bowls?

So you may have heard some folks saying fish can’t live in bowls, they are sure to die, they get too big, etc. But others (like me) have NONE of these problems. I think it usually comes down to one of two things:

  1. They are just repeating hearsay, what other “gurus” tell them
  2. They really did try it themselves and their fish died, so they blame the bowl.

Trust me: people will blame a lot of things when stuff goes wrong with their fish because some problems are hard to diagnose.

Sometimes it actually is because the bowl became toxic. But big tanks can also become just as toxic. So, pointing fingers at the container isn’t really fair. It’s the water INSIDE.

No doubt about it: Both tanks and bowls need to have the water cleaned regularly or the fish will poison themselves. But bowls get all the heat because most people don’t put a filter or live plants in their bowls like they would with a big tank. They’ve been framed.

And if you do things right, it’s actually not hard at all to keep goldfish in a bowl.

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Thoughts on Fish Size

Image Credit: Yuli4kaSergeevna, Shutterstock

As a good general rule of thumb (though by no means a hard-n’-fast rule), the bowl should be 3–4x the length of the fish’s full-grown body to allow for comfortable swimming (the Japanese have used this ratio). A 10-inch bowl is a good starting point. Some also use the 1 gallon per goldfish rule. There are exceptions to this, depending largely on the fish’s genetic and starting size.

Of course, many of these fancier breeds are more delicate, making close attention to water quality very important. But in all reality, most fancy pet store goldfish don’t get that big, even under the best of circumstances.

They are just genetically small.

The fish that show the most potential to get large are separated from their siblings and given special care before being sold to the pet store—they will command a higher price. Either way, growth depends heavily on husbandry. Ultimately, it’s in your hands.

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Wrapping It All Up

I hope you found this post insightful. Want to share your experience or opinion? Maybe you disagree with me?

Either way, please leave your feedback in the comments below.

Featured Image Credit: pritsana, Shutterstock

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