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Do Goldfish Need an Air Pump? 5 Signs You Should Add Oxygen

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By Lindsey Stanton


Quick fact: We need oxygen to live… and goldfish need it too. They may not have lungs, but they actually need A LOT of oxygen to live.

If you don’t provide your pet fish with enough of it… you’ll end up with a lifeless tank. (And possibly a lifeless fish!) And this leads us to the question: do goldfish need air pumps? Keep reading to find out!


Do Goldfish Need An Air Pump?

So, do goldfish need bubbles to live? The logic would lead you to say yes. But WAIT! The truth is that goldfish might not necessarily need an air pump.

In nearly 20 years of goldfish keeping, I learned that there is a lot of hype about aquariums and air pumps. You see them in pet shops and professional tanks. So your fish must also need one, right? Well, not always.

See: If you have an ample tank equipped with a filtration system capable of producing sufficient surface disturbance and air bubbles, for example, an undergravel filter, sponge filter, or box filter, an air pump could be unnecessary.

However, you must ensure that the water is adequately oxygenated in other ways (if you choose not to use one).

How Can You Tell If An Air Pump Is Needed?

calico sabao goldfish
Image Credit: Pavaphon Supanantananont, Shutterstock

As I already told you, there are cases when an air pump is not necessarily needed. But there are cases when an air pump is a must-have. How to tell when to get one? Check out the cheat sheet below.

You likely need an air pump if any of the following is true:

  • The filter isn’t causing much surface movement. The easiest way to asses surface movement is by simply looking at the water. Does it appear very still or can you see movement and bubbles produced by the air filter? If the former is true, make sure the filter is appropriately sized for the tank. If it is, but it still doesn’t cause too much water movement, you need an air pump.
  • You have a small tank. Indeed, the secret to oxygenating the water without an air pump is a greater surface that allows for more oxygen to be dissolved into the water. The smaller the tank, the higher the odds you need an air pump.
  • Higher water temperature. If you didn’t know it by now, not all goldfish are cold water fish. The fancy type prefers warmer waters, but warm water contains less oxygen than cooler water. So if you keep fancy goldfish or if the tank gets pretty warm in the summer months, consider investing in an air pump.
  • You have a smaller surface area of the water. Bowls and taller, narrower tanks don’t have as good of oxygen exchange and can’t support fish as well without additional aeration.
  • You have fish gulping at the surface of the water. Sucking air is the fish’s way of trying to breathe when they are starving for air. However, please note that surface gulping can also be caused from other problems such as parasites or disease.

If this sounds like your tank, I suggest you get an air pump right away. Air pumps don’t add oxygen to the water directly. It’s the disturbance at the surface of the water that helps dissolve the oxygen into the liquid. Therefore, it is essential to check if the goldfish have enough oxygen.

How To Tell If My Goldfish Have Enough Oxygen?

Calico Crown Pearlscale goldfish
Image Credit: Romix Image, Shutterstock

Look for the following signs:

  • Do your goldfish gasp at the surface? This is one of the first signs the water is poorly oxygenated. The thing is that it’s often mistaken for normal goldfish behavior. So, keep in mind; healthy goldfish only gasp at the surface sporadically. If you spot them trying to “gasp for air” often, you need to create more surface disturbance.
  • Do your goldfish gasp at the pump’s air outlet? Just like gasping at the surface, that’s a clear sign they are seeking more oxygen.
  • Did you notice decreased activity? If yes, that’s a clear indicator your goldfish don’t have enough oxygen. In fact, goldfish are very active species, always in movement. Seeing them standing still for most of the time is a big red flag that something’s wrong.
  • Do your goldfish have increased gill movement? Any enthusiast goldfish keeper should be aware of the natural behavior of their pets. If you spot any awkward gill movement, giving the impression that the fish are breathing heavily, they probably need more oxygen.

Again, these can potentially indicate other issues, so it’s best to also investigate any other possible problems.

If you want your fish to breathe properly but you’re unsure of exactly how to create the best aeration setup in your aquarium, you should check out our best-selling book, The Truth About Goldfish, on Amazon. It covers everything about tank setup and maintenance for all types of goldfish housing!

The Truth About Goldfish New Edition

aquarium plant divider

How To Improve Aquarium Water Oxygenation

Besides air pumps and water filters, there are a few alternative ways to improve water oxygenation.

Check them out below:

  • Air stones: Working in tandem with your air pump, the air stone is attached to the air pump’s outlet inside the tank. The primary purpose is to create decorative bubbles, but these bubbles can enhance oxygenation in a tank that lacks this vital element. If you decide to use them, make sure the bubbles aren’t too aggressive, or they may disturb your goldfish. Smaller bubbles are preferred as they are more effective at creating gas exchange.
  • Aerating ornaments: A more fashionable alternative to the air stones, aerating ornaments work in the same way. They also add style to your tank; you can use them to create a fantasy underwater world for your goldfish buddies. Just pay attention to the bubble output. Indeed, some ornaments can actually create bubble jets capable of disturbing goldfish.
  • Live plants: By far, the healthier way to add more oxygen to your tank. Live plants transform carbon dioxide released by your goldfish back into much-needed oxygen. Furthermore, growing plants also use the nitrates and ammonia from the water, improving its quality and minimizing aquarium maintenance. They not only create a healthier tank environment and provide shelter to your goldfish, but you can also use live plants to create the perfect water-scape your friends will envy.

divider: bubbles

Wrapping It All Up

Goldfish might not necessarily need an air pump but they will surely need one if:

  • The tank filter is not large enough to create sufficient disturbance at surface level;
  • If you keep your goldfish in a tall and narrow tank or fish bowl, because the small water surface will limit water oxygenation;
  • You keep fancy goldfish in water warmer than 77°F.

In all other cases, a good water filter and live plants should provide sufficient oxygen for your underwater friends.

So, what do you think? Would you wait to look for lack of oxygen signs, or install an air pump anyway just to stay on the safe side?

Featured image credit: Hans, Pixabay

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