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How Do Betta Fish Breathe? Facts & FAQs

Lindsey Stanton Profile Picture

By Lindsey Stanton

white betta fish

The betta fish is certainly unique in terms of looks and personalities. However, this is not the only way in which they are unique. This actually has to do with the way a betta fish breathes. So, how do betta fish breathe?

The betta fish breathes just like any other fish, using its gills to absorb dissolved oxygen in the water. However, betta fish also have a backup for breathing, which is the labyrinth breathing structure that allows them to suck in oxygen on dry land for short periods of time.

With that being said, you might be wondering how long a betta fish can survive on dry land. How long can a betta fish live out of water? We’ll answer these questions and more in this article.


How Do Betta Fish Breathe?

Okay, so betta fish are of course fish, which means that they do use their gills to breathe. To put it in simple terms, the betta fish sucks water in through its gills.

As the water moves through its gills, the very thin interior walls of the gills absorb dissolved oxygen. The oxygen then enters the bloodstream and makes its way to all of the organs, appendages, and whatever else requires a steady flow of oxygen.

red betta fish
Image Credit: Panpilai Paipa, Shutterstock

However, the betta fish is a very special kind of fish, a very rare fish in terms of its breathing abilities. The betta fish is one of few fish species which are known as labyrinth fish.

No, this does not mean that they love big and confusing labyrinths. It has to do with a unique ability that only a few fish share, and it all has to do with breathing.

Betta – The Labyrinth Fish

The reason why fish like betta fish are called labyrinth fish is that they have the ability to breathe oxygen through a special breathing structure known as a labyrinth.

What is interesting here is that this labyrinth breathing structure is designed to breathe gaseous oxygen. In other words, this is pretty much like a pair of human lungs that can breathe oxygen on dry land.

Multi color Siamese fighting fish(Rosetail)(halfmoon),fighting fish,Betta splendens,on nature background
Image Credit: Panpilai Paipa, Shutterstock

It’s definitely a very useful addition to the anatomy of the betta fish. It is assumed that betta fish, and other labyrinth fish, over many years developed this special trait due to their natural environments and the challenges posed by them.

For example, betta fish often live in muddy waters, usually rice paddies, and they tend to have very low levels of dissolved oxygen. For a normal fish that can only breathe through its gills, this would spell doom.

However, a betta fish, due to this special labyrinth breathing structure, can actually go to the water’s surface, pop its head up, and breathe actual gaseous oxygen, just like we humans do.

What Does It Mean If My Betta Is Always At The Water’s Surface?

half moon betta fish surfacing
Image Credit: At.rma, Shutterstock

Your betta fish is going to do all of its breathing underwater, or at least it is going to try to do so. However, if you have a fish tank with water that has insufficient levels of dissolved oxygen for the betta fish to absorb through its gills, it will have to resort to surfacing and using that labyrinth breathing structure to suck in some oxygen from the dry air above.

Now, your betta fish could also be unhappy and suffering due to poor water conditions or temperatures that are way too hot or cold. But generally speaking, if your betta fish is always gulping for air at the surface, you need to find a way to increase the level of dissolved oxygen in the water.

This is pretty easy because all you need to increase dissolved oxygen levels is an air pump and an air stone.

How Long Can A Betta Fish Live Out Of Water?

So, if betta fish can breathe oxygen in its gaseous form from the dry air, just like humans do, then why don’t we see betta fish walking around at the supermarket, or just being on dry land? Well, the answer here is that although the labyrinth breathing structure does allow for this unique phenomenon, there is only so far it goes.

A betta fish can only live out of water for a very limited amount of time before it starts running into some serious problems.

betta fish
Image Credit: Vilasack Southisane, Shutterstock

The issue here is that the labyrinth structure can only keep processing oxygen on dry land as long as it stays moist. So, if this structure goes dry, the betta fish will not be able to breathe.

On a really dry and hot day, a betta fish will last on dry land for a couple of minutes at most. If it is an excessively humid day, your betta might be able to push 10 minutes on dry land before it suffocates.

Of course, if you keep pouring water over the betta fish every couple of minutes, you could extend this time, maybe even indefinitely. However, there is really no reason why you should ever have to do this or why you would ever want to try doing this.




Yeah, betta fish are definitely very cool creatures, especially due to their unique labyrinth breathing structure that allows them to breathe air on dry land, at least for a limited amount of time.

Of course, they are much better off using their gills to breathe underwater like pretty much all other fish out there. It is definitely not recommended to leave your betta fish on dry land for any amount of time whatsoever.

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