Hepper is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Learn more.

How to Give a Fish CPR: A Detailed Guide (With Pictures & Video)

Lindsey Stanton Profile Picture

By Lindsey Stanton

hand holding Goldfish for Aquaponics Systems

If you come home and find that your fish is not breathing, do not give up hope yet. There are ways you can attempt to resuscitate the fish. This article is about giving your fish CPR, but it is not the same as with humans. You can’t really do chest compressions with fish, but there are ways in which you can try to get your fish breathing again.

It’s not easy and it will not always work, especially if the fish is too far gone. However, if your fish is not breathing, there are some things that you can do to bring it back from the brink of death. To give fish CPR, you’ll need to oxygenate the gills—we’ll go over the steps in detail below.

clownfish divider2 ah

Getting Your Fish to Breathe Again

Keep in mind that this CPR procedure is for fish that are not breathing, but are still alive technically, and also still have a pulse. In all reality, fish are not like humans, and if they do not have a pulse anymore, restarting the heart is virtually impossible.

Goldfish outside tank
Image Credit: Amonsiri Sommut, Shutterstock

The 6 Detailed Steps on How to Give a Fish CPR

If you do have a fish that is not breathing, but should be fine otherwise, there is still hope. Let’s go through a step-by-step process on how to do CPR on your fish that is not breathing.

1. Check for signs of life

As unfortunate as it is to say, the first thing that you need to do before you begin resuscitation is to examine the fish for signs of life. In other words, you need to check if there is actually anything that can be done, or if you need to euthanize the fish (or if it is already long dead).

If your fish has concave eyes, gray pupils, missing body parts, has totally dry and cracked skin, or does not have a heartbeat, chances are that the fish is past saving. However, if it does not display any of these symptoms, and is just not breathing, there is hope yet.

2. Place in cool water

betta fish in a cup
Image Credit: Johanna K M Nilsson, Shutterstock

Get a small container with cool water and place the fish inside of it. Cool water contains a lot of oxygen which could help to revive the fish. This is only the first step. If it does not work, move on to the next step.

3. Hold the fish in your hands

Hold the fish in your hands gently and make sure that you keep the fish in the water. You definitely do not want to have the fish on dry land for any amount of time at this point. Use your other hand to clean all debris off of the fish—it might have debris on it which is clogging its mouth and gills. Be very careful as fish are fragile. Gently remove all debris while being careful not to crush the fish.

Try using your fingers to open the gills of the fish. If the gills are closed or have been covered with some kind of debris, this might revive it. Using your fingers, while being very steady, gently get your fingertips or your fingernails under the opening of the gills and gently pull them open.

This will help oxygenated water flow through the gills and hopefully revive the fish. Giving your fish’s underbelly a bit of a massage may also help to stimulate airflow throughout its body.

4. Provide oxygenated water

Image Credit: chaikom, Shutterstock

The next thing that you want to do, especially if the first steps have not done the trick, is to provide your fish with highly oxygenated water. You will need an air stone or an air bubbler for this. Simply turn the air stone or bubbler on high so that lots of oxygen bubbles are coming out.

Move the fish closer to, if not directly over the bubbler or air stone, to force oxygen into the gills and throughout the body. Do keep in mind that this method really only works if you already have the bubbler or stone. You will not have time to run to a pet store and buy those things as your fish is suffocating.

If this still has not done the trick, the next step is to get some more equipment that is on hand to perform more serious CPR. You will need clean and dechlorinated water, tape, plastic wrap, a container, a pure oxygen container, an air pipe, and an air stone.

5. Place fish in dechlorinated water

Fill the container with the dechlorinated water and place your fish inside of it. Connect the tubing to the air stone on one end and the oxygen tank on the other end. Seal the container with plastic wrap and tape it shut.

Turn the oxygen container to the open position and allow a good amount of air to pass through the air stone. A steady stream of larger bubbles for 5 minutes is recommended, and after 5 minutes, reduce the amount of oxygen you are supplying a little bit. Keep the fish in the container for at least 2 hours.

6. Insert the tube into the gills

It is sad to say, but if this has still not done the trick, chances are that your fish is at the end of its life. However, some people will try to directly insert the tube into or near the gills of the fish to really force oxygen into its system. However, this rarely works and can actually be more detrimental than beneficial.

However, if the procedure has worked, you will want to give the fish some recovery time. Adding some chlorophyll to the tank (following the instructions on the bottle) will help to rejuvenate your fish. You also want to use a stress-reducing water conditioner to help better the water parameters and reduce the stress of your fish.

starfish 3 dividerChest Compressions For Fish

To be totally honest, if your fish is at the point where it no longer has a heartbeat and you think that you might need to perform compression to keep blood flowing, chances are that the end is near for your fish.

How to Perform Chest Compressions On Fish

With that being said, it is technically possible to perform chest compressions on fish, but it is very dangerous and difficult too. First off, to get a good grip on your fish to do the compressions, you will either have to take it out of the water or wear gloves with a good grip.

If you take the fish out of the water to perform chest compressions, you will need to keep flushing water over the gills to keep it breathing. On the other hand, if you want to wear gloves for grip, and perform CPR in the water so the fish has oxygenated water to breathe, the gloves need to be thin. If they are too thick, you won’t be able to feel what you are doing, and if the fish is a small animal, you could very well crush the poor thing.

If you are bent on doing chest compressions to try and restart the blood circulating in your fish, you need to lay it on its side. Then go behind the gills and move up a bit, you should be able to tell where the heart of your fish is. To find out where the heart is in your specific fish, and where you need to place your fingers, you should do some more research.

A Caution To Be Gentle

Remember folks, you need to be gentle. Fish are small and fragile, so when you do compressions, it only takes a little bit too much pressure to break bones and effectively kill the fish. Doing a few quick compressions while making sure that water is flowing through the gills is your best shot at restarting a fish’s heart. However, in all honesty, if your fish’s heart has stopped beating, there usually is not much that you can do to save it.

Yet, as we mentioned earlier, if the heart is still going, but the fish just is not breathing, with the right tools and methods, you should be able to resuscitate it.

If you're new to the world of goldfish or are an experienced goldfish keeper that loves to learn more, we recommend you check out our best-selling book, The Truth About Goldfish, on Amazon.

From diagnosing illnesses and providing correct treatments to ensuring your goldies are happy with their setup and your maintenance, this book brings our blog to life in color and will help you to be the best goldfishkeeper you can be. 

clownfish divider2 ah


At the end of the day, if your fish is no longer breathing, there is usually not all that much that can be done about it. However, the above method of fish CPR is indeed your best shot at reviving your fish. No, it does not always work, but it is a way to give your fish a fighting chance.

Featured Image Credit: Michael Yero, Unsplash

Related Articles

Further Reading

Vet Articles

Latest Vet Answers

The latest veterinarians' answers to questions from our database