Fish | Healthy Pets, Healthy People (2023)

In this section

  • Healthy habits
  • Tips for preventing the spread of diseases from fish and aquariums
  • Before choosing a fish
  • Choosing aquarium fish
  • Cleaning and maintaining your aquarium
  • Monitor your pet’s health
  • What to do if you no longer want your pet fish
  • Fish fin scratches

Healthy habits

CDC recommends washing your hands before and after you work with aquariums or handle fish.

  • Always Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water before and after

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    handling or cleaning aquariums and feeding fish. Be sure to help children wash their hands properly. Thoroughly washing your hands will reduce your risk of getting sick from a disease spread to you by your fish.

  • To protect your fish, rinse your hands extremely well to reduce any soap residue after you wash your hands.
    • Adults should supervise hand washing for young children.
    • Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available. Be sure to have hand sanitizer readily available near the aquarium to encourage guests and children to practice good hand hygiene after feeding fish or touching the aquarium.
  • Do not let children younger than 5 years old handle or touch aquariums or aquarium water or feed fish without supervision. Children younger than 5 years old are more likely to get sick from exposure to germs like Salmonella.

Tips for preventing the spread of diseases from fish and aquariums

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Before choosing a fish

  • Find out what types of fish and aquariums are suitable for your family. Certain types of fish require more extensive care and supplies than others.
  • Learn about the different types of aquariums and their maintenance needs. Work with pet store staff to decide if a fresh or salt water tank is right for you.
  • Match the size of the tank to the space available in your home and to the amount of time you have to maintain it. Consider purchasing a second aquarium to be used when you’re cleaning your first tank, or to house new fish before you place them in your established tank. Having a second tank to temporarily house fish may help reduce their stress and disease.
  • Once you have decided what type of aquarium you want, learn how to set it up properly. Consider the following:
  • Ask your veterinarian about the proper set-up of your aquarium, the types of fish you should keep, as well as food, care, and environmental requirements of your fish.
  • Before you bring your fish home, make sure your aquarium is ready. Ask your veterinarian about “cycling a tank” to get the bacteria and nitrogen levels balanced.

Choosing aquarium fish

  • Learn which fish can go in the aquarium you have. Most fish live exclusively

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    in either saltwater or freshwater, not both. Consider the number of fish to keep in your tank; a good standard is 1 inch of fish per gallon of water. Also, evaluate which species of fish can be in the same tank together and what types of food they will need.

    • Some types of fish, like male betta fish, can’t be in the same aquarium together because they will fight. However, having multiple female betta fish in the same aquarium is not a problem.
  • Pick fish that are active in their tanks in the pet store. Compare the fish to those of the same type around it. Is it acting like the others or is it off by itself? Is it able to swim normally?
  • Do not select fish from a tank that has a high number of dead fish.
  • Healthy fish should have smooth, sleek, shiny scales that are free from discoloration. Their bodies should not have any bumps, and their fins should be intact.

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  • When bringing a new fish home, it is very important to acclimate it to your aquarium water. Purchased fish will often be given to you in a clear bag with water from their tank at the store. This water will be a different temperature than your aquarium water at home. To acclimate your fish:
    • Place the entire bag, still intact, in your aquarium to float at the surface for about 30 minutes to an hour to acclimate the fish to the temperature of the tank.
    • Then, carefully open and gradually pour the bag to release the fish into your tank.
      • Do not remove the fish from the bag with a small net as this may injure the fish.
      • Try not to pour too much water from the bag into your aquarium at home because of the possible germs it may contain.

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    • The American Veterinary Medical Association provides additional information about selecting fishexternal icon.

Cleaning and maintaining your aquarium

  • Be aware that fish and their aquariums may carry germs.
    • Wash your hands before and after cleaning or maintaining the aquarium or aquarium water. Plan to wear gloves when working with rough rocks or spiny fish to avoid injury.
  • If you have any cuts or wounds on your hands, wear

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    gloves or wait until your wounds are fully healed before working with your fish or aquarium water to avoid possible infection.

  • Avoid cleaning fish aquariums in areas where people with weak immune systems may be affected.
  • Don’t allow children younger than 5 years of age or people with weak immune systems to clean aquariums.
  • Don’t use kitchen sinks to dump aquarium water into or to wash aquariums. If you use a bathtub to dump aquarium water into or to wash aquariums, clean the tub thoroughly afterwards, and use a commercial disinfectant like bleach according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Do not mix bleach with other cleaners, especially ammonia.

Monitor your pet’s health

  • Monitor your fish daily for signs of illness.

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    Symptoms may include abnormal swimming; appearance of red, brown, or white splotches; lack of appetite; or swelling.

  • If a fish in your tank ever looks sick, it is best to remove it and place it in a tank by itself. This will help prevent other fish in your main aquarium from getting sick.
  • Getting a diagnosis from a veterinarian experienced in fish medicineexternal icon.
  • Promptly remove any dead fish from your aquarium to decrease the risk of spreading disease to your other fish.
  • Even though fish appear healthy, they may still spread germs to humans. If you become sick shortly after purchasing new fish or cleaning your aquarium, make sure to tell your healthcare provider that you have a pet fish.

What to do if you no longer want your pet fish

  • Do not release your pet outdoors. Most fish released into ponds or rivers will die, and some grow to become a threat to natural wildlife populations.
  • Find a new home for your pet:
    • Contact a nearby pet store for advice or for possible returns.
    • Consider giving your pet to another fish hobbyist.
    • Contact a local aquarium, school, or zoo to see if they would accept your pet.
    • Talk to your veterinarian. He/she may be able to help you find a new home for your pet.

Fish fin scratches

Some larger fish have sharp points in their fins that could scratch or damage your

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skin when you are cleaning or working in the tank. This is an unusual occurrence, but germs can spread from fin scratches or scrapes from the gravel or rocks in the tank, even when the wound does not seem deep or serious.

Some fish are dangerous and even venomous and may not be safe to keep. Just because you can buy a fish doesn’t mean that it’s safe or legal to own. Some fish have venoms they can release to protect themselves, like lionfish and some types of catfish. Most fish do not have teeth that can cause damage to skin, but some, like piranhas, have very sharp teeth that can cause serious harm.

  • If you are scratched or bitten by a fish, you should:
    • Wash your wounds with soap and water immediately.
    • Seek medical attention:
      • If the wound becomes red, painful, warm, or swollen, or
      • If the wound is serious (uncontrolled bleeding, loss of function, extreme pain, or there is muscle or bone exposure).
  • If you seek medical attention, make sure to tell your healthcare provider you have had contact with fish and aquariums.

Publications and materials


Selecting a Fishexternal icon
Brochure, American Veterinary Medical Association

Fish-associated outbreaks

Boylan S. Zoonoses associated with fish. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice. 2011 Sep;14:427-38.

Lahey T. Invasive Mycobacterium marinum infections. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2003; 9(11):1469-8.


Water frogs, Aquariums, and Salmonella – Oh My!
CDC Kidtastics Podcast

Research articles and books

Decostere A, Hermans K, Haesebrouck F. Piscine mycobacteriosis: a literature review covering the agent and the disease it causes in fish and humans.external icon Veterinary Microbiology. 2004 Apr 19; 99:159-66.

Gaulin C, Vincent C, Ismail J. Sporadic infections of Salmonella Paratyphi B, var. Java associated with fish tanks. Canadian Journal of Public Health. 2005; 96(6):471-4.

Harada K, Amano K, Akimoto S, Yamamoto K, et al. Serological and pathogenic characterization of Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae isolates from two human cases of endocarditis in Japanpdf iconexternal icon. New Microbiologica. 2011; 34:409-12. [PDF – 4 pages ]

Lowry T, Smith SA. Aquatic zoonoses associated with food, bait, ornamental, and tropical fishexternal icon. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association 2007 Sep 15; 231(6):876-80. [ PDF – 5 pages]

Mohanty BR, Sahoo PK. Edwardsiellosis in fish: a brief review. Journal of Bioscience 2007; 32:1331-44.

Novotny L, Dvorska L, Lorencova A, Beran V, et al. Fish: a potential source of bacterial pathogens for human beingspdf iconexternal icon. Veterinary Medicine of Czechoslovakia. 2004; 49(9):343–358. [PDF – 16 pages ]

Russo R, Mitchell H, Yanong RPE. Characterization of Streptococcus iniae isolated from ornamental cyprinid fishes and development of challenge models.pdf iconexternal iconAquaculture. 2006; 256:105-10. [ PDF – 6 pages]

Stoskopf MK. Fish medicinepdf iconexternal icon. Philadelphia: WB Saunders Company; 1993. [ PDF – 9 pages ].

Verner-Jeffreys DW, Welch TJ, Schwarz T, Pond MJ, et al. High prevalence of multidrug-tolerant bacteria and associated antimicrobial resistance genes isolated from ornamental fish and their carriage water.external icon PLoS One. 2009; 4(12):e8388.

Additional information

Find veterinarians who focus on or specialize in fish medicineexternal icon. directory

Habitatitude: Protect Our Environment: Do Not Release Fish and Aquatic Plantsexternal icon.
How to turn over unwanted pets, and aquatic animal conservation.

Aquarium Therapyexternal icon
Neurobehavioral Research Laboratory and Clinic: Procedures and Facilities.

Stress Reduction, Tropical Fish, and Aquariumsexternal icon

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