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Fish Nutrition Basics

Fish are lower-maintenance pets, but a pet fish is only as healthy as his diet and water conditions. Fish need the same attention paid to proper nutrition as other pets even if they only eat tiny portions of food each day. Understanding the nutritional needs of your fish and what the contents are is important. For those fish who eat live food, buying live food that is specially prepped for being feed animals by being fed a nutritious diet ensures that any worms, crickets or flies that are offered to your fish are nutritious treats and sources of protein.

When buying fish food, it is important to read and understand the ingredients. Just like in human food, pet food and even fish food lists the ingredients in order of concentration. Fish foods should be appropriate for your fish species, so you are looking for ingredients such as fish, shrimp, seafood, plankton, and look for algae and sea vegetables in the ingredient list. The Guaranteed Analysis is part of every food label and gives the nutritional breakdown of the food. Fish require a high protein diet and benefit from some fat in their diets with added vitamins and minerals. Fish kept as pets can have varied diets so choosing a fish species-specific formula ensures the right nutrients are provided to your fish. Fish do not require grains and do not eat them in nature and should be missing ideally from the formula or one of the ingredients at the bottom of the list.

The quality of food is usually reflected by the price. Fishmeal is cheap protein and grains are often used as fillers to make low-quality fish food; however, fishmeal is not bad at all. Fishmeal is a meal made of entire fish parts that are not used after the filets are removed for human consumption. Premium fish foods contain whole fish filets or seafood and crustaceans or sea life such as krill. Fish can digest protein and fat easier than grains so a high protein and fat food will provide more nutrition in smaller portions and prevents waste that can contaminate the water. Protein and fat digestibility in fish can be 85-95% compared to carbohydrate digestibility that is only 34% for most fish. Minimizing the fillers such as grains and non-aquatic vegetables in a fish’s diet results in better health, as does lower fat. Fish require fatty acids Omega-3 and Omega-6 in their diets. In nature, fish get fat from their prey and normal diet in smaller amounts than some formulas. Avoid saturated fat sources such as chicken and beef meal in fish food because these are hard for fish to digest as fish are aquatic. Choose fish food that has aquatic protein sources only. Too many carbohydrates and the wrong fats lead to sickly fish.  Adult fish can survive to eat a diet with 40 percent carbohydrate in their diet, but young growing fry and breeding fish require lower carb and higher protein diets for growth and to breed successfully. The carbohydrates in fish food come from grains added to flake and pellets used as binders to make them able to tolerate being added to water and maintaining flake or pellet form longer. Fish only require small portions of fiber each day and an ideal diet provides up to 10% of its calories in the form of fiber. Protein should be the focus, as are the nutrients.

Fish require vitamins and minerals for healthy scales, bones, metabolisms, immune systems, and normal cell function. Fish require phosphorous and calcium. Calcium is found naturally in hard water and is absorbed through the gills in nature. Live underwater plants are the main source of phosphorous so goldfish and bettas and any fish in a tank without live plants require mineral supplementation. Fish need micronutrient amounts of magnesium, sodium, copper, zinc, sulfur, iodine, potassium, and chloride in a balanced and complete fish food formula. Minerals are provided in good quality fish foods and are shelf-stable for longer periods before they lose potency, unlike vitamins.

Flake foods should be properly stored as vitamins can degrade and oxidize from light, heat, and air. Vitamins can go bad so storing the fish food in the refrigerator or a dark cool place will prolong the vitamin content’s potency. Fish require Vitamins A, D3, E, K, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, Biotin, Choline, Folacin, and Inositol. Vitamin C is especially vulnerable to oxidation and loss of potency. Ascorbic acid degrades faster than other forms of Vitamin C. A fish food with a more stable form of this necessary nutrient such as L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate will last longer on the shelf, but ideally, you would not buy more fish food than you could use in 3 months at one time when possible and if so, storing it in the fridge or freezer to preserve the nutritional content if you will be using it longer than 3 months. Gut-fed live foods, if species appropriate only, increase the sources of fresh vitamins and minerals along with the quality protein a fish receives.

Vitamins B1, B2, and B6 are required for growth and digestion. They also make for fish with healthy teeth and bones. Inositol and B5 (Pantothenic Acid) are needed for metabolism and growth as well. Biotin and Folacin (folate) can cause health issues when deficient. Vitamins cannot be neglected for fish health. Vitamin A deficiencies in fish can cause spinal deformities and stunted growth and this nutrient is required more when a fish is stressed. Vitamin A and E combined are required to successfully breed your pet fish and Vitamin K is required for blood clotting.

Many fish owners overfeed their pet fish and cause them health harm. Fish who are always hungry is a sign they are not getting proper nutrition from their flakes or pellets. Never feed your fish twice daily maximum and only provide enough fish food that they can eat in three minutes. If your fish are bottom feeders, soak the flakes or pellets in a cup of tank water for a couple of minutes until saturated before returning the food and water into the tank. Goldfish should be fed using this method as a goldfish should never be gulping air with their food and are bottom feeders. Sinking pellets are also required for aquariums with algae eaters or bottom-feeding fish species or crabs and snails.

Once your fish are done eating their meal, skim the remaining food from the tank and water surface to keep their habitat clean and prevent overfed fish. Fish will eat themselves sick if allowed so a good fish owner provides them with a nourishing meal and never in excess and cleans up after the meal is over and the fish have had their fill.

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