Two cichlids in a dirty tank.

How to Buy New Fish and How to Evaluate Fish Stores

Buying fish is a joyous experience on many levels. Getting new pretties in the tank, learning the adorable quirks of new species, adding the centerpiece fish to tie it all together…


But knowing how to buy new fish — from where, what to ask, which fish to pick — is essential for building a healthy, thriving aquarium. You must evaluate the shop, brick-and-mortar or online, you are buying from and properly judge the livestock in front of you for signs of sickness or stress.

In the first part of this post, I will show you the critical evaluation points for choosing the right fish store and the healthiest fish there are. Then, I’ll touch upon several key questions to ask the store staff, especially when choosing unknown species.

Because we’ve all done that.

Going to the local fish store to buy 1-2 specific fish and seeing new species that grab your attention and captivate your imagination.

At least in the store you can ask and see the fish and evaluate them right there and then. When purchasing online, things become slightly more convoluted and unclear.

Fear not and join me on imaginary fish shopping.

Things to Look for When Buying New Fish

Regardless of where you buy new fish, you should always check several key things that indicate the overall health of the animals you want to purchase.

Now, it is important to understand that this evaluation, as well as the questions in the following sections, are risk assessment. They help you gauge and reduce the risk of making a poor purchase but cannot eliminate it completely.

Strong quarantine protocols help big time in keeping your existing livestock safe. Developing the habit of checking carefully eventual new purchases will also help you reduce mistakes, but they are bound to happen every now and again.

With this clarification out of the way, let’s discuss what you need to look for to identify healthy fish in your local fish store.

  • Is the aquarium free of dead fish? — If the fish tank you want to buy from has a dead fish, avoid it. You have no clue what caused the fish’s demise. That’s the very reason why tanks in fish stores or fish rooms should have separate filtration systems, as diseases spread quickly in flowing water.
  • Observe the fish — The fish you want to purchase should behave normally. Now, that’s wildly different from one species to the next, but you should see no:
    • Erratic swimming (glass surfing)
    • Erratic breathing, either labored or rapid gill movement
    • Listing to one side or the other
    • Lying on the bottom (unless it is a bottom dweller)
    • Gasping for air (unless it is a betta fish or gourami who like to do that)
    • Brushing against hard surfaces (or flashing)
  • Check the fish body for damage — Make sure the fish has:
    • Both its eyes and that they are clear, not cloudy
    • All fins are wholesome, not torn
    • The gills don’t have reddish hue or bleeding
    • The anus isn’t bleeding and no worms are appearing
    • No spots in random places as they are a clear indicator of sickness
    • No mucus; that’s hard to notice in brightly colored species but is very obvious in darker fish
    • No missing scales or other bodily damage
  • When did you get the fish? — Last on the list but certainly not the least important, knowing when the fish has arrived in the store is valuable. Fish get very stressed during transportation. They often travel in crammed containers, the water is moving too much, and they aren’t fed much at all. New fish tend to be underfed and stressed. Fish that has been in the store for a couple of weeks (or, better yet, has passed a three-week quarantine) is in a much better place than one that has just arrived. Generally, you want thick, well-fed fish.

These are the main things to look for when buying fish in a brick-and-mortar fish store. Observing the animal you wish to buy for a few minutes reveals a lot of information. After the first few purchases, checking for the obvious tell-tale signs of stress or disease will become a habit. Stress and illnesses can be cured, but they could also easily be lethal, especially in younger fish and new tanks.

Asking the staff when they got the fish is a good opener for the other questions you should ask, especially if you are shopping there for the first time.

How to Evaluate a Fish Store

Not everyone lives in a large city with many shops, but if you do, you have to learn how to distinguish good fish stores from bad ones. Even if you have a single fish store realistically accessible, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses will help you buy healthy fish.

Knowledge is power and, in this case, it is not that difficult to obtain.

Observation is key.

  1. Observe the store — Enter, walk around, and take a good look at the windows, ceilings, floors, and shelves. See how clean they are. Any dirtiness is a bad sign. People who are proud of their businesses maintain them clean and welcoming. It goes without saying.
  2. Observe the aquariums — The aquariums must be clean and should not have dead fish. Try to gauge how their filtration is set up. Ideally, each tank should have its own filter or a few should be sharing a system. Having the entire store or large sections of it using the same filter can lead to a quick spread of diseases and that makes it hard to gauge the health of individual fish.
  3. Listen to the staff — See how they behave with other customers and how they advise. Demeanor is important and so is knowledge. Even if you are a starting fishkeeper who doesn’t know much about the hobby, seeing how they explain will help you understand whether that’s a place where you can get useful information.
  4. Talk to the staff — Ask questions. Ask silly questions, ask anything, and listen carefully. Ask questions you know the answers to, to see what and how the staff explains it. “I read on Reddit that you should feed guppies only live food, is that true?”

How to Evaluate an Online Fish Store?

Shopping online has its undeniable advantages, but it has a few limitations, too. The major drawback is that you can’t see the conditions in which livestock is kept and you can’t really see the fish you are about to purchase.

Still, a few simple things will help you establish trust and weed out bad vendors before purchasing.

For starters, read reviews. eBay has a healthy amount of user feedback, lean on it. If no user-generated reviews are available, ask around in Reddit and Facebook groups. Talk to people who’ve dealt with the vendor. Gather as many opinions as possible, as one or two positive or negative experiences leave plenty of doubt.

After you’ve done this preliminary research — which applies to many physical stores, too — get in touch with the vendor. Communicate with them over chat, email, or phone and ask questions.

Here are a few things to ask in a new fish store. They apply for both physical and online stores.

Things to Ask at a New Fish Store

The following six questions will paint a complete picture of the store setup. It will give you a very good idea of how it procures its stock, how the fish are quarantined, what they are fed, and so forth.

  • How do you get the fish? — Aquarium-bred fish are much better for the hobby than captured individuals. Freshwater fish are predominantly bred in captivity, whereas most marine species are still captured in the ocean. Ethical and environmental considerations aside — and they are plenty and plenty important — fish raised in tanks are much better prepared to continue their lives in glass boxes. What’s more, they are much less likely to carry parasites or other infectious diseases.
  • Where do you get the fish from? — Locally bred fish travel less to the fish store. Transport increases stress manifold. Additionally, they may have been bred in water similar to yours, which is a massive boon and helps with the acclimation of any new aquarium additions.
  • How do you quarantine new fish? — Strong quarantine protocols are essential for ensuring fish health. Quarantine of three weeks (but better four or more) is a must. However, small fish stores might be unable to do that as keeping large amounts of livestock in quarantine is expensive and hurts the bottom line. Setting up a quarantine tank is a good idea to begin with, but it is paramount if your local fish store doesn’t quarantine for long enough.
  • How is the filtration set up in your store? — Ask how they filter all tanks. As mentioned, it is best if tanks are filtered individually or in small clusters. That’s not the most financially sound way to set up a store, but many tanks on the same water circulation system can lead to a rapid spread of disease. When buying from such stores, quarantine any new acquisitions for six weeks.
  • How do you clean all these tanks? — Similar to the filtration question, ask how maintenance is performed. Virtually all fish stores have automated the process as much as possible. Getting to know how and how often it is done will give you a good idea of how strict they are with their tank maintenance.
  • What are your water parameters? — Ask about pH and hardness and compare them to your tap water. If the difference is too great, you may need additional products or prolonged acclimation of new fish.

With these questions answered you will know the quality of the store. Rarely you will find a store that scores highly on all of them, but with honest answers, they will give you the information necessary to offset their shortcomings and ensure the health of your fish tank.

Things to Ask When Buying Unknown Fish Species

Going to the local fish store is a great way to expand our horizons. Seeing new fish species that ignite our imagination is one of the most common thrills in the hobby. But purchasing a fish you know nothing about can be tricky.

Here’s a list of seven questions to help you determine whether the new pretty fish suits your current tank setup:

  • Is the fish aggressive? — That’s a primary concern for community tanks, but you should know what livestock you already have. A list of names or a picture of all your tank’s inhabitants will help. Adding an aggressive fish to the mix can lead to stressed and dead fish rather quickly. To complicate matters, certain species are aggressive only toward specific other fish. Betta fish can coexist with nano fish like neon tetras and bottom dwellers like cory catfish or plecos. On the other hand, danios are generally peaceful but can start fin-nipping and a betta fish could be their slow, hapless target.
  • Is the fish territorial? — In a large tank with plants and a hardscape, territorial fish aren’t as dangerous as purely aggressive species. With the right setup, you can greatly reduce the amount of bullying a territorial fish like the red tail shark will dish out, but you should know what you are getting into.
  • How large does the fish grow and how fast? — Tied into the previous point, knowing the needs a mature fish has will give you a good idea of whether it suits your current setup. Species like the red tail shark or yoyo loach grow considerably but also slowly. They reach their full size in about three years. Generally, that’s enough time to upgrade your fish tank to plan a resale or gift them away.
  • Does it fit my current water parameters or need special pH and temperature? — There are plenty of stunning fish (discus and cichlids come to mind) that require specific water parameters. Your average tropical tank simply won’t cut it. Always check if the species that caught your eye suits what you already have.
  • Is it a schooling fish? — Ask how many fish of the same species you need to make them feel comfortable. Putting a single danio in a 10-gallon / 40-liter tank certainly is a possibility, but a single danio will feel miserable, as they are social fish. On the other hand, male betta fish should be kept separately or they’ll fight.
  • What food does it eat? — Ideally, the new fish should eat whatever food you already feed. In a community tank, feeding a few fish specific food can be a challenge.

This Is How You Buy New Fish

Asking that many questions may sound annoying, but you have to do it once per store, really, and it will benefit your hobby massively in the long run. After you gather the necessary information, you can assess the risks of purchasing from several angles and proceed accordingly.

Even with the most careful observation sometimes a fish dies rather prematurely. Poor otto.

Again, there is no way to completely eliminate the risks, but the above steps will greatly reduce unpleasant surprises. Besides knowing how to buy new fish, the other crucial thing for the health of your tank is proper quarantine.

Happy shopping!

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