Aquarium Therapy in College

By Kylee Keller on March 11, 2017

Are you looking for a stress reducer, loneliness combatant, and potential new hobby? Try Aquarium Therapy! Not only are fish the easiest pet to get dorm room approved, they are also easy to take care for, offer great health benefits, and are beautiful to watch.

National Marine Aquarium did a study in 2015 explaining the calming effects of their largest exhibit. They proved that the light filtering through their tank as well as watching all the fish swim was relaxing. There is a theory about ‘blue mind’, “a state of water associated peace,” that helps people relax.  The sound of running water lets your mind rest more than music or city noise. It also allows people to enjoy nature. Your ‘blue mind’ is like a meditative state that lets your brain rest from over stimulation and enhances general focus.

Aquarium therapy benefits more than just the mind. Just five minutes looking at a fish tank has been proven to lower blood pressure. Hundreds of people use fish tanks to combat mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, which can be great for struggling college students.

College can be a hectic time for students. Giving yourself a steady responsibility beyond homework and social obligation can be beneficial. Knowing that you are responsible for a little creature’s life can give a sense of purpose to students. Plus, college is a lonely time for many young adults as it’s often their first time away from home, old friends, and maybe even in a new state all together. Pets, including fish, can combat loneliness. Most campuses, including UAA, allow 10 gallon and smaller tanks. A two gallon tank on your desk would still be beneficial, so do what ever you have room for.

Setting up Your Tank

Many people believe you can just pour tap water into a tank and expect your fish to live, however, this is not the case. First you must take the chlorine out of the water with a water purifier. Usually a fish safe chemical that neutralizes the harmful chemicals will do the trick. Before fish are ever introduced to the water, you must cycle the tank. Cycling establishes good bacteria that will eat the fish waste. Without it, your nitrates will spike and kill your fish in the first few weeks.

In my opinion, the best way to cycle your tank is a fish-less cycle. To do this you set up the tank with clean water and add some bacteria that you can buy. If you don’t want to buy it, ask a local fish store, such as Alaska Fish and Coral and Petco for a dirty fish filter or even buy your fish food early, throwing in some food every other day. Both ways will encourage good bacteria to grow quickly by providing food. Aeration and warm water also speed up the process, so install your air stone and heater early. Notice that the picture below ends at Nitrates. This is where you step in and clean the tank. Depending on your bio-load you may only need to do changes every couple of months or once a week.

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Most fish in pet stores are tropical. Tropical fish need 75-80 degree water. So unless you keep your room super warm all year long, a heater is necessary.  Aeration is also needed for most fish.  If you do not want to buy an air pump, get a filter that pours into the water. The pouring will aerate the tank enough for a 10 gallon aquarium. Filters are needed to ensure that you don’t have to change the water every few days. Some species require double filtration (a 20 gallon filter on a 10 gallon tank). It is always better to go bigger than to go too small.

Cost (approximated)

Heater – $25    Hood with light – $30   Tank (used) – $15   Filter – $15   Test strips – $8

Food – $5    Liquid Purifier – $5    Thermometer – $3   Net – $3

Total cost is around 110 dollars before fish and decor.  You may be gawking at the sticker shock, but this set up can easily last 10 years for one batch of fish. Everything but the food is a one time cost. This is also with everything, except the tank, being brand new. Craigslist and Alaska Fish and Corral often have used equipment that can save you money. Just be sure to clean any used equipment with vinegar and a thorough rinsing.

Stocking Your Tank

Of course goldfish are always good fish, but here are a few of my suggestions to stock a 10 gallon tank. The general rule for tropical fish is for every inch of creature you need a gallon of water. Assume that rule works for all fish unless otherwise stated.

There are two categories of fish, the show fish and the cleanup crew. Show fish are the beautiful guys. They’re colorful and fun shaped. The cleanup crew keeps your nitrates down by eating leftover food and keeping the tank clean. The tank will still require occasional cleaning, but you can cut it down by 2/3rds with a good cleanup crew.

Show Fish

Betta fish are hugely popular and for good reasons. They are colorful and hardy. However, many people have misconceptions about them. They don’t technically need a heater, but are much happier with one. Most importantly, they need at least 2 gallon tanks. Little betta bowls stunt their growth creating curved spines and sick fish. Betta can also be housed with many other fish so anything smaller than them or less colorful than them will do great. Bettas don’t need aeration because they come up to the surface to breath.

Dwarf Cichlids are colorful fish that include many types of Rams and Cockatoo Cichlids. I suggest one of these two because they are hardy and community friendly fish. The Rams come in German blue (top), electric blue, gold, Bolivian, and several color morphs. Cockatoo Cichlids (bottom) come in different shades of red and orange. Both types of Dwarf Cichlid grow up to 3 inches.

Shell Dwelling Cichlids are less colorful, but display interesting behavior. They dig in the sand and live in shells. This means they need fine sand and, at least, two shells per fish so that the fish can pick its favorite. If you don’t want to buy shells, small PVC pipe with end caps works well. Do not get an under-gravel filter as it can compact the fine sand. These fish are usually around 1 inch.

Axolotls are interesting creatures. However, they are not actually fish. They are a fully aquatic salamander meaning they do not need any land source. The most common one sold is the albino variety (below), but they can also be black with grey or brown spots. They are jumpers, so you will need a lid. They also must be housed as the only species in a tank. Anything large will bite at their external gills  (the feathery bits) and anything small will be eaten. Axolotls need fine sand. Like a toddler, anything that fits in there mouth will be eaten. Sand can pass through their system but larger gravel could cause a blockage. These are creatures that break the inch per gallon rule as they thrive in a 10 gallon tank but can grow up to a foot long.

Pea Puffers are the only true freshwater puffer as well as the smallest as they only grow to 3 centimeters. They are a very intelligent fish and many beg for food by swimming to the top when a person walks by.  A school of them will happily fit in a 10 gallon aquarium but they should not have tank mates as they are aggressive predators. In the wild, they hunt out snails and other small invertebrates. For you, this means you’ll have to feed frozen or live food.

African Dwarf Frogs are really neat and readily mix with actual fish.  They are a social frog so try to get several of them.  African Dwarf Frogs are practically blind, so be sure to drop food close to them. Many people feed their frogs directly to ensure that everyone gets to eat as well as for fun and bonding. Your frogs will enjoy the occasional frozen or live food, but there are some good pellet foods for them as well.


Cleanup Crew:

Dwarf Crayfish are scavengers that will eat the leftover food ensuring that it does not rot. Make sure to get a dwarf one as the regular kind can get far too large for a 10 gallon tank. They also need a small cave or sideways flower pot so that they feel safe while their shell hardens after a molt.  If they lose a limb during a molt, don’t worry. This often happens, and they will regrow it. Crayfish are predators and should only be put with fast swimming fish.

Cherry and Ghost  shrimp are tiny shrimp that only get half an inch long.  This means you can easily put 20 in a 10 gallon tank. Just make sure they have hiding spots small enough for them. They also should have a sponge filter so because they will get sucked into other types of filters.

Kuhli Loach look like eels. They have little whiskers like most loaches. Best kept in schools of three or more, they are a social fish. They are hardy and adapt well to almost all aquarium parameters. They will also readily take food from your fingers. They prefer sand so that they can dig through it. A sponge filter is suggested as they enjoy swimming around the current and may get sucked in.

Of course there are hundreds of other fish that fit in a 10 gallon tank, these are just a few of my favorites. Do your own research and find a fish that you love. You could even go to the pet stores and see what they have. I will say that I have seen all of these things offered in Anchorage. If you want a more exotic fish, go to Alaska Fish and Coral. They will special order anything you want for free.

Moving with Your Aquarium

You will eventually have to move with your aquarium if you live in a dorm, apartment, or in your parents house.  Moving with an aquarium can be stressful, but if you take the right steps it can be just fine.  Depending on how far you are going, a five gallon bucket is usually the best bet to transport your little buddies. Driving with a five gallon bucket is easy, just don’t fill it so full that it will slosh.

Planes are a little bit harder. You’re allowed to fly with a fish bag larger than three ounces if the fish are alive. Fish cannot survive in anything dangerous, so a live fish proves that the liquid is safe. If the fish is going to be in the bag for 10 hours or longer, starve them for two days first. Though it sounds cruel, it is better to starve them in the long run. When the fish are starved they stop producing waste. This keeps the bag from getting dirty and makes the trip safer for the fish. If you have multiple bags, carefully pack them in a carry on and surround then with thick towels to separate the bags. The towels will insulate the bags keeping them warm and will calm the fish by keeping them in the dark.

Moving the actual aquarium is much easier. The only thing to remember is keep the substrate wet. If the substrate dries out all the good bacteria in it will die and you will have to re-establish it. The easiest way to keep the gravel moist is to pack it in gallon bags or a plastic container. It will also help if you keep the filter wet, but that is not necessary.

Tips and Tricks

Save money with PVC pipe or DIY decoration. Krylon Fusion is safe for fish as long as you avoid the anti-mold or antibacterial kind. This also means you can paint the back of the tank instead of buying an expensive background.

Boiling wood or rocks you find is a great way to sanitize them.  Even old toys can work so long as the paint won’t flake and they aren’t made of metal. The general rule is if you wouldn’t eat off it, don’t put it in your tank.

Buying used tanks can be a great way to save money, too. Aquariums can be cleaned using cleaning vinegar as soaps will leave a residue that will kill your new pets. When buying a used aquarium, run your finger over all the silicone seals. If any peel back don’t buy the tank as it won’t hold the water and will need to be resealed.

Look for healthy fish. When going to buy your new pals watch them for a bit. If they have any trouble swimming or breathing, pick a different fish. Look for white fuzzy spots or dark spots that don’t look natural. These are almost always a sign of illness. Finally, even if one fish looks healthy, do not buy from a tank that has lots of dead fish in it. Something is killing those fish and you do not want to introduce it to your aquarium.

If a fish gets sick take a picture and show it to a fish expert you trust. A lot of the time, more fish die from the wrong treatment than would die form the actual ailment.

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