Flat $7.99 Shipping, Orders over $60, ship free.

5 Red Flags When Going Fish Shopping


Okay, you've done your research, cycled your tank and are ready to go fish shopping.

Luckily for you, every fish shop is the same and you can just go to any fish shop with a successful outcome, right?


I am going to loosely use the term fish shop to include the big box pet stores, local fish shops, and general PHYSICAL pet stores that sell fish.

The following are my opinions based solely off of my experiences and may not be supported by the scientific community .

Many of these topics will appear related or similar and that is expected when dealing with ecosystems where every variable is important.

#1 Sick or dead fish in the display tanks

Let's get the most obvious out of the way.

You can be brand new and this one should still be a dead (no pun intended) giveaway.

You walk in and see a bunch of dead or sick fish in the stores display tanks. Some lifelessly floating, some lying motionless on the substrate, and others just stuck in the filter inlet.

A few dead fish is inevitable and is not an immediate cause for concern, but a better fish shop will scoop them out right away.

As is the case with the average home aquarium, the fish at the fish shop are bound to get sick from time to time.

The fish that caught your eye looks healthy and there's only a few dead fish in the tank, so you tell yourself that it’ll be fine.  Well, no, not quite.

What do you think those healthier looking fish are nibbling on? The deceased fish may or may not contain contagious illnesses or parasites.

Additionally, many parasites are contagious and can spread throughout the water column even if they are not directly consumed by healthier fish.

Your best bet is to say “swim in peace” to those finned friends who have perished and move on to the next store.


 Note: I am excluding this point if some tanks are marked “not for sale” (you may see the letters “NFS” written on the tank) because this shows that they are addressing any issues and are not trying to sell ill fish. 


#2 Dirty tanks/water

No one expects a fish shop to share the same cleanliness standards as a restaurant owned by Gordon Ramsey, but fish need to be in clean water.

Would you want to live in a closet filled with cigarette smoke? I didn’t think so. 

At any rate, unhealthy air without circulation can be in contradistinction to dirty aquarium water due the the factors that impact health and quality of life.

Dirty water can contain ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates, and possibly be contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or illnesses.

Tanks like these show a lack of concern for their livestock.

The problem with fish bought this way (I’m looking at you stores that stock our beloved bettas in a cup) is that you might not notice the long term effects that this can do to the immune system or gills in the long run. 

Sidenote: many may think of algae as being unsightly and contributing to a dirty tank, but it can actually be beneficial when it is kept in check for fish.

It can be an additional food source, something to consume CO2 and provide oxygen for the inhabitants... plus, it helps balance the water parameters!

This is true as long as it's not a huge overwhelming outbreak of algae.


Both of the above points are why it is always advised for you to acclimate your fish, and then put your fish into your tank without pouring any water from the fish shop into your tank. This method minimizes the risks of contaminating your tank with what the fish shop may have.


#3 They clearly don't care about the fish

Number three can be quite the hot button issue that has frustrated some veteran fish keepers.

A good fish shop should be asking questions before selling fish.

Those with the proper knowledge and set up, sometimes feel offended when asked about the tank size or if their tank is cycled.

In my experience, many big box fish shops do not engage in this practice.

On the contrary, I actually get excited when I hear the sales associate inquiring about the size of the tank before selling large fish or fish with more specific needs and how long their tank has been set up.

If you overhear them selling an Oscar to someone who has a twenty gallon tank in their shopping cart, then turn around and run as quickly as a pleco darts behind driftwood when the tank lights come on. 


This also applies to when they sell multiple species of shoaling fish to one person when it's obvious that they are lacking the proper numbers for the fish to thrive.

What does that mean?

One example could be a sales associate selling a single Chili Rasbora, one Zebra Danio, one Celestial Pearl Danio, one Killifish, one Corydora and one lone Guppy to someone who says that they are stocking a new tank.

I am personally a fan of each of these species, but each one of these mentioned requires more of their own kind to thrive and live their best life.

You should research the species that you are interested in for the proper size of the shoal. 


Here's a real life example that made me cringe:

I once asked an associate of a reputable fish shop what kind of fish was in one of their tanks.

The associate responded, “It's an Oto, want one?”

I obviously lacked sufficient knowledge about the species (or else I wouldn’t have had to ask), plus they had no way of knowing if my tank could support this fish (in fact, my tank at that time would not have).

Next, he offered to sell me just one.

Thankfully, I tend to be a nerd who likes research so I declined in the moment until I could look into them a bit more.

I am now a happy Otocinclus owner with the appropriate tankmates, the correct number of fish, and my scape mimics their natural environment.

Guess where I bought these beauties from in the end? No guess? Look at the web address bar of this page for a hint.


#4 Fish shops/associates who spread misinformation

I should probably label this 3.1.

This one is similar to the last point, but with its own nuances.

There are a ton of opinions in this addiction, uh, I mean hobby.

There is no shortage of old-school methods, vast varieties of new-school methods, and everything in between. I am not talking about these, but am referring to those sales tactics that differ from science.

The most common examples include an associate who says that a pleco will clean your tank so you never have to do maintenance... or that your brand new tank tank will be “fish ready” in 24 hours.

That your betta can thrive long term in a small bowl without a filter and heater, or that a goldfish will only grow to the size of their tank while remaining healthy.

I personally find it sad that there are so many fish shop associates who will make these claims.

Your best defense is to do your research and look for reputable websites… Or do what I did and befriend a trusted fish shop owner!


Time for another personal anecdote:

I was in a fish shop when a sales associate was helping another customer who was purchasing a tank and a betta at the same time.

The customer who, despite obviously being brand new to aquariums, was asking questions that genuinely sounded like they wanted to provide their new pet with a good home.

So far, this is not a great situation but can easily be remedied by communicating the facts.

Instead, the associate sold them a water conditioner and stated the following: “Because it makes the water safe and jump starts the nitrogen cycle”.

This big box store brand water conditioner jump starts the nitrogen cycle?

They should notify the aquarium forums, because they have obviously made a massive discovery that could change this hobby!

Here's my assumption: She probably overheard that some of the better known brands can bind to ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates thus making them temporarily safer and she falsely attributed this to jump starting the cycle.

Suffice it to say that I checked the bottle that she recommended, and the store brand did not do anything for the water parameters besides dechlorinating the water.

It’s a shame because they could have alleviated the wait for the nitrogen cycle which is one of the hardest things for all fish keepers.

Tom Petty was right… The waiting is the hardest part.


#5 The car salesman 

I can't speak for you, but part of the experience of fish shopping is to see some new and interesting fish that I haven’t seen before.

I don't expect it to be as laid back as a cigar bar, but I also don't expect a high pressure experience either.

I do like to be asked occasionally if I need help, but I am not looking to buy a used car and do not need any gimmicky sales tactics to make a purchase.

I dislike being continuously followed and pressured to purchase a fish if I am not ready.

This makes me feel like a minnow in the tank with an arowana.

This pressure can ruin the entire experience.

I understand that fish shops are a business. They need to make money to continue to keep their doors open.

However, overselling and applying too much pressure is a surefire way to get me out the door empty handed faster than a betta will steal the food from his tankmates.

My personal recommendation is to make notes of the fish that you find interesting, go home and research them, and then return to purchase another day if they can thrive in your tank. 

Happy Fishin'!

- Michael Z.

Check out my follow up: "5 GREEN FLAGS When Going Fish Shopping"

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published