Giving fish tanks as gifts

Are you thinking of asking for a fish tank for Christmas? Or your birthday? Or giving one as a gift? Take a few minutes to read through the information here and hopefully you, your loved ones and your intended fish can have a healthy and happy set up.

There are a huge amount of things to cover so the intention here is to give you some background information and some things to think about to help you in your decisions. If you have any questions why not check out one of our recommended forums, or sign up to the Practical Fishkeeping Chat Room on Facebook.

Giving a fish tank as a gift

If you are giving a fish tank as a gift, has the recipient ever shown any interest in fishkeeping? It might sound a strange thing to say but if they have never shown any interest, are they really going to want a fish tank? Will they want to put in the time, effort and money to do it properly? Will they want to spend time each week maintaining the tank? If you’re thinking of surprising someone make sure to ask a few covert questions and try and subtly sound them out to see if it would be something they’d really like to receive as a gift.

Up and running for the big day?

If the tank and fish are to be a Christmas present, the first and most important thing to realise is that if you haven’t started a fundamental preparation process called ‘fishless cycling’ with the fish tank by the start/middle of November then you won’t be able to have fish in it for Christmas. Tanks take a while to ‘biologically’ get ready to welcome their new residents. ‘Fishless cycling’ is the most important thing in getting a new tank ready, and while it might sound complicated fear not, it’s quite straightforward. You can find out more about it by reading our article on fishless cycling:

The Nitrogen Cycle and the Fishless Cycle – getting your aquarium ready for fish

If you are too late to get started in time for the set up to be ready to have fish in it on the day, don’t be downhearted. If someone asked for a jigsaw they wouldn’t want you to do it, frame it beautifully and present it to them all finished – part of the fun is in doing it for yourself and then admiring your finished work. There’s no point in rushing setting up a tank or trying to cheat nature and skip stages; the only thing you are likely to end up with is ill or, worse, dead fish and no one wants that for a present! Good things happen slowly in fishkeeping so take your time to get it right.

Getting the recipient to help with research is a great way of helping them understand their new hobby before they get started. Research is the single most important thing you can do when starting out so check out our article to make sure you’ve covered all bases:

Researching fishkeeping – how, what and why?

We also have a range of Beginners Guides, check out the link on the menu bar for lots more information.

A fish is a life, not just a present

Thanks to the work of the Dogs Trust, the ‘a dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ slogan is one that most people know and advocate. The same is true for all animals, including fish. And the ‘for life’ bit can be significantly longer for fish than for many furry pets. Our article and graphics show just how much longer:

Lifespans of fish and other animals

A note about animal welfare

Fish are covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006. You have a duty of care towards your fish and other aquatic animals. “Duty of care” is a legal phrase which means that someone has an obligation to do something. Prior to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, people only had a duty to ensure that an animal didn’t suffer unnecessarily. The new Act keeps this duty but also imposes a broader duty of care on anyone responsible for an animal to take reasonable steps to ensure that the animal’s needs are met. This means that a person has to look after the animal’s welfare as well as ensure that it does not suffer. The Act says that an animal’s welfare needs include:

A suitable environment (how it is housed)
A suitable diet (what it eats and drinks)
The ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
Any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
Protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease

More information can be found here.

What sort of fish and tank will work best for the intended recipient?

There are a few things to consider when deciding what sort of fish and tank to go for.


First, how much space can you give to a tank? Is there already got a suitable stand or will you need one? Remember, one litre of water weighs one kilogramme so don’t underestimate how much your tank will weigh. Be wary of small tanks, ‘fashion’ or ‘theme’ tanks, or fancy-shaped tanks. Traditional tanks have stood the test of time for a good reason. Be very wary of ‘coldwater’ or ‘goldfish starter kits’ (or any type of starter tank kit come to that!). Manufacturers use the word ‘starter’ for a good reason – the tank will certainly start you off in fishkeeping but will last only a matter of months before the fish will outgrow it.


You need to know what sort of tap water is in the house’s supply. Is it hard water or soft water, high PH or low PH? This will make a big difference to the sort of fish which will be happy living in it. You can buy kits to test for yourself but you can also take a sample to a good fish shop and ask them to test it for you. The three things they should be able to tell you are PH (potential of hydrogen – how acidic or alkaline the water is), GH (general hardness – refers to the dissolved concentration of certain minerals in the water) and KH (carbonate hardness – this tells you how easily the water will be able to keep its PH stable). Ask them to write down the exact results for you so you can research at home for yourself. Don’t let anyone convince you that any fish will be happy living in any sort of water. You want your fish to thrive, not just survive.

The following link will give you more information about water chemistry:

Beginner FAQ – practical water chemistry


How much do you want to spend? Initial set up costs are one thing but don’t forget running costs. You’ll also need things like food, replacement plants (especially if you have fish that like to nibble on them) and water conditioner on a regular basis. If you don’t mind second hand, eBay, Gumtree and Preloved are a great place for bargains, especially if you can’t afford a new tank of an appropriate size. Also check out Freecycle if you have a group in your area.

As well as the tank you will also need a fair amount of additional equipment, have a read of our article about the sort of equipment you might need to make sure you don’t overlook anything:

Beginners guide to aquarium equipment

As well as a financial budget, don’t forget to budget for your time. The tank will need weekly maintenance. Bigger tanks take longer for water changes by virtue of holding more water, but can often be more stable than smaller tanks due to their larger body of water. Smaller tanks make for quick water changes, but limit the fish you can keep. It’s all about finding the right balance for the set up, budget and time available.

What sort of fish?

Now you’ve had a think about space and budget, and you know what sort of water you have, you can start to think about what sort of fish will be right for you. Remember, the fish has to enjoy living with you as much as you enjoy keeping it.

How many fish do you want?

If you are buying for children will they want a fish each for example? Have a read of our article about fish tanks for children for lots of ideas and information about making fishkeeping appealing to children:

Child friendly fish tanks

If you need quite a few fish it would be better to look at fish that stay small. Be wary of tank manufacturers’ stocking suggestions; many will imply or suggest you can keep far more fish in their tanks than you actually can. When deciding on fish you need to plan for the maximum grown adult size of the fish. Remember, the ones in shops are babies.

Our article on stocking guides will help you understand how many fish your tank would be able to house comfortably:

Understanding fish stocking guides

Coldwater, tropical or marine?

Goldfish are possibly the most commonly bought pet fish but don’t be fooled into thinking goldfish can live in small tanks or bowls, or that they are ‘beginner fish’. “Goldies” are great fish but they need very big tanks, when looked after properly can live for over 15 years and are no easier to keep than most tropical fish. Replace ‘goldfish’ with ‘foot long carp’ and you’re much closer to understanding what you’ll end up looking after.

Equally, don’t be fooled into thinking Bettas (Siamese fighting fish) can live in vases or that “Nemo” (Marine Clown fish) will be easy to keep.

Coldwater generally refers to goldfish, but ‘temperate’ is a more accurate term. These are species which, generally speaking, don’t need a heater. There are many temperate species available in the hobby now, so it’s well worth looking at these instead of goldfish.  Practical Fishkeeping has a great article on setting up a temperate tank that looks tropical, one example that might give you some ideas.

If you are thinking about goldfish, make sure you read our article about their potential size, life expectancy and tank requirements:

What size tank for goldfish?

Tropical generally refers to tropical freshwater fish and covers a huge number of species with varying requirements for temperatures, water conditions, feeding and environment. As with all types of set up, there are some tropicals you might want to think twice about, our article explains in more detail:

Tropical fish to think twice about

Marine refers to fish that come from a saltwater environment. Generally speaking it is tropical marine fish that are being referred to. There are various different types of marine set up so be sure to research carefully and find out about them all before choosing.

Accessories and decor

Decor can be all manner of things. Take some time to choose the right decor for the fish. Remember, their needs will dictate the ‘look’ of the tank as much as any ‘interior design’ plans. It’s better to get it right from the outset than have to try and change things like gravel at a later stage. Don’t impulse-buy ornaments or other tank items until you have checked these will be compatible with the fish you wish to keep. Besides, that multi-coloured gravel might seem a good idea now but will you still like it in six weeks?

Live plants might seem a little scary to the new fishkeeper but don’t be put off. There are plenty of easy plants to get you started and the fish will like them a lot more than plastic ones.

Our articles on plants and wood will help give you some ideas:

Beginners guide to aquarium plants

Guide to aquarium wood

Fishless cycling

Once you’ve got your ‘hardware’ (tank, filter, plants etc.) you can start ‘fishless cycling’ your tank. In the weeks that your tank is cycling you can do some more research and plan the layout. If you are involving children get them to plot the results of the daily water tests on a graph so they feel part of the process and understand it better. There are various test kits available, and different ones for freshwater and marine, so make sure you choose the right one. Test kits will do a lot of tests and last for ages, plus you can buy individual new tests if one runs out.  Our article on fishless cycling linked to earlier has a chart you can download to help you keep track of test results.


Once you’ve decided on the right set up you can get shopping. If the tank is to be a gift you might like to ask the recipient if they would like to help choose. But don’t let them sway you from your careful research and planning! And remember, the fish are ‘window-shopping’ only at this stage.

4-6 weeks later and your ‘fishless cycle’ should be completed (your test results will tell you) – now it’s time to go shopping for fish!

You should have done all your research and chosen your fish by now. Whatever you do, stick to your plans. Don’t buy anything on the spur of the moment and be careful about anyone in a shop telling you anything different to your independent research. Ask them to explain their reasons, and unless you are 100% convinced, stick to your guns.

If you are unsure, walk away and don’t buy anything from the shop. You can always double check anything a fish shop has told you and then go back another time.

Make sure you know the latin name of the fish as many have ‘common names’ which can vary and may lead to you buying the wrong fish by mistake. For example, Hillstream Loaches are sometimes known as Hong Kong ‘plecs’. Hillstream Loaches are small and have very specific requirements. ‘Plec’ can also mean a member of the plecostomus family. Some of these can grow over two feet long, imagine accidentally buying several fish that will soon turn into monsters you hadn’t planned for!

And finally…

Fishkeeping is a fun and rewarding hobby when done properly. We hope the information here will help you decide if it is the right hobby for you and/or the intended recipient.

Author: Suzanne Constance

And just to get in the festive spirit …

Giving fish tanks as gifts

Giving fish tanks as gifts

Photographs: courtesy of Suzanne Constance and Fishlady

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