Do Fish Play Dead? [Facts & When You Should Act]

Do fish play dead? It’s a question being asked by many fish keepers. Sometimes it becomes difficult for an aquarium owner to figure out whether a certain fish is alive or dead.

It’s because they show no movement, float upside down, and breathe very slowly. The fun part is when you’re almost certain that your fish is dead, then all of a sudden it starts to move and becomes playful again.

Among aquarium fish, Central American Cichlids act dead to catch prey. Some tropical fish like betta, goldfish, tetra, etc also play dead but not purposely. Most often they may be sleeping. Sometimes, fish can get affected by swim bladder disease, or it’s a real situation as fish may going to die.

So, it is important to understand for you to understand whether it’s the character of your pet fish, or whether it is affected by the disease.

Do Fish Sleep? So, Is My Fish Dead Or Sleeping?

Fish do sleep, just like you and me. It’s important for fish to sleep in order to run their circadian rhythm, rejuvenate energy, and boost immunity. They have no eyelids, so it’s not easy to know whether it’s sleeping.

For example, Betta fish spend most of their night sleeping, like humans. Therefore, it’s recommended to turn the light off of your betta tank at night so that they can have a nice sleep. It can sleep in various positions and sometimes it’s very common for a beginner to think it’s dead.

I have an article on betta fish’s sleeping habits and their eccentric ways of sleeping. I encourage you to read that one for having some clear ideas if you’re a betta owner.

Sleeping betta fish
Betta Fish

Fish can sleep in two different states; “alert rest”, and “actual sleep”. They sleep in various locations including at the bottom of the tank, inside the cave, or attach themselves with driftwood, plants, etc. It varies on species and the decors you’ve in your aquarium.

One type of slumber they experience is called “alert rest,” where the brain stays awake but senses are always on high alert to prepare for danger. While another one is “actual sleep,” a more standard kind that entails total neural inhibition with muscles becoming relaxed except for those needed.

It sometimes gets really confusing whether the fish is dead or sleeping. Sleeping fish remain still in a position for a period or lay on the substrate, breathe slowly, exhibit reduced fin movement, and don’t show interest in anything including food.

So, is the fish dead or sleeping? Dead fish doesn’t breathe so carefully look at their gill movement. During sleeping, it becomes slower. So, if the fish isn’t breathing at all it’s dead. Another way is to take a closer look at their pupils. Cloudy pupils are a sign of death in most aquarium fish.

Is there a fish that plays dead?

Among the aquarium fish, only Central American Chiclids play dead on purpose. They pretend to be dead in order to attract other fish, especially scavenger fish. There are some complex markings on the fish’s body that help them to look like dead fish.

Bottom-feeder fish are inevitably attracted to them as if it’s an easy meal. However, when they come closer Chiclids revive and eat the scavenger fish. How cichlids play dead, see in the below video.

Why are my fish playing dead?

Cichlids intentionally play dead to attract their prey. However, other fish including betta, goldfish, and tetras don’t do it deliberately.

In most of the cases, they were found to be sleeping or affected by the disease. Regular cleaning and upkeep of the aquarium will make sure every parameter of the aquarium is perfect, and your fish is only sleeping but not dead.

How does Clown Loach Fish Act Playing Dead?

How can you tell if a fish is dying, and not acting dead?

How can you tell if the fish is really struggling to survive, and it’s not sleeping or acting dead? There are several ways to tell that in fact. In over 40,000 fish species symptoms are quite similar. Although, some signs are only related to a specific fish. I’ve listed down the most common sign when your fish is on the verge of dying.

  • Cloudy Eyes: Cloudy eyes are symptoms of the advanced case of ‘popeye’, ‘fin rot’, or fungal infection. It often implies a severe infection. You need to diagnose it fast because it is fatal. Also, it’s contagious and may spread to other healthy fish.
  • Difficulty Swimming: Fish suffering from swim bladder disease experience difficulties to control buoyancy. They often swim upside down or sideways. There may be other causes, however, it indicates your pet fish is suffering and may going to die.
  • lack of interest in food: It’s a very common sign indeed. It’s obvious that a sick fish won’t have an appetite similar to a healthy fish. If you observe that the fish is not eating as it normally does for more than two days, then it’s probably something is not right with the fish.
  • Color fading: Color fading is also a vital indication that your fish is sick. Although, color fading can occur for fish as it grows older, or for specific genes. For example, betta fish lose some of their vibrant colors as they age, and also marble betta changes color. If the color change is rapid, it’s a matter of serious concern.
  • Gasping for air or labored breathing: Fish gasping for air, hovering near the surface, or breathing rapidly is a major sign of fish sickness. It means that the fish is not getting the necessary oxygen to survive. It can happen for improper water conditions or internal problems with the gills or respiratory system.
  • Staying separate from the group: Schooling fish remaining out of the group is a significant sign that the fish is sick. I had one such instance when I lost a schooling fish Zebra Danios. That fish used to stay separate from the group before dying.
  • Clamped Fins: Clamped fins may appear for sick fish having beautiful fins such as betta, discus, etc. If you notice the fins are clamped with the fish body then you need to provide proper treatment immediately.

If you’re a betta owner and want to know specifically if your betta is dying, I would like to invite you to read my other article on how you can tell your betta fish dying, its signs, and symptoms.

More Resources:

Wrapping Up

Whether your fish play dead or not, as an aquarium owner your responsibility is to keep the tank livable for them.

So, clean & do maintenance in your aquarium regularly to provide the best possible environment for your fish.

It will not only keep your aquarium pets healthy but also make your tank beautiful.

Sujit Modak

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