Best Small Aquarium Fish and Fish Community Recommendations

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What are the best small aquarium fish?  Here are some recommendations and tips to get you started with a small aquarium.

Caring for fish can be a wonderful and enjoyable hobby that can add beauty and enjoyment to your home.  It is very relaxing watching fish move around.  It does not need to be an expensive hobby (although it certainly can be when you get into large tanks and rare fish).  A small aquarium can be a terrific way to get started.

You can start with a 5 Gallon aquarium.  Many fish aficionados will complain that this is simply too small for anything.  While your choices are limited by the small size of a 5 gallon aquarium, there are still some good options.

In any case, I would never feel right about overcrowding fish (this can, and often does, lead to heightened levels of stress and resulting disease).  The general rule that seems to be widely accepted is that you can have 1 inch of (full-grown) fish per gallon.  Thus, in a five-gallon aquarium, you are limited to a small number of small-sized fish (or invertebrates).

The best small aquarium fish:

Bettas (a.k.a. Siamese Fighting Fish)

Bettas are gorgeous.  They also tolerate a range of water qualities very well.  Bettas can grow up to about 2 in (5 cm).  They have their very own personalities (some are more aggressive and narcissistic and will not tolerate anything else in the tank, others are more passive and will tolerate other living things; some are active and will come to greet you, others are more passive and a bit more shy).   The really great thing about Bettas is that they are really pretty.

The Half Moon Betta

They come in many vibrant and not-so-vibrant colours and mixtures of colours.  There are also quite a few variations of fin types (I care for a Half-Moon tail Betta with a huge and beautiful billowing tail).

The drawback of Bettas is that they are not always good community fish.  It really depends on their personalities.  They are very territorial and do not always take kindly to strangers.  Never, ever, ever, put two Bettas together – they will fight each other to the death.  Mating a male and a female is a tricky business and they are only put together for a few moments.  There are some cases where a male and a female will live together without killing each other, but I would not try this in a smaller tank if they have not been socialised to live together previously.

Also, unlike goldfish, Bettas need a heated tank.  You will need to add a heater that will maintain the water temperature somewhere between 76 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit.  While Bettas do not need a filter, you will need to do water 1/4 water changes about twice per week, or a 1/4 change once per week with one.  They also seem to love swimming against the current of the filter outflow (so get a filter if you can – it will keep them happier and healthier).   Bettas also enjoy plants and hiding places (like ceramic logs) or things that they can swim through (like plants or arches, etc.)

One neat thing about them is that they are labyrinth fishes.  They have a special organ that enables them to breath water from the surface of the tank.  As such, they have been known to jump out of the tank (so you will need a fully-covered canopy). Bettas are one of the best small aquarium fish.


Guppies are also a great beginner fish in a small aquarium.  They too, can be very beautiful, and they have the added bonus of breeding quite readily (if you want them to breed).

Some Fancy Guppies

They have been very popular aquarium fishes for many years and they come in a huge variety of colours.  Male guppies are smaller (up to an inch and a bit) and they are more colourful than the females (that can grow up to twice the size of the males).

You could safely put one male and two females in a 5 Gallon aquarium.  You could also put three males or three females in a small aquarium (if you do not want them to breed, as they do quite readily).  They too, will need a heaterand a filter.  Best water temperature ranges from around 72 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit.  Babies will come quite readily if you keep tank conditions good.  Fry must be separated (or most of them will probably be eaten).  They also enjoy plants.  While they have decidedly less personality than Bettas do (in my opinion), they sure are pretty and you can have more than one of them in a tank. Guppies are another of the best small aquarium fish.

Neon Tetras

Neon Tetras have been very popular in small aquariums for many years.  They are called Neon Tetras because their colouration actually looks like red and blue neon.  They grow up to 1.6 in (4 cm).

Neon Tetras

Neons are schooling fish and they love moving around the tank together (often very quickly).  They would be a good fish for someone who wants continuous movement and colour.   As schooling fish, they should also always be put in groups.  You could put three or maybe four of them in a tank and I think they would be very happy.

Neon Tetras move around almost continuously, mostly in the middle and bottom of the tank.  They like a darker tank bottom and subdued lighting.  Neon Tetras also need a heated tank (between 70 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit) and filtration (you may want to cover your filter intake with cheesecloth to avoid small Neon Tetras from being sucked into the filter).  Provide them with these minimum requirements, and enjoy their continuous movement and brilliant colour.

If you want them to breed, they will most probably do so with softer water that is slightly acidic.  You must remove the fry from the adults (or again, they will probably be eaten).  If you are looking for an active, low-maintenance fish, that can also breed quite readily, the Neon Tetra is one of the best small aquarium fish you can get..

Some Invertebrates You Could Also Add (in addition to the fish):

Red Cherry Shrimp

These shrimp are actually quite amazing and can add a whole new dimension of interest to your tank. Red Cherry Shrimp are beautiful and move around cleaning up stuff off your plants and the bottom of your tank.

The Red Cherry Shrimp

Thus, they add interest and help to keep your tank clean.  They can move incredibly fast and can also stay dormant beside a small ornament or plant for a long time as well.   They love to be around stuff they they can hide in like plants and ornaments, but will also move around all parts of the tank looking for food or just getting their daily exercise.  They are non-aggressive, so should also not bother any of your other fish.  The fish listed above should also not bother them (although certain Bettas might if they have an aggressive personality).

You could consider adding one or two Red Cherry Shrimp to go with any of the fish recommendations listed above.  While there are no guarantees that they will not be eaten or bullied, they will probably do just fine.  I have two Red Cherry Shrimp with one male Betta in my 5 gallon aquarium and have never had any problems.

Ghost Shrimp

The Ghost Shrimp has been popular for many years.  They are a small (and large) aquarium favourite.  Part of the reason why they are so interesting is that they are mostly transparent.

A Ghost Shrimp

You can see when they have eaten and see when they are carrying around eggs.  They are also non-aggressive and clean up much of the stuff that would otherwise dirty up your aquarium.

For some reason, Ghost Shrimp can sometimes be bullied (or even killed) at times by other fish.  While the fish that I have recommended should do fine with them, there are no guarantees.  It really just depends on the temperament of its tank mates.

Ghost Shrimp also tend to do best is larger groups.  This is difficult in a smaller tank.  You could consider adding two or (maybe three) in a small aquarium along with any of the fish that I have recommended above, but things could start to get a bit crowded.  Luckily, Ghost Shrimp are very inexpensive, so if the unimaginable does happen, you will not have set yourself back a load of cash.  They might be worth a try.

Some Small Aquarium Community Recommendations:

So, once you’re set up with a 5 gallon aquarium, a heater, and a filter, what aquatic communities might work best?  I enjoy a bit of variety in my small aquarium, so I have added some invertebrates to each of my recommendations.

#1 One Male Betta plus Two Red Cherry Shrimp

This is a great choice for someone who wants a beautiful fish as a centrepiece.  The Betta offers plenty of beauty and personality.  The Red Cherrry Shrimp will add some variety and speed (and also help keep your tank clean).

#2 Three Guppies plus Two Ghost Shrimp

Guppies are beautiful and breed quite easily.  They are small fish and tend to hang out together.  If you are looking for smaller beautiful fish that tend to be rather active combined with the chance for babies, these would be a good choice.  If you do not want babies,  pick three males or three females.  The Ghost Shrimp might be a good call here because I think they are less likely to be bullied due to the small size of guppies.

#3 Three Neon Tetras with Two Ghost Shrimp or Two Red Cherry Shrimp

This would be a good community for someone who like active fish with almost continuous movement.   Neon Tetras are small, fast-moving fish, that tend to school together.  If you are looking for an active tank, this is probably a good choice.  Neons are small and community oriented fish, so living with either type of shrimp should not be a problem.  This tank will be a bit crowded when they are full grown, so you may want to consider limiting the shrimp number to one instead of two.


A fish aquarium is a wonderful and enjoyable thing to add to your home.  Many people (myself included) find it very relaxing watching fish go about doing what they do.  It can be a relatively inexpensive hobby (as long as you avoid saltwater setups, large tanks, and expensive and exotic fish).  If you start with a small aquarium, you may very well find yourself thinking about getting a larger aquarium very soon.  Larger aquariums offer many, many, more opportunities than a small tank; but a small aquarium is a great way to get your ‘feet wet’ without a huge monetary outlay or time and effort commitment.

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Author: Jason Milburn Google

Frugal dad – focusing my money and energy towards happiness and the things that matter most since around 1985.

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  1. We have a freshwater tropical fish aquarium (community tank) in my house ever since I was younger. Right now it’s a 36 gallon tank with 6 neon tetras, 6 black tetras, 6 red tetras, and 6 spotted cory catfish. Once the tank is running it’s not that much of a hassle either – weekly gravel vacuuming and daily feeding of the fish.

    I highly recommend using the site to figure out how to stock your tank. It let’s you know if your tank is big enough and how the fish will do – some fish will not do well in small groups and require 6+!

    Always makes me sad when I see bettas in tiny little things (smaller than 5 gallons) with no heater and dirty water. Great hobby to get in to, just remember they are living creatures that require care.

    • Jason on July 25, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Hi Debt Hater,

    Thanks very kindly for taking the time to reply. Thanks also for the great information and the link.

    I, too, feel bad when I see bettas in those tiny little bowls (or even a clear plastic drinking cup with a lid). They cannot be very happy living like that. My daughter’s first fish was a betta. It had a ten gallon tank to itself and was a lovely first pet for her.

    Great to hear from you. Once again, thanks for the info.

    Regards, Jason @froogalism

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