Why Are My Tiger Barbs Dying? (10 reasons with solutions)

Tiger Barbs are one of the most recognizable fish in the hobby. Even many people who have never kept an aquarium in their life can quickly identify the Tiger Barbs. The dark verticle bands against the golden body look stunning, especially in a planted aquarium, with the bright orange fins really finishing off these beautiful fish.

Tiger Barbs are hardy fish with a reputation, which in my opinion is not deserved, for being aggressive. In my experience, when the aquarium is set up correctly, these fish are placid members of the community aquarium.

It can be incredibly frustrating when your Tiger Barbs appear to be dying for no good reason. In this article, I consider the 10 reasons that in my experience are the most likely causes of Tiger Barbs dying.

  • Aquarium Cycling Issues
  • Poor Quality Diet
  • Overfeeding
  • Pests & Disease
  • Low Oxygen Levels
  • Ammonia Spike
  • Stress
  • Water Temperature
  • Overstocking
  • Poor Water Quality


Aquarium Cycling Issues

When we first set up a brand new tank, we need to allow time for the beneficial bacteria to colonize the aquarium filter. These bacteria process the fish waste and keep the water safe for the fish to live in.

The process of allowing an aquarium to go from freshly filled with tap water to ready to receive fish is known as cycling the aquarium.

It takes time for sufficient beneficial bacteria to develop, and if we add too many fish before the bacteria are present in sufficient numbers, our fish can die thanks to poisoning from their own waste.

Some fish stores will say things like ‘just leave your aquarium for 24 hours before adding fish’ or worse still they will sell you fish the day you buy the new tank from them.

In my experience, it can take two or three weeks for sufficient bacteria to colonize an aquarium filter. If you have added Tiger Barbs or other fish before the bacteria has developed, it may be the reason your Tiger Barbs are dying.

The solution to Tiger Barbs dying due to cycling issues is to carry out an immediate partial water change. By replacing 25% to 50% of the existing aquarium water with fresh, dechlorinated tap water, there is a good chance your Tiger Barbs will survive long enough for sufficient bacteria to be present in the filter to process their waste.



Poor Quality Diet

Tiger Barbs are omnivores, which means they need a diet made up of both meaty foods and vegetable matter. In the wild, Tiger Barbs are opportunistic feeders that take advantage of any suitable food they come across.

Typically a wild Tiger Barb will eat bugs and insects that land in the water as well as waterborne crustaceans, worms, and even baby fish. They would also eat small pieces of plants and algae that might be free-floating in the water.

It would be nearly impossible for us to recreate this diet in the home aquarium. Instead, we need to provide our Tiger Barbs with a balanced diet that is made up of good quality flake or pellet food with the addition of live or frozen foods like bloodworms or daphnia.

I feed my own Tiger Barbs Vibrabites, which are made by Hikari, and Bug Bites from Fluval. Both are made with good-quality ingredients that deliver a balanced diet.

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Overfeeding

On the subject of diet and eating, overfeeding is a real killer of Tiger Barbs, but not necessarily in the way you think.

To me, feeding the fish in my fish room is probably the most enjoyable part of the hobby. I am a true fish food hoarder with probably 30 or 40 different foods in my fish room store cupboard.

When it comes to feeding, what many aquarists do is drop one large pinch of food into the aquarium once a day. The problem here is, that the fish can only eat the food so fast. Much of the food will sink past the fish and land either in a clump of plants or behind decorations.

Unless you have a good clean-up crew in the form of Red Cherry Shrimp or snails, that uneaten food begins to break down very quickly, and as it does it releases ammonia. Ammonia is highly toxic to fish and can even kill your Tiger Barbs.

Overfeeding is even more of a problem when we go on vacation and ask friends and family to feed our fish. Non-fishkeepers always look at the amount of food you have asked them to add and think that isn’t enough and they promptly add more food, exacerbating the problem.

It is much better to give your fish 3 or 4 small pinches of food throughout the day than it is to give them 1 large pinch once a day. Spreading their food out over the course of the day is better for the fish, better for your filter, and better for your water quality in general.

Pests & Disease

Another major reason Tiger Barbs may start to die suddenly is thanks to pests and diseases. Pests and diseases are often introduced into our aquariums when we add new fish or plants, or if we move decorations from one tank to another.

Many of the pests and diseases we see in our aquariums are easily passed from fish to fish, meaning an entire tank can be infected before you realize you have a problem.

In my experience, the most common pests and diseases we see in our aquariums are;

Although clearly there are many more than just these four pests and diseases that can kill our Tiger Barbs, in my experience these are the big 4. Early identification is the secret to curing the problem before too many fish die.



Low Oxygen Levels

Many people do not realize, that even though fish live underwater, they still need to breathe oxygen. Fish use their gills to extract oxygen directly from the water. They essentially take in oxygen and give out carbon dioxide, much like us.

Occasionally, oxygen levels in the water can drop so low that the Tiger Barbs struggle to breathe.

This is often characterized by the Tiger Barbs ‘gasping’ at the water surface. It is thought by some they do this to try and grab oxygen from the air above. In fact, it is just the case that the highest concentration of oxygen can be found in the water nearest the surface.

The best short-term solution to low oxygen levels in the aquarium is to carry out a large, partial water change. Draining out 25% to 50% of the aquarium water and replacing it with fresh, dechlorinated tap water will bring in plenty of oxygen-rich water for the Tiger Barbs.

In the long run, the best solution to low oxygen levels is two-fold. Firstly, adding live aquarium plants will increase the amount of oxygen available to the fish. Just like plants on land, aquatic plants take in carbon dioxide from the water and give out oxygen, increasing the amount of oxygen available in the water for the fish.

Secondly, adding an airstone connected to an aquarium air pump will raise the oxygen levels. As the bubbles rise from the air stone, they agitate the water surface. This water movement allows an exchange of carbon dioxide in the water for oxygen in the air above. This is why fast-moving rivers typically have more dissolved oxygen in the water than slow or non-moving ponds.

In my own fish room, almost every single tank has an airstone bubbling away no matter what fish are living in the tank.



Ammonia Spike

As mentioned above, when Tiger Barbs go to the bathroom, their waste is high in ammonia, and ammonia is toxic to fish, even in fairly small quantities. Ammonia burns the fish’s gills when they are trying to breathe.

It is the job of the bacteria that live in our filters (often referred to as beneficial bacteria) to convert this toxic ammonia into the less toxic nitrate. This process is known as the Nitrogen Cycle.

An ammonia spike is exactly that, a spike in the levels of ammonia present in the aquarium water. Ammonia spikes can happen quickly and can be unexpected.

The most common cause of an ammonia spike is overfeeding our fish (see more on overfeeding above). Also, if a fish dies, and we don’t remove the body, the dead fish will release ammonia into the water as it decays.

Sometimes an ammonia spike can be caused by a power failure. If the power goes out, and our filters stop running, the beneficial bacteria living in that filter quickly run out of oxygen-rich water and die. When the power comes back on a few hours later, the filter starts working again, but there is no longer any bacteria to process the fish waste. It is at this point an ammonia spike can happen.


https://youtu.be/tboee9qdTDE

The best way to deal with an ammonia spike is to carry out a large partial water change. Changing 50% to 75% of the aquarium water for fresh, dechlorinated tap water will naturally lower the levels of ammonia in the water by 50% to 75%.

It can take several days for the bacteria to repopulate the filter to sufficient levels, so depending on the stocking level of your tank, you may have to repeat the large water change 2 or 3 times over the coming week.


Stress

Stress can be a killer of Tiger Barbs. Although these fish are considered hardy, when placed in a stressful situation, they can die surprisingly quickly.

Almost every item on my list above will cause your Tiger Barbs to be stressed. If the water is too warm, if the water quality is poor, if the Tiger Barbs are living with boisterous tank mates, the list goes on.

External factors outside of the aquarium can also create a stressful situation. If the aquarium is placed in a busy walkway or next to a loud TV, the Tiger Barbs can be stressed. Even a child continually banging on the aquarium glass can create enough of a stressful environment the Tiger Barbs start to die.

There is no easy way to diagnose stress in fish, but take some time to observe your aquarium and see if there is anything you can change that will make the Tiger Barbs’ lives better.


Water Temperature

Tiger Barbs are native to Indonesia and Borneo where the weather is generally warm and the waters are considered tropical. Tiger Barbs like their aquarium water to be between about 77°F and 82°F (25°C and 27.8°C).

Whilst Tiger Barbs can tolerate temperatures both slightly above and slightly below these numbers for a short period, if they are kept for too long in an aquarium that is much colder than 77°F or much warmer than 82°F their health can quickly suffer and they may start to die (see stress above).

Fitting a good quality digital thermometer to the front of our aquariums is the best way to monitor the temperature of the water. If you discover the water in your Tiger Barb aquarium is too warm, try turning down the heater.

Do however be mindful of the other fish you have in the aquarium as they may suffer if the water temperature is too low for them.


Overstocking

If there is one thing we are probably all guilty of, it is overstocking our aquariums. We keep fish in our fish tanks in far higher concentrations than would ever occur in the wild.

Overstocking an aquarium can cause stress, high ammonia levels, and bullying, all of which can lead to the deaths of your Tiger Barbs.

There are essentially two solutions to Tiger Barbs dying due to overstocking, and these are 1, reduce the number of fish in the aquarium, or 2, upgrade to a larger aquarium.

Adding more filters or upgrading your existing filter can potentially help with some aspects of overstocking, but a bigger filter won’t reduce bullying for example.


Poor Water Quality

Although I have left poor water quality until last on my list, I suspect it is by far the biggest killer of Tiger Barbs. The biggest problem with poor water quality is you can not tell the water quality is poor just by looking at it. An aquarium’s water can be crystal clear to look at, and yet still be of poor quality chemically.

When we say the water quality is poor, we are generally referring to the levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate present in the water.

When our fish go to the bathroom, their waste is high in ammonia, and ammonia is highly toxic to fish. Fortunately, there are naturally occurring bacteria that live in our fish tanks (and are present in high numbers in our filters). These bacteria turn the highly toxic ammonia in to the slightly less toxic nitrite.

Although nitrite is less toxic than ammonia, it can still kill our fish pretty quickly. There is another strain of bacteria that naturally inhabits our aquariums, and these bacteria convert nitrite, into the less toxic still nitrate.

The majority of fish we keep in our aquariums, including Tiger Barbs, can handle a certain level of nitrates in their water. The number 40ppm (parts per million) is often banded around on YouTube or on forum posts.

In my experience, around 100ppm is the point I start to worry about nitrate levels in my own fish tanks.

There are two ways we can lower nitrate levels in our aquariums. The first is to plant live aquarium plants. Live plants absorb nutrients from the water column as they grow, and these nutrients include nitrates. Generally speaking, aquariums with live aquatic plants growing have lower levels of nitrates than those that do not.

The second way is to carry out regular partial water changes. In my own fish room, I generally change between 10% and 25% of the water in each tank once a week.

How Do You Know Your Aquarium Water Quality Is Poor?

As mentioned above, you can not tell the quality of your aquarium water just by looking at it. Neither ammonia, nitrite nor nitrate has any color to them. Crystal clear water can be very poor chemically.

The only way we can judge the quality of our water is by using an aquarium test kit. Test kits give us an almost instant result, allowing us to take the appropriate action.

There are two ways we can test our aquarium water, either with a liquid test kit or by using test strips. I have spent some time reviewing which aquarium tests are the best, and you can find out more in this article titled Best Aquarium Test Kits (tried and tested).

Most test strips and liquid test kits will test for pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and chlorine, and many will test even more parameters.

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Test strips are quicker to use than liquid test kits. Test strips will often give you a result within around 60 seconds, whereas liquid test kits can take 5 minutes or more. However, in my experience, liquid test kits do tend to be more accurate.



How to fix poor quality water?

If you test your aquarium water and discover the quality is less than desirable, immediate action should be taken to prevent further fish from dying.

The best way to fix poor water quality is to carry out an immediate particle water change. When I find one of my tanks has poor water quality I typically carry out a 25% to 50% water change, replacing the existing tank water with fresh, dechlorinated tap water. I will usually then re-test the water after 4 or 5 days, and repeat the large water change if necessary.

Acting quickly will reduce the number of fish that die due to poor water quality.



How to Keep Tiger Barbs Healthy

In the article above we have looked at some of the reasons, Tiger Barbs can die unexpectedly. Below I look at ways we can help ensure our Tiger Barbs are healthy.

  • Regular water changes
  • Maintaining the aquarium
  • Disease prevention and treatment
  • Feeding a balanced diet

Regular Water Changes

As discussed above, fish have no choice but to live in the water we provide them. If conditions are less than favorable they don’t have the option to swim somewhere different.

Carrying our regular, partial water changes is in my experience the single best thing we can do to keep our Tiger Barbs happy and healthy. I try to carry out weekly water changes of about 25% of each of my aquariums. This reduces nitrates in the water and keeps the water fresh.

Regular water changes allow us to eliminate an issue before it becomes a problem.

Maintaining the aquarium

Along with regular water changes, keeping up with your general aquarium maintenance will go a long way to stopping your Tiger Barbs from dying. Cleaning your filters, vacuuming the gravel, and trimming plants are all jobs that help keep an aquarium system running and your fish thriving.

Disease prevention and treatment

Disease prevention is always better than cure. Before adding any new fish to your aquarium, consider quarantining your new fish in a separate aquarium for at least one week before moving them into your main display tank.

Quarantining new fish gives us a chance to spot if they are suffering from any pests or diseases before we mix them with our healthy fish.

Feeding a balanced diet

Tiger Barbs are omnivores. They need a wide variety of foods. For the biggest, strongest, healthiest fish, you need to feed them a balanced diet.

A good mix of dried foods, live foods, and frozen foods will help give your Tiger Barbs all the vitamins and minerals they need to be active and colorful.

In Conclusion

Tiger Barbs are generally hardy fish, and they should live for 5 to 7 years in the home aquarium. If they suddenly start to die unexpectedly, you need to find the reasons why they are dying and rectify them as quickly as possible.

If you enjoyed this article, why not check out either my article on The 22 Best Tropical Fish For Children or Pogostemon Stellatus Octopus Ultimate Growing Guide


About the Author

I’ve been keeping, breeding, and showing tropical fish for nearly 30 years. Over that time I’ve done it all! I’ve had great success and I’ve made some really foolish mistakes (like the time I bought an Asain Walking Catfish). Read more…
Richard James
Editor