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Do Goldfish Need An Air Pump To Help Them Breathe

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Goldfish are one of the most commonly kept aquarium fish because they are simple to look after pet fish, but do goldfish need an air pump in their bowl or tank?

Goldfish don’t need an air pump to help them breathe. Goldfish breathe dissolved oxygen in the water by passing it over their gills. Agitation to surface water by a filter or adding some aquatic plants can easily provide enough oxygen. A completely stagnant tank may benefit from an air pump to provide more oxygen.

Did you know that warm water holds less oxygen than cold water? Goldfish that live in outdoor ponds often have more oxygen available than indoor aquariums with warmer temperatures, such as goldfish bowls and tanks, which may benefit from an air pump.

This article covers everything you need to know about goldfish tank oxygenation, how goldfish breathe, and under what circumstances do goldfish need an air pump.

Do Goldfish Need An Air Pump To Breathe

Can Goldfish Live Without An Air Pump

Goldfish can live without an air pump if they have an adequate oxygen supply in their tank, allowing for good oxygen uptake. If it’s not possible to aerate your tank naturally, an air pump will be required.

Air pumps generally sit outside the tank, drawing in air to push through a narrow tube under the water. The result is a stream of oxygen-rich bubbles that float to the surface before popping and entering the water as dissolved oxygen.

Aquarium filters can also help with aeration by creating surface agitation and water movement to distribute the oxygen. Most fish tanks have a filter to help keep the water clean, removing dirt and debris, and the flow rates are usually powerful enough to provide sufficient aeration, allowing gas exchange to occur.

Some aquariums can lack oxygen when they are too small, overstocked, or there is little water movement. An air pump is a perfect solution if your fish tank lacks any type of aeration.

Do Goldfish Need An Air Pump For Oxygen

Goldfish do need oxygen, but unlike the oxygen you and I breathe, oxygen saturates the water as dissolved oxygen. The process that allows this to happen is called “Gas Exchange” or “Oxygen Exchange,” which takes place at the surface, helped by water movement and surface agitation.

Respiration occurs in goldfish just as it does for people, often referred to as aquatic respiration, made possible by a set of healthy gills. Oxygen enters the bloodstream as goldfish breathe in, while carbon dioxide is expelled.

Surface water movement within a fish tank is key to providing enough oxygen and removing carbon dioxide, so situate your filter close to the surface to create the correct surface agitation.

An air pump is unnecessary if you have a filter which causes enough surface movement.
Filters like these can reduce the need for an air pump.

Most pet stores sell starter aquarium setups for warm and cold-water fish species. The most basic cold water setups are fine for goldfish and often come with a filter to clean the water. However, these filters are often not powerful enough to provide sufficient oxygen without adding an air pump.

What Is An Air Pump

An air pump is a battery or mains-driven device that pumps air from outside an aquarium through a pipe placed beneath the water’s surface.

As air is delivered through the pipe, air bubbles are released, floating to the surface, where they pop, allowing oxygen to dissolve into the tank water.

Air pumps, also known as aerators or bubblers, can be attached to diffusers and air stones that create smaller bubbles, often looking quite spectacular, and fish love swimming through them.

An air pump has two advantages:

  1. The bubbles released add oxygen directly to the tank.
  2. Air bubbles float to the surface, causing movement and agitation, allowing further oxygen to enter your aquarium and help keep oxygen levels at the desired level.

Air pumps can deliver enough oxygen to even the largest tanks or the smallest fishbowl, but it doesn’t mean you always need an air pump. The larger the tank or, the more fish in a tank, the more oxygen will be required.

A large understocked tank will not require as much oxygen as a small, overstocked tank.

Tetra Whisper Air Pump

Below is an air pump manufactured by TETRA. It is called the WHISPER, is suitable to provide enough oxygen to a 100-gallon tank, and is generally less than $30-$40 on Amazon.

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The Tetra Whisper air pump is a lower-end air pump, but it does the job and is perfect for beginners and starter tanks. If you have a smaller tank and need a small air pump, Tetra has a variety of air pumps that will suit most tank sizes.

If you are not keen on the look of the Tetra Whisper air pump, you can look at some ornamental ones.

There are literally hundreds of brands and types of air pumps that you can choose from, some designed for the professional aquarist with much higher needs, and some are more for their aesthetic appearance but are still effective to a fair degree.

Volcano Led Bubbler

Below is a great Volcano bubbler also available at Amazon. It looks great in the tank and provides plenty of surface movement and bubbles to help oxygenate the tank. Like most decorative bubblers, an air pump must be purchased separately.

Voclano aquarium bubbler

Why Use An Air Pump

Whether you need an air pump or not, there are many benefits to using one.

Below are the main reasons why people use an air pump in their tanks.

  1. Air pumps are ideal for creating bubbles within a goldfish tank, adding enough oxygen alone instead of using multiple other methods together.
  2. It isn’t always possible to add plants and filters to smaller tanks, so a small air pump can help to provide oxygen.
  3. Air pumps are cheaper in the long term than airstones and plant maintenance.
  4. You can fit an air pump into most goldfish tanks, including a bowl. Only a small pipe needs to be submerged.
  5. The bubbles created by an air pump look good in your tank.
  6. Goldfish enjoy swimming through air bubbles from a pump.
  7. Many ornaments and decorations interact and animate when air pumps are attached to give your tank some added atmosphere and quirkiness.

You can see that air pumps can be quite attractive even if you have enough oxygen within your aquarium, and it is pretty difficult to over-oxygenate a fish tank.

How Can I Give My Goldfish Oxygen Without An Air Pump

Often, with large tank setups, goldfish do need an air pump, but adding an air pump to a smaller tank or fishbowl is unnecessary. There are several other ways to give your goldfish enough oxygen to help them breathe.

  • Filters are great at adding oxygen to a fish tank. Provided the filter current is not too strong for your goldfish and creates enough water movement at the surface, they are perfect for many small tanks and also keep the water clean.
  • Adding plants to a fish tank mimics a fish’s natural environment. Aquarium plants provide oxygen, the same way trees and plants provide oxygen to help us to breathe. Goldfish enjoy eating many plant types, so you will need to get plants that will not be devoured within a few weeks.
  • Air Blocks and Air Stones mimic the air pumps’ effect and provide an impressive column of air bubbles in your goldfish tank that looks pretty neat. Air stones are also inexpensive to add some oxygen to the water.

In most situations, goldfish can breathe adequately without an air pump, especially if you use the above methods. Larger aquariums with more fish may benefit from adding an air pump, but in most cases, the larger surface area is easier to oxygenate naturally, and large tanks retain oxygen for longer.

Aquarium plants are a good alternative to an air pump as they provide your goldfish with oxygen.
Plants can help provide much-needed oxygen to an aquarium.

Something To Consider

Plants only add oxygen to your tank during the day when exposed to sunlight or UV light. During the night, plants give off carbon dioxide and feed on oxygen, competing for the oxygen your goldfish needs to breathe. If your plants get plenty of light throughout the day, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Can Goldfish Breathe Out Of Water

Goldfish cannot breathe out of the water, unlike fish with a labyrinth organ that acts like a lung. Goldfish rely solely on their gills to extract oxygen from the water to breathe.

Like most fish, goldfish only require a small amount of oxygen, so they may be able to survive for short periods of time out of the water, but they cannot live for very long without access to water and will quickly suffocate.

If you need to transport a goldfish, it is important to place it in a container with aerated and adequately oxygenated water to ensure its survival.

How To Tell If Your Goldfish Is Struggling To Breathe

Goldfish, like all fish, display particular signs when they are struggling to breathe, so how do you know if your goldfish needs more oxygen?

The easiest way to check oxygen levels in your goldfish tank is by using a dissolved oxygen test kit which can be picked up for around $20.

When measuring the oxygen level, the general rule is to have around 8mg/l (milligram per liter) or higher for freshwater fish and at least 7mg/l for saltwater fish. Some fish species need to live in more specific ranges. Most goldfish are pretty happy with an oxygen level of 5mg/l or higher.  

When the oxygen levels are low, causing your goldfish difficulty breathing, it causes hypoxia. Your goldfish’s reaction to hypoxia can vary, but the common signs to look for are:-

  • A goldfish struggling to breathe will appear lethargic, moving very little or not at all.
  • Goldfish is staying at the top of the tank, gasping. This is because the surface is the most oxygen-rich area of the tank. If you notice this behavior often, it may be a sign there is not enough oxygen in your tank, but it should not be confused with feeding.
  • Goldfish’s gills move quite rapidly or more than usual. This may be a sign your goldfish isn’t getting enough oxygen and is trying to move more water than usual over its gills.

If you think your goldfish is suffocating, you need to increase the oxygen levels quickly. Some people suggest adding a hydrogen peroxide solution at a very low dose, but I prefer more natural methods.

Does Your Goldfish Tank Need More Oxygen

If you have tested the oxygen content in your water and feel it is too low, or you have observed your goldfish gulping for air at the surface for long periods, it is likely your goldfish tank needs more oxygen.

It is important to address the issue quickly before your fish suffocates or toxins in the water can get out of hand.

Quick Ways To Add More Oxygen

Any method that causes water movement in your aquarium or the surface water to break will help provide more oxygen. Adding oxygen to a smaller tank will be quicker but will not last as long as it will in a larger tank.

  • Agitate the surface water – You can gently splash the surface water to create bubbles, but not enough to stress your fish.
  • Cool your tank water – Cooler water will hold more oxygen than warm water, so it would make sense to cool it as much as your goldfish can tolerate.
  • Raise your filter to displace water at the surface – If you have a water filter that is not powerful enough, you can temporarily move its position to produce more surface agitation. Even better, add a second filter if you have one.
  • Blow bubbles at the surface – Grab a straw or tube and gently blow bubbles at the surface (be careful not to suck and swallow the water). Manually blowing bubbles is a quick short-term way to add oxygen.
  • Perform a large water change – This depends on the size of your tank. Water changes still won’t provide enough oxygen to smaller tanks. The larger the water change, the more oxygen will be introduced.

These are my tips but get creative and see if you can find ways that suit you.

The video below explains these tips with some examples.

How to add oxygen to an aquarium quickly and long term.


Hopefully, this post has given you a good understanding of how to adequately keep your goldfish aquarium oxygenated and what red flags to look out for if your goldfish is struggling to breathe.

Goldfish shouldn’t need air pumps in most situations, but it certainly won’t hurt if you decided to invest in one. You may even enhance the look of your aquarium with the use of an ornamental air pump.

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