Do Goldfish Need An Air Pump To Help Them Breathe

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?

In most situations, goldfish don’t need the addition of an air pump. The slight agitation to surface water by a filter or the addition of some plants can easily oxygenate the tank enough for a goldfish to live happily. A completely stagnant tank may benefit from the addition of some added oxygen.

Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water which is explained in this article: Water Temperature For Goldfish (Aquarium and Ponds). You may also find it beneficial to read this article: How Long Do Goldfish Live (Tank, Bowl & Pond Comparison), which also discusses the effects of water temperature on goldfish.

Do Goldfish Need An Air Pump To Breathe

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The rest of this article will answer everything you need to know if you are considering buying your goldfish an air pump.

Do Goldfish Need An Air Pump To Hel...
Can Goldfish Live Without An Air Pump

Goldfish require enough air and sufficient oxygen in their tank to live and it’s needed to keep your fish healthy, but goldfish breathe dissolved oxygen, unlike the oxygen you and I breathe.

The addition of an air pump is an ideal way to provide enough oxygen for your fish tank or fishbowl, but goldfish can live without an air pump.

Using a filter will help keep your tank clean, and it will probably agitate the surface water and cause sufficient water movement to create surface bubbles. This should add a good amount of dissolved oxygen into the tank and help to remove carbon dioxide.

There are different types of water filters. If the one you are using doesn’t create much surface movement or surface disturbance, it will be ineffective at providing sufficient oxygen.

The water movement within the tank and the surface water is key to providing all the needed oxygen.

A filter can help oxygenate a tank by causing surface movement.

Oxygen exchange or gas exchange is the process that allows oxygen to enter the water, and this happens at the surface. Carbon Dioxide is released from the aquarium into the air in exchange for oxygen, entering the water and turning into dissolved oxygen.

A filter will suck up water from the tank base and spit it back out at the surface while holding on to dirt particles. As the filter spits out the clean water, it causes movement and bubbles at the surface water, helping the gas exchange process to happen.

The gas exchange process is a little more in-depth than this but will be left for another article.

Many pet stores will sell starter aquarium setups for both warm water 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, many of these filters will not be powerful enough to provide sufficient oxygen without the addition of an air pump.

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What Is An Air Pump

An air pump is just what it sounds like. It is a battery or mains-driven device that pumps air from the atmosphere through a pipe placed beneath the water surface.

As air is delivered through the pipe, where air bubbles are formed that will float to the surface and turn into dissolved oxygen, which re-enters the tank.

The air bubbles created by the air pump cause surface movement and agitation which is needed for oxygen to enter your aquarium and help to keep aquarium oxygen levels high.

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 the tank, the more oxygen will be required.

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

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.

Tetra Whisper Air Pump

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.

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

Volcano Led Bubbler

Benefits Of Using Air Pumps

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

Below are a few reasons why people may use an air pump in their tank.

  • Air pumps, although an added expense are ideal for creating bubbles within a fish tank adding enough oxygen by themselves instead of using multiple other methods together.
  • The addition of live aquatic plants, an air stone, or multiple air stones are effective in most scenarios but will not always be possible or even be the most cost-effective solution.
  • Although air pumps will cost more to begin with, maintaining aquatic plants is not always easy, and the cost of an air stone over several months or years will soon add up. An air pump will eventually become the cheaper option and will provide enough oxygen to avoid the use of other methods.
  • Air pumps vary in size and cost and are suitable for any goldfish tank including a fishbowl.
  • The addition of an air pump may just look really good in your tank.
  • Fish like to swim through the bubbles created by an air pump.
  • You can get many great-looking interactive ornaments with an air pump built in such as castles and clams.

How Can I Give My Goldfish Oxygen Without An Air Pump

Sometimes adding an air pump to a smaller tank setup or fishbowl can seem a little overkill, and in many cases, you won’t need an air pump as there are several other ways you can give your goldfish oxygen.

  • As mentioned above, a filter is an ideal way to add oxygen to a fish tank. Provided the filter is not too powerful for your fish and powerful enough to create enough water movement and air bubbles at the surface, this will be the ideal choice for a small tank and will have the added benefit of keeping the water clean.
  • Adding plants to a fish tank mimics a fish’s natural environment and gives your goldfish somewhere to get some privacy. Aquarium plants also provide oxygen, the same way trees and plants provide oxygen to our planet for 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.
  • Adding an Air Block or Air Stone to your goldfish tank mimics the air pumps’ effect and will provide an impressive column of air that looks pretty neat. Air stones are also an inexpensive way to add some oxygen to the water.

You won’t need an air pump in most cases, especially if you use the above methods. If you have a large tank, you may need an air pump, or it may be wiser and cheaper, in the long run, to invest in a decent air pump.

The larger the aquarium you own, the larger the surface water area, which will be easier to oxygenate and keep hold of that oxygen for longer.

how can i give my goldfish oxygen without a pump
Plants can help provide much-needed oxygen to an aquarium.

It is also important to note that although plants are great at adding oxygen naturally to your tank, this happens only during the day when exposed to sunlight or the UV light in your tank. During the night, plants feed on oxygen and give off carbon dioxide, so they will be competing for the same oxygen that your goldfish needs. If your plants get plenty of light throughout the day, this shouldn’t be a problem.

How Do I Know If My Goldfish Needs More Oxygen

Goldfish, like all fish, will 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 tank is by using a dissolved oxygen test kit which can be picked up for around $20. The test kits usually come in the form of test strips and will give a reasonably quick result.

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

When the oxygen levels in your tank are too low, this is a condition called 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 moving around the tank 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.
  • Are your goldfish’s gills moving quite rapidly or more than usual? This may be a sign your goldfish may not be getting enough oxygen and is trying to move more water than usual over its gills.

If you think your goldfish may be suffocating, you will 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.

Quick Ways To Add More Oxygen For Your Goldfish

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.

You can gently splash the surface water to create bubbles but not enough to stress your fish.

Cooler water will hold more oxygen than warm water, so it would make sense to cool the water as much as your goldfish can tolerate.

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.

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. Although you may be breathing carbon dioxide into the water, the bubbles will float to the surface and cause the gas exchange needed, swapping the co2 for o2.

Perform a large water change. This depends on the size of your tank. A significant water change to a small tank will not be as effective as it will on a bigger tank. The larger the water change = the more oxygen that will be introduced.

Large water changes, i.e., 50% or more, can be beneficial at keeping nitrate levels under control; however, fish that are sensitive to changes in ph levels or water temperature will get stressed if the water you add varies greatly.

These are a few of my tips but get creative and see if you can find ways to suit you.

Other Reasons Why Your Goldfish May Be Struggling To Breathe

Just because your goldfish is displaying signs of struggling to breathe, there may be other reasons than insufficient oxygen levels in your tank.

It would be best if you always kept a close eye on Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate levels in your tank.

A fish tank has a biological lifecycle of its own, just like our planet, and it needs to be in balance and harmony. An established aquarium will have good bacteria which will break down waste and toxins.

The nitrogen lifecycle within your aquarium is critical to your fish’s general health, so I will briefly explain this cycle in its basic form.

Elevated ammonia and nitrite levels will be toxic to your fish, with nitrates much more harmless.

Ammonia is caused by the breakdown of waste products and organic matter in the fish tank, such as uneaten fish food, decomposing plant matter, and fish poop. Like any other animal, fish tend to poop quite a bit.

Ammonia can affect a fish’s gills, causing damage, which will affect its ability to breathe. A fish suffering from ammonia poisoning may gasp for air at the top of the tank. Their gills may look red where the tissue has become damaged and display ammonia burns, and they may stop eating as other organs begin to shut down.

Nitrites sound similar to nitrates but are more harmful, although nitrates can still be very toxic at high levels. Harmful ammonia in an aquarium is broken down by beneficial bacteria and converted to nitrites, which are broken down further into less harmful nitrates.

Nitrites have been dubbed “The Invisible Killer” as they can be present in very high levels even though your aquarium looks spotlessly clean.

Nitrogen Lifecycle Of An Aquarium

As ammonia is converted to nitrites, you can consider ammonia the first stage of the nitrogen cycle and nitrites the second.

Any time you experience high ammonia levels within your tank, you will almost definitely experience a build-up of nitrites.

Nitrites enter the fish through the gills and bloodstream and attack the liver, kidneys, and spleen.  

As nitrites enter the blood, they oxidize hemoglobin (healthy, red, oxygen-carrying blood cells) to methemoglobin (unhealthy, brown cells that cannot effectively carry oxygen). Methemoglobinemia is also known as brown blood disease.

The symptoms of Methemoglobinemia are similar to that of ammonia poisoning. However, due to the fish’s blood turning brown, you may notice the inflammation present around the gills is now brown instead of red.

A fish suffering from nitrite causing Methemoglobinemia will suffocate not because of a lack of oxygen in the water but because of the blood’s ability to transport the oxygen around its body.

The third and final stage of the nitrogen lifecycle is where nitrites are converted to nitrates. Fish are usually much more tolerant of nitrates which need to be at extremely high levels to be harmful.

It is also helpful that plants utilize nitrates to help keep these levels down.  

The nitrogen lifecycle should happen easily in an established and balanced tank. You can get test kits to examine the water for chemicals from time to time.

If you are struggling with ongoing issues, trace back to the beginning of the nitrogen cycle and monitor for problems. Build up of ammonia levels will start a chain reaction of problems. 


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.

Jon O'Connell

I have kept both marine and freshwater fish and set up almost 100 aquariums. Although I am no longer doing it professionally, I hope I can help others to enjoy keeping happy, healthy fish by sharing my many years of experience.

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