This is a question that is often asked by fish hobbyists in fish forums and discussion groups, and replies to this question have always been varied. It is always interesting to read the replies, but for the newbie fishkeeper, the replies will only cause more confusion. There are so many answers that s/he will have a hard time deciding which advice to follow.

With this confusion still fresh on his the mind, a fish hobbyist came up to me one day and said, “Sir, I am a newbie fish hobbyist, and I have been reading a lot, but is it safe to feed my fish live food? They say that live food is not clean.”

I looked him straight in the eye and casually asked, “Do you eat isaw? Kwek-kwek? Adidas? Turon? Banana-que? Because your momma said these are dirty, yet when she is not at home, we scuttle to the corner and eat street food.” This of course caused laughter in the group but then he smiled and got what I meant.

I could have answered a straight “Yes” or “No” and he would have believed either anyway. Hobbyists nowadays simply want to ask questions, and demand a straight answer. They no longer analyze the situation and decide for themselves. Thus, despite numerous sources of information, both correct and incorrect, newbie fish hobbyists are confused as to which to believe.

For this type of question, there is no right or wrong answer. There are advantages and disadvantages to both feeding and not feeding your fish live food. Weighing the risks involved in both is what will make the decision right or wrong. The answer to this depends on the fish hobbyist and what he or she believes will work well for him or her.

To continue the comparison I made earlier: Eating street food is part of our society. For some, it may not be accepted; for others, it is a source of nourishment. If it is something you find unacceptable, then never pull out your wallet when you are next to a cart at the corner of a street. You probably won’t enjoy it anyway, especially if you know what they are or where they came from. During the time of my parents and grandparents, they called street-peddled ice cream “sorbets.” A generation later, the term “dirty ice cream” became a popular name for this ice cream. Yet, in parties for children of different social classes, kids and adults alike line up at Mamang Sorbetero’s to partake of the so-called “dirty ice cream.” Doesn’t sound dirty to me. So feeding live food should be taken the same way. Is it acceptable to you?

Works on a Case-to-Case Basis

Many years back I met this lady who had some Ping-Pong goldfish. She came from a well-respected family and lived in an exclusive village in Quezon City; she was well-educated, very much refined in poise and stature, and all she wanted was to offer the best food to her pet goldfish. She had bought all the major brands of goldfish food that I suggested to her, yet she wanted more. So I suggested what has always worked well with goldfish breeders: live tubifex worms. We met up in Cartimar where she bought her first bag of live tubifex worms. She even found these little critters cute as they wiggled in their ball formation. I gave her instructions on what to do and she hurriedly went home to feed her goldfish.

Two hours passed, then she texted me that the goldfish absolutely loved the worms. The next day, I gave her a call to check on her tubifex feeding program. I didn’t even have the chance to say hello when she screamed, “Angel… Ang baho (It stinks)!!!” I said, “Of course, what do you expect? They come from waste water trailing of pig farms in Bulacan.” Kaboom! She never fed her goldfish live tubifex again. I guess feeding live tubifex worms didn’t work well for her. But this is not the case with fish breeders.

Tubifex worms are a staple diet for breeder fishes and their young. Breeder fishes are given live tubifex worms to fatten them up and prepare them for breeding. The females become gravid with eggs when fed live tubifex worms. The young are also offered this live food as they grow faster on this diet, as compared to when they are fed commercial fish feeds. There must be some advantage to feeding live tubifex worms to fish, as our commercial fish breeders are highly successful in their endeavors. They will attest that feeding live tubifex worms plays an important role in their success.

Predatory Instincts

For monster fish keepers, feeding live fish not only provides nourishment but entertainment as well. This is the way of nature: the big fish eats the little fish. However, not everybody is a fan of offering live fish as these feeder fishes may be a source of diseases or parasites. Some fish hobbyists do not condone feeding live fish because they claim these come from polluted waters; thus they are dirty and harbor parasites. I fully agree with this statement. But does that stop me from feeding live fish? No, it does not.

While some fishes like the Peacock Basses from the genus Cichla and the Tigerfishes from the genus Datnioides are generally piscivorous, they may be weaned off live fish and offered fresh meaty food. However, there are some fishes that are strictly piscivorous and you are left with no choice but to feed them live fish. In which case, don’t feed them sick fishes or the ones with parasites. Carefully select healthy ones to be offered for food.

Addressing Misconceptions

For us in Metro Manila, the live fish most often given as food are the Green Molly, also known as the “kataba,” and the guppy or feeder goldfish. The claim that katabas and guppies come from dirty water is a misconception. If the water was dirty, then they would have died right there in their home waters.

It may be dirty as far as humans are concerned, but not too dirty as far as fish are concerned. When I was a kid, I went to my grandmother’s bangus farm in Bulacan, and the ponds were teeming with katabas. This was the same water where the bangus were farmed. But no one ever assumed that the bangus come from dirty water. Another misconception that I have heard is to buy feeder goldfish rather than katabas because the former are “much cleaner.”

Since feeder goldfish are farmed, it is assumed that these are disease and parasite free―yet this is not necessarily so. While it is true they are farmed, feeder goldfish are often raised in overstocked ponds, underfed, and caught in huge nets by the hundreds at a time. They are not given the careful treatment that the Orandas, Ranchus, and other varieties of fancy goldfish enjoy. I can’t ascertain that their condition is much better because when you buy feeder goldfish, by the time you reach home, half of them are dead or most of them are half dead. I also observed that earth pond-raised feeder goldfish are susceptible to anchor worms, fish lice, and gill flukes. So you might as well check if the feeder goldfish you will buy harbor these parasites.

Considerations When Sourcing Feeder Fish

Feeding live fish is not as easy as one thinks. You must have a good source to begin with. The tank conditions of feeder fish sellers are usually terrible, at best. They are usually overstocked and the fish are kept alive with strong aeration. The feeder fishes are also subjected to a very stressful environment. Every time a buyer comes along, they are netted and dumped back to the tank. They are not handled with care. Thus, when you buy them, they are no longer healthy. It is a disheartening experience buying live feeder fish only to discover most of them are dead when you reach home.

Secondly, you must have a tank dedicated to your feeder fish. This tank should function well, and the water conditions should be good; otherwise, you will not be able to keep them healthy. Let’s face it; if you are to feed healthy feeder fish to your collection, you must exert the same good aquarium keeping practices in your feeder fish tank. The worst thing you can do is to dump the whole bag of kataba in your main tank because you do not have a feeder fish tank. Not only are you adding water that is high in ammonia to your carefully maintained tank, you are likewise imposing a tremendous bioload on your filter system because of overstocking. Thus, it is necessary to have a feeder fish tank where you can keep them healthy and just scoop out enough fish to feed your pets.

Lastly, feeding live feeder fish should be convenient for your lifestyle; otherwise, you can’t keep it up. Personally, I’m not going to waste half my Saturday driving through Metro Manila traffic. I have enough traffic experience from Monday to Friday every time I go to work. I will not give up half my Saturday just for a bag of kataba.

Feeding live food is, of course, a natural thing. Whether it is fish, worms, shrimp, insects, grubs, larvae, or whatever, these are the same things your fish would eat if they were in their local waters; in other words, their staple food. They do not have MP (market prawn), CH (chicken heart), SW (super worm), or beef heart in the wild.

Thus, feeding live fish to your pet fish is fine. There are risks, of course, in feeding live food. It is up to you how to manage these risks so you are able to offer healthy feeder fishes to your pets. It is important to note that whatever you feed your fish, whether live or not, it should be of good quality.


This appeared in Animal Scene’s June 2015 issue.