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What to Look For in a Good Fish Store

In this article I share what I learned about the following question What to Look For in a Good Fish Store. There are many pet stores that sell aquarium fish. Some of them specialize in fish, while others are general pet stores or pet stores that primarily focus on something else. You can even find some fish supplies at Walmart and some supermarkets. So how do you pick where to buy your aquarium supplies and, most importantly, the fish themselves?

What to Look For in a Good Fish Store

General pet stores

Pet stores vary a lot when considered from an aquatic perspective. Pet stores often have parts of the pet hobby that they specialize in. Sometimes it’s fish, or it might be birds or dog accessories and grooming.

As a fishkeeper, you will be better off picking a pet store that specializes in fish. In stores with a fish specialty the fish are likely to be healthier, there will be a wider range of species available, a wider range of equipment available, and the staff are much more likely to be able to answer your questions correctly. Sometimes a general pet store will have one staff person who specializes in dealing with the fish. If that is the case, find out when their hours are and come in when they are working if you can.

The good thing about general pet stores is that you are more likely to be able to find one close to home than a specialist fish store, and if you are a beginning aquarist a decent pet store will have everything you need.

A word on big box chain petstores: these will often have a fairly wide range of equipment and sometimes fish available, but getting decent help is erratic. I much prefer smaller or more specialized stores where you can get to know the staff, and where you can find the staff when you need them.

Specialist fish stores and pet stores with a strong fish specialty

There is a bit of overlap between general pet stores and specialized aquatics and fish stores. These stores are frequently wonderful because the staff are often skilled aquarists themselves with years or even decades of experience. This means you can get even esoteric questions answered, and you are less likely to get bad advice.

You are also likely to be able to find the exact equipment or species that you are looking for, or to be able to order it in if it is really unusual. If you keep saltwater fish, you will have to find one of these stores because you won’t find what you need anywhere else.

Unfortunately, despite fish being their main business some of these stores aren’t as good as they should be. I once visited one where they were unloading large numbers of dead and dying saltwater fish. I don’t know why this was happening, but the staff did not apear shocked and I never went back to the store again.

How can you tell if a fish store is any good?

Fish stores to avoid:

1)Dead fish present in many tanks.
2)Visible illness such as ich present in a tank with no attempt to treat it.
3)Staff cannot identify common aquarium fish such as swordtails and bleeding heart tetras correctly. (Be aware that some fish have multiple trade names – in this case a strange name isn’t a sign of incompetence.)
4)Staff give incorrect care instructions for common fish – for example saying that Cory cats will eat fish poo and don’t need food of their own.
5)Houseplants such as palms being sold as water plants.
6)Staff are constantly so busy you can’t get attention or help, or they are rude.
7)Staff try to sell you a visibly ill fish.

Fish stores to buy from:

1)Fish are healthy, and if there are tanks with ich the disease is being treated and fish are not being sold out of that tank.
2)Staff answer basic questions about fish and equipment correctly.
3)A variety of fish, plants and equipment adequate for what you want to do. Needs vary dramatically if you want to keep a few guppies as opposed to a living reef aquarium.
4)If you are keeping live corals, staff have captive-grown corals and can tell you which ones they are.
5)Fish and plants are identified accurately on or near the tank itself.
6)Staff are attentive and helpful.
7)If you are keeping unusual or difficult fish it is really helpful to have staff who are expert aquarists.
8)Staff ask you questions when you buy fish, checking to make sure you have appropriate equipment and your tank has been set up long enough. If you are an experienced fishkeeper you might find this annoying, but remember that they don’t know how long you’ve been keeping fish and asking questions like this is a good way of keeping newcomers from making easily avoidable mistakes.

If you find a truly excellent store, then take your money there every time you buy if at all possible. You want that store to stay in business so that when you come in trying to figure out what the obscure disease killing your marine angels is they will still be there. It may be a bit further from home or more expensive, but the quality of livestock, service and equipment is likely to be more than worth the price.


While places like Walmart are often cheapest, this shows in the quality of the things they sell. Do you really want to buy an aquarium and then realize that almost no aquarium plants will grow in it and you have to turn off the light on warm days because the light fixture is incandescent? The selection of equipment is typically very limited, and they generally don’t sell live fish. The salespeople are not hired for their expertise with fish and are highly unlikely to be able to give you useful advice.

This is a very poor option – you are probably better off buying second hand equipment that is of higher quality if you are short of money, and then patronizing a pet or specialized fish store for everything you buy new.

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