A Guide for Starting a New Aquarium

Starting a new aquarium is the first step toward an educational and relaxing hobby. There is much to learn about animal behavior, water quality, and the rich and beautiful life below the surface of the water. Traditionally, hobbyists gained this knowledge by speaking with an involved aquarist; however, in recent years people have taken to believing that they know best because they read something on the Internet.

The Internet provides a wealth of information – some of it quite useful, but what do you actually know about your source? Are they selling something? Are they fishing for hits on their page? I encourage everyone to gain as much information as possible, but there’s still nothing better than talking to someone experienced in the art of aquarium care and maintenance.

We first covered this essential topic in one of our first stories for our old print publication of Total Pet Magazine. We’d like to update and provide a refresher for new hobbyists.

Starting a New Aquarium

Real Fish Talk

I must be blunt here. If you don’t want to learn how to care for fish then you should not embark on this hobby. It does not take long to learn how to properly care for a starter aquarium. Many young children have had to suffer untimely toilet-bowl funeral services because of ill-prepared aquarium owners, and the experience turns them off the hobby forever. The parent needs to be involved to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Starting a new aquarium teaches us about animal behavior, the significance of water quality, and the physiology of animals living in the water. The adaptations required to live in beneath the surface of the water in 6-ppm (parts per million) oxygen is an area few think about. They’re just fish. There have always been fish. Fish are fish and not like other land animals — which is obvious, but sometimes needs reminding. Consider this: atmospheric air is 20,000 ppm. The physiological adaptations required to pull trace amounts of oxygen through the body of marine life is astounding.

Starting a New Aquarium

Consider the above image that we pulled from a website selling “Starter” Aquarium kits. The fish inside the tank aren’t even to scale — they were Photoshopped into the image. It’s making you believe that the number and type of fish contained within would be perfectly reasonable for a 5-gallon tank.

This is a first lesson in becoming a good aquarist. As I mentioned, beginning is easy, but don’t think for a minute that buying a kit and putting water in the aquarium is a good beginning. A box with a photo featuring a bunch of fish in a tank already has you headed in the wrong direction. Manufacturers want you to see a perfect tank with perfect fish – but I guarantee you that those fish were removed from that “perfect tank” the minute the photographer finished taking that product photo — if they were even there at all.

Fish and Retail “Service”

Once upon a time pet shops used to help customers – especially when it came to home aquatics. Even simple endeavors in the home aquarium hobby require a semblance of pre-existing knowledge. This is not a “see what happens” kind of hobby. Today, pet stores place a box on the shelf that includes “everything you need” to start an aquarium at home. The teaching element of the pet store/customer relationship has been transferred to a one-sheet instruction manual or redirected to the Internet. All you could ever need to know in under 500 words. Does that sound reasonable to you?

Today big box stores have virtually zero training for selling fish to customers. They sure can sell a fish (and most importantly all the “stuff” that goes along with it), but they don’t know the first thing about caring for it once you take it home. It’s not right. All animals in our possession deserve proper care. When these stores do manage to give information, how much can you trust the source knowing they’ve had no formal training or education on the topic? The hobby has deteriorated due to the dispensation of poor information. Why? It’s marketing to sell stuff without a conscience. They put aquarium kits on the shelf and believe that whatever you buy is your problem after it walks out the door. It feels criminal to me – though none of these criminals will ever be brought to justice for their crimes against Corydoras and Neon tetras.

Starting a New Aquarium

Step 1: Patience and Biological Filtration

The most important aspect of starting a new aquarium is establishing a viable biological filter. The biological filter is not a benefit you actively witness – except as it manifests in healthy, happy fish. The unseen “good” bacteria (the biological filter) degrade ammonia by growing colonies in the aquarium.

How does this happen? Bacteria convert ammonia to nitrite. If you remember high school chemistry this is called oxidation caused by the ammonia-oxidizing bacteria. This process only happens in the presence of oxygen. These bacteria are therefore essential to the nitrogen cycle.

Two major chemical steps establish the biological filter. The bacteria grow on the surface of aquarium gravel, the sides of the aquarium, plants (plastic, silk, and real plants), and the ornaments put into the aquarium. This takes about 45 days. I hear some misinformed pet store employees tell people that the biological filtration can be started with aged water. That is really not true. Aged water transfers some biologicals, but the best inoculants are substrates with the bacterial colonies attached. Old water, by itself, is just old. Using the bacteria from aged aquarium water has a very long lag phase to begin the process. In reality, it’s like starting from scratch anyway.

Ammonia and the Nitrogen Cycle

Let’s back up for a moment to discuss why this ammonia oxidation process is important to a home aquarium. Animal respiration results in ammonia. The degradation of uneaten fish food also causes ammonia. Ammonia is very toxic to fish. It burns their gills, affecting the protective coverings on their surface, and can affect their eyes.

The first step in the nitrogen cycle is to oxygenate the ammonia to make nitrite. The second step is to oxygenate the nitrite (toxic but not as toxic as ammonia) – again with the help of our friendly bacteria. This results in nitrates, which are stable in our aquariums, but need to be limited through regular water changes. This whole process, without help, takes about 45 days.

Booster cultures might build the bacteria faster but they are expensive. The best and most economical way is to start a tank on your own with some old aquarium gravel. Old gravel doesn’t mean the process happens overnight, just that it dramatically cuts the biological release time.

Ideally your biological filter negates the ammonia as soon as it’s produced. That specific point of stasis can be found with test kits. The first change will show nitrite. The second and final phase turns nitrite into nitrate. From that point nitrate will increase until water changes are made, which I recommend at least once a month.

Populating the Aquarium

When buying your first fish colony, make sure you only buy small fish – one or two for a 10-gallon tank. I like a Corydora catfish and a tetra combination. Feed sparingly every other day and watch closely to make sure they are eating everything you introduce to the tank.

Starting a New Aquarium

You can also bring in a Betta. The Betta is one of nature’s most beautiful fish and very impressive in a small starter tank. Due to their alternate name, Siamese Fighting fish, most people think that Bettas attack everything in sight. That is not true. For the most part, they only fight amongst themselves. One Betta per tank is plenty because it’s important to keep the peace.

…but not Overpopulating the Aquarium

During the introduction period, check your ammonia levels regularly, perhaps every other day, to be sure you are not feeding too much nor have you put too many fish in the aquarium. If you notice your ammonia levels rising that’s an indication you’ve overpopulated your tank or you’re feeding too much. First, ask yourself honestly if there are too many fish. Many times, the answer is too much food and too many fish. The next consideration should be a 50% water change. Respond with products like SeaChem’s Prime, NovAqua+ or Tetra Safe. Follow directions carefully. Use the above chemicals after the water change.

Starting a New Aquarium - too many fish

Our people are trained to ensure that customers do not start an aquarium with too many fish. Sometimes customers get upset with us because we believe that animal welfare always comes first. We’re in a customer service business, but we’re also in the business of pet care. If we believe there’s a potential risk to the animal we will refuse a sale. Inevitably, this angers people who then take to the Internet to leave us scathing reviews painting us as a condescending business that’s just trying to sell more stuff, e.g. larger aquariums, larger pet enclosures, etc. Or worse — these vociferous Internet executioners will claim we just don’t know what we’re talking about. It’s the nature of the pet business in 2018 – and really any service-focused establishment – but we will always risk a negative blurb on the Internet before the health of our animals. No one likes to be told that they’re wrong — especially when they mean well, and we understand that — but our job is to preserve the health of the animals. Trust us when we say it would be far easier to just give you what you think you want.

ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat — This, the Socratic Paradox, is perhaps the wisest piece of philosophy ever recorded. (Plato attributes it to Socrates, hence the name, but there’s no real evidence to suggest that Socrates ever made such a claim, but we digress.) The Socratic Paradox states that the only true knowledge is that knowledge that we know nothing. It suggests that there’s so much to learn and discover in this world that, relatively speaking, we know so little that it amounts to nothing. We would all be better served to remember these words whenever we undertake a new endeavor. Let’s get back to the fish.

After 30 days you can add a couple more fish. If the initial addition of inoculated gravel worked, the aquarist should see no ammonia spikes for roughly 20 days. In the past I have found that the ammonia disappearance is faster than the nitrite disappearance. Patience is required to set yourself for long-term success.

The number of fish an aquarium can hold is based on biomass. The widely held one-inch-per-gallon suggestion is absolutely wrong. For example, a 3-inch goldfish could weigh as much as hundreds of neon tetras. A three-inch goldfish should have 30-gallons of aquarium space and good filtration for the next 2 or 3 years before a bigger tank might be needed. Goldfish do not just grow to the size of their aquarium — unless toxins stunt their growth, which would be an indication of too much biomass per gallon of water. On top of that the toxins can affect the immune system. The fish dies much sooner than their natural life span. Do not believe that fish in general live no more than a year. Some fish — but not many.

Starting a New Aquarium - goldfish

To grow and prosper, the goldfish needs excellent filtration, ample water volume, and good circulation. I personally love quality-bred goldfish like the American Fans, Sarasas, and Calico – but no fish should be thrown in a tank and left on its own.

Early Aquarium Success

The key is behavior of a particular species and general hardiness of the species selected. I do not like tiger barbs for beginners. They display aggressive behavior toward all small, quiet fish. Purchase docile fish that stay small for a starter aquarium. A big mistake is purchasing common plecos for small tanks. They get large – for sure larger than a ten-gallon aquarium can safely contain. People buy them to keep the aquarium “clean.” This is perfectly logical, but ultimately wrong. Plecos do eat some things that help keep the tank appearing clean, but unfortunately the actual tank cleaning is human work. As a rule of thumb, if the fish is too large for a tank give it to someone that can properly care for a bigger fish or trade it to a receptive aquarium owner that has the ability to sell the fish a proper home.

Some of the smaller tetras like Neon, Cardinal, and Von Rio serve as great beginner aquarium fish. Once the keeper gets their feet wet, so to speak, Otocinclus and Farlowella catfish could be considered Level 2 species. These fish can be added without concern about territorial disputes.

Back to Aquarium Water Chemistry and pH

Now let’s return to our discussion of water chemistry. It doesn’t matter what you think about aquarium keeping, understanding basic chemistry remains an integral part of the experience. So, let’s go over another important concept in starting a new aquarium.

Try to keep your pH (level of acidity) around 7, which is neutral. All fish and freshwater invertebrates and decaying food and plants produce carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 dissolved in water produces a Carbonic acid, which reduces pH. Therefore, maintaining pH requires constant vigilance.

How do we regulate pH? Use a buffer. For beginners I like Seachem’s Neutral Regulator. Do not use pH Up or Down. These two chemicals are not buffers and have limited use in aquariums with ground water from limestone aquifers. pH Up can be used in bog-sourced water, which is acidic in nature, but the buffer is still needed to help stabilize the pH. Limestone, meanwhile, raises pH and hardness (Calcium and Magnesium).

A more advanced aquarist will use reverse osmosis water to replace aquarium evaporate. This will keep the hardness from continuously rising. I love RO water, but most people don’t want to use it because of the perceived hassle involved. The hassle to set up an RO system is, however, rather minimal, and it will save you money in short order.

High hardness is easy to control, however. Most fish will accommodate to rising hardness as long as the level isn’t too much for them to handle osmotically – but we’ll discuss hardness control in a more advanced course on water chemistry. For now, let’s just get that pH under control.

Types of Filtration for Beginners

Do not let anyone talk you into buying a canister filter. The sales pitch suggests it is an all-inclusive filter creating biological, chemical, and particle filtration. The sales people tell you it is convenient and convenient is better. Hogwash. Two words: particle filtration. Canisters are serviceable biological and chemical filters, but they do not benefit overall, long-term aquarium maintenance. If not maintained, they can become detrimental. When the hobbyist tires of maintaining the canister, they skip cleanings. When they skip cleanings the decomposable organics disintegrate and add dissolved proteins to the water which increases phosphates and nitrates. More pre-filter maintenance results in aquariums with greater pollution resistance. Canisters, for all their bells and whistles, are also relatively expensive. (Have you figured out why stores would try to sell you a canister system yet?) While they’ll lure you in with the promise of convenience, they will eventually increase your work.

Let’s think about this canister filter problem logically.

Aquarium water shoots up through the filter from the bottom. The prefilter rapidly accumulates dirt and detritus, thereby slowing water flow. To remedy this, you must tear down the filter for regular cleanings. This is not something people will want to do. It is messy and takes a fair amount of time. Did I mention that this system of filtration also costs more? You pay for the fun of extra maintenance.

Sometimes old school is the best school when it comes to aquarium filtration. The oldest and most reliable filter systems are sponge, under-gravel, and hang-on filters. Let’s talk about each of these and weigh their benefits.

Starting a New Aquarium - sponge filter


The sponge filter comes in many shapes and sizes. They are simple but effective. Aquatop produces some nice sponge filters. One can also just buy the sponge and make your own filters, but that’s probably not beginner-friendly. Just know that the potential’s there when you get further into this new hobby.

For more biological filtration just increase airflow through the filter sponge to promote that good bacteria growth or add another sponge filter. When cleaning, use water from the aquarium to preserve biological charge rather than new water from the tap. New water will also wash away your established biologicals!

Even though sponge filters are not particularly “sexy” they are great biological filters, especially if you don’t have gravel. They come in various sizes to fit your tank size, but they do need to be biologically charged before use to be effective. If you take one out of a box, expect a 30- to 45-day wait in a cycled tank to be fully charged. They are great when raising fry and shrimp. Hang-on filters and canisters will suck those poor shrimples up inside the filter. Plus, growth on the surface of the sponges will help feed shrimp and early fry.

Starting a New Aquarium - under gravel filter

This illustration shows the air bubbles rising in the tubes bringing water to the surface. This is good for raising babies like guppies, mollies, platys, etc.


Another serviceable filter for the beginning aquarist. A plastic perforated plate is placed on the bottom of the aquarium beneath the gravel. There are two ways to set them up. The first is to use a powerhead on the standpipe and push the water from the aquarium through the bottom gravel. The downflow forces the water up and through the surface of the gravel. The second way is to use an air stone in the tube to pull water through the gravel and up through the tube. This is safer for small fish, but less effective for a community tank.

The downside to this method is that the mulm (black particular matter) must be periodically cleaned from the gravel and underneath the filter. The only sure way to do this involves pulling up all of the gravel and filter to clean the sediment from underneath the plate.

Starting a New Aquarium - biowheel


The water flows under the wheel and turns the cylinder. The wheel then rotates the water down through the filter. This is a solid filter, but the wheels will eventually need to be replaced. When that time comes, buy a new set of wheels and place them inside the aquarium to biologically charge before replacement.

Starting a New Aquarium - hang on filter

This is a typical hang-on filter. Notice the pump (powerhead) under the filter body. One primes the filter and the pump starts a siphon. The configuration of an external powerhead creates a bit more noise. The Aqueon filter immerses the powerhead in the tube reading up from the aquarium.


These have been around for a long time. A tube is placed in the tank that goes to the filter. The filter hangs on the back of the aquarium. The filter box is primed via the hang-on tube and the powerhead pulls water through the filter. These filters require cartridges (sponges for biological filtration, charcoal, and special things like ChemiPure) and other inserts as needed. As an alternative, a hang-on could feature an external powerhead pushing water through the filter. No siphon required and therefore less chance for that siphon to break. I recommend the Aqueon filter for this type of setup. The other benefit is that they are very quiet.

The Marineland bio-filter offers yet another variation. They developed a system called the bio-wheel. In reality, it is a type of wet-dry filter. The wheel turns because the water is pumped through it like a mill wheel. The water comes in contact with the wheel (and thereby the bacteria growing on the wheel). The bacteria purify the water by eliminating the ammonia. It is a bit more effective than the other hang-on filters because air contains more oxygen (obviously) to help neutralize the ammonia. In more simple terms, oxygen helps the bacteria work harder and smarter.

And speaking of the wet-dry filter…


The true wet-dry filter provides the most effective type of filtration, but beginning aquarists need to understand the mechanics before committing to the greater expense. They’re not difficult to implement, but as I suggested a moment ago, the initial set-up cost proves higher than the alternatives — largely due to the necessity of an overflow. As a result, the wet-dry filter generally remains a more popular choice among more seasoned hobbyists. I would not discourage a beginner to take the leap so long as they understand a few simple concepts.

  1. The sump beneath the aquarium increases the biological capacity of the aquarium.
  2. The aquarium will never show white lines from carbonate desposits.
  3. To replace water evaporation, add water to the sump.
  4. The media in the filter is easy to change. You can add larger quantities of charcoal, biological media, and maybe even other packets of quality water conditioners like Boyd’s Chemi Pure.
  5. A handy aquarist can build the sump himself. All you’d need is acrylic, acrylic glue, and a pump to push water back to the surface of the aquarium. People have made their own designs available on the Internet, accessible with a simple search. Of course, you could also just buy a pre-made sump.

wet-dry filter Starting a New Aquarium

This is a photo of the simplest of wet-dry filters. The water pours over the pre-filter sponge and then drips down through the plastic fiber underneath. Both the sponge and the plastic fiber serve as a bio-filter. The pump that pushes the water back to the tanks is placed in the left corner of the open area of the tilter. Any type of other filtration media can be placed into the filter under the pre-filter sponge. Remember not to use tap water to clean the pre-filter sponge. Use water from the aquarium to rinse the sponge. That preserves the bio-filter bacteria.

Each fish species has their own needs. When you buy a fish, learn about the species. Ask questions of a professional or read up on their practical care. Starting a home aquarium isn’t a difficult task, but it does require a little bit of patience and precision.

Tough Love: Our Love/Hate Relationship with Snakes

Tough Love: Our Love/Hate Relationship with Snakes

This article originally appeared in Total Pet Magazine

We’ve spotlighted the snake as a pet, discussing its care and briefly touching upon a few of the sources for culture’s negative perception of the snake. We’d like to look into this negative perception further by exploring the history of the snake. Is that a little too broad? Absolutely. But we promise there won’t be any preaching about learning to love a snake or imploring you to go to your nearest herp-stocking pet store for a meet and greet. Okay, to be a little more honest, there won’t be much preaching. At best we’re asking you to consider the snake as a figure of historical and cultural significance, like Abraham Lincoln, Tattoo from Fantasy Island, or the guy that discovered gunpowder. Perhaps you’re seeking more relevancy? How about the use of a snake as symbol during the seeds of the American Revolution?

snakes in the american revolution

The snake was first used as a symbol for the united American colonies by Benjamin Franklin, who published this wood cutout as a political cartoon in 1754 during the French and Indian War. This snake would also inspire the 1775 “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden Flag.

Though the keeping of reptiles and/or amphibians may still appear to be a fringe or alternative hobby, there are more than two million families who dabble in herpetoculture; however, they’d probably just prefer to be called “herpers” for short. “Herpetoculturalist” sounds rather pompous, and all these herpers don’t particularly wear pompous well. They’ll also be the first to tell you that a snake’s skin is not at all slimy; rather, it is smooth and dry and composed of the protein keratin, which is found in human fingernails. File that one away for Trivial Pursuit. It’s guaranteed to impress.

The word herpetoculture comes from the Greek “herpeton” meaning “one which creeps.”

If you ask the average John or Jane on the street what they think of snakes, it’s more than likely that they’ll cringe, make an “ew” sound, or ask why in the world anyone would want to keep something like that as a pet. At this point you can at least refute the sliminess. If the naysayer goes after the whole fang and potentially poisonous issue, you might need to give them a concession or two, because many snakes have fangs and some are dangerous and/or poisonous. Do stress, however, that a few bad apples don’t spoil the entire crop and more often than not these poisonous/deadly snakes would rather slither and hide than ever confront a human. Unless of course you’re beating the Australian bush (for anything other than the betterment of scientific research!), and in that case you’re just bloody insane and probably deserve what’s coming to you.

Though the snake has made some headway into the mainstream, it still has a long way to go to convince the average pet owner of its usefulness as a domestic animal. Much of this distrust of snakes (and reptiles as a whole for that matter) stems from an ingrained cultural perception of snakes as a subversive species. Sure, snakes aren’t the perfect pet for everyone but maybe, just possibly, getting to the root of our ophidiophobia might make those snakes a little less scary and icky.

biblical snakes

A Stigma of Biblical Proportions

The majority of the Western World might cite Genesis, the first book of the Bible, as the beginning of the “snake is evil” movement. The story goes as such… a serpent appears before Adam and Eve as an undercover agent of Satan, tempting the pair with the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. This they eat and you know the rest. The bottom line here is that you’re really kind of set up for a widespread blacklisting if you’re the embodiment of Satan in the first chapter of a book placed in every motel nightstand. So snakes have the Gideons to thank for that. The snake’s dilemma, however, didn’t start or stop with Christianity.

The snake also figured heavily in archaic Greek mythology. Snakes were often associated with antagonistic figures such as Medusa and her fellow Gorgon sisters defeated by Perseus, the nine-headed hydra defeated by Hercules, or Typhon, the enemy of the Olympian gods, who was described as a monster with a hundred serpents originating at his thighs. These kinds of visions make that deceitful snake of the Garden of Eden sound pretty harmless by direct comparison.

With these kinds of symbolic attachments it’s a wonder that snakes, and reptiles in general, ever made it into anyone’s good graces, but paired with each of these negative images there seems to be an opposing side that reveres the animal for some of the same reasons that it was feared.

Snake vs. Serpent

The word “serpent” derives from the Latin serpens or serpentis and was most commonly used in a specifically symbolic value. The serpent was not the earthbound snake of zoological concern but rather something of mythic or religious context. So the next time you speak highly of your “serpent,” please consider the context.

Throughout history the snake has enjoyed periods of reverence and worship as well as extensive use as a symbol of evil by Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Ophiolatry, the practice of snake worship, originated from the snake’s relatively unusual behaviors and survival practices – graceful, low-to-the-ground stealthy travel; the swiftness and power of its bite; and the molting of its skin, followed by a kind rebirth or renewal, a skill which lends itself without much imagination to the godlike quality of immortality. Though there are dozens of examples of cultures that worshipped or revered the snake, we’re just going to stick to the highlights.

egyptian snakes

The Uraeus is the stylized, upright form of an Egyptian cobra, used as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty, deity and divine authority in ancient Egypt.

The earliest documented images of snakes date to around 9000 BC from the southeastern Turkish tribe called the Göbekli, a hunter-gather society. Sumerians also worshipped a type of snake god; however, the most pervasive image of the snake in the ancient world belonged to the Egyptians. The Ureaus; the symbol of the divine sovereignty of Ancient Egypt and representation of the goddess Wadjet, one of the oldest of the Egyptian deities and protector of all Lower Egypt; was worn by the pharaohs as a head ornament at all times during life and often still after death. The symbol, with which many of you might be familiar from watching Hollywood’s various incarnations of The Mummy, often depicts a stylized Cobra in its upright, rearing position. Once Upper and Lower Egypt were united, the vulture Nekhbet joined Wadjet on the Ureaus to maintain their individual importance (rather than merge, as with most other Egyptian deities whose comparable Upper and Lower incarnations were joined as one). Together they became known as the Two Ladies – the protectors of unified Egypt.

The most known and recognized example of ophiolatry comes from India – aka the Land of Snakes. It was named the Land of Snakes as much for their continued worship of the reptile as the general abundance. There are more than 270 species, 60 of which are poisonous. Snake worship in the subcontinent can be witnessed in cultural legend, daily ritual, and yearly festivals (Naga panchami). They are considered the protectors of springs, wells, and rivers. Sarpa Kavus (serpent groves) are sacred groves, isolated fragments of dense forests representing the tradition of worshipping plants and animals. The Mahābhārata, one of two major Sanskrit epics is an inextricable component of Indian culture. To summarize the roughly 1.8 million words in the Mahābhārata in one sentence would probably be a disservice to the text, but we’ll do it anyway. And this is where it gets tricky because we’re going use some backwards logic. Generally the epic discusses artha (human goals), dharma (duty), káma (pleasure), and moksha (liberation) and it contains frequent references and passages portraying the snake (or nāga – the class of deity depicted by a snakelike image) in a, stay with us now, negative context, including a reference to the snake as the “persecutor of all creatures.” If this text, as it is said, is one of the most influential works in the Hindu culture and it creates this image of the snake as the judge, jury, and executioner of the animal world, it provides an interesting starting point in the history of Indian snake worship because although the text tends to fear the nāga they are also no more frequently evil than most other major players in the text and often turn up in favor of benevolent causes. Admittedly we here at Total Pet haven’t read the text cover to cover, but for the purpose of this article, all you need to know is that, like the Godfather, though they were feared, these nāga were seriously respected. This same concept of fear breeding respect holds true for the real live corporeal animal inside our aquariums and roaming our forests and backyards.

And that is really what we’re trying to stress. Though many of us might fear the animal, we should fear and respect the animal. The snake is a complex animal with a fascinating evolutionary past as well as a spiritual importance to many varied religions, both on the good and evil side of the equation. Total Pet is not encouraging you to rush out and find your nearest snake worshipping sect or secluded Sarpa Kavu; we are hoping to instill a sense of the snake’s cultural niche: why it’s viewed as a type of monster by some and a god by others.

indiana jones snakes

Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes became a defining characteristic in the film series.

“Snakes! Why’d it have to be snakes?”

But how does any of this apply to keeping snakes as a pet? Whether we’re conscious of it or not, snake legend and rhetoric all factor into our perception of the animal. We may be afraid of being bitten. We may be afraid or distrust snakes because they’re scaly (but not slimy!) rather than furry, lack the charisma of a Welsh corgi, or hide in the shady, secluded corners of our backyard like some sort of shadowy grifter in a Richard Widmark movie. But we’re also cognizant, whether we’ve read the Bible or not, of the culturally supplied stigma of the snake as manifestation of evil. Just take a look at the list of cheap B-movies made with a snake as the featured baddy: Boa, Python, Boa vs. Python, Komodo vs. Cobra, Anaconda, Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Snakes on a Plane, Sir Hiss in Disney’s Robin Hood. Name one movie with a villain Koala bear. King Kong fought a snake. Indiana Jones crawled through troughs of insects as big as toy poodles and battled legions of Nazis, but what were the only creatures that ever made him shudder in fear? Snakes!

a little girl and her snake

This picture of a little girl with her California King Snake is a Total Pet favorite. You may notice it hanging in our stores. She was so happy with her pet that she would sit and talk about the snake to anyone that would listen.

All of these ideas and theories really do feed into our slow adoption of the snake as an animal that we can allow to cohabitate down there in the seedy underbelly of our backyard – never mind keeping as a domestic pet. Snakes in fact really didn’t even enter our homes regularly until the middle of the 20th century. And even then they were probably just Garter snakes trapped by young boys who’d yet to be influenced by the cultural snake-ism or just admired the perceived danger of keeping a dangerous pet. Of course, the Garter snake is no more dangerous than a Guinea pig, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince a mother of that fact. The modern appeal of snakes as pets also draws from this historically negative stigma. Reptiles in general appeal to an alternative type of pet owner that enjoys the shock and awe factor. “Check out my pythons!” this kind of owner might say, encouraging his guests to take a closer look at his beloved pets. We’re not pigeonholing the snake owner with the “alternative” label– snake owners come from all corners of life – even our already cited old-fashioned conception of the 1950s-era mother demanding her son “remove this snake from my house!” is receding. The most common thread connecting all these people is a fascination with the uncommon life of the reptile. Snake owners, more so than most other pet owners (except home aquarists), are home biologists who observe their animals and try to recreate its natural environment to the best of their abilities. Of course, they also might also just enjoy the way their friends take a step back from the aquarium glass when they see a coiled Burmese python looking back at them. And this too is a type of behavioral observation.

There is one obvious word of caution that needs to be said as we conclude this intellectual exercise. Keeping a pet is one thing, but with any wild-type animal, respect its space, and should you come across a snake in the wild, respect its role within the local ecosystem. The majority of snakes that appear in your backyards, sheds and garages are nonvenomous, harmless, and beneficial to man. However, in nearly every corner of the United States you’re likely to find a dangerous snake if you look hard enough, and in these instances, keep your distance whenever possible, allow the snake to do whatever it is that it needs to do, and call for Animal Control when necessary.

Now we’ll take some bonus questions from anyone still remaining in the gallery.

Can a snake be trained to sit up, rollover and play dead?

The short answer is yes it is possible. The long answer is you’d be wise to let the snake live as he chooses. The stress the animal would need to incur in order to learn any of these rote tricks is not worth the effort, should it even be possible with your particular snake. It’s likely all you’ll receive for your efforts is a good swift bite. A snake can learn routines such as feeding times; it can also learn your smell allowing it to respond with certain patterns of movement, but by no means is the snake trained. In most cases reptiles will just become more aggressive with any kind of behavior modification techniques. If you love a snake, you love him just as he is. Now you’re thinking but what about the snake charmers? Well, this is the snake responding to either the movement of the flute itself or the vibrations from the tapping of the charmer’s foot. Snakes are not influenced by sweet, sweet music – not even Barry Manilow. There are some species of snake such as the Hognosed snake and Grass snake, however, that can fake death to avoid predation by flipping on their backs, opening their mouths and expelling a foul odor from their anal glands. Let’s see Fido do that.

I want an Anaconda.

That’s not a question and no you don’t. Anacondas are probably the most aggressive of all snakes and because of their size you’d be hard pressed to provide enough space for the animal unless you turned over your entire house.

What is Snake Oil? And why is this guy trying to sell me some?

snakes snake oil

Snake oil originally came to us from China where it was a common remedy for pain and inflammations such as arthritis and bursitis. It is composed of the fat from the Chinese water snake, the richest source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – the material our bodies use to make the series 3 prostaglandins that inhibit the inflammatory series 2 prostaglandins. A prostaglandin, to further clarify all this science, is basically just a fat compound found in virtually all tissues and organs. And as you can see, come in both good and bad varieties. Since there was no regulation of snake oil in American until the 1906 Food and Drug Act, salesman and manufacturers exploited demand for the mystical remedy by creating secret formulas containing exotic ingredients paired with pseudo-science mumbo jumbo that only gave relief through the placebo effect. 19th century peddlers in the States then became linked with drifting and gave birth to the snake oil peddler stock character of the old Westerns. Even if the manufacturers of the bogus American snake oils had the technical know-how to produce real honest-to-goodness snake oil, no American snake could produce nearly as much EPA as the Chinese water snake, further promoting the stereotype.

Man, I really do miss the old WWF and Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Why was he called “the Snake” again? All I remember is that DDT finishing move of his.

The wrestler Jake Roberts earned his nickname because of his slender, wiry physique and to encourage this nickname would “slither” into the ring on his belly. When Jake made the WWF in 1986 he began bringing a large Burmese python called “Damien” into the ring in a canvas bag. After executing a successful DDT, Roberts would coil the snake around his opponents’ neck allowing Damien to slither around the fallen wrestler giving the impression of strangulation. Of course, this was all part of the theatrics and some wrestlers would twitch and foam at the mouth for embellishment (see George Wells’ pitch-perfect performance as Damien’s victim in Wrestlemania 2). It should be noted that we do not condone this kind of animal exploitation (or wrapping pythons around anyone’s neck), but Damien (the many different Damien’s actually) is part of the great snake canon and deserves his reverence as much as the next serpent. This same disclaimer holds true in the future should we ever discuss Jake Roberts’ arch-rival Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and his Komodo dragon.

Pet Food Storage and Spoilage

Burton's BlogAll foods spoil, though some degrade faster than others. This is a fact of life. Still, there are people who would disagree with this incontrovertible statement. We’re not sure, but these may be the same people that believe the world is flat. You’ve bought great food. You’ve done the easy part, but paying attention to handling and pet food storage at home is one of the most important ways to help maintain the long-term health of your pet.

We’d have to take a poll. It would probably even behoove the manufacturer to be more forthright in explaining how quickly food can deteriorate through oxidation because it would encourage people to buy smaller bags of food more often. Instead, food manufacturers push their larger bags of food by advertising new packaging and “natural preservation procedures” that claim to be better at preserving the food you buy. Most of the sales on pet food also occur on the 40 lb. bags. These sales are designed to look good in the accounting books but generally do not encourage better pet health. As a rule, you shouldn’t buy more food than your pet can consume in one month. For most breeds of dog, 40 lbs. is well beyond their consumptive capacity.

food bins - food handling and spoilage

Two examples of food container storage.

Air, moisture, temperature and chemical composition all play independent roles in food spoilage. Over time, there are thousands of chemical reactions that affect food, to both its nutritional detriment and benefit, and through this article we hope to offer a few simple explanations about food chemistry and the processes that most directly apply to pet owners.


Life on earth cannot exist without moisture. It is therefore no coincidence that moisture breeds bacteria, molds and yeasts – all of which happen to be notorious agents of organic decay. The greater the moisture content, the greater the presence of organisms that accelerate spoilage. An open can of wet food spoils much faster than kibble. The proteins degrade rapidly; putrefaction can be detected in a matter of hours. Dogs, as we’re probably aware, will eat just about anything. Slightly rotten food? No problem. Bring on seconds! Cats, however, are much pickier about the freshness of their meals. This contrast in mealtime behavior is almost surely a result of their differing paths to domestication. Dogs first co-existed alongside man as scavengers surviving off the scraps of human detritus (but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them!) whereas cats have always been exquisite hunters employed by humans for activities such as rodent control.

People that buy large volumes of food because it is cheaper make a big mistake if the food is improperly handled after purchase. Dry kibble, left open, immediately begins to deteriorate. Proteins and fats oxidize to form free radicals which when consumed slowly, but persistently, wear down the body. Free radicals are highly reactive atoms or molecules containing unpaired electrons which catalyze chemical chain reactions that can damage cells. In abundance and over time, these free radicals can attack every cell in our and our pets’ bodies. Antioxidants have become a health buzz-word and for good reason – they terminate these detrimental chain reactions and inhibit further cellular oxidation. Raw fruits and vegetables (yes, even for your dog! But make sure you know which ones dogs can and cannot eat) are especially beneficial in providing antioxidants. Since cats are obligate carnivores, the availability of raw fruit and vegetables isn’t really a relevant discussion; instead concern yourself with the quality and freshness of the meat they consume.



This type of preservation protects against a myriad of possibilities, but what chemical preservation has in common with all other types of preservation is that it prevents oxidation. Ethoxyquin (a quinoline-based antioxidant used to combat the rancidification of fats) is a chemical preservative that has fallen out of favor because of suggestive ties to certain health problems; however, it is still one of the most effective. Acid preservation of meat is common, but also a fading practice as evidenced by the disappearance of pickled pig’s feet and eggs at bars and saloons. (For this we have no explanation, but it is forever a part of our curious culinary history.) More natural antioxidants such as Vitamin E, rosemary extract, and Vitamin C are currently more popular for pet foods. The bottom line is that the use of increasingly more natural antioxidants has reduced the shelf life of pet foods. While this may be better for the health of our pets, it also places an onus on the consumer to take an active role in preventing food spoilage.

Even cats would confess to being pickier eaters than their canine counterparts.


Another method of preservation involves the combination of salt and other chemicals such as bisulfites and/or sugar along with dehydration to preserve fruits and meat. You can find examples of this technique in any grocery, corner, or convenience store. This is the process by which all kinds of meat jerkies and dried fruits are created.


This method slows the process of oxidation but does not eliminate it. The colder the freeze, the more effective the preservation. This means that that really choice filet you’ve got stashed in your freezer from the Carter administration isn’t still edible. We’re sorry to break the bad news to you, but your Kenmore is not equipped for advanced cryogenics. When buying frozen raw diets at your pet store, make sure the pet food storage temperature is 0ºF or below.

Barrier Bags

Paper bags provide very little protection, yet manufacturers have used them for decades because they’re a cheap alternative to our modern barrier bags used to package better foods. But as more truth emerges about the relationship between packaging and food decay, manufacturers have been forced to create better bags. Even human cereal is protected by a wax paper barrier to keep the product fresh. Pet food companies have introduced new barrier bags made of petroleum products; these are very good at keeping air and moisture out while the product is stored on retail shelves. The paper bags used for cheaper foods are particularly oxygen-porous which greatly diminishes the longevity of the food. It is only in the last fifteen years that these oxygen and vapor tight barrier bags have begun appearing on shelves. These bags are expensive but are very good at their job; however, their effectiveness does not extend beyond the moment you open the bag. It should be noted that some of the best advancements in packaging techniques such as barrier bags, nitrogen packing, and vacuum sealing are taking place with small animal and bird foods. Don’t pass up those crinkled vacuum packed bags just because they look a bit odd. Vacuum packaging retains freshness. The consumer needs to look beyond the aesthetics of the bag; this is exactly the goal of companies that skimp on product quality but spend on excellent marketing and graphic design because the latter is much less expensive.


Canning involves the combined talents of a couple of preservation methods: heat and airtight containers. Extreme heat kills harmful organisms and an exclusion of air prevents re-inoculation. This technique has been around since the invention of the glass jar with a screw on lid in 1858 by John Landis Mason. Those that do their own canning know that acidic fruits and vegetables are easier to preserve than more alkaline foods. Improperly canned products of lesser acidity can result in botulism because the acidity negates the effect of the bacteria that produce the botulism toxin. This is why tomatoes are the perfect canning vegetable whereas the green bean, an acidic lightweight, is a poor candidate. Commercial canners add salt to many canned vegetables to compound the preservation, but they still have to be diligent about their methods. Botulism is bad news, and even though dogs are relatively impervious to the toxin, they can still contract dangerous maladies from spoiled and rotten foods.


Yogurt is milk acidified by bacterial action. Bacterial groups of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria produce so much acid during the fermentation process that other molds and bacteria find it nearly impossible to invade the culture. Fermentation is also a natural nutritional aid. Take for example the nomadic Mongolian warriors of Genghis and Kublai Kahn. This army conquered most of the known world while drinking the fermented milk of the animals they rode into battle. Now that is efficiency. There are numerous types of beneficial vitamins and enzymes produced in the fermentation process. In moderation, beer and wine are also good for us.


Kibble has a shelf life of various durations for a few reasons: we allow food to be exposed to varying amounts of air, fluctuating temperatures, high temperatures, and moisture. Maintaining low moisture and antioxidant levels blocks the effect of incompletely oxidized fats and proteins (these are those pesky free radicals again). In cars, the incomplete combustion of gas results in certain nitrogen products and carbon monoxide emissions. This is why we have platinum catalytic converters – to provide an environment for chemical reactions whereby toxic combustion by-products are converted to less-toxic substances. The prevention of kibble oxidation involves a similar exercise in chemistry. And you probably never thought you’d read a conversation comparing kibble to car parts. You’re welcome.

When a bag of pet food is purchased, as we’ve said, don’t buy more than your pet can consume in a month. If you do make it a practice to buy foods in bulk, think about freezing all but a 30-day supply. Remember, the quality of the food begins to deteriorate rapidly the minute that bag is opened. Manufacturers like Eagle, Wysong, Merrick, Solid Gold, Wellness, Eukanuba, etc. all use vapor proof bags that preserve the food much better before it is opened.

Don’t take the food from the bag. It may seem like a sound pet food storage solution to pour the food from the bag into a plastic storage container of some kind; however, if there is a recall, it is important to know the lot number of your particular bag so the offending ingredient can be tracked and you can have the piece of mind knowing that your particular bag of food has not been implicated. If the food has been contaminated, holding onto the bag means you also know to whom and how to respond. This goes for both human and pet foods. Additionally, foods removed from their bags typically have increased rates of oxidation when in a plastic container that is opened every day.

We suggest you keep pet food, once opened, in its original bag and then place that bag and its contents in a plastic container. Ideally you would take a week of food out at a time so that you do not continually expose the stored food to air and moisture each day. The less often food is exposed to moisture and oxygen, the less it deteriorates. Also do not store food in areas with rapid temperature fluctuations such as your porch, basement or garage. These environments increase condensation. Bags left on the floor, especially bags that are not vapor sealed, inhale moisture and deliver it directly to the kibble. Moisture results in the formation of molds that we don’t always see; molds can be especially damaging because they can produce a toxin called aflatoxin that will attack your pet’s liver (and even your own, if you’re not careful). The deterioration of food, especially in low-density fats like chicken and fish oils that are so healthy when produced from quality sources, causes those nasty free radicals, rancidity and protein deterioration that put great stress on primary organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys.


Think about what it would smell like if you let a stick of butter or a chicken breast go rancid on your countertop. Now think about how your pets can smell at least 100 times better than we can. Is it any wonder why pets sometimes turn their noses up at their food? The processes that destroy the makeup in that piece of chicken are the same at work on the freshness of your pet’s kibble. So if your pet suddenly refuses a food he’s eaten for months or even years, it may not be time to completely switch foods… instead, maybe it’s time to improve your methods of pet food storage.

free radicals - food spoilage