A Full, Fond, But Not-Quite Farewell from Burton

A Full, Fond, But Not-Quite Farewell from Burton

A Full, Fond, But Not-Quite Farewell from Burton

We did business in Pittsburgh for 26 years after I came to this city after being the operations manager of the Detroit Zoo. 26 years sounds like a long time, but honestly I wouldn’t have minded a few more with all of you and your pets. I found great joy in running Burton’s Total Pet – because for me it was always all about animals.

Our existence had to be based on making the health of the pet our foremost concern. There were already too many other establishments that sold high-margin “stuff” and pushed product without regard to the long-term health of the animal. It’s been difficult to run a business that had to, on occasion, tell a well-intentioned customer that they were doing a disservice to an animal.

I’ve had to refuse sales and sometimes turn customers away. Some appreciated the gesture and accepted the advice in the spirit in which it was intended. Others raised a ruckus or took to the Internet to make sure the world knew about the “ignorant” or “condescending” employees at Burton’s Total Pet. These instances were not the norm, but each one stung just a little bit.

To their credit, our managers and staff believed in our mission. I want to thank all past and present employees for their efforts in making this the store I envisioned. I’d also like to thank our loyal customers. We’ve gotten to know many of you quite well over the last 26 years. You made us more than just another retailer. It has been a privilege to serve you and I will miss our daily interactions most of all.

There have been many wonderful people that kept Burton’s Total Pet going throughout the years. We helped hundreds of young people earn while they learned. In order to work for any of our stores, our employees had to learn a little something about pet care. They chose their path, but I encouraged all of them to take this opportunity to find a passion. I’d like to mention some of our staff members by name. If you see any of them in the store during our final month, they’d love to hear that you appreciated their service as well.

Cindy Thompson – store manager, 26 years
Phil Thomas – store manager, 22 years
Ken McFarlane – store manager, 20 years
Steve DeCarlucci – store manager, 25 years
Dan Nodd – store manager, 20 years
Sharon Patrick – manager, animal care, store designer, 26 years
Chris Boyd – accountant, IT specialist, 26 years
BJay Weiss – my right hand man, operational assistant, 26 years

I also want to take a moment to remember a long-time employee that passed away a couple years ago. Bobby Thompson worked as our truck driver and resident comedian for 20 years. Bobby was a practical joker, but he’d put everything aside to help someone in need. All of us miss him dearly.

I’d also like to mention Donna Kennedy, 22-year Total Pet veteran, and Cindy Bain, 15 years as a reptile specialist.

Rufus, our African Grey parrot and McIntyre Square greeter, filled our store with laughter and terrorized everyone but Steve. Rufus will retire to my home as he’s earned some rest after so many years on the job. I hope his presence over the past 25 years has given our customers a look into the fascinating life of a bird. He will get all the attention and care he deserves.

I have many thoughts about the nature of business in 2018, but I’d like to share a specific observation that consumers should consider because it will irrevocably shape the commercial landscape. The pet business has become a major focus for investors. They keep finding new ways to offer less service alongside a poorer quality product.

In virtually every line of business, hedge funds and the bottom line have driven small retailers out of business. Internet e-tailers backed by these large cash stockpiles can make temporary price cuts and promise free shipping in order to drive “small” and “local” out of business. There are many other factors as well, but the long and the short of is that local businesses with a passion for their specialty face greater challenges every day. Make an effort to support them for as long as they’re willing to make a go of it.

As I mentioned in my shorter address, I desperately wanted to find a way for Total Pet to survive in an increasingly niche market. We worked on plans to downsize floor plans and relocate, to provide online purchasing, but unfortunately all of these plans required large amounts of capital that we just didn’t have as a local, family-owned business. Our plan all along was to decrease our store numbers and regroup with new footing. The new footing never materialized, and so we were faced with the impossible decision to keep fighting tooth and claw for every cent just to get by or close our doors. The more I fought to keep our stores open, the less time I could spend with the customers and their pets.

We were the first full-service pet store in Pittsburgh when we opened in 1993 on McKnight Road. People thought we were a national chain, but we were not. The stores were locally owned and operated. I made all of the decisions regarding the foods we carried and the items we sold, and our small staff became a family.

I was the first (and sadly the last) person to host a major local radio show dedicated solely to pet care. I did not allow advertisements because I did not want anyone to think that we were endorsing the advertisers because they had money to pay for ad space. Instead, we produced our own advertisements and paid for the show ourselves. I found it reprehensible that companies wanted to sell poor product using our reputation. That KDKA show provided one hour of pure pet care information. Our staff gave their time to produce that weekly one-hour radio program. I’d like to thank my co-host Rob Pratte for his help in making the show a success. People still recognize my voice and comment on how much they enjoyed the show all these years later.

We also published Pittsburgh’s first pet care magazine. Total Pet Magazine dealt with all manners of pet care. We even discussed cows and horses. I considered it an opportunity to share more personal and more thorough observations about topics like nutrition and food storage. Technical topics that required a bit more study than a quick in-store conversation.

I’m proud of our accomplishments. I wish we could have done more, but we perhaps limited ourselves from the very beginning because we wanted to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. I want our Total Pet customers to know that we appreciated each and every one of you. Getting to know you and your pets has been a wonderful reward for our efforts.

Even though our stores are closing I will remain a resource of information and experience for the community. I will continue to post pet care articles on the Total Pet blog. Watch for more information on Facebook in the coming weeks as we finalize details. I will continue to write these articles because I appreciate the animals in our lives. 50 years of animal husbandry experience shouldn’t go to waste.

Even though this is a bittersweet good-bye from our Total Pet family, it is not a permanent farewell. Thank you – all of you – for making Burton’s Total Pet your favorite Pittsburgh pet supplies store for the last 26 years.

Grain-Free Diets and Mass Confusion

Grain-Free Diets and Mass Confusion

In early July 2018, the FDA released an alert about a possible connection with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs fed grain-free diets. The release understandably caused quite a stir among pet parents who for the past 10 years have believed such diets were preferable. The following post digs a little deeper into this issue. Trying to clarify the confusion about Grain Free Recipes and the Recent FDA Report will take a bit of explanation.

On July 12, 2018, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert regarding a possible connection with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs fed grain free diets. This was done as a precautionary measure. The precautionary measure offered no solutions and just caused a scare among dog owners. This is the sort of thing that causes paranoia. Paranoia leads to knee-jerk reactions among pet owners, retailers, various pet food brands that produce and sell these diets, and the Internet community (which wastes no time in jumping to violent conclusions without any real information).

Let’s start with what we know. We don’t know if any of the approximate 100 dogs affected ate the same food. We don’t even know if the food was one brand or many brands – just that it was “grain-free.”

Some dogs also come genetically predisposed to Dilated Cardiomyopathy. King Charles Spaniels, for example. Is this because their heart structures predispose these dogs to DCM or is it because they don’t adequately absorb cysteine, methionine, and/or taurine. Is it because their liver enzyme prevent the production of taurine from cysteine and methionine? It’s one of my favorite phrases because it’s almost always true – more research is required.

The current issue has affected a small population of dogs (less than 100). There has not been a direct link established regarding the cause, but diet is a suspected component.

What should pet food manufacturers consider doing to address this issue? The balance and levels of bioavailable methionine and cysteine are of critical importance. All pet nutritionists should be evaluating diets for these key amino acids. Canine diets should have adequate levels of naturally occurring methionine, cysteine and taurine.

rawz dog food

The RAWZ recipes and those like RAWZ appear to be the best approach. At this time, however, we have to look at the underlying issues of inadequate key amino acids that may ultimately result in other nutritionally related diseases. Even once we’ve come to a conclusion on this DCM problem, we need to remain focused on the root causes of nutritional inadequacies that are caused by improper ingredient selection and processing degradation of those ingredients. Currently we’re just not considering these issues when our pets have a problem.

Only with a sound and prudent approach to making changes that further balance pet diets, can we provide balanced, superior nutritional profiles. Will it cost more? YES. The alternative is keeping our collective heads in the sand. If we choose ignorance, of course we can justify spending less on food that might cause long-term harm to our pet’s health. I’m offering this alternative in jest, of course. WE SHOULD ALL WANT TO KNOW MORE.

At this juncture, however, we need to look at what is available (rather than what is not). As I said, I like RAWZ (or diets like that) for both dogs and cats. RAWZ has high protein quality because it is 100% rendered-free. Available protein and amino acid profiles are retained to a greater percentage due to less processing.  Dehydrated proteins and real meats contain higher levels of naturally occurring methionine, cysteine, and taurine compared to some excessively processed meals, such as chicken meal or fish meal. Taurine supplementation has always been added to all RAWZ dry recipes (both canine and feline). RAWZ is a non-profit company (whatever that means in terms of their business practices I do not know) but I believe they have our pets best potential in mind.

Unfortunately determining the best ingredients is still a bit like driving through a London fog, for the consumer and the nutritionist alike. Nutritionists are not always in charge of ingredient quality. It’s a slippery slope. To confuse matters even further, a protein in certain plants called lectins has recently been shown to be detrimental to our digestive system. It seems to cause digestive issues that can create allergies and autoimmune diseases. These somewhat toxic plant proteins will affect our immune system by damaging the digestive tract.

The plants most implicated at this point belong to the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant). Pressure cooking can neutralize lectins in legumes, but the lectins in most grains and nightshades are a different matter. Those lectins do not seem to be heat labile. Since these findings are in their infancy we need to see how they play out. For more information about lectins read Dr. Steven Gundry’s The Plant Paradox.

Nutrition might be a science, but some days it feels more like an art form.

Has there ever been a similar situation with DCM and dogs? 

In late 1990’s there were a number of dog breeds reported with DCM in which diet may have been associated. In these cases, the suspected diet type was based on lamb meal and rice and formulated for maintenance (lower protein and not as well fortified). The dogs were generally large breeds (e.g. Newfoundlands). It was postulated that low circulating taurine was the cause and may have been due to inadequate taurine syntheses in the liver. This may serve as an early indicator of shortcomings in sulfur-containing amino acid supply (methionine and cysteine).

Was the lamb naturally short on sulfur-containing amino acids? The result of studies indicated that lamb meal was very low in cysteine and methionine. These meat meal products are processed at high heat without a lot of research to determine the effects of high-heat cooking quality food products. We do know that canning and rendering causes substantial degradation of protein quality. Rendering is more detrimental to ingredient quality than canning. Studies have shown reduced levels of taurine in cats fed some rendered foods. Fortunately for cats, taurine has been added to most cat diets because of resulting cardiomyopathy in the early days of manufacturing kibble. The cat seems to manifest the disease earlier than dogs and manufacturers found that out the hard way when the first kitty kibbles came on the market. I’m sure these manufacturers also claimed these diets were “all your cat needs.” Never listen to a manufacturer that claims any single diet is all your pet needs to survive. FULL STOP.

So, is there anything inherently wrong with grain-free diets? First, it must be understood that taurine is synthesized in the liver from sulfur amino acids methionine and cysteine. If there is an inadequate supply of these amino acids from plants then it stands to reason there will be a shortage of taurine. We also know that taurine may be depleted by certain food ingredients. Legume seeds like peas, lentils and chickpeas have low levels of methionine and cysteine and plants do not produce taurine. Thus, these ingredients must be paired with complementary proteins like those from animal sources. I found scarce reports in the literature evaluating the legumes or tubers on canine or feline taurine levels. There was some indication that soybean (a legume seed) protein decreased taurine in feline plasma. Another reason to avoid soybean meal in carnivore diets.

As it turns out, legume seeds can be rich in oligosaccharides, which could, at higher levels, lead to more fermentation and ultimately lower taurine. We need more study in that area since, for humans, fructose oligosaccharides are an important digestive fiber.

What should we consider doing to address this issue? First, gather more information through broader studies of DCM. There may be some common aspects to the previous issues in the 1990’s that have been overlooked.

It is unlikely that all grain-free diets are actually implicated despite the early scare. It might be only one or two. It’s also possible the animals were already predisposed to the condition. Furthermore, the balance of bioavailable methionine and cysteine are of importance. Nutritionists should be evaluating their diets for the bioavailability of these key amino acids.

Ultimately WE ALL NEED TO GET BACK TO BASICS. I’ll beat this drum until every pet food manufacturer’s ears bleed. We need to look to the animals’ primitive diets for guidance.

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.