How To Dispose of Dead Fish

When disposing of a dead pet fish, you’ll need to act quickly to prevent the tank’s conditions from deteriorating. That aside, fish become beloved members of our family, so it’s only natural you’d want to dispose of your fish in the right way.

When disposing of your fish, wear gloves to protect yourself from harmful diseases. A popular disposal method is to bury the fish in the yard or a potted plant. As long as it’s not too hot, you could also place it in a bin. Cremation and composting are also effective disposal methods. However, you shouldn’t flush dead fish down the toilet. The fish could block drainpipes and transmit diseases to native species. 

Before disposing of your deceased fish, place it in the freezer until you’re ready to dispose of it. This will prevent it from decomposing, giving you the chance to decide on your disposal method.

How To Check Whether A Fish Is Dead

Many fish appear dead, especially if they’re sick, but they’re actually alive and have slowed their bodies down to conserve energy. Some “dead” fish are, in fact, suffering from extreme lethargy.

Similarly, fish pretend to be dead to evade predators. Depending on what community fish you have in the tank, smaller fish become prey for larger species, causing them to adopt protection techniques.

Interestingly, some fish exhibit a death-feigning strategy called thanatosis to attack and subdue prey, as described by Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. Cichlids are known to adopt this predation strategy.

So, before getting rid of your deceased fish, you must determine whether it’s actually dead. To do this:

Check For Breathing

To check whether your fish is breathing, pay attention to the gills. If they’re not moving – even the tiniest bit – then the fish isn’t breathing.

However, bear in mind that some fish breathe through their mouths. If this applies to yours, look out for signs of shallow breathing, such as the body moving inwards and outwards or the mouth opening and closing. The fish is dead if the body and mouth remain completely still.

Observe The Eyes

The eyes are the window to the soul, so they say. They can also help you determine whether the fish is alive. If the eyes appear sunken, your fish is either dead or dying.

If you remove the fish from the water, the eyes won’t move and will stare motionless. Cloudy eyes are also a sign of death. The fish has either been dead for a while or was killed by a disease or ammonia poisoning. In contrast, the pupils will rotate downward if the fish is still alive.  

Feel The Body

Dead fish will feel stiff and rigid because Rigor Mortis has set in. If it’s soft or floppy, it’s either still alive or has only recently died.

For fish that jump out of the tank, examine the scales as you pick the fish up. Fish that have been out of the tank for a long time will feel dry and cracked because their bodies have become dehydrated. As a result, the fish can’t go back into the tank and will need to be disposed of.

disposing of dead pet fish

Check The Smell

As you’d expect, dead fish smell foul once the decomposition process sets in. If the fish has been dead a long time, the odor will likely be bad enough to make you gag.

As a result, the fish needs removing from the tank immediately. That’s because dead fish emit high levels of ammonia, causing the ammonia in the tank to rise to dangerous levels.

Is It Floating or Sinking?

While it sounds obvious, dead fish don’t swim. Instead, they either float to the surface or sink to the substrate at the bottom of the tank.

After death, smaller fish, such as guppies and tetras, tend to float. Larger fish, such as cichlids, sink to the bottom.

Most owners spot their fish floating at the surface once the gasses that have built up in the dead fish’s body causes it to rise. If you notice this in your tank, you’re likely dealing with a dead fish. However, check all the signs we’ve already mentioned to determine for sure.

What To Do With A Dead Fish

Now that you know your fish is definitely dead, you’ll need to dispose of the body safely.

If you’re not quite ready to dispose of your fish and need time to find a suitable method, place the corpse in an airtight plastic bag or container and place it in the freezer.

However, before disposing of the fish, remember to discard the plastic bag or container, as they won’t biodegrade and will stop your fish from naturally decomposing.

Here are some of the best ways to dispose of your dead fish:

Back Yard Burial

A backyard burial is one of the most popular and kindest methods. It allows owners to keep their pet close by, allowing them to visit whenever they want to do so.

Burying the fish in the soil is best, as it’ll absorb the fish’s nutrients, causing it to decompose naturally. However, to prevent animals from digging up the fish, you’ll need to place it at least one meter into the ground.

You can also bury your fish in a biodegradable fish casket, such as Paw Pods. They biodegrade 3-5 years after being planted, becoming part of the soil.

To memorialize your pet, plant a tree or plant where your fish is buried. Alternatively, create a mini headstone dedicated to your deceased fish. You could even place a chair or memorial bench where your fish is buried so that you can sit near it on a warm, sunny day.

Potted Plant Burial

A sustainable method that many owners feel comforted by is to bury their fish in a houseplant. While some people might be put off by having a decomposing fish in the house, burying a fish in a potted plant creates new life, continuing your fish’s life cycle.

It also helps protect the fish against wildlife who may dig the body up in the back yard. This is common in urban areas where foxes and wild dogs live.

As long as the plant pot is deep enough and there’s enough soil to cover the fish, there’ll be no foul odor. Instead, the soil absorbs the fish’s nutrients, allowing the plant or flower to grow.

Similarly, by choosing your favorite flower or plant, you’ll be reminded of all the happy memories you had with your fish. Also, if you move to a new house, you can take the fish with you. To carry out a potted plant burial:

  1. Wrap your fish in a biodegradable cloth or tissue.
  2. Find a medium-sized pot and fill it half way with soil.
  3. Lay your fish on the soil. Add another inch of soil over it.
  4. Pot your chosen plant or flower.

Remember to water your plant regularly, just like you would any other potted flora.

Put It In The Bin

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of burying their fish in their back yard or potted plant. Instead, you could put the fish in a waste bin. This isn’t a sentimental burying method, but it gets rid of the fish more safely than flushing.

However, this isn’t the best idea on a hot, sticky day. That’s because the dead fish will begin to smell foul as soon as it comes into contact with the heat. In turn, this will attract flies, turning your bin into an unpleasant maggot cesspit.

Similarly, this increases the chance of zoonotic diseases forming, putting you at risk whenever you put waste into the bin. This also risks the safety of sanitation workers coming into contact with the fish.

That being said, if you decide that this disposal method is best for you, wrap the body in an airtight bag or place it in a cardboard box to minimize the risk of contact. This should also keep flies away and lessen the smell.

The final option is to leave your pet fish in the freezer until bin collection day. That way, the fish isn’t left to rot in the waste can, and you won’t have to see it every time you open the bin.

Compost

Composting your dead fish is another viable disposal method and seems less callous than merely throwing it away.

Compost is added to soil to help plants grow and is made from organic materials. As a result, your dead fish could help provide the essential nutrients that plants need to thrive.

The only issue with composting dead fish is that it creates odor problems and attracts flies and animals, as described by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

However, a small fish should be fine, as long as it’s placed deep into the composting material. You can hide the odor by putting plenty of plant waste over the body and stomping on the pile.

If you don’t have a composter at home or don’t like the thought of dead fish in your pile, take your fish to a local composting center, which will do it for you. That way, your fish will live on through the plants it helps nourish.

Cremation

Cremation is a preferred disposal method for some fish owners. Burning kills all bacteria, parasites, and pathogens, making it one of the most hygienic ways to dispose of a fish.

However, before you start, you’ll need to know how to safely cremate a fish to avoid hurting yourself or setting something on fire. This disposal method isn’t for everyone, so you must think carefully beforehand about whether cremating your fish will amplify the grieving process for you. To cremate your fish at home, follow these steps:

  1. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Once hot, place the fish on a baking tray lined with baking parchment and a piece of aluminum foil.
  2. Keep the fish in the oven for 15 minutes, or until it feels completely dry.
  3. Once the fish is thoroughly dehydrated, leave it to cool for a few hours.
  4. Find a fire-proof pot and place the fish inside. Build a fire, monitoring it at all times.
  5. Once the fire and embers are hot, place the pot on the embers.
  6. After a little while, the fish will turn to ash. Leave it to cool completely before taking it out of the pot.

Once you have the ashes, you can place them in an urn or turn them into a piece of memorial jewelry.

Bear in mind that depending on where you live, cremation might not be legal. As a result, there are many small pet cremation services available that will cremate your pet fish and return the ashes for you. Similarly, a vet may be able to provide the same service.

Take The Fish To A Local Pet Store

Some pet stores will take your deceased fish for a small fee. This is a good option if you’re grieving and don’t know which option is best for your fish. Similarly, you might want to do this if you have children who are too young to deal with death.

Not all fish stores will do this, so get in contact beforehand to avoid a wasted trip. Bear in mind that they may not be able to get the ashes back to you, so only choose this option if you’re willing to say a permanent goodbye.

Pet Cemetery

There are many pet cemeteries that offer a full burial or cremation service. This is an excellent disposal method if you don’t have a garden or soil to dig into.

Most pet cemeteries allow owners to choose a plot, casket, and grave marker. After the fish is buried or cremated, you and your family can visit the plot whenever you like to pay your respects.

Can You Flush A Dead Fish Down A Toilet?

Flushing a dead fish down the toilet is one of the most common forms of disposal. Unfortunately, the popular animated film Finding Nemo romanticized the false idea that all drains lead to the ocean, encouraging owners to flush their fish down the toilet.

However, despite the method’s popularity, it’s also one of the most irresponsible ways of getting rid of a dead fish. This is because of the following reasons:

Disease Transmission

If a fish died of a contagious disease or parasite, it could pass these harmful pathogens to native fish living in wild waters. This devastates local fish populations, throwing the natural ecosystem out of sync. Contagious health conditions include:

Similarly, it’s unsanitary to dispose of a dead fish in a bathroom. Again, the pathogens may linger in the toilet bowl, posing a health risk to you and your family. As a result, you’ll need to sanitize the entire bathroom to remove any harmful bacteria and germs.

Blocked Pipes

Flushing fish down the toilet isn’t good for the environment. Even the smallest fish can block the drain – and there’s little way of knowing what condition your drains are in. If they’re completely clear, you might not have a problem, but it’s an expensive risk.

It’s not uncommon for big fish or groups of dead fish to get stuck within the drainage system, as they’re too big for the drains to cope with. As a result, they cause blockages that stop the toilet from flushing correctly.

Not only that, but if the fish gets stuck without you realizing it, it’ll decompose within the drainage system, causing a foul odor within your bathroom.

Toilets are only suitable for toilet paper and human waste, so don’t give in to the temptation to flush your dead fish.

Can You Feed A Dead Fish To Other Pets?

If you have pets that love the taste of fish, you might be tempted to feed the carcass to them instead of disposing of it. After all, why let good meat go to waste?

This is actually a bad idea. There isn’t enough research to determine which diseases are zoonotic between fish and domestic pets.

As a result, you could be exposing your cat, dog, or other domestic animals to harmful bacteria and pathogens. This means there’s too much risk of your pet becoming unwell.

Similarly, small bones could get stuck inside your pet’s throat. They could also perforate their stomach or intestines as the fish is digested, causing internal injuries.

It’s difficult to tell how long the fish has been dead. If the skin starts to decompose, your pet could become physically unwell after eating the fish. If so, they’ll display physical signs of sickness, such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite

So, don’t feed dead fish to other animals in your household. Instead, dispose of it responsibly away from the house.

How To Dispose of Dead Fish

Can I Get Sick from Handling A Dead Fish?

You must be careful when handling a dead fish as it can transmit a range of zoonotic diseases, making you sick.

As described by Washington State University, most zoonotic diseases associated with fish are bacterial. That means you must wear gloves when handling dead fish. At the very least, you should wash your hands using antibacterial soap.

If you don’t, you’re at risk of the following health conditions:

Fish Handler’s Disease

Fish handler’s disease is also described as the following terms as it describes similar conditions:

  • Fish handler’s disease
  • Fish handler’s nodules
  • Fish tank granuloma
  • Fish tuberculosis
  • Erysipeloid
  • Mycobacteriosis
  • Piscine tuberculosis
  • Swimming pool granuloma

Fish handler’s disease is a nasty infection that gets into the skin through cuts and grazes. It occurs after handling affected fish or touching infected water. Signs of fish handler’s disease include:

  • Localized skin lesions, usually on the fingers and hands
  • Non-healing sores
  • Small red bumps
  • Fever
  • Enlarged Lymph nodes

Fish handler’s disease is difficult to diagnose because it shares similar symptoms with fungal infections, parasites, and cellulitis. However, if you develop these health issues after handling a deceased fish, that’s the most likely cause.

The only effective way to prevent the infection is to wear gloves when touching the dead fish and removing it from the aquarium.

Streptococcus Iniae

As described by the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, Streptococcus iniae is a bacterial pathogen carried by fish. It’s similar to fish handler’s disease but has different origins. It can infect humans, causing:

  • Cellulitis
  • Arthritis
  • Endocarditis
  • Meningitis
  • Death

Most people become infected by a puncture wound while handling infected dead fish. Similarly, anyone who develops the infection must avoid contact with live fish or aquarium water for a short while to prevent the condition from getting worse. Streptococcus iniae causes:

  • Local skin infections
  • Sepsis
  • Toxic shock syndrome
  • Inflammation of the skin

The infection can be treated with a course of antibiotics, but it can be uncomfortable before the treatment kicks in.

It’s sad when pet fish die. However, even though you’ll be grieving, don’t give in to the temptation of flushing it down the toilet. There are plenty of other dish disposal methods you can use to give your fish a good send-off without risking native wildlife or your drainpipes.