So, you love your fish. As you sit and watch your scaled friend, you may also be wondering, can my fish love me back?
It’s widely debated, but technically, yes. But it depends on how you define “love.”
Fish are able to recognize their owners and seek pleasurable experiences. As they remember your face and correlate it with pleasurable experiences like eating or being pet, they may learn to show affection in some ways.
The way you interpret fish affection is up to you. Experienced fish owners and researchers say that fish can show affection in their behavior… If you look close enough.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- Do fish have emotions?
- How do fish show their emotions?
- What could love to look like in fish?
If you want to know just how close your bond with your fish could be, read on!
Do Fish Have Emotions?
Yes! Fish have much more complex emotions than they’re given credit for. (*)
Lots of people think fish are incapable of emotions or feelings, but science shows that isn’t true. Fish are actually capable of a significant range of emotions, some even greater than other types of animals such as primates.
Research shows that fish are capable of both pessimism and optimism and that these moods change their behavior.
For example, one study put two male fish in a tank and released a female to pick one as her mate. She may have picked the one with the larger fin or the shinier scales… Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. (*)
Once she picked one, the female was forced to stay in a tank alone with the male she didn’t pick. Awkward.
Later, when presented with a task, the female fish stuck with their forced male partner (we already said awkward, right?) refused to complete the task. Females who were placed in a tank with their chosen mate, however, did complete the task.
This study suggests to scientists that fish are capable of moods and emotion, as the female fish in a negative mood were less motivated while those with positive moods were more motivated.
In other fish studies, scientists have noted that fish seek pleasurable experiences and avoid painful ones.
For example, fish that get parasites sucked off of them by other fish may return for more “massages” throughout the day, even if they don’t have any parasites on them. This indicates that fish have a concept of seeking pleasure outside of what’s necessary for survival.
They also remember painful experiences and register them as negative encounters. For example, fish that have once been caught by an angler will typically not return to the spot they were once caught in.
Given these studies, it’s clear that fish definitely have emotions and feelings similar to our own.
How Do Fish Show Their Emotions?
It may be hard for you to tell when your fish is showing their emotions. After all, they can’t exactly smile or speak to discuss a potential issue with you.
Could you imagine your fish popping up at the top of the tank to request an earlier feeding time?
If you spend a lot of time observing your fish, you could notice behaviors between them and other fish or even yourself that could be an indication of their emotions.
As we mentioned earlier, some of the common ways fish reveal their internal feelings are by:
- Avoiding pain or negative experiences
- Seeking out pleasurable experiences
- Defending other fish
If you notice any of the behaviors discussed in the below sections, this may be your fish showing you their emotions!
Like humans, fish don’t like bad experiences. Once they’ve had one, they go out of their way to avoid it at all costs.
We see this in popular fishing spots. Fish that have been hooked once may spend their time elsewhere to avoid being hooked again. (*)
They’ll also avoid other potentially painful situations by avoiding sharp objects or avoiding aggression with other fish. Though we hope your aquarium sees mostly harmony, you may see some territorialism in your aquarium if you have any fish that don’t like each other.
Scientists showed in one study that fish that “lose” in an aggressive encounter become timider in future aggressive encounters. They did this by training fish to enter one chamber in a tank for food, but chasing them with a net if they tried going into the wrong chamber. (*)
Once those fish were put in a tank with another aggressive fish, they were less likely to enter any chambers. Immobility, hiding, and fleeing are common amongst fish that have previously had a negative aggressive experience.
Fish that don’t like other fish will actively avoid them if they don’t show aggression first.
This is not only a testament to the incredible memory of fish, but to their emotions in response to negative situations.
Fear and nervousness are emotions. From these studies, it’s clear fish can show these emotions through their physical behavior including actions and body language.
If you notice your fish behaving like this frequently, consider putting it in a different aquarium, especially if you see frequent aggression with other fish. Your main tank may not be a good fit for them, and the stress of being in an environment with an established enemy may cause your fish long-term stress.
Fish actively seek pleasurable experiences in many aspects of their lives. If you care greatly for your fish, you’ve probably seen more positive emotions from them than negative.
Believe it or not, some fish enjoy being pet. Just like in cats or dogs, petting can be a great stress relief for your fish. (*)
If you’ve ever petted your fish, you may see them swim to the surface when you approach the tank. They may even follow your hand in the water if you’re doing any work in the tank such as removing items or feeding. (*)
This behavior of your fish chasing you means they know you’ll show them affection. They are actively seeking for you to make them happy.
Fish do the same thing with food. If your fish swim to the top of the tank the second you pick up the food jar, you know they’ve got you memorized as the food god. (*)
Your fish returning to you or showing recognition of you shows they associate you with positive emotions. Their lack of fear and willingness to be vulnerable shows they trust you.
So, when your fish comes to the surface to be petted or fed, or when it follows your finger as you run it along with the glass, remember that your fish thinks you’re pretty cool too.
Defending Loved Ones
Finally, fish show their emotions when they defend other fish. This can be seen in fish who protect their mates from predators by fighting the predator themselves.
If fish didn’t have emotions, they wouldn’t care about a predator attacking their mate. But they do, which shows that fish are capable of complex emotions similar to other animals.
You may have seen this in your own tank. Perhaps one fish in a mating pair has fought with another fish, either to show dominance or to defend their mate.
That’s your fish’s way of caring for their mate. They have territorial instincts over their mate and don’t want another fish to hurt or steal their girl.
Isn’t that romantic?
Is This Really Love?
Alright, we’ve talked about fish emotions and how they show those emotions, but let’s return to our initial question.
Can fish love their owners?
The bottom line is fish can show emotions and affection. We see it between mates and between parent-child pairs.
We even see it between fish that aren’t related, as fish have been known to develop “friendships” with other fish. In the same way, they can develop enemies and show aggression when protecting loved ones. (*)
If we consider this, it isn’t totally out of the question that fish could love their owners too.
If you consider a fish’s ability to:
- Recognize you
- Have positive feelings towards you
- Be affectionate in his own fishy ways
As love, then yes, fish can love their owners.
If you see this as a fish showing basic survival behavior, then you may consider fish unable to love their owners.
Ultimately, it depends on your perspective. If you believe it’s love, there’s no harm in calling it, love.
Even if you aren’t sure if your fish loves you, you can at least say you know they have feelings the same way other animals do. This can help you interact with them more positively than before.
If you love your fish, does it really matter if they love you back? At a minimum, you know they have positive emotions approaching “appreciation” towards you for keeping them alive.
For many, that’s more than enough.
Let us know if you learned anything from this article. If you have other aquatic questions, let us know in the comments and we may write on your question for our next article!