Do Fish Like Being Petted? [What Owners Will Want To Know]

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When most people think about a pet that can be stroked, loved, and physically interacted with, they would think of a cat or a dog, or perhaps a rabbit or guinea pig. One animal that they might not associate with physical affection is the fish. After all, they are scaly, live in water, and certainly aren’t cuddly. But does that mean that your fish cannot be petted?

There are some species of fish that love to be petted. With there being more than 33,000 types of fish, it’s not surprising that some like a little physical interaction. That said, even if your fish does like to be touched, this might not always be the best idea.

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Petting Your Fish – Do They Like It?

There are some species of fish that do not want to be touched at all and this is something that owners should always respect. The last thing that you want to do is cause your fish unnecessary stress which could ultimately kill it.

However, there are some types of freshwater and saltwater fish that love some physical interaction with their humans. Koi are one of the most well-known examples of this and many owners will successfully bond with their fish to the point of being able to hand feed them and stroke them as they come up to the surface of the water to say hello.

Another great example of a fish that loves to be petted is the grouper. However, you should always be careful when touching your fish as a gentle approach is almost always needed. Unless you’re petting a great white shark; but we’d never recommend that!

Over time, if you are patient and touch your fish in the right way, there may come a time that they will approach you for petting. After all, most animals respond well to pleasurable stimuli, and being petted is something that feels good whether you are a human, a dog, or a fish! This is in exactly the same way that all animals respond negatively to painful or unpleasant physical contact.

Is It Safe To Touch Your Fish?

No matter what anyone says, if owners want to pet their fish, they are going to pet their fish. However, it can be helpful to understand the downsides of doing this before making a decision. For the most part, touching a pet fish isn’t a good idea and should be reserved only for situations where it is absolutely necessary.

The best way to handle a fish is by using a fish net; after all, this is what they are designed for. However, this method can still be stressful for the fish and so, once they are in the aquarium, it is best to leave them alone and observe them unless there is an emergency that requires you to handle them in any way.

Even tougher fish, that are seemingly robust, may become hurt or injured from improper touching. If you really must touch your fish, we will detail the best way to do this later on. But when making a decision on whether to pet your fish or not, you may wish to consider how it could hurt them.

Fish have a layer of slime that covers their skin and this acts as a barrier which protects the fish from bacteria that may be in the water. However, when you touch the fish, it is entirely possible that this coat is rubbed off, leaving the fish susceptible to infection and bacteria.

What’s more, if you pick your fish up and are too harsh, this can lead to damage to the fins and gills. In the worst cases, these injuries can be fatal. Moreover, fish are sensitive animals and it is perfectly possible to cause a significant amount of stress just by touching them. As they attempt to get away, in a panic, they may cause themselves an injury.

Now, while we would always advocate for the protection of the fish, there is also your own safety to consider. Depending on the type of fish you have, there could be a possibility of being exposed to toxins. Most fish kept in home aquariums are relatively harmless, but exposure to low-level toxins from the fish’s spines over time could lead to symptoms.

But there are some fish whose toxins are far more potent and could cause some serious health issues just from a single touch. These include species such as rabbitfish, Foxface fish, and lionfish.

What’s more, if you don’t correctly maintain your aquarium, there could be dangerous levels of ammonia and other chemicals that are not only harmful to the fish but also to you. If you put your hand into the water and have any abrasions or cuts, these chemicals could get inside and could cause further issues.

Petting Your Fish The Right Way

When you want to pet your fish, you should always make sure that your hands are clean. As we have discussed, human hands contain a variety of germs and bacteria that could get into the water and cause harm to the fish. The only way to prevent this, as much as possible, is to thoroughly wash your hands before putting them into the water. It may also be a good idea to use some sort of antibacterial solution or disinfectant on the hands.

When you are ready to pet your fish, you will need to make sure that you are very gentle. Fish do not like being handled harshly and you should never attempt to pick the fish up. The only time that this is acceptable is in an emergency situation where you are trying to prevent harm from coming to the animal.

Petting your fish should be done slowly and on the fish’s terms. Allow your fish to approach you rather than chasing it around the tank. This isn’t going to help you build any bonds and will likely scare the fish, reducing any chance of future physical contact. When petting your fish, you may attempt to offer food since, as we have learned already, some species will respond to being hand-fed. But this takes time and patience so you must be prepared to work at this interaction.

Referring back to our earlier point about the slimy layer on the fish’s skin, you must make sure that, during petting, this layer is not damaged as this could result in infections. Furthermore, you should remain mindful of the fish’s state of mind during the interaction.

If the animal seems in any way stressed or upset, you should back away. Most likely, a fish that doesn’t want to be petted will simply swim away so be sure to respect this and allow the fish its personal space. If you truly want to build a bond, you can return at a later date and try again.

Do Fish Recognise Their Owners?

Many people assume that fish are not the smartest animals on the planet but the opposite couldn’t be any more true. During a study performed by Oxford University, it was demonstrated that archerfish could differentiate between two human faces and this is promising for people who want to form a bond with their pet fish.

It isn’t such a wild stretch of the imagination to think that a fish would recognize its owner in the same way that a dog or a cat would. After all, animals tend to associate their owners with their source of food so it makes sense for them to recognize them.

A fish has eyes and a brain; two of the most important organs in being able to recognize something. While the brain function of a fish is far from being as complex as our own, it is more than enough to put two and two together and recognize a human.


You might be tempted to plunge your hand into your aquarium and pet your fish but this might not always be a good idea. There are, of course, some species of fish that love human interaction and will even bond with their owners, allowing them to hand feed and stroke them. But that doesn’t mean that you should do this. There are several reasons why petting your fish could do more harm than good but if you are going to touch your fish, it is essential to do it in the right way.

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