Thoughts on Hand-Feeding Marine Aquarium Fish and Inverts

Hand-feeding can be a great way to interact with fish in your aquarium

Hand-feeding can be a great way to interact with fish in your aquarium

Part of the fun of keeping marine aquariums is reaching that stage where the fish come to recognize you as the supplier of victuals—the face that always peers into the tank right before food hits the water. Some hobbyists might wonder whether it’s okay to build on that familiarity by actually hand-feeding their aquatic pets.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I routinely hand-feed New Life Spectrum pellets to my percula clownfish, and I have to admit I get a kick out of it (even if the darn thing now attacks my hands relentlessly any time I put them in the tank). I simply pinch some pellets between my thumb and index finger, hold them under water near the surface, and let the clown swim up and pluck them out.

So I say, if you want to experiment with hand-feeding your fish, go for it. Just be sure to take the following into account before you do:

Wash your hands first!

Your hands can be a source of all kinds of contaminants that could potentially be harmful to marine life. Be sure to wash and rinse them thoroughly before hand-feeding.

Beware sharp teeth and venomous spines

If your fish have the capacity to inflict a nasty bite with sharp/powerful dentition (such as triggers, puffers, or morays) or sting you with venomous spines (such as lionfish or rabbitfish), hand-feeding isn’t such a bright idea. You may think your beloved aquatic pet would never bite the hand that feeds it, but even if it doesn’t do so offensively, it may simply lose track of where the food ends and your fingers begin in all the excitement.

You can still interact directly with biting/stinging fish at feeding time, but instead of presenting the food with your bare hands, you should use a feeding stick or aquarium tongs to deliver the morsel.

Remember, no means no!

Fish that are outgoing and sociable by nature will usually take to hand-feeding fairly quickly once they learn to associate their owner with food. On the other hand, shy, skittish species may never warm to the practice. For them, a hand extending into the tank may just evoke fear and cause them to dash for cover at feeding time. If your attempts at hand feeding seem to be inducing stress in any of your tank inhabitants, it’s time to suspend operations. You don’t want any of your fish missing meals because they’re too frightened to come out of hiding.

Some inverts like hand-feeding too

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, cleaner shrimps (Lysmata spp.) provide the most entertaining hand-feeding experiences. In fact, they’ll quickly learn to climb right onto your hand and explore every crease and fold in search of something edible. If you aren’t put off by the prickly sensation of a shrimp clambering over your hand and up your arm, I highly recommend it.

Never hand-feed in the wild

Note that all the preceding discussion on hand-feeding applies strictly to aquarium specimens. As with any wild animal, you should never hand-feed fish in the wild. Doing so disrupts their natural foraging behavior and may cause them to become dependent on handouts. Not to mention, predatory species may come to associate people with food, which can lead to negative encounters.

For a more comprehensive explanation of why hand-feeding wild marine life is a bad idea, read this article on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. I love feeding my fish and all ways wash your hands before feeding them

  2. Paul Baldassano says

    As for hand feeding in the wild, I remember once about 15 years ago I was diving in Cozumel and I saw a huge green Moray eel. The thing was about 10 or 12 feet long as it was in a large rock as large as a VW bug with his head was sticking out one side and his tail, the other.
    I pointed it out to the guy behind me to like take a picture or something.
    The guy thinking he was Jaques Cousteau swam up to the cute little fish and wanted to tickle it under his chin.
    The fish, never having met Mr. Cousteau was not amused and proceeded to grab the “Wanna Be” Oceanographer right up to his elbow. Then he was shaking him back and fourth. Blood at that depth appears black and it was swirling all around. This vacation cost me a small fortune and the dive was not cheap. We were a 2 hour boat ride from shore so I was hoping the eel would finish him off completely before anyone noticed and I could go about my diving. Then I could say OMG where’s Joe, or John, whatever his name was. But no such luck. The eel probably just ate a small whale shark and was full, so he spit out “Joe” or “Ralph” who was now screaming underwater while I was trying to hide my laughter. I mean, Really! A diver should know that a wild 12′ Moray eel does not like to play silly games and he certainly doesn’t watch National Geographic so he doesn’t know he is supposed to let people tickle him.
    So we spent the rest of the day in the hospital waiting for Cousteau.

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