Why Do Fish Spit Their Food Out When Eating? 9 Possible reasons

The majority of fish keepers will spend at least a little time watching their fish dine on the tasty morsels that they have popped into the aquarium. It’s part of the fun of keeping fish; watching them launch into excited frenzies at the sight of food!

Why do fish spit their food out when eating? Not all fish immediately gobble up their flake, pellet, worms, or whatever is on today’s menu. Rather, some appear to play with their food. They take it in their mouth, then spit it out, sometimes repeating this pattern over and over.

The problem with ‘food spitting’ fish is that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they have eaten anything at all. For fish keepers, this can be worrying. Are their fish ill? Are they going to starve? Is something terribly wrong?

Why Do Fish Spit Food Out?

There are many reasons why a fish may be spitting its food out, some of which are harmless and should cause no worry. However, there are also reasons for concern regarding this, especially if the fish in question is not eating anything at all.

Full/Not Hungry

Though this would be an unusual state of affairs, it is entirely feasible that your fish spitting their food out indicates little more than that they are full or plain not hungry. However, if your fish refuses food on a regular basis, for more than one or two feedings, it could indicate there is a problem such as illness or stress.


Food Boredom

Imagine eating burgers and chips for every meal, every day for the next few weeks; you’d soon be bored right? Well, your fish can feel exactly like you and tire of the same old offerings. This is only something to worry about if you don’t change their diet, make it more varied, and mix things up. A food bored fish, you see, can soon turn into a fish that refuses to eat altogether.

Food Dislike

Not all fish will enjoy the foods you are feeding them just because they are suitable for the particular species. Fish food is not ‘one size fits all’. As with food boredom, you may, in this case, need to shake things up and change the diet you are feeding. Take care, however, that they are still getting the nutrients of the diet that they require. Failing to do so could lead to sickness, and potentially even death.

fish feeding

Mouth Problems

If fish have problems with their mouths such as deformities, ulcers, tumors, or stuck pieces of gravel, it could become difficult for them to eat. Try to inspect your fish as closely as you can to ensure that this can be ruled out as a problem. If there are medical issues it is unlikely there will be much you can do, so you should just try to find a more easily palatable food type.

Gill Problems

Fish need to flex their gills whilst eating and parasites can prevent this from happening. If you think this may be the reason your fish is spitting out the food you should be medically treating them. Signs to look out for regarding parasites are spots, a slimy coat, and the parasite itself.


Fish that are suffering from infection or illness most commonly stop eating altogether. However, some may still try and will resort to spitting the food back out if they’re too tired to consume it. This food spitting should be of high concern to you as the underlying cause for it will need to be deciphered and acted upon. Other signs that it is illness related are being lethargic, slow swimming, and other unusual for the fish species behavior.

Water Quality/Stress

Fish commonly eat less when they are feeling under stress. Common causes of stress could be illness, poor water quality, being picked on, and having to compete for food. Again this food spitting behavior should be of concern to you as if you do not discover what the underlying issue is and deal with it your fish could stop eating altogether.

How to do a water change
Cleaning and maintaining good water quality is essential for your fishes health

Softening/Breaking Up Pieces

This is probably the most common cause of fish spitting out food in the home aquarium. It can be easily recognized by the fact that your fish will do this repeatedly with the same piece of food. It indicates that the food that you are giving them is either too hard or too large for them to eat in one go. This is easily solved by crushing food smaller or pre-soaking before feeding.

Just Playing

Though there is no evidence to back this up, it is entirely possible that fish are simply playing with their food when they spit it out. After all, it is not unheard of for animals to play with what they are about to eat, cats and mice being a fine example.

Conclusion: Why do fish spit their food out when eating?

Whilst many fish species are known to spit food on a regular basis (Betta, Goldfish, Koi, Angelfish, Cichlids), it is important not to become complacent about it. Whilst it could indicate little more than they are softening up a tough piece of flake, it could also mean that they are ill or unable to eat.

Always keep an eye on your fish during feeding time and look for anything unusual. This way you can nip in the bud any problems your fish may be having feeding, and if they’re not just enjoying lunchtime!