How Long Can A Fish Live Without Water? Here is what you need to know

Like all aquatic creatures, fish depend on water for their survival. Water contains dissolved oxygen gas which fish use their gills to extract from the water. Most, if not all fish species do not have the right type of anatomy to extract the oxygen directly from the air.

Despite all these, we never stop to think what will happen in case all that water is removed. Time and time again, I have always wondered to myself how long a fish can live without water. And if you are a pet fish keeper, you must have thought about it too. So, how long can a fish live without water? Let us find out the answer to this question together.

In this post, I am going to discuss this fish fact so that you are able to take good care of your pet fish. The information contained here will also help you understand one or two facts about fish that you love to catch.

How Does Fish Survive in Water?

The respiratory system of a fish enables it to spend almost its entirety in water. They do not rely on the atmospheric oxygen to survive as this would require them to swim to the surface. All the air they need is extracted from the oxygen dissolved in the water they live in.

As the water flows around the fish, it is passed through the gills which open to let the water in. The structure of the gills is such that their surfaces are covered with tiny blood vessels. These are the ones that extract the oxygen and then discharge the waste gases back into the water.

It is also worth noting that when taken out of the water, most fish subsequently suffocate and die after some time. The death occurs as a result of the arching and collapsing of the gills that are no longer in contact with the water.

As the fish swim, they get tired after a while and then rely on water currents for transportation. In this way, they will be in a position to conserve their energy and oxygen supplies when in water. The principle is basically the same for you and me.

While we have lungs that extract oxygen out of the atmospheric air, gills extract it out of the water. The reverse is however not true, and that’s why I would drown in water if I become submerged in it.

To be honest, I think the ultimate death when out of water is certain. It is only the time it takes that could be uncertain. And it is what forms the basis of today’s post.

How Long Do You Expect Fish to Live Without Water?

In the course of doing the research for this post, I could not find a definite answer to this question. The most obvious answer is that the duration depends on the species of fish under review. While some species would suffocate in a matter of minutes, others take longer.

Some years back, I read a story of a pet Goldfish which survived a massive 13 hours when out of the water. This pet fish had apparently accidentally leapt out of its bowl without the owner knowing. When she came back from work, she was surprised to find the fish still alive.

The reason behind this survival is down to the conditions in which a fish stays out of water in. I found out that as long as the gills of the fish stay moist, the fish can still breathe the dissolved oxygen in it.

Therefore, if a fish jumps out of the water and lands on the floor with some of that water, it still remains moist and stays for longer. Conditions such as whether the landing surface is non-absorbent or not and cool temperatures also determine how long a fish stays out of the water.

All in all, it seems this case of the goldfish is just a one-off occurrence. Most of the experts I interacted with were of the opinion that pet fish should never be removed from the water for more than 10 minutes. Most of them would not last for that long in dry conditions.

Which Species of Fish Stays Out Water for Longer

Not all fish species are created the same. As a fisher, I have come to appreciate the vast uniqueness among the fish species. It is no wonder some of them are more adapted to staying away from water than others. Let’s see the types of fish that would last longer on land.

Mangrove Rivulus    

There are several species of fish that are amphibious in nature. This means that they are able to live out of water typically. The Mangrove Rivulus is one such fish that is known to leap out of water when the habitat becomes too warm for comfort.

Over time, this fish have developed adaptations that enable them to breathe the normal air through their skin and not the gills while out of the water. Their specialized skin is what makes them stay longer out of water than most fish would.


When I heard that fish could live out of water, I couldn’t believe it. Then comes the Mudskipper which is capable of staying on land for most of its life. They have a super skin consisting of blood vessels close to the surface of the skin to absorb oxygen into their bloodstream.

The Walking Catfish

This unique species of fish have developed an extra organ which helps the gills to inhale oxygen from the air. The feature that strikes me most about this fish is the ability to “walk” or wiggle across roads after big rainstorms.

They propel themselves across the road by flexing the body forward, while using their pectoral fins as a propulsion mechanism.

Other fish capable of staying longer out of the water are:

  • Eels
  • Killifish
  • West African Lungfish


So, how long can a fish live without water? The straight answer is that it depends on the fish species. Some stay for hours, while others suffocate and die in a matter of minutes. Other fish species have also adapted to life without water just for any worse case scenario.

So, the next time you catch a fish, I would implore you to kill it as leaving it to suffocate to death is a cruel way to die.

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