How to Make Koi Friendly (Hand Feeding Guide)

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How to Make Koi Friendly & Confident (Guide to Hand Feeding Koi)

Two koi looking at and recognizing their owner
Koi, just like many other fish, are actually very intelligent and can learn to recognise their owners.

Fish are, oftentimes, thought of as simply fish rather than as intelligent creatures. They’re often toward the bottom of the food chain, or kept as pets, and our human hubris can at times blind us to just how incredible and clever that they and other animals are.

However, studies are finding that many fish species have well-functioning long-term memories, reasoning, and even Machiavellian intelligence, which is the capacity for an organism to engage in effective, complex political engagements that result in changes to hierarchy and social functioning.

Previously, we thought that only humans, other great apes, canines, felines, and some bird species to be capable of this. However, many fish species are as well and koi are no exception to this. They are able to modify their behaviors and, to an extent, their personalities fairly quickly depending upon their needs and environmental conditions.

With all of that in mind, your koi have a tremendous capacity to think and learn. They can be shy creatures at first, but given enough time and patience to develop their personalities and confidence, koi can become playful, inquisitive, and even learn to eat from your hand!

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What Makes Koi Shy & Unfriendly?

When attempting to train your koi to eat from your hand, you must first assess your pond and fish themselves to determine if there are any factors that would cause them to feel shy, apprehensive, or stressed.

1) Personality

an example of several koi that are more outgoing at the surface of the pond and several shyer ones deeper in the water
Just like us, koi can have very different personalities, with some just being much shyer by nature.

Perhaps first and foremost, your koi’s personality determines whether or not they’ll feed from your hand. While, as mentioned above, their personalities are somewhat malleable, they will always retain their same basic character.

Think, for example, of yourself as a child. Generally your interests and underlying temperament stick with you throughout life, though they of course change and become either more concrete or abstract depending on your experiences in life. A child with an interest in dinosaurs may not become a paleontologist as an adult, but may still greatly enjoy learning about dinosaurs and prehistory as a hobby. And an independent child is likely to become an independent adult. Similarly, some fish are simply just naturally more reserved and aren’t likely to want to eat out of your hand, even if it means easy food and increased socialization with other fish and you.

2) Too Much Too Soon

A shy koi that prefers to stay near the cover of pond plants
New fish need time to adjust to their surroundings, and may be more skittish during this period.

Pushing your fish to eat from your hand is likely to achieve the opposite of what you want. Particularly with new fish, be sure to give them plenty of time to adjust to their new surroundings and feel comfortable. The process of acclimating them to hand feeding is one that is unlikely to happen in a matter of hours or days, but rather may take weeks or even months depending upon your fish and the overall environment.

3) Predators & Stress

A great blue heron waiting at the edge of a pond for koi
Predators around the pond will make koi much less likely to come to the surface to feed.

Understandably, if there are predators such as hawks, herons, snakes, or domestic or wild cats around, your koi will be less willing to come to the water’s surface and eat out of your hand.

Stressed fish are not likely to want to feed from your hand, or may not want to feed at all. Signs of a stressed fish include swimming on their side or upside down, scraping against rocks and the side of the pond, behaving erratically, lethargy, loss of color, ripped fins, gasping for air, and hiding. These can all be related to the above subheadings – lack of oxygen, skin flukes, poor water quality, predators or territorial fish, bacterial and viral infections, and so on all result in stressed fish and a myriad of symptoms.

4) Illness or Injuries

A koi with mild sunburn that has become uninterested in eating
Sickness or injury, such as sunburn, can cause stress and cause koi to become uninterested in food.

Ill or injured koi are prone to show less interest in food and, particularly, eating out of hand. Keep a close eye on your koi and check for skin lesions, misshapen fins, sunburn, odd swimming patterns, lethargy, and so on. These are all signs of illness and should be treated immediately!

5) Time of Year

Several koi in a pond during the winter
Water temperature drives a koi’s feeding habits, and they’re unlikely to be interested in food during winter.

The time of year and temperature heavily influences your koi’s feeding habits. The cooler that water is, particularly if it drops below 60° F (15.5° C), the less interest that your koi will have in food. This is because their bodies are prepping to enter torpor for the winter, wherein metabolism, activity, and digestion slow greatly to conserve energy until warm weather resumes. Don’t attempt to train your koi to hand feed during the winter, as it’s a moot effort.

6) Poor Water Quality

Two koi in very turbid, mucky, unhealthy water
Koi are not only intelligent, but sensitive too, and poor water quality can quickly cause stress and illness.

If your pond’s pH is off, has too little dissolved oxygen, is overcrowded, and so on, your koi will become unhappy, stressed, and potentially ill. Be sure to check your water quality at the same time each day and keep it within the needed parameters of koi!

How to Prepare Your Pond for Easier Hand Feeding (Tips & Tricks)

1) Use Quality Food

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Feeding your koi tasty and nutritionally balanced food increases the chances that they’ll want to approach your hand to feast on said tasty food! In addition to healthy pellets, suitable treats include spinach, citrus fruits, watermelon, cucumber, krill, crickets, bloodworms, raspberries, broccoli greens, and many other options.

2) Make The Pond Safer

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Using animal decoys, pond netting, noise machines, and scent marking will help deter predators. You should also incorporate hiding places for your fish via a variety of plants, fish tunnels and shelters, and/or pond shelves to help them feel safer.

3) Maximize Water Quality

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Again, check water quality at the same time each day. If needed, adjust pH, temperature, and water hardness as needed, but do so gradually so as to not stress or harm your fish. Incorporating more plants, increasing filtration, and boosting dissolved oxygen does not need to happen gradually.

4) Add More Fish!

So long as you’re not overcrowding your pond, adding a few more fish may help your koi to feel safer in a group and thus more comfortable and confident. As an added bonus, they’ll be more likely to follow any koi that do decide to feed from your hand!

How to Hand Feed Koi Carp (Routine & Advice)

Step 1: Build Trust & Familiarity 

A man sitting by a pond to build trust and familiarity with his koi
While feeding, slowly get closer and closer to the water each day – backing away if the fish are nervous.

After following the guidelines above, you should be ready to start trying to hand feed your koi! To begin, feed your koi as you normally would and sit by the pond as they eat. If they back away from the food and don’t return within a few seconds, slowly back up and give them some more space. Gradually move closer, either during that feeding or subsequent feedings – whichever your koi seem to do better with.

This will build trust and familiarity over time. Try to save more delectable foods, like shrimp and fruits, for this time. They will learn to associate them with your presence. Avoid any sudden movements, and try to make this a routine occurring at the same time each day.

Step 2: Choose the Same Feeding Spot (Or Use a Feeding Ring!)

A koi being fed quality pellets in the same spot each day
Choose the same spot each day for feeding, whether next to a lily pad or within a feeding ring!

When you feed the fish by hand, you’ll want them to come to a particular spot in the pond that you can comfortably reach and observe. You can purchase a feeding ring and anchor it to one spot, placing a small amount of their favorite foods in it. Over time, they’ll grow accustomed to eating in this area and gather here when they see you.

Again, sit as closely as you can and watch. Once the food is gone, get up, get more food, place it in the ring, and sit again. Repeat this several times. After a few days of this, if your fish seem comfortable with your presence, try placing your hand in the water, just holding it still as they get used to it being there. Make sure that your hands are clean first, to avoid getting any potentially harmful lotions, chemicals, etc. in their food or in the water.

Step 3: Slowly Start to Use Your Hands

Successfully hand feeding koi
Once you’re close enough, and your koi know where food will arrive, slowly start to use your hands!

Once your fish seem comfortable, or at least a couple of them do, you can try placing some high quality pellets or tasty treats in your hand. Focus on your more adventurous fish – don’t try to push any wary fish. They’ll eventually follow suit, if they want to, in their own time. Place your hand in the water, fist closed, and gently, slowly move it side to side and allow a couple of pieces to escape. This way, your fish will swim near your hand to eat the food, but don’t yet have to eat out of it.

Continue doing this, and eventually they will ascertain that the food is coming from your hand. Once they’re comfortable coming up to your hand, try not releasing any food for a bit. They might prod your hand hoping that more food will come out. If/when they do, release some more food. If they don’t wish to eat this way, stop the process. This way you’re not forcing them, and further trust will be built – they may be more likely to try the following day.

If they do eat this way, try slowly plunging your hand deeper, and see if more fish show interest. Shyer fish may not, and that’s alright. You can still open up your hand to present the remaining food; those that have already been comfortable enough to nudge your hand might be ready to eat out of it.

This whole process could take days, maybe weeks of repeating. Including the actions needed to properly prepare your pond as outlined above and make sure that your koi are healthy and happy, it could take months. Be patient! This cannot be stressed enough, as it’s the most important component of this entire

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