Reply To: Baby seahorse is floating

#108849
Pete Giwojna
Moderator

Dear Young:

If your young seahorse is struggling with positive buoyancy (the tendency to float) yet it does not appear to be bloated or swollen, then the problem is most likely due to hyperinflation of the swimbladder. An overinflated gas bladder can result from an infection of the anterior section of the swimbladder, and, in seahorses, it is often due to gas emboli forming within the choroid rete of the swimbladder (a form of gas bubble syndrome).

In either case, this problem indicates that there is something amiss with the conditions in your seahorse tank. If you can provide me with a little more information about your seahorse setup (i.e., the dimensions of the tank and the type of filtration you are using), Young, as well as the current aquarium parameters (water temperature, pH, specific gravity, and levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate), I will be able to advise you as to whether you should be making changes to the physical environment in order to prevent such problems in the future.

If there does not appear to be anything significantly out of line with your basic aquarium parameters, Young, then this problem was most likely triggered by a gradual increase in organic loading over the last several months due to the buildup of detritus, mulm, organic wastes, and dissolved organic compounds. In that event, you can best address the aquarium conditions by performing a series of water changes in conjunction with a general aquarium cleaning, installing micron filtration in one form or another (e.g., a micron filter cartridge or micron filter sock), followed by the regular addition of probiotics to your main tank. I will explain more about how best to proceed in that regard later in this e-mail, but first let’s discuss treatment options for your ailing seahorse.

The appropriate treatment for hyperinflation of the swimbladder is a regimen of broad-spectrum antibiotics combined with a good carbonic anhydrase inhibitor such as acetazolamide (brand name Diamox). The antibiotic that I recommend for this problem is TMP Sulfa, which is a synergistic combination of trimethoprim and sulfathiazole sodium:

TMP Sulfa (trimethoprim and sulfathiazole sodium)

USE: for treating bacterial infections, both gram-negative and gram-positive. The combination of trimethoprim plus sulfathiazole sodium retards resistant strains from developing. It exerts its antimicrobial effect by blocking 2 consecutive steps in the biosynthesis of the nucleic acids and proteins essential to many bacteria.

DOSAGE: add 1/4 teaspoon per 10 gallons of water every 24 hours, with a 25% water change before each daily treatment. Treat for a minimum of 10 days.
*More effective than triple sulfa.

You can obtain TMP Sulfa from National Fish Pharmaceuticals at the following URL:
http://www.fishyfarmacy.com/products.html

You would need to send away for the TMP Sulfa, Young, which would delay treatment by days, but you can substitute with Triple Sulfa, which is a combination of three different sulfa antibiotics that can be obtained at most well-equipped pet stores and fish stores, so you should be able to obtain the Triple Sulfa locally. It is not as effective as the TMP sulfa but it would allow you to begin treatment right away…

I should advise you that the sulfa antibiotics alone are unlikely to resolve this problem unless you can combine them with the acetazolamide (brand name Diamox) to counteract the tendency to form gas emboli.

Unfortunately, obtaining Diamox (the tablet form of acetazolamide) can often be a Catch-22 situation for hobbyists. It is a carbonic anhydrase inhibitor — a prescription drug often used for treating glaucoma, hydrocephaly, epilepsy, congestive heart failure, and altitude sickness in humans, so you have to get it from your Vet or perhaps your family doctor. Unfortunately, Veterinarians are often unfamiliar with Diamox — it’s very much a people med and unless you find a Vet that works with fish regularly, he or she will probably never have heard of gas bubble syndrome or treating it with carbonic anhydrase inhibitors. Many pet owners are on very good terms with their Vets, who are accustomed to prescribing medications for animals, so it’s often best to approach your Vet first about obtaining Diamox despite the fact they may never have heard of it until you brought it to their attention. Your family doctor, of course, will be familiar with such medications and have Diamox on hand but it can sometimes be difficult to get your MD to jump that final hurdle and prescribe it for a pet. Either way, it can be tough to get the medication you need under these circumstances.

Print out some of the detailed information that’s been posted regarding pouch emphysema and gas bubble syndrome (GBS) on the Seahorse Life and Care discussion forum at seahorse.com, and how it’s treated using Diamox, and present that to your family veterinarian and/or your family practitioner. Bring photographs of your floating seahorse and be prepared to bring the pony in for a visit, if necessary. (Veterinarians are prohibited by law from prescribing medications to treat an animal they have not personally seen and examined. If you have had a close personal relationship with your vet over a period of years, they are often willing to bend that rule in the case of fish, but you may well have to bring your stallion in for a quick checkup to get the desired results.)

You only need a handful of 250 mg Diamox tablets for the treatment regimen, so sometimes your family doctor or veterinarian will simply provide you with a half-dozen tablets that he or she has received as free samples, especially if you have a close relationship with the physician. Often that is your best hope.

Here are the instructions for treating your seahorse with the Diamox:

Acetazolamide Baths (prolonged immersion)

The recommended dosage is 250 mg of acetazolamide per 10 gallons with a 100% water change daily, after which the treatment tank is retreated with the acetazolamide at the dosage indicated above (Dr. Martin Belli, pers. com.). Continue these daily treatments and water changes for 5-7 days consecutively, and you should be aware that stubborn cases often require a second regimen of the medications, for a total of 6-10 days of treatment (Dr. Martin Belli, pers. com.).

The acetazolamide baths should be administered in a hospital ward or quarantine tank. Acetazolamide does not appear to adversely affect biofiltration or invertebrates, but it should not be used in the main tank because it could be harmful to inhibit the enzymatic activity of healthy seahorses.

Using the tablet form of acetazolamide (250 mg), crush the required amount to a very fine powder and dissolve it thoroughly in a cup or two of saltwater. There will usually be a slight residue that will not dissolve in saltwater at the normal alkaline pH (8.0-8.4) of seawater (Warland, 2002). That’s perfectly normal. Just add the solution to your hospital tank, minus the residue, of course, at the recommended dosage:

Place the affected seahorse in the treatment tank as soon as first dose of medication has been added. After 24 hours, perform a 100% water change in the hospital tank using premixed water that you’ve carefully aerated and adjusted to be same temperature, pH and salinity. Add a second dose of newly mixed acetazolamide at the same dosage and reintroduce the ailing seahorse to the treatment tank. After a further 24 hours, do another 100% water change and repeat the entire procedure until a total of up to 7-10 treatments have been given. About 24 hours after the final dose of acetazolamide has been added to the newly changed saltwater, the medication will have lost its effectiveness and the patient can be returned directly to the main seahorse tank to speed its recovery along.

One of the side effects of acetazolamide baths is loss of appetite. Try to keep the affected seahorse eating by plying it with its favorite live foods during and after treatment, until it has fully recovered.

Of course, when you are performing 100% daily water changes, you will also need to redose the aquarium with the sulfa antibiotics (either TMP Sulfa or Triple Sulfa, whichever is easier for you to obtain) on a daily basis.

You will need to set up some sort of a hospital ward to treat your seahorse, since the antibiotics can be harmful to the nitrifying bacteria and may impair the biological filtration in your main tank, and because you do not want healthy seahorses to be exposed to the Diamox, which suppresses appetite and inhibits certain enzymes.

Here’s how to set up your hospital ward quickly and easily:

Basic Hospital Tank

Live sand and live rock are not necessary in a hospital tank. A bare-bottomed aquarium with plenty of hitching posts will suffice for a hospital ward or Quarantine Tank (QT). Ideally, the hospital tank should have one or more foam filters for biofiltration along with a small external filter, which can easily be removed from the tank during treatment but which can hold activated carbon or polyfilter pads when it’s time to pull the meds out. It’s important for the hospital ward to include enough hitching posts so that the seahorse won’t feel vulnerable or exposed during treatment. Aquarium safe, inert plastic plants or homemade hitching posts fashioned from polypropylene rope or twine that has been unraveled and anchored at one end are excellent for a hospital tank. No aquarium reflector is necessary. Ambient room light will suffice. (Bright lights can breakdown and inactivate certain medications and seahorses are more comfortable and feel more secure under relatively dim lighting.)

So just a bare tank with hitching posts is all you need for your hospital ward. No heater. No reflector. No lights. No substrate. You can even do without the sponge filters or external filter in your case, just adding a couple of airstones to provide surface agitation and oxygenation. That’s it.

In a pinch, a clean 5-gallon plastic bucket (new and unused, NOT an old scrub bucket!) can serve as a makeshift hospital tank. It should be aerated and equipped with hitching posts and perhaps a heater, but nothing else. This makes a useful substitute when the Quarantine Tank is occupied or in use and a seahorse needs treatment.

Stay on top of water quality in the hospital tank/bucket with water changes as often as needed during treatment, and and when you are treating the occupants for a health problem, re-dose with the medication(s) according to directions after each water change.

In your case, Young, I would recommend setting up the clean 5-gallon plastic bucket as your hospital ward because you will be performing 100% water changes daily throughout the treatment, and the smaller water volume will make it easier to do so. In addition, the smaller water volume will require you to use less of the hard-to-obtain medications for each day’s treatment.

At the same time as you are treating your pony, you should also be working on correcting the conditions in your main tank to make sure that the seahorse has a healthy aquarium to return to, and to assure that your other seahorses remain healthy and free of any such problems.

Many times problems with positive buoyancy in small, closed-system home aquariums are associated with increased organic loading in the aquarium. Many times the seahorses will thrive in a new aquarium for several months, or perhaps even a year or two, with no difficulties, only to develop problems with hyperinflated swimbladders or other forms of GBS as time goes by. This is perplexing to the home hobbyist, because he or she is maintaining the tank just as he or she has always done, yet for no apparent reason, one or more of their seahorses suddenly seems to be plagued by problems with GBS.

Often such problems can be traced back to the gradual accumulation of detritus, mulm, waste products, and other organics over time. It is inevitable that organic loading in the aquarium slowly increases as time goes by, which leads to a gradual deterioration of the water quality due to the steady buildup of detritus, mulm, and other organic wastes. And there is always an increase in the numbers of undesirable or harmful bacteria whenever conditions begin to become less sanitary, as well. All of which begins to cause low-level stress for the seahorses at some point, which can lead to an increased incidence of GBS and other health problems.

I don’t know if any of this applies in your case, Young, but I do know reducing the amount of organics in the aquarium often pays big dividends for the home hobbyist and that concentrating on maintaining optimum water quality would be a good place for you to start in addressing this problem. Some of the steps you can take to reduce the amount of organics in your aquarium and improve the water quality are as follows: (1) improve the water flow and circulation in the aquarium, while increasing surface agitation and oxygenation; (2) improve your filtration system by adding a protein skimmer or upgrading the existing protein skimmer and installing a micron cartridge filter; (3) reduce the amount of organic matter that you add to the aquarium in the first place by adjusting your feeding regimen; (4) combine a major water change with a good general aquarium cleaning; and (5) add a good probiotic to your aquarium to decrease the amount of organic material through the activity of bio-enzymes and beneficial microflora.

Let’s discuss each of these measures in a little more detail. First and foremost, improving the water flow and increasing the surface agitation and oxygenation of your aquarium will have many benefits for your seahorses. You will want the filters to turn over the entire volume of your seahorse tank at least five times per hour, and using a spray bar return at the top of the aquarium to diffuse the water flow can allow you to achieve much higher turnover rates (> 10 times per hour) without creating too much turbulence for your seahorses. You’ll want to adjust the outflow the filters to eliminate any dead spots or stagnant areas where waste products may tend to accumulate. Good circulation will prevent pockets of harmful anaerobic decay and keep particulate matter suspended in the water column where the filters can remove it from the aquarium. Alternating the direction of the water flow is also helpful, as is increasing surface agitation to improve the oxygenation and facilitate more efficient gas exchange at the air/water interface. A simple air stone anchored just beneath the surface of the water can help to achieve this goal.

Improving the water circulation and surface agitation to increase the oxygenation will raise the levels of dissolved oxygen in the aquarium while eliminating excess CO2 via more efficient offgassing. You may notice that your seahorses become more active and have a better appetite, eating more aggressively, as a result, and elevating the levels of dissolved oxygen and reducing the levels of dissolved CO2 will also help to raise and stabilize the pH of the aquarium at the same time. This is important because the pH of the aquarium tends to drop over time, and low pH can be a contributing factor for gas bubble syndrome.

If you feel your seahorse tank already has as much water movement and circulation as the seahorses can handle, and that your surface agitation is also adequate, consider adding an Oxydator to your seahorse tank. An Oxydator is essentially an aquarium oxygenator that releases pure oxygen into the aquarium water in a controlled manner, thus raising the levels of dissolved oxygen while helping to decompose organics and other aquarium impurities in the process.

After you have addressed the water flow, surface agitation, and oxygenation in your seahorse tank, consider further improving the filtration system. If the tank does not already have an efficient protein skimmer, go ahead and install one. Although seahorses can certainly be kept successfully without the use of a protein skimmer, I recommend including a good skimmer for best results.

The majority of the undesirable metabolites, organic wastes and excess nutrients that accumulate in our aquariums and degrade water quality are “surface-active,” meaning they are attracted to and collect near the surface of a gas-liquid interface (Fenner, 2003). Skimmers take advantage of this fact by using a column of very fine air bubbles mixed with aquarium water to trap dissolved organics and remove them from our systems. This air-water mixture is lighter than the surrounding aquarium water and rises up the column of the skimmer until the foam eventually spills into a special collection cup atop the skimmer, which can be removed and emptied as needed. Proteins and other organic molecules, waste products, uneaten food and excess nutrients, and a host of other undesirable compounds stick to the surface of the bubbles and are carried away along with the foam and removed from the aquarium (Fenner, 2003a). As a result of this process, these purification devices are typically known as foam separators, foam fractionators, air-strippers, or simply protein skimmers.

In my experience, nothing improves water quality like a good protein skimmer. They provides many benefits for a seahorse setup, including efficient nutrient export, reducing the effective bioload, and increasing both the Redox potential and dissolved oxygen levels in the water (Fenner, 2003a). They do a tremendous job of removing excess organics from the aquarium, including phenols, albumin, dissolved organic acids, and chromophoric (color causing) compounds (Fenner, 2003a). Their ability to remove dissolved wastes BEFORE they have a chance to break down and degrade water quality makes them indispensable for controlling nuisance algae. A good protein skimmer is an invaluable piece of equipment for keeping your nitrates low and your water quality high when feeding a whole herd of these sloppy eaters in a closed-system aquarium.

If your tank already has a protein skimmer, consider upgrading to a larger, more efficient model, if necessary, and make sure that you are using the protein skimmer properly. It should be operated 24/7, around the clock, and it is important to keep it tuned and adjusted properly so that it yields a steady flow of dry foam into the collection cup, WITHOUT releasing clouds of micYoungubbles into the aquarium. The efficiency of the protein skimmer can be greatly increased if it is cleaned and maintain properly. This includes regularly cleaning the inside of the barrel where the bubble column works its magic, which is a step that many home hobbyists neglect to the detriment of their water quality.

It will also be very helpful to install a micron cartridge filter on your seahorse tank. A micron filter will literally polish the water on a microscopic level by removing even the finest particulate matter. Micron cartridges do an excellent job of helping to reduce dissolved organic compounds in the aquarium and, as an added benefit, they leave the water unbelievably clear, almost invisible (which is great for aquarium photography, by the way). If your filtration system cannot accommodate a micron filter cartridge, then install a micron filter sock instead are at least use a micron filter pad to provide mechanical filtration.

Once you have your filtration system up to snuff, it’s time to look at the amount of organics that you, the hobbyist, are adding to the aquarium on a daily basis and how you can cut back on any excesses in that regard. The aquarist is, of course, introducing organic matter into the aquarium in the form of the food he provides for the fish and invertebrates, as well as with any supplements he or she may be adding to the tank. You can make improvements in that area by being very careful to avoid overfeeding and diligently removing leftovers promptly. If you have been taking the quick, easy, lazy approach by broadcast feeding or scatter feeding your seahorses with the frozen Mysis, it’s time to put a stop to that immediately! Simply switching to target feeding or handfeeding your seahorses, or teaching them to take their meals from a convenient feeding station, can dramatically reduce the amount of wastage and spoilage at feeding time. And, you will soon discover that target feeding or using a feeding station are very fun, rewarding methods for feeding your ponies, and that they can make feeding time one of the highlights of your day.

Secondly, if you have been enriching the frozen Mysis for your seahorses using Selcon or Vibrance or some other enrichment formula, cut back on the amount of fortification that you are providing. It has been my experience that home hobbyists tend to overdo it when it comes to the enrichment process, possibly on the theory that “if a little is good for them, then a lot must be even better,” or perhaps simply due to confusion about the proper way to enrich Mysis. How can you tell if you are using too much of your enrichment product? If it washes off the frozen Mysis when you add the fortified shrimp to the aquarium water, then the high-calorie ingredients are simply being added to the aquarium water and not doing your ponies any good. Rather than helping to provide your seahorses with good nutrition, the enrichment formula instead is increasing the organic loading in the aquarium and degrading your water quality. A little bit of the enrichment powder, or concentrated liquid formulation, goes a long, long, long way when you are fortifying frozen Mysis, and if any appreciable amount of the enrichment product is washing off the Mysis when you feed them to the seahorses, you are using too much. Cut back accordingly and/or do without any enrichment at all for some of the seahorses’ feedings each day.

Aside from increasing the water flow and circulation in your seahorse tank, and upgrading the filtration system, one of the most important measures you can take to remove excess organics from your setup is to perform a general aquarium cleanup together with a major water change, and then to add a regular dose of a good probiotic to the aquarium. The probiotics help to restore optimal water quality by degrading organic matter, help to eliminate opportunistic pathogenic bacteria from your seahorse setup by outcompeting them, and boost the immune system of the seahorses, thereby helping the ponies to fight off disease problems. Combining the use of the probiotics with a good water change and aquarium cleaning allows seahorses with non-contagious health problems, such as gas bubble syndrome, to be treated in the main tank where they will be the most comfortable, surrounded by their tankmates, helps to assure that the rest of your ponies won’t be affected, and is a very stress-free way to address this type of health problem, as discussed below.

One of the best ways to prevent bacterial infections, outbreaks of parasites, and other health problems is to provide your seahorses with a stress-free environment. Many of the parasites and pathogens that plague our pampered ponies are ubiquitous — present in low numbers in most everyone’s systems or within the seahorse’s body itself (Indiviglio, 2002) as normal flora. As a rule, healthy fish resist such microorganisms easily, and they only become a problem when seahorse’s immune system has been impaired, leaving it susceptible to disease (Indiviglio, 2002). Chronic low-level stress is one of the primary factors that suppresses the immune system and weakens the immune response, opening the way to infection and disease (Indiviglio, 2002). Long-term exposure to stressful conditions is very debilitating. Among other effects, it results in the buildup of lactic acid and lowers the pH of the blood, which can have dire consequences for seahorses and leave them susceptible to Gas Bubble Syndrome.

When disease breaks out in an established aquarium it is therefore generally an indication that something is amiss with your aquarium conditions. A gradual decline in water quality is often a precursor of disease (Indiviglio, 2002). Poor water quality is stressful to seahorses. Prolonged stress weakens their immune system. And an impaired immune system leaves the seahorse vulnerable to bacterial, viral, and fungal infections to which healthy, unstressed seahorses are immune. As if that weren’t bad enough, there are a number of environmental diseases that are caused directly by water quality problems.

When disease breaks out in an established aquarium it is therefore generally an indication that something is amiss with your aquarium conditions. A gradual decline in water quality is often a precursor of disease (Indiviglio, 2002). Poor water quality is stressful to seahorses. Prolonged stress weakens their immune system. And, as we have been discussing, an impaired immune system leaves the seahorse vulnerable to bacterial, parasitic, viral, and fungal infections which healthy, unstressed seahorses easily fend off.

At the first sign of a health problem:

Because diseases are so often directly related to water quality, or due to stress resulting from a decline in water quality, when trouble arises the first thing you should do is to break out your test kits and check your water chemistry. Very often that will provide a clue to the problem. Make sure the aquarium temperature is within the acceptable range and check for ammonia and/or nitrite spikes first. See if your nitrate levels have risen to harmful levels and look for a drop in pH.

Be sure to check your dissolved oxygen (O2) level too. A significant drop in O2 levels (6 – 7 ppm is optimal) is very stressful yet easily corrected by increasing surface agitation and circulation to promote better oxygenation and gas exchange. At the other extreme, oxygen supersaturation is a red flag indicating a potentially deadly problem with gas embolisms (Gas Bubble Syndrome).

If any of your water quality parameters are off significantly, that may well be the cause of the problem or at least the source of the stress that weakened your seahorses and made them susceptible to disease. And correcting your water chemistry may well nip the problem in the bud, particularly if it is environmental, without the need for any further treatment.

Clean Up & Perform a Water Change

After a quick check of the water chemistry to assess the situation, it’s time to change water and clean up. In most cases, the surest way to improve your water quality and correct the water chemistry is to combine a 25%-50% water change with a thorough aquarium clean up. Siphon around the base of your rockwork and decorations, vacuum the top 1/4 inch of the sand or gravel, rinse or replace your prefilter, and administer a general system cleaning. The idea is to remove any accumulated excess organic material in the sand/gravel bed, top of the filter, or tank that could degrade your water quality, serve as a breeding ground for bacteria or a reservoir for disease, or otherwise be stressing your seahorses. [Note: when cleaning the filter and vacuuming the substrate, your goal is to remove excess organic wastes WITHOUT disturbing the balance of the nitrifying bacteria. Do not dismantle the entire filter, overhaul your entire filter system in one fell swoop, or clean your primary filtration system too zealously or you may impair your biological filtration.]

At first glance your aquarium parameters may look great, but there are some water quality issues that are difficult to detect with standard tests, such as a decrease in dissolved 02, transitory ammonia/nitrite spikes following a heavy feeding, pH drift, or the gradual accumulation of mulm and detritus. A water change and cleanup is a simple preventative measure that can help defuse those kinds of hidden factors before they become a problem and stress out your seahorses. These simple measures may restore your water quality and correct the source of the stress before your seahorse becomes seriously ill and requires treatment.

In short, I would also recommend a good general cleaning of your seahorse tank followed by the use of a good probiotic in order to help your male with pouch emphysema recover, and to help protect the rest of your herd.

Respectfully,
Pete Giwojna, Ocean Rider Tech Support


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