I’m very sorry to hear about the problem some of your seahorses have developed, Janet.
As you know, the loss of suction during feeding is commonly known as “weak snick,” Janet, and it can become a serious problem if it progresses to the point that the seahorse can no longer slurp up enough food keep it going.
Weak snick and related feeding disorders are usually due to either to deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals or to a physical injury, a gradual buildup of organic wastes in the aquarium, or an infection affecting the seahorse’s hyoid bone trigger mechanism or the underlying musculature with which it generates the powerful suction that it uses when feeding.
Since your Sunbursts have been doing well since you first got them last year, I suspect that this problem may have been triggered by a gradual accumulation of organic material building up in the tank, Janet, and the first thing I would suggest is to do a general cleanup of the aquarium in conjunction with one or more partial water changes to remove excess organics and improve your water quality, as discussed below.
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 1/2 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 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.
If the problem persists following the general clean up and subsequent water changes, Janet, then we will have to consider some of the other possible causes (and solutions) for weak snick in seahorses.
For example, Dr. Richard Loh observed a case of weak snick that was due to bacteria destroying the esophagus of a seahorse, detailed here:
And, of course, mechanical injuries can sometimes be caused by ingesting a foreign object while feeding, or the problem may be due to protozoan parasites that attack the gills and eventually affect the muscles that operate the buccal suction pump and/or the opercular suction pumps. In some cases, the loss of suction has been traced to muscle degeneration in this region resulting from nutritional deficiencies, so that’s another consideration to keep in mind.
As Tami Weiss puts it, “In the hobbyist world, we see weak snick a lot with tanks with a high organic load…The hypothesis is that it is caused by a profusion of ciliates attacking/irritating the hyoid bone. Two treatments that have been effective for many home hobbyists in relieving this problem are freshwater dips and formalin baths. Freshwater dips need to be temperature and pH matched, and are for 8-15 minutes. That is usually the first line of defense. If that doesn’t work, formalin either as a short dip or a longer-term bath is also used.”
I understand that you cannot obtain the formalin, Janet, but at least you should be able to administer a brief freshwater dip instead, providing you feel the affected seahorses are strong enough to tolerate such a procedure. This is what I usually advise home aquarists regarding administering freshwater dips, , which would be the first treatment option I would recommend in your case, if a general clean up followed by a series of partial water changes to remove dissolved organics do not resolve the problem.:
A freshwater dip is simply immersing your seahorse in pure, detoxified freshwater that’s been preadjusted to the same temp and pH as the water the seahorse is accustomed to, for a period of at least 10 minutes (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). It doesn’t harm them — seahorses typically tolerate freshwater dips exceptionally well and a 10-minute dip should be perfectly safe. Freshwater dips are effective because marine fish tolerate the immersion in freshwater far better than the external parasites they play host to; the change in osmotic pressure kills or incapacitates such microorganisms within 7-8 minutes (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). A minimum dip, if the fish seems to be doing fine, is therefore 8 minutes. Include some sort of hitching post in the dipping container and shoot for the full 10 minutes with your seahorses (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
If you will be using tap water for the freshwater dip, be sure to dechlorinate it beforehand. This can be accomplished using one of the commercial dechlorinators, which typically include sodium thiosulfate and perhaps a chloramine remover as well, or by aerating the tap water for at least 24 hours to dissipate the chlorine (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
If you dechlorinate the dip water with a sodium thiosulfate product, be sure to use an airstone to aerate it for at least one hour before administering the dip. This is because the sodium thiosulfate depletes the water of oxygen and the dip water must therefore be oxygenated before its suitable for your seahorse(s). Regardless of how you detoxify the freshwater for the dip, it’s important to aerate the water in the dipping container well beforehand to increase the level of dissolved oxygen in the water. Many hobbyists leave the airstone in the dipping container throughout the procedure.
Adjusting the pH of the water in the dipping container so that it matches the pH of the water in the aquarium is a crucial step. Ordinary baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) will suffice for raising the pH of the water. If there is too much of a difference in the pH, there is a possibility the seahorse could go into shock during the dipping procedure. Preadjusting the pH will prevent that from happening. If you will are unsure about your ability to accurately adjust the pH in the dipping container, avoid this procedure altogether or be prepared to monitor the seahorse very carefully or shorten the duration of the tip to no more than about 2 minutes.
Observe the horse closely during the dip. You may see some immediate signs of distress or shock. Sometimes the horse will immediately lie on its side on the bottom. That’s a fairly common reaction — normal and to be expected, rather than a cause for concern, so don’t be alarmed if this happens. Just nudge or tap the seahorse gently with your finger if it lies down on its side. Normally, the seahorse will respond to the slight nudge by righting itself again and calm down for the duration of the dip. However, if it does not respond, stop the treatment.
With the exception of Hippocampus kelloggi, most seahorses tolerate the treatment well and experience no problems, but if you see continued signs of distress — twitching, thrashing around etc. — stop the treatment immediately and return the seahorse to normal strength saltwater. How well the seahorses tolerate a freshwater dip can vary from individual to individual and from species to species. Hippocampus barbouri seahorses, for example, often have a low tolerance for freshwater and should either not be dipped or the freshwater dip should be shortened to 1-2 minutes as a safeguard for this species…
After you have completed the dip and returned the seahorses to the aquarium, save the dip water and examine it closely for any sign of parasites. The change in osmotic pressure from saltwater to freshwater will cause ectoparasites to lyse (i.e., swell and burst) or drop off their host after 7-10 minutes, and they will be left behind in the dipping water. Protozoan parasites are microscopic and won’t be visible to the naked eye, but some of the other ectoparasites can be clearly seen. For example, monogenetic trematodes will appear as opaque sesame seeds drifting in the water (Giwojna, Aug. 2003) and nematodes may be visible as tiny hairlike worms 1/16-3/16 of an inch long. Other parasites may appear as tiny dots in the water. Freshwater dips can thus often provide affected seahorses with some immediate relief by ridding them of these irritating pests and can also aid their breathing by flushing out gill parasites.
If you suspect a problem with parasites, the dip should be extended for the full 5-10 minutes, if possible, and an for best results.
If more than one seahorse is affected, do not dip all of them simultaneously. I would dip them individually so you can keep a close eye on each seahorse throughout the dip and make sure it is tolerating it well. That way, you can use the same dipping container and dipping water for all of the seahorses as you dip them in sequence. I like at least a gallon of water in the dipping container, but that depends on what I’m using. If it’s a clean three or five-gallon bucket, I will fill it about half full with freshwater adjusted to the aquarium temperature.
Freshwater dips are the first treatment option for cases of weak snick, Janet, and they will often resolve the problem when it is detected early and treated promptly. If that’s not the case for your seahorse, then I would recommend vitamin therapy instead, as explained below in more detail:
Véronique LePage, from Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada was looking into nutrient deficiencies in weak snick in sea dragons. Weak snick occurs in sea dragons as well, which is not surprising considering their physiology is so similar to seahorses. One researcher (Véronique LePage) at a vet college in Ontario discovered that several seadragons she had observed with weak snick had muscular weakness or degeneration (myopathy) around the muscles of the face and head. This was due to a Vitamin E and selenium deficiency, and once treated, the ability to snick and eat normally resumed.
Likewise, the Birch Aquarium also found myopathy, necropsy and degeneration of the head and jaw muscles in syngnathids (Tami Weiss).
If you have not been fortifying or enriching the frozen Mysis you feed to your seahorses, Janet, and in light of the findings I have just mentioned, I would suggest that you begin enriching the Mysis using a product rich in vitamins (especially Vitamin E and selenium) in addition to administering a quick freshwater dip to the affected seahorse(s).
When the weak snick is suspected to be due to a vitamin deficiency, I would recommend gut loading live adult brine shrimp with Vita-chem Marine Formulation by Boyd Enterprises in conjunction with a selenium supplement.
The Vita-chem Marine contains a wide array of vitamins including Vitamin E and may be available at your local fish stores or pet shops, or it can be purchased online from many sources such as liveaquaria.com (see the following link):
You can add the proper amount of the Vita-chem Marine Formulation directly to the aquarium water as well as adding a few drops of it to the container of freshwater that you are using to gutload or bioencapsulate the adult brine shrimp.
You can obtain a selenium supplement at any drugstore or pharmacy inexpensively, and then use it along with the VitaChem Marine to gutload the adult brine shrimp as explained below.
The best way to administer the Vita-chem Marine and selenium to your seahorses orally is by bioencapsulating or gutloading them in live adult brine shrimp (Artemia), which are then fed to the seahorses.
If the selenium supplement you are using for this comes in tablet form, crush it into a very fine powder (you may have to use a household blender to get it fine enough) and dissolve it in a small container of freshwater. Soak the adult shrimp in freshwater containing the dissolves selenium tablet and several drops of VitaChem Marine Formulation for 15-30 minutes and then feed the medicated shrimp to your seahorses immediately. (Don’t let your pumps and filters “eat” all the brine shrimp!)
The brine shrimp are soaked in freshwater, not saltwater, because in theory the increased osmotic pressure of the freshwater helps the vitamin/selenium solution move into their bodies via osmosis. But in fact, nobody knows for sure whether the antibiotic is diffusing into the brine shrimp or they are ingesting it in very fine particles (brine shrimp are filter feeders and will take in whatever is suspended in the water with them) or whether the brine shrimp merely become coated with the antibiotic while they are soaking in it. But that’s not important — all that really matters is that gut-loading adult brine shrimp with medications this way is effective.
Gutloading the adult brine shrimp in freshwater has several advantages, Janet. First of all, it disinfects the brine shrimp (the osmotic shock in going from concentrated saltwater to freshwater will kill off any protozoan parasites the brine shrimp may have been carrying). Secondly, the freshwater increases the effectiveness of the gutloading process by allowing some of the medication to enter the body of the brine shrimp via osmosis. And gutloading the adult brine shrimp in freshwater saves the hobbyist from having to mix up fresh saltwater every day in order to medicate the adult Artemia. Just use dechlorinated/detoxified freshwater as described above, and everything should go smoothly.
I would feed your seahorses their fill of adult brine shrimp gutloaded with a powdered selenium tablet and several drops of Vita-chem Marine once a day. Gutload a new portion of the adult brine shrimp each day for the seahorses’ first feeding of the day when they are the most hungry.
It is impossible to determine precisely what dosage of the vitamins and selenium each individual fish ingests when gutloading, but these supplements are very safe and you really cannot overdose a seahorse using this method of treatment.
In short, Janet, the feeder shrimp I find that work best for gutloading or bioencapsulating medications are adult brine shrimp (Artemia species). As you know, I prefer adult brine shrimp (Artemia spp.) for gutloading for a number of reasons. For one thing, adult Artemia are inexpensive and readily available to the home hobbyist. Secondly, soaking live adult brine shrimp in a solution of the desired additives in freshwater is by far the simplest and most convenient way to bioencapsulate meds, as we have discussed previously. Thirdly, a much wider range of medicines are effective when bio-encapsulated in live brine shrimp than can be used effectively as bath treatments for marine fish because they adult brine shrimp tolerate freshwater so well while they are being gutloaded.
Best of luck resolving your new Sunburst’s problem with weak snick, Janet. Please keep me updated on how well they are doing.
Also, be sure to contact me off list at the following e-mail address and I will provide you with lots of additional information regarding Weak-snick and associated feeding disorders:
Pete Giwojna, Ocean Rider Tech Support