The best thing you can do to make sure that new seahorses are healthy and will not introduce disease or parasites into your aquarium is to obtain High-Health captive-bred-and-raised seahorses such as Ocean Rider Mustangs and Sunbursts rather than trying your luck with delicate, wild-caught specimens.
Should you be thinking about obtaining seahorses from a source other than Ocean Rider, it is very important to give the ponies you are considering a thorough visual examination to check for any possible signs of a health problem before you make your purchase, and then to quarantine your new acquisitions for at least 30 days to make sure that they are healthy before you introduce them to your main tank. While they are undergoing quarantine, the seahorses can be treated prophylactically using a good anthelmintic such as fenbendazole and a good antiparasitic medication such as metronidazole or praziquantel. All of these procedures are explained in greater detail below:
When it comes to the health problems of seahorses, there are several points I cannot emphasize strongly enough: (1) stress is by far the greatest killer of seahorses; (2) wild-caught seahorses are far more susceptible to stress and find aquarium conditions far more stressful than captive-bred seahorses; (3) poor water quality is by far the most common cause of stress in small, closed-system aquaria; and (4) disease prevention is ALWAYS the best cure.
In the past, many hobbyists maintained wild-caught and captive-bred specimens side-by-side in the same tank. Very often, when disease outbreaks occurred in such setups, the wild specimens were all lost while the captive-bred seahorses emerged unscathed, or if they developed symptoms, were able to fight off the affliction and recover none the worse for wear. There is no denying that captive-bred seahorses are simply much hardier and more disease resistant than wild seahorses.
Farm-praised seahorses have been born and bred for aquarium life for generation after generation. They are at home in the aquarium, accustomed to eating readily provided frozen foods as their staple diet, and used to living in close proximity to others of their kind. Wild-caught seahorses, on the other hand, are starting out with the deck stacked against them and find captive conditions very unnatural and highly stressful. They have been abruptly snatched from their natural environment, wrenched apart from their mates, starved while they make the rounds from collector to wholesaler to retailer to hobbyist, and exposed to all manner of pathogens and parasites at every stop along the way. They are accustomed to eating live foods and, with the patchy distribution typical of all Hippocampines, they rarely encounter seahorses other than their mates in the vastness of the sea. As a result, wild-caught seahorses typically have considerable difficulty adjusting to aquarium conditions, unnatural foods, and living in constant contact with other seahorses.
In fact, the pet industry has coined a term for the plight of newly imported marine fishes like seahorses. They call it “Post Traumatic Shipping Disorder” (PTSD), and pet dealers consider it to be the single greatest problem facing the ornamental fish industry. As they define it, PTSD refers to a broad range of complications suffered by marine fishes following traumatic capture, holding and/or transportation. The majority of cases are believed to be the result of digestive tract damage resulting from inadequate nourishment during a period of high (stress-induced) metabolic demand. And seahorses are right at the top of the dealers’ list of most often affected specimens because of their specialized feeding requirements (Lidster, 1999).
The point is that the hobbyist can spare himself a great deal of hardship and heartache, and eliminate many potential disease problems altogether right from the start, simply by opting for hardy captive-bred seahorses that thrive under aquarium conditions. Many of the afflictions that plagued seahorses in the Dark Ages of the hobby when wild specimens were the only choice are rarely if ever seen by hobbyists today who keep captive-bred seahorses. This includes nuisances like sea lice, parasitic copepods and many other ectoparasites, nematode infestations, the fungus infections that were once so common when wild seahorses collected late in the season and exposed to chilling, as well as deadly epidemics of Glugea that wiped out whole herds of wild horses in the past.
Therefore, the first rule of successful seahorse keeping is to avoid wild-caught seahorses like the plague. The hobbyist can prevent a number of disease problems simply by stocking his system with High Health captive-bred seahorses.
One of the greatest advantages of Ocean Rider seahorses is that they are all born and raised at a High Health aquaculture facility. Many hobbyists may not be fully aware of what that means or why it is so important. High Health certification is very difficult to achieve and very expensive to maintain, which is why Ocean Rider is the one and only seahorse farm to be awarded High Health status. In order to earn High Health Certification, an aquacultural facility must first prove that it enforces a strict biosecurity program with rigorous quarantine protocols, and that at no stage in the breeding and rearing process are its livestock ever exposed to open systems or wild-caught seahorses. Secondly, it must withstand intense scrutiny by outside agencies — in this case, primarily from the Controlling State Aquatic Veterinary industry. The monitoring done by these Aquatic Health Specialists includes regular sampling of Ocean Rider livestock for complete necroscopic examinations. Periodically, OR seahorses are selected at random by the State Controlling Vet, euthanized, and autopsied. Their internal organs are examined, tissue sections are taken (multi-organ histopathology), and examined microscopically, along with other laboratory analyses. Only then can Ocean Rider seahorses be certified free of specific pathogen and parasites.
There is a reason that Ocean Rider is the only High-Health seahorse farm in the world and that is because high health certification is very difficult and expensive to attain. It is very costly in terms of the time, energy, resources, and the increased size of the aquaculture facility it requires to meet the demanding high-health standards. You must provide a biosecure area for each species you are working with, follow very rigorous quarantine protocols, and periodically sacrifice a portion of the healthy, mature seahorses you have painstakingly raised for so many months — just when they are ready to go to market — for complete necroscopic examinations in order to make certain they are free of pathogens and parasites. All of which makes achieving and maintaining High-Health Certification a very expensive proposition. Ocean Rider does it to assure that they are providing the best possible livestock for hobbyists. As always, their primary concerns are not profits but the health and welfare of their seahorses and the benefits cultured seahorses provide in terms of conserving wild populations.
This assures that when you purchase livestock from Ocean Rider, you will be receiving healthy, well-fed seahorses in peak condition that have been painstakingly raised by hand, cared for, and tended by professional breeders and mariculturists right up until they are shipped to your doorstep.
However, if you will be trying your luck with wild-caught seahorses, or purchasing ponies from a source other than Ocean Rider, it’s very important to examine the seahorses closely before you make a purchase in order to make sure they are not carrying a disease or suffering from any health problems.
Here are the warning signs and symptoms to check for when you’re giving a seahorse at your local fish store (LFS) a visual inspection, as outlined in the "Sygnathid Husbandry Manual for Public Aquariums, 2005 Manual":
Physical Examination — Visual Assessment
When performing an initial physical exam, the posture and buoyancy of the seahorse should be closely scrutinized. A seahorse bobbing at the surface is abnormally and positively buoyant. Buoyant animals will often struggle to maneuver deeper into the water column. They should be evaluated for air entrapment problems such as air in the brood pouch (males) or hyperinflated swim bladders. If the tail is extended outward caudodorsally or ‘scorpion-style,’ examine the subcutis of the tail for gas bubbles (subcutaneous emphysema). Subcutaneous emphysema of tail segment also appears to be a condition restricted to males.
Just as abnormal is a seahorse that is lying horizontally at the tank bottom for extended time periods. This may be an indication of generalized weakness or it may indicate negative buoyancy associated with swim bladder disease or fluid accumulation in the brood pouch or the coelomic cavity.
Evaluate the seahorse’s feeding response. Seahorses normally forage almost constantly during daylight hours. An individual that consistently refuses appropriately sized live food is behaving very abnormally and should receive nutritional support to meet its caloric needs.
The rate and pattern of breathing should also be evaluated. Rapid breathing and ‘coughing’
(expulsion of water in a forceful manner through the opercular opening or the mouth) suggest gill disease [or gill parasites].
The entire body surface including the fins should be examined for hemorrhagic regions,
erosions, ulcerations, excessive body mucus, unusual spots, lumps or bumps as well as the presence of subcutaneous gas bubbles. Evaluate both eyes for evidence of periorbital edema, exophthalmia, and any testicular or corneal opacities. Since seahorses are visual predators, maintaining normal vision is absolutely essential to successful foraging. The tube snout is also very important to normal feeding activity. It is utilized like a pipette to literally suck prey out of the water column.
Evaluate the tube snout for evidence of edema, erosions, and successful protraction/retraction of the small, anterior, drawbridge-like segment of the lower jaw. Close evaluation of the tail tip for erosive/necrotic lesions should also be performed.
Finally, the anal region should be closely evaluated for redness, swelling, or tissue prolapse. For closer evaluation it may require getting the seahorse in hand. If this is the case, wear non-powdered latex gloves to prevent injury to the integument of the animal.
If the seahorse passes this visual examination, and is eating well and behaving normally, with none of the red flags or warning signs discussed above, only then should you consider taking him home. That’s a quick checklist you can use to determine if the seahorses at your LFS appear to be healthy or not before you make a purchase.
The Quarantine Tank
Once you have found healthy specimens with none of the symptoms or problems outlined above and make your purchase, it is equally important to quarantine the new seahorses before you introduce them to your main tank! A potential problem when obtaining seahorses from your LFS is that they are typically maintained in aquaria that share a common filtration system with all of the other fish tanks in the store. Of course, those other fish tanks house a wide selection of wild fish that have been collected from all around the world, and any pathogens or parasites those wild fishes may have been carrying can be transmitted through the common water supply to the seahorses. That makes fish from your LFS potential disease vectors for a whole laundry list of disease organisms and makes it mandatory to quarantine such specimens before they are introduced to your display tank.
In its simplest form, quarantining aquarium fish simply involves introducing them to a quarantine tank (normally with the same aquarium parameters as the tank they will be eventually going in) all by themselves for a period of several weeks to assure that they aren’t carrying any diseases. The idea is that any health problems the wild fish have will manifest themselves in isolation during this quarantine period, and they can then be treated with the appropriate medications without affecting the health of the rest of the fishes in your display tank. While they are in quarantine, some hobbyists will also treat wild fish prophylactically for internal parasites using praziquantel or metronidazole, and for any external parasites they may possibly be carrying using formalin bath(s) and/or freshwater dips.
A bare-bottomed aquarium of at least 10 gallons (the bigger the better) will suffice for a 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, if necessary, but which can hold activated carbon or polyfilter pads when it’s time to pull the meds out. No aquarium reflector is necessary. Ambient room light will suffice. (Bright lights can breakdown and inactivate certain medications and the fish in quarantine will be more comfortable and feel more secure under relatively dim lighting.)
For seahorses, it’s important for your quarantine tank/hospital tank to include enough hitching posts so that the ponies won’t feel vulnerable or exposed during their stay in quarantine. Aquarium safe, inert plastic plants or homemade hitching posts fashioned from polypropylene rope or twine that has been unraveled and anchored at one end work well for this if you’re short on such decorations.
Cycling the sponge filters is important because otherwise the only way to maintain water quality is by making partial water changes every day or two throughout the treatment period. Breaking in the biological filtration will eliminate the need for such frequent water changes and assure that the quarantine period is less stressful for the fish by eliminating transient spikes in the ammonia and/or nitrite levels.
Be sure to avoid sponge filters with weighted bottoms or other metal components since they will rust when exposed to saltwater. Sooner or later this will cause problems in a marine aquarium. Select a sponge filter that has no metal parts and is safe for use in saltwater. The proper units will have suction cups to anchor them in place rather than a weighted bottom.
Once your quarantine tank is up and running, new arrivals from your LFS that pass the preliminary visual screening should then be treated prophylactically while they are in quarantine, as discussed below.
Shedd Aquarium Seahorse Quarantine Protocol
The following quarantine protocol is currently employed at the John G. Shedd Aquarium where the most prevalent disease problem accounting for the highest morbidity and mortality to date is acute to subacute vibriosis. Newly acquired specimens are kept in isolated quarantine tanks for a minimum of 30 days.
(1) Live food (Artemia) soaked in DC-DHA SELCO is fed during the first week of
acclimation. This product is purported to have antimicrobial properties. This was
adopted into our protocol to prevent early colonization of the gut with Vibrio sp. of
clinical significance. DC-DHA SELCO is a product of Artemia Systems, INVE
Aquaculture NV, Hoogveld 91, 9200 Deudermonde, Belgium.
(2) A bivalent Vibrio bacterin against V. anguillarum and V. ordalii (Apha Dip 2100,
made by Syndel International Inc., Vancouver, B.C.) is administered as a dip on day
1 and day 15 of quarantine per manufacturer’s labeled recommendations. We have
not challenged vaccinated syngnathids with pathogenic field isolates of Vibrio sp.
to assess the protectivity of this bacterin. This work should be performed and
compared with the protectivity of autogenous bacterins derived from in-house
isolates cultured from post-mortem specimens.
(3) Live Artemia is soaked in fenbendazole to achieve a concentration of 0.25% to 0.5%
of the wet weight of Artemia. This is fed out for three consecutive days (days 8,9,
and 10 of quarantine). This three-day regimen is repeated in two weeks (days 22,23,
and 24 of quarantine). This is administered to combat enteric nematodes. However,
recent studies evaluating actual concentration of drug absorbed by the Artemia may be
quite low (A. Stamper, Living Seas at EPCOT, personal communication). Further studies
(4) Praziquantel baths are administered on day 14 and day 28 of quarantine. Praziquantel
is administered at 1-2 ppm for a minimum of 24 hours. This is done primarily to
combat enteric cestodes and trematodes since, to date, ectoparasitic monogenetic
trematodes have not been found in any syngnathid in our collection (nor are there any
published reports of monogeans in syngnathids anywhere in the fish health or
(5) A dip (10 minutes in either a low salinity bath or 45 minutes in a 200 ppm
formalin bath) is performed at the end of quarantine primarily as a final therapeutic
treatment against any putative ectoparasites. In addition, the sediment in this dip is
concentrated and examined under the dissecting microscope for the presence of any
protozoan or metazoan parasites before the fish are deemed suitable for exhibition.
Marine fish and seahorses should be quarantined for 4-6 weeks as explained above. The only exceptions are High-Health seahorses obtained directly from Ocean Rider (seahorse.com), which are guaranteed to be free of specific pathogens and parasites. There is no need to quarantine high-health seahorses before they are introduced to the main tank, which simplifies things for the home hobbyist. The Ocean Rider aquaculture facility provides multi-generational captive-bred-and-raised seahorses that have now reached a high level of domestication and are very well adapted to aquarium life.
Of course, when you’re not quarantining new arrivals, your quarantine tank can also serve as a hospital ward should an illness break out in your seahorse setup. In other words, just a bare tank with hitching posts is all you need for your hospital tank. 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.
Okay, Adventurer, those are some of the precautions you can take in order to assure that new seahorses will not introduce disease or parasites to your aquarium. Stick with hardy, highly domesticated captive-bred-and-raised seahorses such as Ocean Riders whenever possible. If that’s not possible, be sure to look over the specimens very carefully for any signs of disease problems before you make a purchase, and then quarantine your new acquisitions for at least 30 days to make sure you are healthy before you add them to the main tank.
When they are ready to be added to your main tank, be sure to acclimate the seahorses carefully according to instructions, maintain optimum water quality, and provide them with a nutritious diet, and all should go well.
Best wishes with all your fishes.