Re:Help – Webbing disease ???

#3523
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Dear Debbie:

I’m very sorry about the problems your seahorses have developed.

The condition you are describing is often mistaken for body fungus but is actually a bacterial infection (e.g., Myxobacteria) that often takes the form of whitish-grayish stringy material covering much of the body. A white, slimy coating and/or white lines or a tracery of web-like strings on the body are very characteristic of this condition. It is sometimes referred to as marine columnaris or "bacterial fungus," and indeed Myxobacteria infections are often confused with fungus although they are caused by gram-positive bacteria. Unless treated promptly, it is indeed a fatal condition. Here is some information about this affliction from my new book on seahorses (Complete Guide to the Greater Seahorses in the Aquarium, unpublished):

[Open quote]
BACTERIAL FUNGUS: MYXOBACTERIA (MARINE COLUMNARIS)

Bacterial fungus is a highly contagious disease caused by a Myxobacterium (Flexibacter sp.) that corresponds to the columnaris infections so commonly seen in freshwater fish (Basleer, 2000). The bacterium Flexibacter is a long, slender rod-shaped organism (0.5- 1.0 microns in diameter, and some 4-10 microns long) that is easily identified under the microscope by its characteristic gliding motion (Dixon, 1999). They are unusually mobile bacteria. They are very active when observed microscopically, gliding rapidly across the viewing field (Dixon, 1999). This family of bacteria (Cytophaga or Myxobacteria) causes a condition commonly known as columnaris because of their tendency to stack up in columns (Prescott, 2001b). When large numbers of the bacteria pile up, they form distinctive haystacks several layers thick where the infection is heaviest (Dixon, 1999). It may also present as a webbing of grayish-white stringy lines on the body of the affected individuals.

These bacteria are typically associated with stress, and columnaris is very often associated with a sudden rise in temperature. It is frequently seen in temperate seahorses suffering from heat stress or among tropical seahorses that have been subjected to a temperature spike during a summertime heat wave (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). When the infection takes the form of webbing ("body fungus"), it is often associated with heavy organic loading, overcrowding, low oxygen levels, or poor water quality in the aquarium.

This is primarily an epithelial disease that often presents in one of two ways — either as grayish-white stringy webbing over the body or as a grayish white film that spreads over the fish’s skin, particularly on the head region (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). The whitish plaques spread by radial expansion and may penetrate into deeper tissues, becoming yellow or orange due to masses of pigmented bacteria that stack up in columns forming the haystacks that are characteristic of the condition (Basleer, 2000).

Columnaris is often described as a milky, slime-like film that can be observed with the naked eye (Giwojna, Nov. 2003) or as whitish stringy material radiating over the body of the fish. The bacteria are actually pale yellow, and the whitish skin lesions may become yellowish or even orange as the bacteria pile up (Prescott, 2001b). Depending on how many layers of Myxobacteria are stacked up in any given area, this gives the fish a patchy white to yellowish appearance (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). These bacteria produce enzymes that can dissolve the skin and decay the underlying musculature.

Hobbyists most often refer to marine columnaris as white patch disease or and it is often mistaken for a fungal infection (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). Although the head and eyes are most often infected, the slimy white patches or webbing can appear anywhere on the body and, in seahorses, the tail is also often affected.

Myxobacterial infections vary greatly in virulence depending on the strain involved and the conditions that contribute to the disease (most notably water temperature), and the symptoms of the disease can vary accordingly (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). There is an acute form of the disease that may kill very quickly when the head is involved, often within 24 hours of the first symptoms.

Less virulent forms of columnaris allow time for the symptoms to be recognized and treated. For example, milder strains may produce localized shallow ulcers where the white patches first appeared that respond very well to prompt treatment with the proper antibiotics (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). The gills are another common site of infection and are sometimes the only affected area. Respiratory distress may be the only symptom in such cases, and if the gills are examined, excessive amounts of mucous are to be expected (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). Damage to the gills from these bacteria is evident as brownish dead patches of tissue that are often attacked by secondary fungal infections (i.e., Saprolegnia; Prescott, 2001b). Cases of columnaris involving the gills typically respond favorably to nifurpirinol (Giwojna, Nov. 2003).

Affected fish will become very listless and lethargic in the later stages, with reduced eye movement in seahorses (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). Reluctance to feed is very typical and the fish will often exhibit labored breathing due to the involvement of the gills (Prescott, 2001b).

If caught early and treated promptly, antibacterial compounds are often effective, especially when accompanied by a decrease in water temperature. Some of the effective medications for treating columnaris include oxytetracycline (only if administered orally) and especially combination sulfa drugs that include trimethoprim or neomycin or and/or kanamycin combined with various sulfa compounds (Giwojna, Nov. 2003).

Myxobacteria are often associated with temperatures that are elevated beyond what is normal, or exposure to a sudden rise in temperature, and both the mortality and acuteness of the disease will increase at higher water temperatures (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). As with other bacterial infections, stress plays a critical role in the initiation of columnaris disease. Aside from heat stress, other risk factors for columnaris include physical injury, low dissolved oxygen levels, crowding, organic pollution, parasites, and high nitrite levels (Prescott, 2001b).

At the first sign of bacterial fungus or Marine Columnaris, I recommend treating the affecting seahorse(s) immediately in a hospital tank using using broad-spectrum antibiotics in conjunction with formalin baths (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). Drop the temperature in the hospital tank during the course of the treatments. Reducing the water temperature will slow the metabolism and reproductive rate of bacteria in general, making them easier to control, and the virulence of columnaris, in particular, is markedly reduced at lower temperatures (Giwojna, Nov. 2003).

As with marine ulcer disease, there are a number of parasitic infections that can easily be mistaken for columnaris. Brooklynella, Costia and Uronema parasites all cause cloudiness or turbidity of the skin accompanied by heavy mucous production in their initial stages, which are similar to the white patches and filmy appearance of a columnaris infection (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). In their later stages, these parasitic infections result in respiratory distress and ulcers or open sores that are very like the symptoms of columnaris when the enzymes the bacteria produce erode away the skin and the gills are involved (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). Parasitic infections are often followed by secondary bacterial/fungal infections, and such parasites are one of the stressors that can result in a columnaris infection. This can make it difficult to determine whether you are dealing with columnaris, a parasite problem, or a mixed infection (Giwojna, Nov. 2003).

For that reason, I recommend that you treat for parasites at the same time you are administering broad-spectrum antibiotics to combat columnaris. Two good ways to accomplish this are to either administer the antibiotics in the hospital tank in conjunction with a series of formalin baths, or to treat the seahorses with Forma-Green (a combination of formalin and malachite green) in the hospital tank while you administer the antibiotics orally via gut-loaded shrimp.

The antibiotics I recommend are either kanamycin sulfate or neomycin sulfate (or both) used in conjunction with various sulfa drugs. If you can obtain them, Neosulfex or Neo3 would be excellent choices. If not, you can achieve the same affect by combining neomycin or kanamycin with triple sulfa compound. Trimethoprim and Sulfathiazole Sodium (TMP-Sulfa) would also work very well for this condition. Oxytetracycline or tetracycline also work well but only if they are administered orally (they are deactivated in saltwater and totally ineffective if used for prolonged immersion or as a bath). In a pinch, some hobbyists also use a combination of Maracyn and Maracyn-Two, if the other medications are unavailable, but that’s a last resort.

The formalin baths should be administered at a dosage of 250 mg/L. This would equal 1 ml (cc) of 37% formalin per 1 gallon of water. This should be for a bath of about 45 minutes to an hour, repeated as necessary. (See the complete instructions for administering formalin baths below.)

Once it’s established in the aquarium, columnaris is highly communicable, as are parasitic infections, and it is very advisable to clean up and sterilize the main tank as best you can while the affected seahorses are undergoing treatment in the hospital ward (Giwojna, Nov. 2003). Combine a 25%-50% water change in your main tank with a thorough system cleaning as previously described (Giwojna, Nov. 2003).
[End quote.]

Okay, Debbie, that’s the quick rundown on "webby disease," or as you described. All of the medications mentioned above can be obtained online from National Fish Pharmaceuticals at the following URL:

Click here: Fish Medications
http://www.fishyfarmacy.com/products.html

Formalin baths used in conjunction with these antibiotics will help eliminate any ectoparasites or secondary fungal infections that may be involved. Formalin is basically a 37% solution of formaldehyde and water. It is a potent external fungicide, external protozoacide, and antiparasitic, and seahorse keepers commonly use formalin to cleanse new arrivals of ectoparasites during quarantine. Formalin (HCHO) is thus an effective medication for eradicating external parasites, treating fungal lesions, and reducing the swelling from such infections. As such, formalin baths combined with the antibiotics recommended above can be highly effective in treating White Patch Disease or Marine Columnaris when treatment is begun during the early stages.

Many commercial formalin products are readily available to hobbyists, such as Kordon’s Formalin 3, Formalin-F sold by Natchez Animal Supply, and Paracide-F, sold by Argent Chemical Laboratories. Or whatever brand of formalin is available at your fish store should work fine, Elina.

A formalin bath simply involves immersing the seahorse in a container of saltwater which contains the proper dosage of formalin for a period of 30-60 minutes before transferring it to your hospital tank. Include a hitching post of some sort in the container and follow these instructions: place the fish in a three-gallon bucket or a similar clean, inert container containing precisely one gallon of siphoned, aerated tank water. Medicate the bucket of water with with the appropriate amount of formalin for a concentrated bath according to the directions on the label. Place an airstone in the bucket and leave the fish in the bath for 30-60 minutes. If at any time the fish becomes listless, exhausted or loses its balance, immediately place the fish in clean, untreated water in your hospital tank.

I want you to be aware of these precautions when administering the formalin bath:

Formalin has limited shelf life and degrades to the highly toxic substance paraformaldehyde (identified as a white precipitate on the bottom of the solution); avoid using any formalin product which has such a precipitate at the bottom of the bottle.

Formalin basically consumes oxygen so vigorous aeration must be provided during treatment.

Time the bath closely and never exceed one hour of chemical exposure at this concentration.

Observe the seahorse closely during the bath at all times, and it show signs of distress before the allotted time has elapsed, remove it from the treatment immediately.

If you can obtain Formalin 3 from Kordon at your LFS, Elina, these are the instructions you should follow for your formalin dip:

METHOD 2 (DIP) FOR THE PREVENTION OR TREATMENT OF FISH DISEASES
(a) To a clean, non-metallic container (i.e., a plastic bucket), add one or more gallons of fresh tap water treated with Kordon’s AmQuel . For marine fish use freshly prepared saltwater adjusted to the same specific gravity (or salinity) as in the original tank. Make sure the temperature in the container is identical to that in the aquarium
(b) Add 1 teaspoons of Formalin·3. This produces a concentration of 100 ppm. formaldehyde.
(c) Agitate the solution with an airstone and adjust for a moderately strong flow of air.
(d) Remove the fishes to be treated and deposit them in the container for a treatment period of not more than 50 minutes. Immediately after the treatment period, or if signs of distress are noted, remove the fishes to a previously prepared recovery tank. The fishes may be returned to their original tank, but the presence of the original disease-causing agents in the tank water may result in a reoccurrence of the disease condition.
(e) Observe recovering fishes. Make sure that tankmates do not molest them during recovery.
(f) Repeat treatment as needed, every week. Each treatment is very stressful to the treated fishes. Do not reuse the dip solution.

For additional information on treating fishes with Formalin 3 by Kordon, she the following web page:

Click here: KPD-54 Formalin-3
<http://www.novalek.com/kpd54.htm&gt;

If you get another brand of formalin, just follow the instructions that it comes with for a concentrated bath or dip (not prolonged immersion or a long-term bath).

Be sure to observe the following precautions when handling your seahorses for the formalin baths, Elina:

Handling Seahorses

I do not like to use an aquarium net to transfer or manipulate seahorses, since their delicate fins and snouts can become entangled in the netting all too easily. I much prefer to transfer the seahorses by hand. Simply wet your hand and fingers (to avoid removing any of the seahorse’s protective slime coat) and scoop the seahorses in your hand. Allow them to curl their tail around your fingers and carefully cup their bodies in your hand to support them while you lift them out of the water. When you gently immerse your hand in the destination tank, the seahorse will release its grip and swim away as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

Composed of solid muscle and endowed with extraordinary skeletal support, the prehensile tail is amazingly strong. Indeed, large specimens have a grip like an anaconda, and when a 12-inch ingens or abdominalis wraps its tail around your hand and tightens its hold, its vise-like grip is powerful enough to leave you counting your fingers afterwards!

In fact, it can be quite difficult to remove an attached seahorse from its holdfast without injuring it in the process. Never attempt to forcibly detach a seahorse from its hitching post! When it feels threatened, it’s instinct is to clamp down and hold on all the tighter. When you must dislodge a seahorse from its resting place for any reason, it’s best to use the tickle technique instead. Gently tickling the underside of the tail where it’s wrapped around the object will usually induce the seahorse to release its grip (Abbott, 2003). They don’t seem to like that at all, and will quickly let go to move away to another spot. Once they are swimming, they are easy to handle.

Antibiotic therapy combined with a series of formalin baths should be very effective is your best hope for a good outcome with this problem, Debbie. The earlier the treatment is begun, the better the Outlook will be.

Best of luck with your treatments, Debbie!

Respectfully,
Pete Giwojna


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