Re:Help white tail

Pete Giwojna

Dear hobbyist:

I’m very sorry to hear about the tail problem your seahorse has developed. The whitening of the tip of the tail you describe is an early indication of a serious infection commonly known as tail rot or simply white tail disease. The affected seahorse needs to be isolated from the others and treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics in a hospital tank as soon as possible. This condition is fatal if untreated.

Here is an excerpt on tail rot from my new book (Complete Guide to the Greater Seahorses in the Aquarium, TFH Publications, unpublished). It describes the affliction in greater detail and explains how it can be treated:

White Tail Disease (Tail Rot)

As you might expect, this problem is due to an infection that attacks the tails of seahorses. The tip of the tail typically turns white and, as the infection spreads, the whiteness moves progressively up the tail and ulcers or open sores begin to form where the skin peels away (Giwojna, Oct. 2003).

Hobbyists usually refer to this problem as Tail Rot or White Tail Disease, but the disease is already well advanced by the time whitening or tissue erosion occurs (Giwojna, Oct. 2003). Early detection makes it much easier to get these infections under control. Some of the early indicators of a tail infection to watch for are discussed below.

The disease begins with a loss of prehensility in the very tip of the tail (Giwojna, Oct. 2003). At this stage, the seahorses can grasp large objects just fine, but cannot take hold of slender objects with a small diameter (Leslie Leddo, pers. com.). Next the loss of prehensility spreads further up the tail and the seahorses begin to act as if their tails are very tender and sensitive. They will drape their tails over objects rather than grasping onto them and begin to drag their tails behind themselves, often arching the end of their tail upward in the shape of "U" (rather than the usual "J" or tight coil) as if to lift it off the ground and keep it from touching anything (Leddo, pers. com.).

This is usually when the tip of the tail becomes white and the loss of coloration starts advancing further and further up the tail (Giwojna, Oct. 2003). At this point, the discolored skin begins to flake or lift up and open wounds and ulcers develop on the most distal portions of the tail (Giwojna, Oct. 2003). The infection attacks the underlying tissues, and the tail is gradually eaten away, often all the way to the bone, exposing the vertebrae (hence the name Tail Rot). Survivors may end up missing the last few segments of their tail (Giwojna, Oct. 2003).

White tail disease is highly contagious disease. I have seen it often in temperate seahorse species suffering from heat stress, as well as in crowded nursery tanks where it spreads through the fry like wildfire (Giwojna, Oct. 2003).

Infected seahorses should be treated with antibiotics in isolation at the first sign of a loss of prehensility in the tip of their tails (otherwise the antibiotics may harm the biofilter in your main tank, creating more problems). There are a few treatment options to consider. Feeding the seahorses with live shrimp that have been gut-loaded or bio-encapsulated with tetracycline/oxytetracycline or minocycline sometimes produces good results (Giwojna, Oct. 2003).

But the treatment I recommend is gradually dropping the temperature of the aquarium, hitting the infection hard with broad-spectrum antibiotics in a hospital tail, and administering Beta Glucan orally to stimulate the seahorse’s immune system and help the affected seahorse fight off the infection.

Neosulfex and Neo3 — both broad-spectrum antibiotics consisting of neomycin combined with sulfa compounds to produce a potent synergistic combination of antibacterials — are the antibiotics available to hobbyists that seem to work best for tail rot. Unfortunately, both of these combo antibiotics have recently become unavailable.

In their absence, most hobbyists have been getting similar results by creating their own version of these medications by combining neomycin sulfate with various sulfa compounds. One that seems to work well is combining neomycin sulfate with triple sulfa. You may be able to get neomycin sulfate and triple sulfa compound at a well-stock LFS. If not, you can obtain both neomycin sulfate powder and triple sulfa powder from National Aquarium Pharmaceuticals. You can order them online at the following site:

Kanamycin sulfate used alone or in conjunction with neomycin sulfate would also be an excellent choice for treating tail rot. Both of these antibiotics are often available at pet shops and fish stores, and they can both be obtained from National Aquarium Pharmaceuticals as well.

As I mentioned above, tetracycline and oxytetracycline can be effective treatments for tail rot when they are administered orally. However, they are useless as bath treatments for marine fishes. This is because calcium and magnesium bind to tetracycline and oxytetracycline, rendering them inactive (Roy Yanong, US Department of Agriculture). Adding tetracycline or oxytetracycline to saltwater in a hospital tank is therefore completely ineffective (Yanong, USDA).

Reducing the water temperature in the hospital tank will further increase the effectiveness of the antibiotics and help your seahorse recover faster. Heat stress is often associated with tail rot and is especially debilitating and dangerous for seahorses due to a number of reasons (Olin Feuerbacher, pers. com.). For one thing, elevated temperatures can have a very detrimental effect on the immune system of fishes. This is because many of the enzymes and proteins involved in their immune response are extremely temperature sensitive (Olin Feuerbacher, pers. com.). Some of these protective enzymes can be denatured and inactivated by an increase of just a few degrees in water temperature (Olin Feuerbacher, pers. com.). So when seahorses are kept at temperatures above their comfort zone, their immune system is compromised and they are unable to fend off diseases they would normally shrug off.

At the same time heat stress is weakening the seahorse’s immune response, the elevated temperatures are increasing the growth rate of microbes and making disease organisms all the more deadly. Research indicates that temperature plays a major role in the regulation of virulence genes (Olin Feuerbacher, pers. com.). As the temperature increases, virulence genes are switched on, so microorganisms that are completely harmless at cooler temperatures suddenly become pathogenic once the water warms up past a certain point. Thus both the population and virulence of the pathogens are dramatically increased at higher temperatures (Olin Feuerbacher, pers. com.).

This is true of Columnaris and certain types of Vibrio. At cool temperatures these bacteria are relatively harmless, but at elevated temperatures they become highly contagious, virulent pathogens that kill quickly. Neil Garrick-Maidment, director of the Seahorse Trust in the UK, reports that he stopped a deadly outbreak of Vibrio among his Hippocampus capensis dead in its tracks and cured the seahorses simply by cooling their aquarium down to 18°C (64.4°F) for a period of weeks. The bacteria simply no longer presented a problem at that temperature.

In short, it makes a lot of sense to reduce the aquarium temps while trying to get an infection such as this under control. Cooling down the microbes and slowing their metabolism and rate of reproduction accordingly can slow any bacterial infection (Giwojna, Oct. 2003).

Tropical seahorses will be fine as low as 68°F (20°C) providing you drop the water temperature gradually. But the temperature does not need to be reduced markedly to have a very beneficial effect on a bacterial infection; just dropping the water temperature a few degrees will be very helpful.

Finally, adding beta glucan to your treatment regimen to boost the healing seahorse’s immune system can also help them fight off this infection. The best way to administer the beta glucan is simply to enrich frozen Mysis with Vibrance and feed it to your seahorse as usual. The Vibrance formulations now include Beta Glucan, a potent immunostimulant, as a primary ingredient. As a result, we can now boost our seahorse’s immune systems and help them fight disease as part of their daily feeding regimen. Enriching our galloping gourmets’ frozen Mysis with Vibrance will give them a daily dose of Beta Glucan to stimulate phagocytosis of certain white cells (macrophages). If the research on Beta Glucan is accurate, this could be a great way to help prevent infections from bacteria, fungus, and viral elements rather than attempting to treat disease outbreaks after the fact.

Not only should Vibrance + Beta Glucan help keep healthy seahorses healthy, it should also help ailing seahorses recover faster. Research indicates that it helps prevent infections and helps wounds heal morfe quickly (Bartelme, 2001). It is safe to use in conjunction with other treatments and has been proven to increase the effectiveness of antibiotics (Bartelme, 2001). It will be great for new arrivals recovering from the rigors of shipping because Beta Glucan is known to alleviate the effects of stress and to help fish recover from exposure to toxins in the water (Bartelme, 2001) . Good stuff!

For more information on the potential benefits of Beta Glucan for aquarium fish, please see the following article:

Click here: Advanced Aquarist Feature Article

Adminstering Beta Glucan orally via Vibrance-enriched frozen Mysis, which are so naturally rich in highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA), is the perfect way to boost the immune response of our seahorses since vitamins and HUFA enhance the capacity of immune system cells that are stimulated by the use of beta glucan (Bartelme, 2001).

In short, if the tail rot is detected early enough, it may respond well to a treatment regimen consisting of antibiotic therapy, reduced temperature, and beta glucan administered orally. Topical treatments consisting of dipping the tail of the seahorse in disinfectants such as Betadine can also be a useful addition to the other therapies for tail rot we have been discussing.

In addition to treating the affected seahorse, it’s very important to determine what may have caused this problem in the first place and to correct the situation so that the rest of your seahorses don’t become infected. One of the best ways to prevent bacterial infections and other disease 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 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.

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.

With this in mind, it’s important to review the most common stressors of captive seahorses. These include the design of the aquarium itself. A poorly designed seahorse setup that lacks adequate cover and shelter, or has too few hitching posts, will be stressful to the occupants (Topps, 1999). Seahorses are shy, secretive animals that rely on camouflage and the ability to conceal themselves for their safety and survival. A sparsely decorated tank that leaves them feeling vulnerable and exposed will be a source of constant stress (Topps, 1999). The seahorse setup should have plenty of secure hiding places so they can conceal themselves from view completely whenever they feel the need for privacy. It should be located in a low traffic area away from external sources of shock and vibration.

Needless to say, rapid fluctuations in temperature, pH, salinity and other aquarium parameters must also be avoided. A large aquarium of 40 gallons or more provides much greater stability in that regard than does a smaller setup. The greater the water volume in the aquarium and sump, the more stable the system will be.

Heat stress is especially debilitating and dangerous for seahorses due to a number of reasons, as we have art I discussed, so it’s very important to keep your water temperature in the seahorses’ comfort zone. Make sure that your aquarium hasn’t suffered a heater malfunction or experienced one temperature spike for some other reason.

Incompatible tankmates are also stressful for seahorses. This includes not only aggressive, territorial fishes and potential predators but also inoffensive species that are restless, active fishes. Seahorses may be uneasy around fishes that are always on the go, swimming tirelessly back and forth.

Other common stressors for seahorses include overcrowding, overfeeding, stray voltage, and a host of issues related to water quality: ammonia or nitrite spikes, high nitrate levels, inadequate circulation and oxygenation, high CO2 levels and low 02 levels, low pH, etc., etc., etc (Giwojna, Jun. 2002).

In short, if hobbyists provide their seahorses with a stress-free environment, optimum water quality, and a nutritious diet, they will thrive and your aquarium will flourish with a minimum of problems. Preventing disease in the first place is infinitely preferable to trying to treat health problems after the fact. But when disease does break out in the aquarium, here are some simple measures you should take immediately at the first sign of 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.

Aside from cleaning up and keeping your seahorses stress-free, one other thing you can do to help prevent bacterial infections like tail rot is to install an ultraviolet sterilizer on your seahorse tank, as discussed below:

Ultraviolet Sterilizers.

Although it does not improve water quality to nearly the same degree as an ozonizer used in conjunction with a protein skimmer, UV radiation in the proper range (295-400 nanometers) is known to help oxidize phosphates, metabolites, organic molecules and nitrogenous compounds through the incidental production of ozone (Fenner, 2003a).

The primary benefits UV sterilization provides, however, are disease reduction and the reduction of nuisance algae. Ultraviolet radiation can be very effective in reducing free-floating algae, bacteria and microbes in general, certain parasites while in the free-swimming stages of development, and other suspended microscopic organisms (Fenner, 2003a). Seahorses are prone to a number of serious bacterial problems such as Vibriosis, and a properly installed and maintained UV sterilizer can be invaluable in reducing the incidence and spread of such infections. When properly used, UV sterilization can reduce microbial levels in the aquarium to the low levels normally found in the wild or below (Fenner, 2003a).

For best results, the UV sterilizer must be properly sized, operated, and maintained. In order to provide a good kill rate per pass, the effective dwell time (the length of time the water is exposed to UV radiation while passing through the sterilizer) should be maintained at or above roughly twenty gallons per hour flow per watt of UV (Fenner, 2003a). This sounds complicated, but selecting the right sterilizer for your needs is actually very easy. Every manufacturer provides guidelines to help the hobbyist choose a unit and a pump that provide the proper wattage, flow rate and exposure time for any given application.

To assure efficient transmission of the proper wavelengths, sleeves (i.e., the quartz jacket that shields the lamp) must be kept clean and UV bulbs must be replaced at regular intervals. Equally important, the aquarium water should be filtered before it passes through the sterilizer. For maximum efficiency, make the UV sterilizer the final component of an in-line filtration system, so that the water has already passed through your mechanical, biological and chemical filtration media before it flows through the sterilizer (Fenner, 2003a). Do not operate your UV sterilizer during the break-in period when a new aquarium is being cycled and the biological filtration is becoming established. It is counterproductive to reduce microbe levels and nutrient levels when the aquarium is cycling.

Ultraviolet sterilizers are not necessary for maintaining seahorses, but nowadays I would not attempt to keep wild-caught seahorses without one. Hardy, disease-resistant farmed-raised seahorses can do just fine without them, and reefers often frown on UV because it reduces the population of microscopic planktonic organisms filter-feeding invertebrates require. But in my opinion a UV sterilizer makes a very useful addition to the filtration system of the average seahorse setup. The fish farms and aquaculture facilities that raise captive-bred seahorses employ UV radiation in their nurseries and grow-out tanks, and there is no reason the home hobbyist should not take advantage of this technology as well.

Finally, there is an excellent new book about the diseases of seahorses that you would find very informative. Dr. Martin Belli, Marc Lamont, Keith Gentry, and Clare Driscoll have done a terrific job putting together "Working Notes: A Guide to the Diseases of Seahorses." Hobbyists will find the detailed information it contains on seahorse anatomy, the latest disease diagnosis and treatment protocols, and quarantine procedures to be extremely useful and helpful. It has some excellent dissection and necropsy photos as well as a number of photos of seahorses with various health problems. This is one book every seahorse keeper should have in his or her fish-room medicine cabinet, and I highly recommend it! In time of need, it can be a real life saver for your seahorses. It’s available online at the following web site:

Best of luck resolving your seahorse’s tale infection and preventing the problem from spreading to the rest of your seahorses.

Pete Giwojna

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