I’m very sorry to hear about the problems you are having with your Hippocampus kuda. According to Murphy’s Law, of course, crises like that always seem to arise while you’re away from home, and there’s nothing you can do about it from long distance.
First of all, let me just say that I think you have an absolutely superb set up for your seahorses! The total water volume for your system is terrific, a sump is a wonderful asset for seahorse tank, and you have excellent filtration. If it’s any consolation, your seahorses should have few health problems in a stable system such as yours.
Right now, we just don’t have enough information to pin down what the problem may be. It is very difficult to even speculate about the matter when the only symptoms we have to go on are swimming restlessly and an increase in overall activity levels. About the only thing I can tell you for sure is that that sort of agitated behavior in seahorses is an indication of an animal that is stressed for some reason, which you have probably already surmised.
Beyond that, it’s very difficult to say what may be causing that stress. It could be irritation due to parasites. (Have you added any new specimens to your 40-gallon seahorse tank recently, or to any of the other aquaria in the main system, which may have been carrying pathogens or parasites of some sort?) Has there been a temperature spike in the tank recently, Micki? Perhaps while you were out of town?
I’ve also seen the sort of restlessness and agitated swimming you describe with seahorses that were subjected to stray voltage, so that’s another possibility in a long list of potential stressors we need to rule out. Stray voltage is common cause of chronic stress for seahorses and other aquarium inhabitants, as well as a much more prevalent problem than most hobbyists suspect (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Installing a grounding probe in the tank easily prevents it, and every seahorse setup should be equipped with one. A titanium grounding probe is an inexpensive investment that can safeguard the health of your seahorses (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Think of it as an extraordinarily cheap, yet effective life insurance policy that can save your fish — and your hide — in the event of an electrical accident while working on your tank.
Your female kuda apparently developed some sort of ailment while you were away, Micki. As to what caused that affliction, it could be anything that impaired the immune system of the seahorse or suppressed its immune response, leaving it vulnerable to disease. In the aquarium, this is usually some form of stress, so about all we can do at this point is to run through the usual aquarium stressors that are often associated with disease outbreaks. (I suspect that your water quality parameters are good and that most of these items don’t apply in your case, Micki, but I’m going to go over them one by one anyway for the sake of thoroughness. Please bear with me.)
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. Among other effects, it results in the build up of lactic acid and lowers the pH of the blood, which can have dire consequences for seahorses for reasons we’ll discuss later.
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.
An infection or outbreak of illness therefore almost always indicates that there is another problem that is stressing the fishes and weakening their immune response (Indiviglio, 2002). In addition to treating the ailment itself, the hobbyist must also identify and correct the underlying problem in order to restore health.
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. (I think we can rule out instability your case, Micki. The size of your aquarium system should make it steady as a rock.)
Heat stress 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.
In short, it’s doubly important to keep seahorses at the proper temperature. Because of the reasons mentioned above and the fact that water holds less and less dissolved oxygen as it warms up, seahorses generally tolerate temps at the lower end of their preferred range much better than they handle temperatures at the upper limit of their range.
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).
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. So check your water quality and aquarium parameters, Micki, if you haven’t already done so, 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, 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.
With so little to go on, Micki, about all I have to suggest is to perform a water change and general cleanup as discussed above. That should help set things right again in case things got a little bit out of control while you were away and your seahorse tank was in the care of your father-in-law. Since he was unaccustomed to feeding your seahorses, there may have been more wastage than usual, resulting in a build up of uneaten Mysis in inaccessible areas of the tank.
As you know, if you’re not really careful when your feeding your seahorses, some of the frozen food can be swept away and lodge in isolated nooks and crannies where the seahorses cannot get it. There it will begin to decompose and degrade the water quality, which is why ammonia spikes are common after a heavy feeding. Or it may be wafted out into the open again later on and eaten after it has begun to spoil. Either outcome can make a seahorse ill, and it’s possible something like that may have befallen your kuda in your absence.
Make a water change, make sure your male kuda is getting good nourishment and plenty to eat, and hopefully now that you’re back to set things up in order and establish your usual routine again, he will settle down and be none the worse for wear. Keep a close eye on him in the meantime, and let us know right away if you notice any new symptoms indicating a possible problem.
And as an added precaution be sure to enrich your frozen Mysis with Vibrance: in order to boost your seahorse’s immune system. 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).
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). Beta Glucan is known to alleviate the effects of stress and to help fish recover from exposure to toxins in the water (Bartelme, 2001) .
For more information on the potential health 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).
That’s all I can think of, Micki. Now that you’re back, hopefully a little of your TLC will soon have your male kuda back to his old self again.