Re:not eating…He died

#4580
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Dear Lisa & Wayne:

I’m very sorry to hear that Will did not make it. All my condolences on your loss!

As you know, it is terribly difficult to try to diagnose health problems from afar when you cannot see the seahorses or the system they are in, and you have no laboratory tests, cultures, skin smears, wet-mounts, necropsy reports or anything concrete to go on to guide your diagnosis. So it’s very hard to say what may have caused his demise with any certainty, but I would be happy to share my thoughts on the matter with you for whatever it’s worth.

First of all, it sounds like you have an excellent system for your seahorses and the water quality parameters you listed look perfectly fine, so I don’t think the problem lies there. I think it’s unlikely that Will died from marine ick (Cryptocaryon irritans). Seahorses have some built-in resistance to Cryptocaryon because of their armored exoskeleton and heavy mucous coat, and I saw none of the telltale white spots on Will’s dorsal fin, which is about the only place they are typically visible on a seahorse.

Nor do I feel that he succumbed to intestinal flagellates or internal parasites. A heavy infestation of intestinal parasites debilitates a seahorse gradually, over a relatively long period of time, and I don’t believe you have had Will long enough for that to have caused his demise. It’s quite possible that he had some internal parasites, which may have complicated matters, but I don’t believe that was the direct cause of his rapid decline and death.

Also, unless he had not been eating for quite some time at your LFS, I don’t imagine that Will has starved to death. A healthy seahorse in good condition can survive for weeks without eating and you simply haven’t had your new male long enough for starvation to have killed him outright. I suspect you’re correct, however — malnutrition probably played a role in his health problems to a large degree even if starvation was not the direct cause of his death.

My best guess is that Will was overwhelmed by an infection of some sort. I did clearly see a suspicious white lesion on the tail of the seahorse in the photographs you sent me, and such lesions are most often associated with bacterial infections. Also, the "hiccuping" you mentioned can sometimes be symptomatic of such infections. Many times when a seahorse appears to be coughing repeatedly, or hiccuping as you put it, it is due to a bacterial or fungal infection that has begun to involve the gills. It’s very difficult to say whether malnutrition weakened Will and made him vulnerable to an opportunistic pathogen, which caused the infection, or whether the infection affected Will enough internally to put him off his feed and stop him from eating, but I suspect that an infection was responsible for his death, one way or the other.

In general, Lisa, I believe the home hobbyist is better off ordering his seahorses directly from the breeder or collector, if possible, rather than purchasing them from his or her local pet store or fish store. The reason for this is that when you get the seahorses directly from the source, you can be assured that they have been handled properly and fed well, so that they are likely to reach you in the best condition. The seahorses that reach our local pet store have often undergone a long arduous journey from collector or breeder to wholesaler and finally to your retail pet dealer, and are likely to have been starved or handled inappropriately at every step along the way. Pet dealers are often uninformed about the unusual requirements and specialized feeding habits of seahorses, so they often lack the proper food for them, and the seahorses are often malnourished as a result. Worst of all, when they reach your local fish store, the seahorses are normally kept in aquariums that share a common water supply with all of the rest of the marine fish in the store. This means they can be exposed to any pathogens or parasites that those other wild fish from all around the world may be carrying, and that is very undesirable for obvious reasons.

However, obtaining the seahorses locally does save you shipping costs and it does allow you to handpick the seahorses and examine them closely before you make a purchase, so I have no problem with that approach providing you screen the seahorses for health problems carefully before making your selections and quarantine the new arrivals before introducing them to your main tank.

Here are the warning signs and symptoms to check for when you’re giving a seahorse at your LFS a visual inspection, as recommended in "Syngnathid Husbandry for Public Aquariums":

<open quote>
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.

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 lenticular 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.
<Close quote>

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. And, of course, once you bring a new seahorse home from your LFS, it should be quarantined for 30 days to see if any health problems manifest themselves before you introduce it to your main tank with the rest of your herd.

Best of luck with the rest of your seahorses, Wayne and Lisa.

Respectfully,
Pete Giwojna


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