Re:not eating, possibly pregnant??

Pete Giwojna

Dear Lisa & Wayne:

I elaborated a bit more on the directions for performing a needle aspiration in my reply to your earlier post. I’ll repeat that information here so you’ll have a better idea of just how to proceed. It should explain how deep to penetrate the side of the pouch when you are aspirating the fluid:

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Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like your second male is pregnant to me. Rather, if he is acting like this swollen pouch is weighing him down and is too heavy to lift, so that he has to rest it on objects or must lay on the bottom to rest rather than swimming normally, that suggests that he is having a problem with negative buoyancy due to fluid building up within his brood pouch. That’s a condition that is usually known as ascites or abdominal dropsy, and it needs to be treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics.

However, it’s quite possible for a seahorse to be pregnant and having a problem with ascites at the same time, so I would suggest that you perform a needle aspiration of the male’s pouch to get a better picture of exactly what is bothering him. A needle aspiration is a very straightforward technique that simply involves inserting a hypodermic needle through the side of the pouch, tapping into the pocket(s) of trapped gas or fluid, withdrawing the plunger on the syringe and removing the fluid or gas. If you have never done a needle aspiration before, I know it sounds a bit gruesome, but it is a surprisingly painless procedure for the seahorse and is often easier and less stressful for both the aquarist and the patient than performing pouch flushes or repeatedly massaging the pouch. Not only is a needle aspiration less traumatic, as a rule, but it is also often more effective in removing the trapped gas or fluid and relieving the problem. And it is the best way to relieve fluid build up in a case like yours.

A needle aspiration could be especially revealing for your male, since I wouldn’t necessarily rule out pregnancy under the circumstances. He could be carrying a brood of embryonic young or fetal fry in addition to fluid retention.

So if you perform a needle aspiration on your male’s distended pouch, the hypodermic may also extract fluid from the marsupium and/or yolk from ova implanted within the lining of the pouch. That can indicate whether your male is pregnant or possibly has another problem in addition to fluid retention or ascites. In fact, for those very reasons, it is standard operating procedure for the pros to perform a needle aspiration on males with buoyancy problems for diagnostic purposes, as described by Dr. Marty Greenwell below:

"As noted above, there are several potential etiologies when an animal is experiencing buoyancy problems. If the pouch appears asymmetrically distended or symmetrically distended with attendant buoyancy problems, a percutaneous fine needle aspirate should be performed on the pouch contents. Any fluid aspirated should be dried and stained with Wright-Giemsa stain, Gram stain, and acid-fast stain. The pouch can also be flushed with sterile saline and the aspirate sent for culture." ("Syngnathids Health Management," Martin G. Greenwell, Shedd Aquarium — Seahorse Husbandry in Public Aquariums: 2005 Manual.)

Remember, you’re not trying to skewer the seahorse — the wall of the pouch consists of four thin layers of epithelial and connective tissue, so you don’t need to insert the needle very far in order to penetrate the membranes of the marsupium and reach the central cavity of the pouch.

I realize performing a needle aspiration seems like an intimidating procedure, Lisa, but in actual practice, it is much easier than it sounds. In fact, because their small size makes it so difficult to burp the pouch of a dwarf seahorse, a needle aspiration is often the preferred technique for releasing pouch gas from pigmy males (Hippocampus zosterae). For instance, Kirk Strawn is an expert on H. zosterae who often performs needle aspirations or even rudimentary surgical procedures to release pouch gas from male dwarves, and he reports that the delicate dwarfs are none the worse for wear afterwards:

This is how Kirk Strawn describes pouch gas problems in pygmies in an article called ”Keeping and Breeding the Dwarf Seahorse” (Aquarium Journal, October 1954: pp 226-228.): ”Unguarded airstones disrupted many courtships. A courting male pumps up his brood pouch with water until it appears ready to burst. When this action occurs in the stream of bubbles above an air stone, a bubble is likely to be sucked into the pouch producing a disastrous effect on courtship. The male swims over to meet the female. When the air bubble in the brood pouch shifts, he loses balance and floats tail first to the surface. With great effort he swims down to a perch and wraps his tail around it. Firmly anchored, he resumes an upright position. The female comes over and wraps her tail around his. When she moves away, he follows, loses his balance, and shoots to the surface. Finally the pair give up trying to breed. These bubbles remain in the pouch unless removed. In nature death would surely result either by the male’s being washed ashore or from its being exposed to predators. In the aquarium a floating male can live indefinitely.”

Strawn then goes on to describe how this recurring problem can be remedied: ”…removing the bubble by inserting a needle into the opening of the pouch…is a more difficult operation on the little dwarfs. It is more easily accomplished either during courtship or following the delivery of young–at which times the opening to the pouch is dilated. Inserting a needle through the entrance of the pouch does not ruin a male for future breeding. A male kept away from females from February until June had bubbles removed on three occasions by puncturing the side of the pouch with a needle and squeezing out the bubble. (The urge to reproduce is so strong that males go through the motions of courtship and may pick up bubbles even if no females are present.) On June seventh he was placed with a ripe, freshly caught female. On the seventeenth I cut a slit in the side of the pouch and removed a bubble and two partly formed babies. By the twentieth [3 days later] the slit was healed over, and he had another air bubble. On the 23rd I partially removed this bubble by forcing a needle through the entrance of the pouch. On the 25th [2 days later] yolk came out when the needle was inserted. On July 5th he gave birth to a large brood after which a bubble was squeezed out of the dilated opening of the pouch without the aid of a needle. The next day he sucked in another bubble while courting. Although removing bubbles does not permanently damage the fish, it is much easier to put a fence, such as a cylinder of plastic screen, around the air stone and its rising stream of bubbles” (Strawn, 1954).

Notice that Strawn performed needle aspirations on the same male several times within a short period, and even performed crude pouch surgery on the pregnant male, yet the dwarf seahorse was untroubled by these procedures, recovered fully, and eventually gave birth to large broods of young nonetheless. If the delicate dwarf male can tolerate the procedure so well, even when pregnancy complicates the picture, your pony should have no problem with a needle aspiration.

I know a needle aspiration sounds like an intimidating procedure but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is in actual practice.

First of all, let me emphasize that it’s a very safe procedure. The only real risk is a slight danger of secondary infection, but if you’re using a sterilized needle that risk is virtually negligible. It’s true that the lining of the pouch is heavily vascularized — especially in pregnant males — but it is capillary rich and not fed by any major veins are arteries, so there is no significant risk of bleeding or hemorrhaging at all. Once the needle penetrates the wall of the pouch and reaches the central cavity, there is really nothing inside that it could damage. Aside from the septum — a longitudinal wall of tissue or membrane that divides the pouch into left and right hemispheres — the central cavity of the pouch is basically a void. And even if you inserted the needle far enough to pierce the central septum, no harm would be done by penetrating that membrane with a needle. The septum is a simple wall of tissue whose only purpose is to provide additional surface area on which fertilized eggs can implant. You could punch it full of holes like a sieve and it would have no detrimental effects or adverse impacts on the seahorse at all. So a needle aspiration is a simple, straightforward procedure, and even if you bungle it somehow and fail to extract the trapped fluid or gas, no harm will be done to the seahorse in the attempt. The entire procedure is virtually painless and stress free for the seahorse, although they will naturally struggle initially when being restrained.

The size of the syringe and the gauge of the hypodermic needle are really not that important, although the type of small hypodermic as a needle is used for treating diabetes are ideal for performing needle aspirations on secrets.

The procedure is accomplished while the seahorse is held under water, just as you would if burping or flushing the pouch, and you grasp the seahorse in the same manner as well.

Prepare the needle and syringe ahead of time by sterilizing the hypodermic. When you are ready, wet your hands first and hold the seahorse upright in the water with your non-dominant hand, allowing his tail to wrap your little finger or ring finger so he has a good grip and feels secure.

While the seahorse is thus restrained, use your dominant hand to insert the needle into the side of the pouch (not the front) so you can tap into the pocket of trapped fluid.

Remember, you are not performing a subcutaneous or intramuscular injection, so there is no need to use a shallow angle when penetrating the wall of the pouch. Depress the plunger all the way and then insert the hypodermic laterally, from the side of the pouch rather than the front, at a perpendicular angle to the wall of the pouch. Use a very gentle pressure to penetrate the wall of the pouch, and you should be able to feel the sudden lack of resistance as the needle passes through the wall of the marsupium into the central cavity of the pouch. In most cases, that is where the trapped gas or fluid should be.

The wall of the pouch is fairly thin, so after the needle penetrates a few millimeters you should be well within the central cavity. (The wall of the pouch thickens and enlarges in pregnant males due to the placenta-like changes that take place in the lining of the pouch, so you may have to insert the needle deeper than normal if you’re dealing with a gravid male.) If you insert the needle too far, you will encounter resistance again momentarily, indicating you have passed through the central cavity and encountered the septum; if this happens, just retract the needle slightly and you should be back in the central cavity. When you feel the needle is within the central cavity, gradually withdraw the plunger on the syringe and remove the trapped gas/fluid. Successfully aspirating the gas or fluid in this way should relieve the pressure and swelling and provide your male with some immediate relief.

More importantly, it would allow you to examine the fluid you aspirated to better assess the seahorses condition. If the aspirate consists of a clear watery liquid (i.e., marsupial fluid) or contains traces of yellow yolk, that would indicate that your male is pregnant. If the fluid is discolored or purulent, that indicates an infection. If the aspirate includes gas as well as fluid, that indicates GBS is also a factor in your male’s problems.

If the fluid you aspirate is discolored or contains pus or has a foul odor of any kind, then you can be confident that the problem is ascites or abdominal dropsy, and you should isolate your male in your hospital tank so that you can begin treating him with powerful antibiotics as soon as possible.

The recommended treatment in such cases is to isolate the affected seahorse in your hospital tank and treat it for two weeks using a combination of doxycycline and kanamycin. Those are potent broad-spectrum antibiotics that can be combined safely together to produce a synergistic effect that further potentiates the medications.

Both of these antibiotics can be obtained without a prescription from National Fish Pharmaceuticals at the following URL:

Click here: Fish Medications
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Okay, Lisa — that’s the quick rundown explaining more precisely how to perform the needle aspiration(s). Don’t worry that you’re going to harm poor old George — the needle aspiration should make it clear whether he is pregnant or simply suffering from fluid building up within his pouch, as I suspect, or possibly both. If it is fluid retention, then removing as much of the fluid as possible during the needle aspirations should relieve the pressure and hopefully he will feel much better when he doesn’t have to fight against the negative buoyancy and will begin eating the live shrimp. If not, the antibiotics should stop the infection and help him recover.

Best of luck performing this procedure, Wayne and Lisa! You will find that it’s easier in actual practice that it sounds.

Pete Giwojna

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