Dear Wayne & Lisa:
I’m terribly sorry to hear about the demise of George — please accept all my condolences on your loss!
Rest assured that you did not kill him by performing the needle aspiration. It’s a very safe procedure and the first thing that a veterinarian or professional aquaculturist would have done in such a situation is to perform a needle aspiration, examine the fluid from the pouch microscopically, and then culture the fluid to see which bacteria grow out so they can test them for sensitivity to antibiotics and administer the proper treatment. When a seahorse suffering from fluid build up reaches the point where he stops eating and is weighed down so much he lays on the bottom, the aquarist must do something to intervene as soon as possible, and removing the accumulated fluid via a needle aspiration can provide some immediate relief and buy time while you are waiting for the proper antibiotics to arrive or to take affect. A needle aspiration is a one-time procedure; it is done once so that you can examine the fluid that has been removed and hopefully relieve the negative buoyancy, but then it’s up to the antibiotics to cure the infection and resolve the problem. In short, you did the right thing…
George didn’t starve to death. Going two days without eating is not long enough for starvation to result, but it may have contributed to his generalized weakness.
It is not normal for the fecal pellets to be hard and firm — they are normally soft and pliable, not solid like a grain of rice, so it’s possible that George may have developed an intestinal blockage or at least a problem with constipation. Constipation and intestinal blockages will both result in abdominal distention and a loss of appetite, and can also contribute to fluid retention.
When an intestinal obstruction does form, it takes several days for the seahorse to expire since it is unable to digest its food properly and obtain nutrition. They will usually go off their feed and stop eating, and then just gradually waste away over a period of days.
Intestinal blockages are most often seen in dwarf seahorses and juveniles that are being fed baby brine shrimp, and are typically caused by ingesting some of the indigestible egg cases when the empty eggshells or unhatched cysts are not separated properly from the newly hatched brine shrimp prior to feeding the seahorses.
Abdominal swelling and loss of appetite are also symptoms of constipation. Constipation is more common in fishes with laterally compressed bodies such as seahorses and can be caused by overfeeding, a change in diet, certain medications, stress, and rarely an intestinal blockage. The literature reports the following symptoms of constipation in fishes:
"The abdomen swells, the fish has little interest in food, and the fish is sluggish or resting on the bottom. No symptoms of disease is present; a string of feces often trails behind the fish."
The following cures for constipated fish are often suggested, Lisa, but I have no idea if they would be effective for seahorses:
(1) Fast the fish for two days.
(2) After fasting, feed the affected fish with live foods such as brine
shrimp rather than frozen foods.
(3) Soak the fish’s food in cod liver oil or place two drops of cod
liver oil directly in the fishes mouth so that it is swallowed.
(4) induce the fish to eat a single grain of Epsom salt.
Here’s what I would suggest if you ever suspect a problem with constipation:
Stop feeding the seahorse immediately. Fast him for two days and
observe him closely to see if the constipation is relieved and he
produces any fecal pellets.
While he is fasting, obtain some live adult brine shrimp and cod liver
oil. If he is not producing normal fecal pellets after two days of
fasting, soak the live adult brine shrimp in water that you’ve added
cod liver oil to for one hour, and then feed the brine shrimp that have
soaked in (and hopefully ingested) the cod liver oil immediately to
your seahorse, being careful not to overfeed. Feed him a strict diet
of cod-liver-oil-soaked brine shrimp sparingly for a couple of days and
see if that relieves his constipation.
If that doesn’t relieve the abdominal swelling and induce him to start
eliminating fecal pellets again, you could try tube feeding him with
two drops of the cod liver oil, injecting it directly into his
esophagus so it’s sure to reach his gastrointestinal tract.
If there is a silver lining in this whole situation, it’s the fact that if constipation or an intestinal blockage contributed to George’s demise, the rest of the seahorses should not be affected at all.
Best of luck with the rest of your seahorses, Lisa and Wayne.