Re:Seahorse not eating also

Pete Giwojna

Dear Poor2today:

I’m sorry to hear about the problem that your female seahorse has developed, sir. If there is a foreign object lodged in the seahorse’s snout, there is really not much you can do to help the seahorse clear the obstruction. The seahorse must expel the foreign body on its own, which they are usually eventually able to do. As you can imagine, attempting to insert anything into the seahorse’s snout to assist it may only make things worse and do more harm than good. Introducing a needle or a toothpick or a small cannula or any such thing into the tubular snout would likely only act as a ramrod, and force the foreign object further back into the snout.

However, it’s possible that the seahorse may not actually have a foreign body lodged in its snout after all. You mentioned that the female is repeatedly perform in the "snicking" action with her head, almost as if she were hiccuping, and that each time she does so, an object seems to protrude partially out of the snout and then retract back in again. Seahorses will act like that, repeatedly "snicking" almost as if trying to clear their throats whenever something is irritating or interfering with their suctorial feeding mechanism (i.e., the hyoid bone "trigger" and the associated musculature that operates it), and the lower jaw of the seahorse swings down, opening and then closing, every time it’s snicks or breathes. The long, tubular snout has a hinged mouth at the end that works like a trap door or drawbridge, since only the lower jaw is protractile and swings down (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). I am wondering if your wife may be mistaking the rhythmical opening and closing of the seahorse’s lower jaw each time as it snicks for a foreign object that is alternately protruding from and retracting back into its mouth?

In other words, I suspect that the seahorse is "hiccuping" and repeatedly going through the motions of snicking with its head because something has irritated its suctorial feeding mechanism, and this persistent irritation is causing it to cough again and again, so to speak. This irritation could be due to a foreign object or particle it accidentally sucked up, which has caused a mechanical injury to its feeding apparatus, even though it was able to expel the offending object. Or they irritation could be due to an infection or inflammation of the underlying musculature that operates its suctorial feeding mechanism, causing the seahorse equivalent of a sore throat.

In some cases, hobbyists report that a medication called Melafix can be helpful for treating such problems. It appears that the Melaleuca tree oil in the Melafix is soothing to the irritation and can help promote healing, so that’s something that you may want to consider, but only if you observe all of the necessary precautions, as explained below.

Even when the Melafix is helpful, it is very difficult to project how long it may take for the injury to heal in a situation like yours. Much depends on whether the injury involved the powerful sternohyoideus muscle that runs from the hyoid bone to the cleithrum and operates the buccal suction pump, or the hyohyoideus muscles and dilator operculi muscles which work together to operate the opercular suction pump, or both sets of muscles, and how severe the injury/irritation or strain happened to be in your case. I’ve heard recovery times ranging from a couple of weeks to over two months. Keeping the seahorse eating while it recovers is the key.

As long as none of your seahorses are experiencing any kind of breathing difficulties or respiratory distress, you might consider treating your tank with Melafix to help speed the healing process, Poor2today. As I said, I’ve heard a few anecdotal reports from hobbyists that maintain they have cured seahorses with weak snick or "sticky trigger/trigger lock" using Melafix (i.e., Melaleuca tree oil). It’s a risky treatment for seahorses due to the potential risk of asphyxiation, but it may have some limited application for feeding disorders that affect the seahorse’s suctorial feeding mechanism.

By and large, the people who have used Melafix to treat seahorses report that it seems to be a very safe product but it only useful for treating minor problems and superficial injuries. It is a very mild medication, and its main virtue seems to be that its reef safe and can be used to treat the main tank. Reef keepers apparently like it because it is safe to use with delicate corals and invertebrates, and won’t impair the biofiltration, so they can use to treat fishes in their reef tank that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to catch and remove for treatment in a hospital tank.

My main concern with Maleluca tree oil, the active ingredient in Melafix, is that it may impair the breathing of seahorses under certain circumstances for a couple of reasons. First of all, it seems to stimulate excess mucous production, and may cause the gills to be coated with a layer of slime. Secondly, it reportedly causes a drop in oxygen (O2) levels during treatment.

The drop in O2 levels is definitely a cause for concern, particularly if excess mucous production is impairing respiration by causing the gills to be coated in slime at the same time. If a thin film of this oil covers the surface of the aquarium, that could interfere with efficient gas exchange at the air/water interface, resulting in a drop in O2 levels and a build up of CO2. It seems like that could account for the demise of a specimen that’s already been weakened by weak snick interfering with its ability to feed normally. One property of the Maleluca tree oil is that it dramatically reduces the surface tension of the water, causing protein skimmers to go nuts and overflow with copious amounts of wet foam. Skimmers usually need to be shut off during treatment as a result, so maybe that reduces the oxygenation in the aquarium further.

Perhaps at the least we can say that Melafix is contraindicated in cases where the affected seahorse is experiencing respiratory problems. It sounds like it is never advisable to use Melafix when seahorses are huffing, exhibiting labored breathing, or showing any signs of respiratory distress. And it would certainly be a sensible precaution to increase the aeration, surface agitation, and circulation when treating with this product. Consider adding an extra airstone or two to be safe.

If you are treating with Melafix and you notice a change in the seahorse’s breathing — any signs of respiratory distress — I would discontinue the treatments immediately and remove the medication from the water ASAP. Start up your protein skimmer, resume filtration with activated carbon, and perform a water change right away.

I will also avoid adding Melafix to any aquarium which is being treated with other medications. Don’t use Melafix if there are already other medications in the aquarium water!

That’s all that I can suggest under the circumstances, Poor2today. You may want to administer a freshwater dip to the seahorse, or better yet given a quick dip in methylene blue, to see if that helps it clear any possible extraction, as I explained in my post to Paul on the forum, and then try treating your seahorse tank with Melafix. But if you try the Melafix, be very careful to take all the necessary precautions to prevent a drop in the dissolved oxygen levels and potential problems with asphyxiation. Good luck!

Pete Giwojna

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