Re:tube feeding

#3460
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Dear Chris:

Sure thing, I would be happy to review some of the methods for tube feeding a seahorse with you. Force feeding can save a seahorse’s life in an emergency, but it’s best reserved as a last resort. It’s not a long-term solution, but rather a stopgap measure to provide desperately needed nutritional support for a seahorse when all else fails. If the tube feeding has to be continued for more than a few days, it is apt to do more harm than good.

Tube feeding is appropriate when a seahorse has gone without eating for a prolonged period and has exhausted its energy reserves. This can happen when a seahorse is beset with internal parasites and stops eating, or perhaps when a seahorse is undergoing extended treatment with a medication that suppresses the appetite. And, of course, it is very common — perhaps even the rule — in wild-caught seahorses that have run the gauntlet from collector to wholesaler to retailer before finally reaching the hobbyist (Lidster, 1999). In such cases, tube feeding can help strengthen the seahorse and keep it going until it has a chance to recover and resume feeding on its own.

Force Feeding

The easiest technique for force feeding a seahorses is to thaw and enrich some frozen Mysis as usual and then locate an implement such as a blunt toothpick on which you can impale one frozen shrimp. (Some hobbyists like to use a clean plastic fork for this and break off all the tines but one, which will then be used to manipulate the frozen Mysis; Carol Keen, pers. com.) Simply spear the mysid on the end of the tine or toothpick, hold your seahorse under water, and gently work the morsel into its mouth.

It helps to watch the seahorse’s breathing, and when it opens its mouth to inhale, then gently insert the Mysis into its mouth. Each time it breathes, push the mysid a little further down its snout on the inhale, while it’s taking in water. Keep gently working the mysid further down the snout this way until you get it past the hyoid-bone "trigger." Once you get the Mysis past the trigger, you can withdraw the tine or toothpick and the seahorse will usually swallow the shrimp on its own. Depending on the size of the seahorse, you can repeat this process several times in one feeding session, until the seahorse has swallowed 4-5 enriched Mysis (Jennifer Myerscough, pers. com.).

If you feel this method is too intrusive or too intimidating, there is a less invasive method you can try, but it’s not as effective, in my opinion. It involves using a small syringe (no needle!) to squirt a thin mash of food or gruel into the seahorse’s mouth. Basically, you mash the food up very fine, until it’s almost liquefied, mix in some vitamins or other enrichment product to fortify it, load the gruel into the tube of the syringe, and squirt a small amount into the seahorse’s mouth when it inhales as it breathes. Give the seahorse a chance to swallow (or reject) the mash you’ve injected before you repeat the process. It’s an uncertain technique at best, since the seahorse can spit out some or all of the food after each squirt and you never know for sure how much it’s actually ingesting, but it’s a very safe method and certainly better than nothing.

There’s a third method of force feeding seahorses that is better referred to as tube feeding since no force is involved. The following description is based on Leslie Leddo’s tube-feeding technique, as discussed in her online article (Leddo, 2002b). It is similar to the previous technique, except that a very fine catheter is attached to the syringe and inserted into the seahorse’s snout before the food is injected. Basically a small amount of food, very thoroughly mashed and diluted in distilled water, is very gently injected via a very small gauge plastic catheter inserted into the horses snout no further than the trigger. It works best if only a small amount of food — no more than 1-2 mm on the barrel of the syringe — is squirted into the seahorse’s mouth at one feeding. It’s invasive, but actually very gentle, and the seahorse is much more likely to keep the food down this way.

Whichever method of force feeding you try, it’s helpful to hold the seahorse cupped in your hand for a minute or two after a feeding session before you release it. Doing so makes it much less likely that the seahorse will regurgitate the food you so painstakingly put into it. Here are detailed instructions for tube feeding, as explained by the author (Leddo, 2002b):

<begin quote> "Tube Feeding: When All Else Fails, an Alternative to Starvation"
by Leslie Leddo

Is your seahorse on a hunger strike? Have you tried all the non-invasive methods and various of types of foods to no avail? Are you concerned you may lose him to starvation? There is another alternative that may help to jump-start his feeding response. Tube feeding is an option when all else has failed. It is actually easier than you might imagine. Sit back, relax, and read on.

What you need:

* Someone with access to medical supplies. A local sympathetic veterinarian is a good option.
* A high quality food. Frozen Mysis or a high quality flake can be used. My preference is Mysis relicta from Canada. It has an outstanding nutritional profile. It is 69.9% protein and rich in HUFAs.
* A very narrow catheter. I use a plastic intravenous catheter with the introducer needle removed from the center and properly disposed of in a Sharps container, perhaps prior to leaving the vet’s office with your supplies. I would suggest an 18 to 25-gauge depending on the diameter of your horse’s snout. I used a 20-gauge on my 6"-7" erectus. The smaller the horse or the narrower the snout, the smaller the catheter you will need. The catheter size is inversely proportional to the # gauge it is assigned. So an 18-gauge catheter has a wider lumen than a 24-gauge catheter
* A 1 cc syringe.
* A bowl. It should be wide enough and deep enough to allow for your horse to remain submerged while your assistant holds him and you administer the feeding.
* An assistant. Preferably someone who is not too squeamish.
* Tank water.
* A spoon.
* A small bowl.
* Distilled water.
* An area to work that is well lit.

What to prepare:

* Gather all your supplies.
* Review the anatomy of the GI tract of the seahorse, paying particular attention to the esophagus, stomach and intestines.
* Clear and clean a well-lit workspace.
* Wash and rinse your hands well.
* Prepare the food by placing a small amount of previously defrosted and enriched Mysis in the small bowl. With the convex side of your spoon, mash the Mysis into a smooth paste.
* Add a few drops of distilled water and mix thoroughly. You will need to experiment and play here a bit in order to get the paste to a consistency that will easily, smoothly, and consistently flow through the tip of the catheter when gentle pressure is applied to the plunger of the syringe. The smaller the diameter of catheter (the larger the gauge number) you are using, the more dilute and thinner the gruel will need to be.
Once you have a consistency you think is appropriate, draw some of the gruel into the syringe and attach the catheter to the syringe. The tip of the syringe is usually threaded and the catheter will screw on to it. Gently apply pressure to the plunger of the syringe to be sure the gruel flows through the tip of the catheter easily, smoothly and consistently. Adjust the consistency of the gruel as necessary by adding more distilled water or more Mysis paste until it flows smoothly through the catheter with VERY gentle pressure on the plunger. No force should be exerted at all.
* Flush the syringe and catheter several times by drawing a small amount of distilled water into the syringe and pushing it back out.
* Draw into the syringe a little more gruel than you intend to feed. I fed between 0.2cc and 0.25cc to a 6"-7" erectus. You are going to have to estimate the appropriate amount based on the size of your horse. This is where refreshing your knowledge of the seahorse’s internal anatomy will come in handy. Since the seahorse’s digestive tract is basically a straight tube from snout to anus, you can use their length as a general guideline to estimate the portion size.
* Start with the plunger of the syringe fully depressed, pull up on the plunger and draw about 0.3cc to 0.4cc of the Mysis mixture into the syringe. Any air in the syringe will need to be removed. Invert the syringe holding it vertically tip up, plunger down. Gently tap on the syringe several times. The air will displace the gruel appearing as a bubble at the tip of the syringe. Gently depress the plunger with the syringe remaining in the inverted position, so you will be pushing up on the plunger. Continue to depress the plunger until all the air has been expressed from the syringe and a small amount of gruel appears at the syringe tip.
* Attach the catheter to the syringe and prime it by depressing the plunger until a few drops of gruel emerge from the catheter tip.

OK now you are ready to actually feed the little bugger… whoops… sorry… your sweet little hunger-striking horse.

How to proceed:

Round up your assistant. Take a few deep breaths and relax.

Fill the large bowl with your horse’s tank water.

Remove your horse from the tank by gently scooting him into a small container and gently release him into the bowl of tank water.

Have your assistant firmly but gently hold the horse, keeping him submerged at all times. His head and neck should be between their thumb and forefinger, snout pointing up, with his body lying across their palm. Encourage him to curl his tail around their pinky. This will help to keep the horse calm. If you have never held a seahorse in your hand you may be surprised at how strong they are. He may struggle or even snick. Boy, oh boy — was I surprised at how powerful their snick is!

Take the previously filled and primed syringe into your dominant hand.

Loosely hold the horse’s snout between the thumb and forefinger of your other hand.

Closely observe the snout tip. It will open and close in synchrony with his respiration.

As the snout opens, insert the tip of the catheter into the snout about ½ way between the snout tip and trigger.

Slowly and gently depress the plunger. Try to time injecting tiny bits of the gruel just prior to the closing of the snout. If he is ingesting the gruel you will actually see him swallow and pass some of the food through his gills. He may snick, it will feel strange but don’t be alarmed. The first time my boy did it I thought for sure the catheter would break off in his snout. It never did. He did however dent it a bit. That snick is powerful!

If the gruel is coming back out of his snout either you are injecting the gruel too quickly, the catheter tip is not far enough into his snout or you are close to the end of the feeding and his GI tract is full. First check to see if you are close to the end of the estimated amount of the feeding. If so, he is probably full and you are done. If not, try injecting the gruel a little slower, taking care to try and synchronize advancing the plunger just prior to the closing of the snout. If the gruel continues to come back out try advancing the catheter tip just a tad further. Finish the feeding. You may need to give him and yourself a little break if either of the above situations occurs and too much of the feeding is lost. Refill the syringe and give him the rest of the estimated amount.

Wooooooo-Hoooooooo!!! That’s it! You did it! Tell him what a good boy he was, return him to the tank, give yourself a big pat on the back, thank your assistant and take the rest of the evening off in front of your tank with a cup of tea… well… OK, if you insist a cold beer, a glass of wine, or a good stiff drink of your choice. It wasn’t that bad now was it? I bet it was easier than you had anticipated. I thought it was.

Some tips:

Practice pushing the gruel through the catheter. If it is too thick it will stick and you will need to push harder. You will need to thin it with some distilled water so that it flows out smoothly.

Ask your veterinarian for several size catheters. Use the one with the widest diameter (lowest # gauge) that will easily insert into the horse’s snout.

Have the vet remove the introducer needle in his office, so you do not have to worry about needle disposal.

It may be necessary to do this several days in a row until the feeding response is initiated or returns. I would suggest offering a variety of foods prior to each daily tube feeding. If you have been tube feeding for several days and he shows no interest in eating, you may need to gradually decrease the amounts of the feeding so he is actually hungry or possibly fast him for a day or two. It is my feeling that, if at all possible, allowing him to remain in his own tank with other horses and offering a variety of foods (live as well as frozen) may be beneficial in helping to encourage him to eat.

I hope you never need to use the information I presented here, but if you should I would like to wish you good luck and hope this information has proved useful (Leddo, 2002b). <end quote>

Finally, I should point out that many people feel it’s easier to tube feed a seahorse if you sedate it first using clove oil or another anesthetic. Sedation can often make the whole experience a little less stressful for both the seahorse and the person performing the tube-feeding, but there is a certain amount of risk involved since it is entirely possible to sedate your seahorse to death. There is an excellent description of how to sedate a seahorse with clove oil and tube feed it at the following URL, including photographs of the entire procedure, so you may want to refer to that as well before you decide how best to proceed, Don:

http://forum.seahorse.org/index.php?showtopic=10975&hl=force+feeding

Force feeding can save a seahorse’s life in an emergency, but it’s best reserved as a last resort. It is appropriate when a seahorse has gone without eating for a prolonged period and has exhausted its energy reserves. This can happen when a seahorse is beset with internal parasites and stops eating, or perhaps when a seahorse is undergoing extended treatment with a medication that suppresses the appetite. And, of course, it is very common — perhaps even the rule — in wild-caught seahorses that have run the gauntlet from collector to wholesaler to retailer before finally reaching the hobbyist (Lidster, 1999). In such cases, tube feeding can help strengthen the seahorse and keep it going until it has a chance to recover and resume feeding on its own.

For example, during one such incident a hobbyist reported that his seahorse hadn’t eaten for over a week. This particular hunger strike started during treatment for internal parasites, so the seahorse was weak and debilitated to begin with. On that occasion, only one tube feeding was necessary before the seahorse began eating on her own again.

Dr. Marty Greenwell notes that syngnathids in general and seahorses in particular are vulnerable to emaciation in captivity because of their rapid intestinal transit time and very limited fat stores (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p24). At the Shedd, he regularly tube feeds newly acquired seahorses that arrive badly emaciated. In such circumstances, Dr. Greenwell advises, "…syngnathids are at a high risk for loss of body condition. With this in mind, anorectic seahorses and pipefish almost always require nutritional support. At Shedd Aquarium, anorectic syngnathids are tube fed a high quality, commercial fish flake food gruel. Because of the very small, vestigial stomach, only limited volumes of gruel can be administered at any given time, i.e., 0.05 to 0.10 cc for most seahorses and up to 0.25 cc or more for the large Hippocampus sp., trumpetfish, and the sea dragons. Offering nutritional support can mean the difference between survival and death in sick and/or anorectic syngnathids (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p24)."

Okay, that’s the rundown on tube feeding, Chris. Hopefully one of the techniques discussed above will work well for you. It’s best used as a last resort, but it can sometimes be a real life saver. Good luck!

Don’t worry about losing your seahorse fry, Chris. Raising seahorses is a daunting challenge but very rewarding when you finally get it right. There is always a steeply are learning curve, but once your seahorses begin breeding regularly, they will provide you with more broods throughout the breeding season, so you will have ample opportunity to refine your nurseries and rearing methods in the weeks and months ahead. Most home hobbyists have very little luck at rearing, at least at first, and it is quite common to lose the entire brood while you are still working things out. In time, hobbyists can aspire to sporadic success on a limited basis. With a lot of patience, practice, hard work, and dedication, the hobbyist may eventually reach the point where he or she is consistently raising a few seahorse fry from a few broods to maturity. Enough to serve as replacements for seahorses lost to natural causes or accidents, and perhaps maintain a thriving colony of seahorses on the side. That’s certainly quite a reasonable goal, even for the home hobbyist. With practice, your survival rates will gradually improve from brood to brood, Chris

Respectfully,
Pete Giwojna


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