August 18, 2009 at 1:44 am #1733Pete GiwojnaModerator
I have a female H.Barbouri that is starting to float head first at the surface and believe it is IGBD. There is no bubbles forming on the skin that I can see. All other seahorses in the tank appear fine and the floating female is still eating and chases any food closer to the surface. I am considering trying the decompression method but am a bit lost as to the best way to go about a DIY version and cant find much information. Was hoping someone could help point me in the right direction.
Yes, I think your diagnosis of the problem is accurate. It sounds like your female Hippocampus barbouri is having a problem with positive buoyancy due to either a hyperinflated swimbladder or a buildup of gas within the coelomic cavity (Internal Gas Bubble Disease). When the gas emboli that trigger GBD form in the capillary network of the gas bladder (the rete mirabile), hyperinflation of the swimbladder occurs, resulting in positive buoyancy. Or extravascular emboli may cause gas to build up within the coelom, often resulting in positive buoyancy and swelling or bloating of the abdominal cavity (internal GBD).
I believe that’s what’s happening to your female Barb. New gas emboli have formed and are either causing the gas bladder of the seahorse to become over inflated, or are causing gas to build up within the coelomic cavity of your female, or both. This condition is known as internal GBD, and as you know, it is much more difficult to resolve successfully then the pouch emphysema or subcutaneous emphysema or other forms of gas bubble disease.
There are a few treatment options in such cases, Bellesprit. Here are some things to consider in that regard:
(1) First of all, you can try manually deflating your females gas bladder. If the positive buoyancy she has developed is due to a hyperinflated swimbladder, releasing some of the excess gas and partially deflating the gas bladder may provide her with relief.
(2) Secondly, you can implement some of the measures that are known to help prevent gas supersaturation in the home aquarium, thereby minimizing problems with gas bubble syndrome, such as lowering of the water temperature of the aquarium and reducing the salinity or specific gravity of the aquarium. This will at least reduce his tendency to float and provide some relief from the positive buoyancy.
(3) Thirdly, you can try pressurizing her at a depth of about 40 inches in a homemade decompression chamber.
(4) Finally, you can try treating her with the Diamox as discussed below if you can obtain the medication.
The simplest of these treatments is to manually deflate her swim bladder using a hypodermic, which is a procedure we’ll discuss in more detail below.
Manually deflating the swimbladder is accomplished much like a needle aspiration, except the needle is inserted into the gas bladder rather than the pouch. This is how Dr. Marty Greenwell from the shed aquarium describes this procedure in the 2005 Seahorse Husbandry Manual:
"If a hyperinflated swimbladder is suspected, a bright light can be directed from behind the animal to visualize the location and borders of the distended organ. This is useful when attempting to deflate the bladder. The needle should be directed between the scute/plate margins for ease of penetration through the skin. The external area can be rinsed with sterile saline or a drop of triple antibiotic up all my appointments can be applied prior to penetration."
The seahorse’s swimbladder is a large, single-chambered sac that begins in the band of its neck and extends 1/3 of the length of its body cavity along the dorsal surface. It’s a large organ so if you can visualize it clearly using a bright light (just like candling an egg), releasing some of the gas to partially deflate the swimbladder is fairly straightforward and uncomplicated.
If the problem is a hyperinflated swimbladder, this simple procedure will provide your seahorse with immediate relief and cure the problem. But if you cannot make out the swimbladder clearly or if the problem is due to excess gas building up within the abdominal cavity, rather than a hyperinflated gas bladder, then pressurizing the seahorse a homemade decompression chamber is often your best bet for a good outcome, as I will discuss with you again later in this post.
But first, let’s concentrate on lowering the water temperature in your seahorse tank somewhat. Reducing the water temperature in your seahorse tank to 68°F-72°F, if possible, will increase the amount of dissolved gases the aquarium water can hold and thereby help prevent gas supersaturation, which could be triggering your problems with GBD. If your water temperature consistently runs much warmer than 72°F, which is likely the case, there are a couple of things you can do to stabilize it at a lower level.
For example, some hobbyists keep their fish room air-conditioned and adjust the air conditioning to keep the air temperature in the room at about 75°F or a bit below. The water temperature then tends to stabilize at around that temperature range as well.
Or you can reduce the water temperature via evaporative cooling instead. One simple way to drop the water temp in your aquarium is to position a small fan so it blows across the surface of the water continually (Giwojna, Oct. 2003). This will lower the water temperature several degrees through the phenomenon of evaporative cooling (just be sure to top off the tank regularly to replace the water lost to evaporation). Leaving the cover/hood and light off on your seahorse tank in conjunction with evaporative cooling can make a surprising difference. (A hood or cover tends to trap heat and hold it in the tank, so removing the voter cover from the aquarium can make a surprising difference in the water temperature, and is safe to do with seahorses since they do not jump at all.)
While reducing the water temperature via evaporative cooling, I should also caution you to observe all the usual precautions to prevent shocks and electrical accident when you are using an electric fan or any other electrical equipment on your aquarium.
One such precaution is to install an inexpensive titanium grounding probe in your aquariums. That will protect your seahorses and other wet pets from stray voltage and should also safeguard them electrocution in the event of a catastrophic heater failure or similar accident..
But the best way to protect you and your loved ones from electrical accidents around the fish room is to make sure all the outlets are equipped with Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters. And it’s a good idea to make sure all your electrical equipment is plugged into a surge protector as well to further protect your expensive pumps, filters, heaters, etc. from damage. Some good surge protectors, such as the Shock Busters, come with a GFCI built right into them so you can kill two birds with one stone. So when you set up your cooling fan(s) on the aquarium, be sure they’re plugged into a grounded outlet with a GFCI or a surge protector with GFCI protection.
Next, let’s go over how to reduce the specific gravity in your seahorse tank. Another thing that is very helpful when ever there has been an outbreak of GBD is to lower the specific gravity of the aquarium to around 1.015-1.017. Gradually lowering the salinity or specific gravity is done as if performing a normal water change, except that the replacement water is simply treated tap or RO water without the salt (Don Carner, pers. com.). (If the replacement water is RO/DI or other softened source, then a buffering agent should be employed to prevent pH and alkalinity drops; Thiel, 2003.) Make sure the freshwater you add is thoroughly mixed with the remaining saltwater in the tank as you proceed. This will assure that your salinity/specific gravity readings are accurate. Monitor the lowering closely so as to not reduce it too fast. Achieving the desired specific gravity (1.015-1.017) over a period of several hours is fine (Don Carner, pers. com.). The bacteria colony in the biofilter will survive, the seahorses will be unaffected, and the chances of gas supersaturation will be considerably reduced (Don Carner, pers. com.).
CAUTION! When lowering the salinity or specific gravity in your seahorse tank, be very careful as you add the freshwater when you approach the target salinity. You do NOT want to overshoot the mark and drop the salinity too far! Seahorses tolerate low salinity very well up to a certain point, but they cannot withstand salinities below 13.3 ppt (specific gravity = 1.010) indefinitely. Salinities below 1.010 may be fatal to seahorses in a matter of days, if not hours. Just take care when the specific gravity in your seahorse tank is nearing the desired level of 1.015-1.017 and you should be in great shape. There is a big enough difference between a specific gravity of 1.015-1.017 and the dangerous level of 1.010 to provide a large margin for error and make this process very safe.
Once you have reduced the specific gravity in your seahorse tank to 1.015-1.017, you can maintain it at that level indefinitely thereafter. When it aquarium has had an outbreak of gas bubble syndrome, reducing the specific gravity to 1.015-1.017 has many benefits. For example, lowering the salinity or specific gravity will in turn reduce the buoyancy of your bloated male and make it easier for him to swim and feed. It also makes it easier for the seahorses to osmoregulate, increases the amount of dissolved oxygen the water can hold it makes it easier for the seahorses to breed, helps eliminate protozoan parasites and ectoparasites in general, and helps to minimize problems with gas supersaturation and therefore GBS.
But if you should want to return the specific gravity in your seahorse tank to normal at some point for any reason, be sure to do so very gradually. In that case, when you are ready to return the system to normal salinity, simply reverse the process, remove some of the low salinity water in the aquarium and replace it with high salinity water. Take your time and raise the salinity slowly and gradually. Fish can become dehydrated if the salinity is increased too rapidly, so be methodical and raise the salinity over a period of several days. Don’t hesitate to take a full week to return the specific gravity to normal levels again in small increments. The salinity can be reduced relatively rapidly very safely, but it must be raised again very gradually in order to avoid the risk of dehydration.
Lowering the water temperature in the aquarium, reducing the specific gravity to around 1.015-1.017, and pressurizing your seahorse in a homemade decompression chamber are some other things you can do immediately which may help your floating female while you are trying to obtain the acetazolamide (brand name Diamox) in case it is needed.
In my opinion, Internal GBD is often best treated by recompression-decompression, which causes the emboli or gas bubbles to go back into solution and be resorbed, so that’s also something you should strongly consider. In your case, I would suggest pressurizing the affected seahorse in a homemade decompression at a depth of around 40 inches as described below. If you think it would be helpful, she can be treated with antibiotics while she is undergoing the decompression cure to help her recover from any infection that may be involved. External GBD typically responds extremely well to treatment with Diamox, but internal GBD is a much more serious condition, and often responds better to pressurization, in my opinion.
Internal Gas Bubble Syndrome (GBS) is the most dangerous form of this affliction because any of the internal organs in the abdomen can be affected by the gas emboli that form in the seahorse’s blood and tissue, yet there are no outward indications of trouble at first, making it difficult to detect the problem until the condition is well advanced and serious damage has been done. The gas emboli occlude vessels and capillaries, thus restricting the blood flow to the affected area, which is what makes the internal form of GBS so insidious — irreversible damage can be done to vital organs or organ systems before sufficient excess gas builds up within the coelomic cavity to cause positive buoyancy and alert their keeper to the problem.
Carbonic anhydrase inhibitors such as Diamox, which work so wonderfully well when treating external GBD (subcutaneous emphysema), are not as effective in reversing this type of damage.
When treating internal GBS, the outcome often depends on which internal organs were involved and how soon the problem is detected. In my experience, the prognosis and chances for a successful outcome are much better when treatment is begun while the seahorse is still eating. Unfortunately, that can be difficult to accomplish when you’re dealing with Internal GBS because the seahorse remains largely asymptomatic until it becomes bloated and begins to float.
In my opinion, Internal GBS is often best treated by recompression-decompression, which causes the emboli or gas bubbles to go back into solution and be resorbed. It works especially well when hyperinflation of the swim bladder is part of the gas bubble syndrome, since the increase in hydrostatic pressure triggers the capillary-rich oval of the swimbladder to begin resorbing excess gas. Equally importantly, the recompression-decompression cure is an excellent option option for treating Gas Bubble Syndrome (GBD) for hobbyists who are having trouble obtaining Diamox for one reason or another or for seahorses that are suffering from internal GBS. Anyone can set up a simple homemade decompression chamber and begin treating their seahorse as soon as they can mix up a new batch of saltwater. If you want to give it a try, here is how to proceed:
The Recompression Cure for Gas Bubble Syndrome
Recompression simply involves placing the affected seahorses in a flow-through cage or enclosure and immersing them for a period of days at a depth with sufficient water pressure to cause the emboli to dissolve. The increased hydrostatic pressure causes the gas bubbles that have formed within the tissue and blood of the seahorse to go back into solution where they can be resorbed, relieving the problem. (This is why a decompression chamber is used to treat divers for the "bends," caused by nitrogen gas embolisms within the diver’s tissue and blood.) Afterwards, the seahorses are slowly raised back to normal depth/pressure over a period of hours, allowing the total partial pressures of the dissolved gases in the water and the seahorses’ bloodstream to equalize on the way up.
At present, there is no consensus among the professional aquarists who use this method regarding the exact depth and length of immersion needed to effect a cure. I’ve encountered decompression times ranging from 2 days to 10 days and depths ranging from 10 feet in large aquaria (Paul Groves, pers. com.) to over 35 feet at the bottom of the ocean (Bill Stockly, pers. com.), all of which worked equally well. Interestingly, the shortest immersion time was used successfully at one of the shallowest depths (4 meters) and cured seahorses afflicted with all the different forms of GBS (Paul Groves, pers. com.).
While the exact treatment protocol that will produce the best results remains to be determined, everyone whom has tried the decompression cure agrees as to its remarkable effectiveness. It cures external GBS (subcutaneous emphysema, a.k.a. tail bubbles), chronic pouch emphysema (pouch bloat) and internal GBS equally well. In fact, as long as treatment is begun early enough, before the emboli have caused irreversible damage, decompression has a very high cure rate. It is safe, provides the affected seahorses with immediate relief, and works for all forms of GBS.
Of course, the home hobbyist lacks the resources to apply decompression at the sort of depths employed by the professionals. But I am discussing the recompression-decompression cure in some detail for two reasons. First of all, a number of hobbyists have managed to construct homemade decompression tanks and chambers, and other enterprising hobbyists may wish to follow their lead (Lisa Hovis, pers. com.). Homemade decompression devices range from simple tubes of water 6-12 inches in diameter and 4-12 feet tall capped at one end, designed merely to increase hydrostatic pressure, to pressurized wide-mouth bottles complete with pressure gauges and bleeder valves (Lisa Hovis, pers. com.). Secondly, I suspect that when enough data comes in we will find that a depth considerably less than 10 feet and relatively short immersion times will prove to be adequate to resolve most cases of GBS.
For example, while working with the Hawaiian seahorse (Hippocampus fisheri) at the Waikiki Aquarium, Karen Brittain found that all the specimens kept in smaller, shallower aquaria developed subcutaneous gas bubbles within a matter of months, whereas H. fisheri that were maintained in tanks at least 1 meter deep fared much better (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p37). The Hawaiian seahorse remains pelagic all its life, typically being found at least a mile offshore in deep water, and Brittain speculates that H. fisheri needs to migrate to depths unachievable under normal aquarium conditions to maintain proper physiological balance (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p37). I think she is absolutely correct. It seems likely that H. fisheri follows a daily vertical migration pattern, perhaps synchronized with the movements of plankton. Her findings suggest that tanks a minimum of 3 feet deep can provide a measure of protection against GBS, and custom-built aquaria of those dimensions are certainly within the realm of the home hobbyist.
This remains a fertile field for future research. It has been suggested that should there be an outbreak of GBS in one of your aquariums, transferring the seahorses to an aquarium at least 3 times as deep can decompress the patients and prevent a recurrence of such problems (Wooten and Waughman, 2004). This suggestion has a lot of merit. Even upgrading to a tank that’s twice as deep would be quite advantageous in terms of GBS prevention. Much work remains to be done to develop decompression guidelines for seahorses and to determine what sort of depth is needed to confer protection from GBS to different species. But when it comes to GBS, two things are certain: deeper tanks are healthier for seahorses and recompression can achieve remarkable recoveries.
In short, many times your best bet to cure internal GBS may be to try a moderate form of recompression to help your seahorse recover. What I have in mind is confining the affected seahorse in a flow-through enclosure at the bottom of a 50-gallon Rubbermaid enclosure 40 inches deep, or something similar, for a period of about 3 days. Once the seahorse is immersed at the bottom of this homemade "decompression chamber," you cannot raise it to the surface again for daily feedings. Since your decompression chamber will have no biofiltration, I would simply fast your seahorse while it recompresses at depth. It can easily go without eating for a few days and that will help eliminate any ammonia spikes in the meantime.
If you decide to try this, be sure to keep your makeshift decompression chamber well-aerated. A shallow airstone anchored just below the surface — NOT at the bottom of the decompression chamber! — to provide surface agitation and oxygenation should suffice.
When the recompression period is finished, raise the seahorse to the surface (or lower the water level in the hydrostatic chamber) gradually, in a series of stages, over a period of several hours, to assure that the patient decompresses completely and the gas emboli don’t reform.
Lighting your homemade decompression chamber isn’t really necessary. Seahorses have outstanding visual acuity and see very well under low light conditions (a couple of species are even said to have adopted nocturnal behavior in the face of heavy fishing pressure), so your male seahorse will be able to see well under the ambient light levels that penetrate and 50-gallon bucket. You won’t be feeding him while he’s undergoing the decompression cure, so he doesn’t need to be able to see well enough to hunt small prey or anything like that, and the darkened conditions may give him a sense of security and help him relax, since he won’t be feeling so exposed and vulnerable.
If you want to keep an eye on her periodically while she’s undergoing pressurization, you can just take a quick peek now and then using a flashlight.
When the recompression period is finished, raise the seahorse to the surface (or lower the water level in the hydrostatic chamber) gradually, in a series of stages, over a period of several hours, to assure that he decompresses completely and the gas emboli don’t reform.
One of our other Club members (Christine) recently used this method to cure her seahorse of internal GBS after Diamox baths had been tried unsuccessfully. Here is how Chris described her experience with GBS, and her treatment method with her homemade decompression chamber, in posts to the group:
Hi — After 3 days of diamox Heidi was still buoyant (the diamox did not
seem to have helped at all), and swimming with the tip of her head
sticking out of the top of the water, clearly frustrated with her
situation. I looked at her with a magnifying class, and can’t see any
external signs of bubbles. I also don’t see any signs of bloating or
I followed Pete’s suggestions, took her off the diamox to restore her
appetite, gave her 1 day of rest in the hospital tank with clean water
and Kanamycin. She ate well yesterday and this morning. I rigged up
an inexpensive way of submersing her to 3 times the depth of my 30
gallon display tank. (I priced building a 6 ft deep tank out of an
acrylic tube attached to a base, or acrylic rectangles
attached to a base, and it came out to be anywhere from $250 to $400.
They wanted to charge $175 per linear foot of the acrylic tube thick
enough to safely support a 5 or 6 ft column of water). I’m going to
try the cheap method first, and will build a deeper aquarium if she
needs a greater water pressure.
So-I have her in a ‘critter keeper’ (small plastic container with a
lid that has slots in it and a viewing window in the center) with 2
soft rubber hitching posts. The lid has 4 large criss-crossed rubber
bands on it just in case the lid comes off. I made sure there weren’t
any bubbles underneath the critter keeper or underneath the little
clear viewing lid on the top. I bought a 50 gallon rubbermaid bucket
which gives a water depth of 3 1/2 ft when filled. The critter keeper
is inside a 5 gallon white bucket weighted down with a signature
coral, with a rope tied to the bucket handle (made it easy to lower
into the big bucket). I lowered her slowly this morning, and she
seems fine (not pinned against the lid of the critter keeper, and she
is able to go between the 2 hitching posts). I have an airstone going
at the surface of the deep bucket, as Pete suggested. I can see her
with a flashlight. Her breathing looks normal.
I filled the 50 gallon bucket yesterday with the shower! and let it
‘degas’ for one day (also to make sure that it didn’t spring a leak.
It is in the bathtub). The water temp is 70 degrees. I matched the
specific gravity and ph of the hospital tank.
Heidi is going to remain there for 2-3 days, as per Pete’s suggestion.
After that, I will bring her up very slowly (or unload the water from
the big bucket very slowly). I hope this works! Our big bathroom has
been completely taken over with buckets, hospital tank, salt mix, etc.
Wish us luck!
And here is Christine’s follow-up message after the recompression-decompression treatment was completed:
Hi Pete and Everybody, Heidi is okay! No more floating. I unloaded
the water from my makeshift compression chamber very slowly, as per
Pete’s suggestion, rather than pulled up the critter keeper from the
bottom (much safer to unload the water). I then transferred the
critter keeper she was in to a 5 gal bucket of clean saltwater,
and she swam out when I opened the lid. I decided to do a water
change in the main tank before putting her back in, and used the water
I pulled out of the main tank (74 degrees) to warm up the water she
had been in (70 degrees) to help re-acclimate her to the main tank.
She is eating and swimming as normal, back to her aggressive self with
the turkey baster and Mysis. She is very happy to be back in the
display tank, and is enjoying swimming all around, once again
neutrally buoyant. She was sooo happy to see her favorite coral
colored fake coral. Her color is going back from being dark brown
(her under stress color) to light brown/gold today. I hope to see
her go back to her coral color soon. Thanks for your help Pete!
I hope I never again have a SH with the floaties!
For the record, she was in a critter keeper inside a 5 gal bucket
weighted down with a fake (Signature) coral at the bottom of 40 inches
of water in a Rubbermaid 50 gallon bucket (on wheels-a new bucket). I
had an airstone at the top as per Pete’s instructions. She was in for
2 1/2 days.
For best results, the decompression sure is often combined with antibiotic therapy. It is a simple matter to administer a regimen of antibiotics while the seahorse is submerged at the bottom of the 50-gallon Rubbermaid bucket. (Just don’t perform any water changes while the seahorse is undergoing recompression-decompression.) This would help prevent any secondary infections which are often associated with GBS or stress, and would also cover all the bases if you suspect the underlying cause of your seahorse’s positive buoyancy may be due to a bacterial infection.
For the antibiotic therapy, kanamycin is the antibiotic that usually produces the best results since it dissolves well in saltwater and is readily absorbed by seahorses, making it useful in treating internal infections, as described below:
This is a potent broad-spectrum, gram+/gram- antibiotic. It is wonderfully effective for aquarium use because it is one of the few antibiotics that dissolves well in saltwater and that is readily absorbed through the skin and gills of the fish. That makes it the treatment of choice for treating many bacterial infections in seahorses. Kanamycin can be combined safely with neomycin to further increase its efficacy. Like other gram-negative antibiotics, it will destroy your biofiltration and should be used in a hospital tank only.
Neomycin is a very potent gram-negative antibiotic. Most of infections that plague marine fish are gram-negative, so neomycin sulfate can be a wonder drug for seahorses (Burns, 2002). As mentioned above, it can even be combined with other medications such as kanamycin or nifurpirinol for increased efficacy. For example, kanamycin/neomycin is tremendous for treating bacterial infections, while nifurpirinol/neomycin makes a combination that packs a heckuva wallop for treating mixed bacterial/fungal infections or problems of unknown nature. Keep it on hand at all times.
Neomycin will destroy beneficial bacteria and disrupt your biological filtration, so be sure to administer the drug in a hospital tank.
One other thing to keep in mind is water temperature. Since you’re homemade decompression chamber is unheated, the water temperature will gradually fall over the three-day treatment period. This is fine and to be is expected — and even beneficial in many respects — but it does mean that once the decompression period is over, you may have to acclimate the seahorse for temperature before returning the patient to the main tank.
If you can obtain Diamox, Bellesprit, you can also consider treating your bloated male with the acetazolamide, but it often works bests for subcutaneous emphysema and pouch emphysema, rather than internal GBS. However, it can be very helpful in relieving internal GBS where it is due to hyperinflation of the gas bladder, rather than gas accumulating within the abdominal cavity of the seahorse. Acetazolamide can either be administered orally by injecting a solution made from Diamox (the tablet form of acetazolamide) into feeder shrimp, providing the affected seahorse is still eating, or the tablets can be used to administer acetazolamide as a series of baths instead.
If the seahorse is still eating, you can administer the acetazolamide orally, which will allow you to treat the affected seahorse in the main tank amidst familiar surroundings and in the company of its tankmates where it is the most comfortable. You get the acetazolamide into the food by preparing a solution of the medication, as described below, and then injecting it into live feeder shrimp or even the large Piscine Energetics frozen Mysis relicta. The medication is deactivated fairly quickly once you prepare the solution for injecting, so you must prepare a new acetazolamide solution each day during the treatment period. Here’s how to proceed:
Administering Diamox (i.e., acetazolamide) Orally
I have found that acetazolamide is often more effective when it’s ingested and administering the medication orally allows you to treat the seahorse in the main tank where he’s most comfortable and relaxed.
If you can obtain a small syringe with a fine needle, the acetazolamide solution can simply be injected into feeder shrimp or even frozen Mysis. Mic Payne (Seahorse Sanctuary) used this method of administering acetazolamide successfully when he had recurring problems with GBD due to maintaining a population of Hippocampus subelongatus in shallow tanks only 16-inches (40 cm) deep:
"Seahorses maintained in this system are susceptible to gas bubble disease. Specimens with bubbles around the eyes or under the epidermis of the tail are readily treated with acetazolamide (Diamox tablets 250 mg). Mix a very small amount of crushed tablet with water and inject it into several glass shrimp that are then frozen. These are then fed to the target animal at the rate of two per day for four days. Bubbles disappear on the second day."
Hawaiian volcano shrimp or red feeder shrimp (Halocaridina rubra) work great for this. If a fine enough needle is used, they will survive a short while after being injected — long enough for their twitching and leg movements to attract the interest of the seahorse and trigger a feeding response.
Leslie Leddo reports that a 1/2 cc insulin syringe with a 26-gauge needle was ideal for injecting frozen Mysis or live red feeder shrimp. They plump up when injected and ~1/2 cc is about the most of the solution they can hold. There bodies will actually swell slightly as they are slowly injected and excess solution may start to leak out. The 26-gauge needle is fine enough that it does not kill the feeder shrimp outright; they survive long enough for the kicking of their legs and twitching to assure that they will be eaten.
If your male is no longer eating, then you will need to administer the Diamox in a hospital tank as a series of baths by crushing up the medication and adding it to the treatment tank instead:
The recommended dosage is 250 mg of acetazolamide per 10 gallons with a 100% water change daily, after which the treatment tank is retreated with acetazolamide at the dosage indicated above (Dr. Martin Belli, pers. com.). Continue these daily treatments and water changes for up to 7-10 days for best results (Dr. Martin Belli, pers. com.).
The acetazolamide baths should be administered in a hospital ward or quarantine tank. Acetazolamide does not appear to adversely affect biofiltration or invertebrates, but it should not be used in the main tank because it could be harmful to inhibit the enzymatic activity of healthy seahorses.
Using the tablet form of acetazolamide (250 mg), crush the required amount to a very fine powder and dissolve it thoroughly in a cup or two of saltwater. There will usually be a slight residue that will not dissolve in saltwater at the normal alkaline pH (8.0-8.4) of seawater (Warland, 2002). That’s perfectly normal. Just add the solution to your hospital tank, minus the residue, of course, at the recommended dosage:
Place the affected seahorse in the treatment tank as soon as first dose of medication has been added. After 24 hours, perform a 100% water change in the hospital tank using premixed water that you’ve carefully aerated and adjusted to be same temperature, pH and salinity. Add a second dose of newly mixed acetazolamide at the same dosage and reintroduce the ailing seahorse to the treatment tank. After a further 24 hours, do another 100% water change and repeat the entire procedure until a total of up to 7-10 treatments have been given. About 24 hours after the final dose of acetazolamide has been added to the newly changed saltwater, the medication will have lost its effectiveness and the patient can be returned directly to the main seahorse tank to speed its recovery along.
One of the side affects of acetazolamide baths is loss of appetite. Try to keep the affected seahorse eating by plying it with its favorite live foods during and after treatment, until it has fully recovered.
The seahorse usually show improvement of the tail bubbles within three days. Dr. Martin Belli reports they nearly 100% success rate in treating subcutaneous emphysema (external GBD) when this treatment regimen is followed for 7-10 days, and most cases clear up in less than a week. Expect to treat for the full 7-10 days when treating internal GBS with Diamox, if it is to have any affect.
Finally, let’s discuss gas bubble syndrome in more detail and go over some of the other measures the home hobbyist can take to prevent problems with GBS in the future.
Gas bubble syndrome (GBS) is a mysterious, widely misunderstood affliction that can take on many different incarnations. As you know, gas bubble syndrome is believed to be caused by gas emboli forming within the tissue of heavily vascularized portions of the seahorse’s anatomy — the placenta-like brood pouch of males, the eye, the muscular prehensile tail — and it can take several different forms depending on where the bubbles or emboli occur. When it occurs in the brood pouch of the male, chronic pouch emphysema or bloated pouch results, leading to positive buoyancy, which is by far the most common form of GBS. When it occurs in the capillary network behind the eye (choroid rete), Exopthalmus or Popeye results, and the eye(s) can become enormously swollen. When it affects the capillary network of the gas bladder (the rete mirabile), hyperinflation of the swimbladder occurs, resulting in positive buoyancy. When it affects the tail or snout, external gas bubbles (i.e., subcutaneous emphysema) form just beneath the skin and look like raised blisters. When intravascular emboli occur deep within the tissue and occlude blood flow, generalized edema results in the affected area. Or extravascular emboli may cause gas to build up within the coelom, often resulting in positive buoyancy and swelling or bloating of the abdominal cavity (internal GBS).
The mechanisms by which the gas emboli can spread and grow, and the type of insults that can result are therefore fairly well known, but the etiology of GBS is otherwise still poorly understood, and there are many theories as to what causes the gas embolisms to form in the first place. Nitrogen gas supersaturation of the water, the unique physiology of the male’s brood pouch, malfunctions of the pseudobranch or the gas gland of the swim bladder, stress-related changes in blood chemistry that affect the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin, infection with gas-producing bacteria — all these and more have been advanced as mechanisms that could trigger the formation of the gas embolisms at some point. Very likely GBS has multiple causes, but most experts now believe it is due to physical conditions in the seahorse tank rather than any sort of pathogen, and I would be happy to share my thoughts on the matter with you, for whatever it’s worth.
For starters, let me stress that if it’s very unlikely that any sort of disease organisms or pathogen causes GBD. It is not at all contagious and does not appear to spread from seahorse to seahorse. To my knowledge, no one has ever been able to isolate a pathogen from the marsupium of the male with pouch emphysema or from the subcutaneous emphysema that characterize seahorses with tail bubbles. If bacteria play a role in GBD, I am confident it is only as a secondary infection.
In other words, gas bubble syndrome is not a disease that seahorses contract after being exposed to a pathogen of some sort, but they will often develop the condition when kept in a system that exposes them to gas supersaturation, insufficient water depth, stress, inadequate water circulation, a bacteria-laden substrate or other environmental factors conducive to the formation of gas emboli. In other words, it is an environmental disease, triggered by certain conditions within the aquarium itself. In my experience, the environmental triggers that are most often associated with GBS are as follows:
1) Insufficient depth (aquaria that are less than 20 inches deep are very susceptible to GBS, and the taller the aquarium is, the more resistant it will be to GBS).
2) Gas supersaturation of the aquarium water, which can lead directly to the formation of gas emboli within the blood and tissues of seahorses.
3) Changes in the seahorse’s blood chemistry (i.e., acidosis). Anything that tends to acidify the blood of the seahorses can result in GBS, including stress, low levels of dissolved oxygen and/or high levels of CO2, and low pH in the aquarium water, among other factors. (In this case, it may well be heat stress that triggered this episode of internal GBS.)
Maintaining your reduced specific gravity and water temperature are good ways to minimize future problems with GBS due to gas supersaturation, but there are a number of other things to keep in mind in that regard as well.
For example, tall aquariums minimize problems with GBS because the deeper the water and the greater the hydrostatic pressure, the more dissolved gases the water (and the seahorse’s blood) can hold in solution. By the same token, the shallower the aquarium and the less water pressure there is, the less dissolved gases the water can hold and the more likely gas is to come out of solution and form gas emboli (i.e., seed bubbles) in the blood and tissues.
The point is that the greater hydrostatic pressure at increased depth is known to protect seahorses against GBS, whereas the reduced hydrostatic pressure in shallow aquaria is known to be conducive to gas bubble syndrome. I have found that GBS is a very common problem for seahorses in home aquariums that are less than 24-inches tall, whereas there is considerable evidence that tanks 3 feet deep or more provide a measure of protection against GBS. This is because the gas emboli that cause GBS form more readily at reduced hydrostatic pressure, and will go back into solution again if the hydrostatic pressure is increased sufficiently, and obviously the deeper the aquarium the greater the hydrostatic pressure at the bottom of the tank. (In fact, seahorses with GBS can often be cured by submerging them at depths great enough to recompress them (> 10 feet) and cause the gas to go back into solution.)
Here is some information that reviews the most common aquarium stressors, among other causes of GBS, and discusses some simple methods for minimizing problems with GBS. Please look it over closely and see if any of these factors may have contributed to this problem in your case:
Preventing Gas Bubble Syndrome
Since GBS is caused by physical factors in the seahorse setup, when the affliction crops up, it’s a red flag that indicates that there’s something amiss with the conditions in your tank. With that in mind, I would like to quickly review some of the preventative measures aquarists can take to minimize problems with Gas Bubble Syndrome:
(1) Aquarium options (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
Taller is better. When shopping for a seahorse setup, opt for the tall or high model of the largest aquarium you can reasonable afford and maintain. If the tank is too short, male seahorses may not be able to get enough pumping action in as they ascend and descend during courtship displays and mating (the copulatory rise) to flush out their pouches and cleanse them properly (Cozzi-Schmarr, 2003). This can contribute to bloated pouch, a type of pouch emphysema.
As a rule, your seahorses require a minimum of three times their height (total length) in vertical swimming space in order to mate comfortably and help avoid this sort of pouch gas problem.
Other forms of GBS are also believed to be depth related, but the aquarium must be greater than 30 inches deep to provide any significant protection against them, which is not feasible for most hobbyists (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). As an example, a water depth of at least 3 feet is known to protect the Hawaiian seahorse (Hippocampus fisheri) against GBD (Karen Brittain, pers. com.).
If you’ve had a problem with GBS in the past, look for a tank at least 20-30 inches tall, reduce your water temp to 68°F-72°F, reduce the specific gravity of the aquarium water, and avoid overly tall hitching posts that reach near the water’s surface (Cozzi-Schmarr, 2003). You want to encourage the seahorses to hang out near the bottom in order to take advantage of every inch of depth the aquarium can provide.
(2) Filtration options (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
Gas supersaturation of the water can occur whenever the dissolved gas pressure in the water is greater than the atmospheric pressure. When that happens, the dissolved gases in the seahorse’s tissues are no longer in equilibrium with the surrounding aquarium water, causing gas to move into the area with lower partial gas pressure — the tissues and blood of the seahorse – and come out of solution, forming gas emboli! Providing proper filtration, circulation, and aeration can help prevent this.
Trickle filter (acts as a de-embolizing tower or degassing column in a limited fashion).
External filter that returns water as a "water fall" or a canister filter with a spray bar return positioned so that it roils the water surface.
Sump with strong aeration.
Overflow drains, as opposed to siphon/suction tubes.
Surface agitation to facilitate efficient gas exchange.
Increased circulation and water movement.
Extra airstone(s) just below the surface of the water.
Having a trickle filter, water "falling" into the tank as it’s returned, or strong aeration and surface agitation in the tank or the sump will help off-gas any supersaturated dissolved gases (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). This will also help off-gas a build up of CO2 and the associated pH drop that some tanks experience when the lights go off and photosynthesis has no longer taking place (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). The off gassing or degassing takes place only at the very air/water interface, so you want to spread the water into very thin sheets and let it be in contact with the atmosphere for an extended period (Robin Weber, pers. com.). That is precisely what a degas column does by trickling water over solid media open to the atmosphere, and if properly maintained and operated, a wet/dry trickle filter or biowheel filter can often perform the same function to a limited extent (Jorge A. Gomezjurado, pers. com.). For best results, the outflow from a trickle filter should go into a baffled chamber that will allow bubbles to dissipate before they enter pumps or plumbing restrictions (J. Charles Delbeek, pers. com.).
Airstones, air lifts, bubble wands, etc., that are submerged deeper than 18 inches.
Subsurface entry of the inflowing or recirculating water.
Protein skimmers that generate a bubble column by injecting air under pressure at depth.
On small, closed-system aquariums, supersaturation is often due to the entraining of air on the intake side of a leaky pump, which then chops the air into fine microbubbles and injects it into the water (Cripe, Kowalski and Phipps, 1999). Water and air are thus mixed under high pressure and forced into the water column, which can result in gas supersaturation. An air leak in inflowing or recirculating water that enters the tank below the surface can cause the same thing (Cripe, Kowalski and Phipps, 1999). Allowing the water to splash before it enters the tank is a simple way to prevent this from happening. The splashing helps the water to expel excess gas and reach equilibrium with the ambient air pressure (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Likewise, airstones, air lifts, bubble wands and the like can cause problems if they are too deep because they will cause gas to dissolve in water to match the ambient pressure (the current atmospheric pressure) PLUS the pressure of the water column above the stone. If they are immersed at a depth greater than 18 inches, the pressure of the water column above them may be sufficient to cause low-level gas supersaturation of the water, especially when there is little atmosphere/water interface (Colt & Westers, 1982). For example, Robin Weber found that airstone submerged in reservoirs 3 feet deep produced gas supersaturation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The airstones produced supersaturation at a level of about 104%, and the only cases of GBS she has ever observed at the aquarium occurred in the most supersaturated exhibits. So keep your airstones shallow!
Protein skimmers that inject air under pressure at depth, or produce bubbles a foot or more below the surface, can be problematic for seahorses and other fish fry again because that can cause gas to dissolve in the aquarium water at ambient pressure (the current atmospheric pressure) PLUS the pressure of the water column above the bubbles. Under certain circumstances, this can cause low level gas supersaturation of the water and contribute to problems with gas bubble disease (Colt & Westers, 1982) in syngnathids (i.e., seahorses and pipefish). Other skimmers can also cause problems by releasing clouds of microbubbles into the aquarium, which is unsightly and can contribute to certain forms of gas bubble syndrome in seahorses and pipefish such as subcutaneous emphysema, chronic pouch emphysema, Exopthalmia, and hyperinflation of the gas bladder under certain circumstances. (Problems can result if the microbubbles are drawn into the filters or water pumps and pressurized in the process.) So if you have had problems with GBS in a home aquarium filtered by a protein skimmer, consider removing or disabling the protein skimmer to determine if that makes a difference for the better…
(3) Eliminate stress (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
Avoid aggressive tankmates.
Avoid heat stress and temperature spikes.
Install a titanium grounding probe to eliminate stray voltage.
Avoid exposing the seahorse tank to excessive noise or heavy foot traffic.
Use a cork or Styrofoam aquarium pad beneath the tank to deaden vibrations.
Stress has been linked to GBS in seahorses via the following mechanism: chronic or prolonged stress causes changes in the seahorse’s blood chemistry (acidosis), which in turn affects the oxygen-carrying capacity of certain types of hemoglobin, and the reduced oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin can then causes embolisms to form in the blood.
The excess of protons (H+) under acid conditions also causes carbonic anhydrase to shift to producing CO2 from carbonic acid in the bloodstream, and the CO2 that results can likewise lead to gas embolisms under certain circumstances (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Mic Payne is one of the professionals who feel GBS is most likely a stress-related affliction. He believes it is often a result of chronic stress due to antagonistic behavior by overaggressive males, particularly if they are overcrowded (Payne, pers. com.). Exposing our seahorses to any type of stress may leave them predisposed to GBS (and vulnerable to many other diseases as well). Reduce the stress levels on our seahorses and we reduce the incidence of GBS accordingly (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
(4) Maintain optimum water quality (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
Don’t overfeed and remove leftovers promptly.
Employ an efficient cleanup crew.
Practice sound aquarium management and maintenance.
Monitor the aquarium parameters regularly.
Maintain total alkalinity and keep your pH between 8.1-8.4
Maintain a strict schedule for routine water changes.
Gradually reduce the water temperature to increase the amount of dissolved gases it can hold.
Reduce the salinity in the main tank to increase the amount of dissolved gases the water can hold.
When he was experimenting with possible treatments for GBS, Paul Groves (Head Aquarist at Underwater World in Perth, Australia, at the time) was able to produce all the different forms of GBS in a control group of Hippocampus breviceps simply by exposing them to a dirty, bacteria-laden substrate. His seahorse setup was far better than any hobbyist could hope for — an open system with 100% flow through from the ocean and a live sand base, yet all the seahorses in the tank eventually developed GBS (Groves, pers. com.). Males with chronic pouch gas were the first to appear, followed by specimens with internal GBS, and finally subcutaneous gas bubbles appeared on the tails and snouts of the others Groves, pers. com.). The weakness of Paul’s setup was poor circulation, and for experimental purposes, he deliberately allowed fecal matter and uneaten nauplii to build up on the bed of live sand. (Groves found that antibiotics were totally ineffective in treating GBS, but he eventually cured 10 of the 12 affected seahorses by pressurizing them at a depth of 4 meters.)
It is not clear whether stress from the dirty conditions or exposure to such a high density of bacteria triggered the problem in this case, but the lesson is loud and clear all the same — it pays to keep those aquariums clean (Giwojna, Jan. 2004)! If we keep our seahorses setups clean, we will keep our problems with GBS to a minimum (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Maintaining the proper pH is especially important for seahorses, since low pH in the aquarium can contribute to the acidosis under certain circumstances, leading to gas embolisms via the same mechanisms as stress-induced GBS (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Likewise, it’s important to remember that the warmer the water, the less dissolved oxygen it can hold. Elevated water temperatures increase the metabolism of your seahorses, and therefore their consumption of oxygen, at the same time that the rise in temperature is reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. That creates a dangerous situation for seahorses and may well result in respiratory distress and rapid, labored breathing, as well as contributing to asphyxia and gas supersaturation under certain circumstances. Reducing the water temperature will increase the amount of dissolved oxygen and other gases the water can hold before it becomes saturated, reducing the chances of gas supersaturation (hence GBS) and hypoxia accordingly.
There is also an inverse relationship between salinity and dissolved oxygen. The higher the specific gravity or salinity, the less dissolved oxygen (and other dissolved gases) the water can hold. By the same token, the lower the salinity or specific gravity, the more dissolved gases the water can hold. Sometimes the specific gravity in a seahorse tank can creep up unbeknownst to the aquarist due to evaporation of the aquarium water, and the higher the specific gravity gets, the lower the dissolved gas levels in the aquarium will be and the greater the chances that the aquarium water could become supersaturated with dissolved gas. Lowering the specific gravity in the home aquarium as to at least 1.020 is a good way to eliminate such potential complications. Seahorses will be perfectly comfortable at a specific gravity of 1.015-1.017 and can tolerate a specific gravity as low as 1.010. Reducing the salinity will help prevent potential problems with gas supersaturation and therefore GBS.
(5) Water changing precautions (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
It’s an excellent idea to use Reverse Osmosis (RO) or Deionized (DI) or RO/DI water for your changes because it’s much more pure than tap water. However, water purified by such methods is very soft and must be buffered before it’s used so it won’t drop the pH in your aquarium when it’s added (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
When mixing saltwater for your marine aquarium, it’s important to fill your container with all the water you will need BEFORE adding the salt mix. In other words, if you are mixing up 5 gallons of new saltwater, fill the mixing container with 5 gallons of water and then add the salt. If you do it the other way around — dump the salt mix in the container and then start filling it with water, the water can become saturated with salt to the point that the calcium precipitates out. This calcium precipitation will turn the water milky and can also lower the pH to dangerous levels (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Water changes can also be a problem because of the supersaturation of gases in tap water. Tap water distribution systems are maintained under pressure at all times, both to insure adequate flow and to prevent polluted water from outside the pipes from entering in at leaks. Any additional gas introduced into these pipes (from a leaky manifold, for example) will be dissolved at these are higher partial pressures, and will often be supersaturated when it emerges from the tap (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). Also, as we have previously discussed, gases are more soluble in cold water than warm, so when gas-saturated cold water emerges from the tap and warms up in an aquarium, or is warmed up and preadjusted to aquarium temps prior to making a water change, the water can become supersaturated (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). This must be avoided at all costs because gas supersaturation is one of the factors that can contribute to Gas Bubble Syndrome in seahorses and other fish.
To prevent this, tap water should be allowed to sit for several days beforehand or gentle aeration can be used to remove gas supersaturation before a water change (just make sure your airstones are not be submerged greater than 18 inches while you’re aerating your freshly mixed water; (Giwojna, Jan. 2004)). Some brands of artificial sea salt also produce low levels of ammonia immediately after mixing with water, and aging or aerating the newly mixed water as described above will dissipate this residual ammonia.
Most of the above is mentioned for future reference for hobbyists that have well-established seahorse tanks — I realize there aren’t many modifications you can make after the fact, once your system is already up and running (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). But there are a few things you can try with your existing system that should help.
First of all, whenever you find yourself dealing with an environmental disease such as GBS, a water change is an excellent place to start. At the first sign of GBS, I suggest you combine a 25%-50% water change with a thorough aquarium clean up (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Secondly, consider adding an ordinary airstone to your tank, anchored just beneath the surface of the water. That will add surface agitation, extra aeration, and better gas exchange at the air/water interface (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). Unless you’re quite certain your system already has plenty of water movement, it is also advisable to add a small powerhead for extra circulation (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). Seahorses can handle more water movement than most folks realize, and you can always turn it off during feedings. Just screen off the intake for the powerhead as a precaution so it can’t accidentally suck up a curious seahorse (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Thirdly, I recommend that home hobbyists who have had a problem with GBS in the past reduce the salinity in their seahorse tanks to at least 1.020 in order to increase the amount of dissolved gases the water can hold before it become saturated. Reducing the specific gravity to 1.015-1.017 is even better in most cases, providing you aren’t keeping live corals or delicate invertebrates in your seahorse tank. Likewise, reduce the water temperature in tanks with a history of GBS to around 68°F-72°F in order to increase the amount of dissolved gases the water can hold before it become saturated. Both these simple measures will help prevent gas supersaturation and reduce future problems with GBS accordingly.
Finally, use shorter hitching posts and holdfasts that will confine your seahorses to the bottom half of the aquarium and reduce the water temperature. Shorter hitching posts will get the maximum benefit from whatever depth your tank can provide, and lowering the water temperature and specific gravity allows the water to hold more dissolved gases, which can help avoid any tendency toward supersaturation (Cozzi-Schmarr, 2003).
Those simple measures may make a big difference. Just maintain good water quality, provide your seahorses with the stress-free environment, add a shallow airstone and perhaps an extra power head to provide better water movement and gas exchange, remove your protein skimmer as a precaution, keep things cool and reduce the water temperature in your seahorse tank, and you can reduce your risk of GBS considerably.
Best of luck with your floating female, Bellesprit. Hopefully, the basic prevention measures I have outlined above will help you buy some time to obtain the Diamox. Your best bet for a good outcome with internal GBS is to partially deflate the seahorses swim bladder by performing a needle aspiration and then to pressurized the affected seahorse in a homemade decompression chamber, in conjunction with or followed by treatment with Diamox. Be sure to reduce the water temperature and lower the specific gravity as described above to prevent any possible gas supersaturation that could be triggering your problems with GBS in the first place.
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