Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm and Tours | Kona Hawaii › Forums › Seahorse Life and Care › swollen chest cavity – Reidi Seahorse
- This topic has 8 replies, 2 voices, and was last updated 12 years, 9 months ago by Pete Giwojna.
August 14, 2010 at 4:22 pm #1836tjdouglasMember
In the past three or four days one of my relatively large (about 6+") yello male reidi seahorses has developed what looks like a swollen chest. I am not talking about his brood pouch which appears quite normal, but rather the chest area much further up on his body. Essentially, from below his neck and down to his belly (above the brood pouch) his body appears rather swollen and the plates are expanding or bulging outwards (bulging convexly). His head, necc, brood pouch and tail all appear quite normal. But his chest cavity seems to have recently swelled up. He has no buoyancy issues and seems to be eating and behaving quite normally. He does not appear to be in any discomfort. I have not seen him pass anything unusual in his pellets (though I certainly don’t claim to see every time he passes waste). His respiration rate looks good; he is not breathing heavily or "coughing" like they sometimes do when they are ill. He eats frozen mysis (often treated with a drop of garlic extract) and live ghost shrimp. Could he simply have been pigging out and suddenly "bulked" up (I know, probably not likely)? I do throw in quite a few live ghost shrimp so that all of my horses can munch throughout the day, but he is the only one who looks swollen like this Does this sound like something else…maybe internal parasites? Should I try treating him with an anti-parasite? It’s obvious when I compare him with my other reidi seahorses that his chest has recently become unusually thick. I want to do whatever is helpful, but I certainly don’t want to do harm to him by treating him inappropriately.
All of my water parameters seem normal – pH is 8.3, specific gravity is 1.022, ammonia and nitrites are 0 and nitrates are about 10 ppm. My other seahorses (I have several reidi) all appear fine. (FYI – they are housed in an 80 gallon 30" tall tank that has been running for about a year and a half).
Any advice is appreciated. He is a real beauty, and I hate to think of losing him to some illness.
Thanks so much for your help!
TomAugust 15, 2010 at 1:59 am #5174Pete GiwojnaGuest
I’m sorry to hear about the problem your male Hippocampus reidi has developed. It’s very difficult to say why his chest cavity has become swollen or thickened, but these are some of the issues that can cause the abdomen to swell:
(1) an intestinal blockage or constipation;
(2) he may have developed internal gas bubble disease, in which case his abdomen is swollen with gas and he will be experiencing problems with positive buoyancy;
(3) he may have developed ascites (abdominal dropsy), in which case his abdomen is filled with fluid and he will be experiencing problems with negative buoyancy.
Judging from your excellent description of the seahorse and his behavior, however, Tom, it does not appear as if any of these issues are playing a role in this case.
For instance, constipation/impaction are 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 most obvious indication of constipation is an obviously swollen abdomen, particularly in the area of the vent, accompanied by a lack of fecal pellets. Since your H. reidi is still producing normal fecal pellets, it appears that we can rule out constipation or an intestinal blockage as the cause of the bloating.
Another possibility is that your reidi stallion may have developed internal gas bubble disease. In that case, its swim bladder will be hyperinflated and/or it’s coelom or abdominal abdomen will be filled with excess gas and the seahorse will be hampered by a strong tendency to float due to positive buoyancy. Internal gas bubble disease is a very serious affliction that is difficult to resolve, but it can be treated by compressing the seahorse at depth and/or using the medication acetazolamide (brand name Diamox). Your male H. reidi is swimming and behaving normally with no signs of positive buoyancy, so it seems we can also rule out gas bubble syndrome as the cause of the swelling.
The remaining possibility is that the abdomen of your seahorse is full of fluid due to kidney failure and/or ascites, Tom. In that case, the seahorse will be hampered by a strong tendency to sink to the bottom due to negative buoyancy. Abdominal dropsy or ascites sometimes responds to the antibiotics doxycycline and kanamycin used together at the same time. In addition, you could consider trying a regimen of Diamox in your hospital tank, if you happen to have the medication on hand. Diamox (the tablet form of acetazolamide) has some mild diuretic properties which could possibly help reduce the swelling in her abdomen and relieve some of the resulting pressure. Diamox is a prescription drug that is the goal to obtain, but it can be used in conjunction with antibiotics, so it’s something to consider if you have the acetazolamide available. However, you’re stallion is not having any difficulties with negative buoyancy either, so it is unlikely that the swelling is due to abdominal dropsy.
And that leaves us without any "prime suspects" in this case, Tom. I do not think the swelling or thickening of the chest cavity is due to the seahorse pigging out and filling out its abdomen. Seahorses have very limited fat stores and they normally store their fat reserves in their tails, not their abdomens.
I have heard of one or two cases in which the seahorses gas bladder was filled with parasites and/or the egg masses from parasites, which resulted in swelling and bloating, and some bacterial infections can cause edema and swelling. In such cases, however, the seahorse is obviously ailing, off its feed, lethargic, and/or in obvious distress. That does not seem to be the case with your H. reidi male, Tom, so I have no clear idea as to what may be causing the swelling chest of your stallion.
It would not be harmful in the least to treat your seahorses prophylactically for internal parasites, sir, so that is something that you may want to consider. There are a number of treatment options that will effectively and safely eradicate internal parasites and worms from seahorses and other marine fish.
Either praziquantel, fenbendazole (brand name Panacur), or metronidazole would be a good choice for such a procedure, Tom. None of these medications will have a negative impact on the beneficial nitrifying bacteria that perform biological filtration, so you can administer the medications directly to your seahorse tank providing it houses no delicate invertebrates that could be harmed by the antiparasitic medications.
Aside from intramuscular injections, perhaps the most effective way to administer any of these medications is to gut load adult brine shrimp with them, and then feed the medicated brine shrimp to your seahorses. That’s a very stressful-free way to deworm them and treat them for internal parasites since they can be treated in the main tank where they are the most comfortable and relaxed, in the company of their mates/tankmates amidst familiar surroundings, with no handling necessary.
Gutloading simply means to fill live shrimp up with medication by feeding them food that’s been soaked in the desired medication. Once the feeder shrimp are full of the medicated food — that is, their guts are loaded with it — they are immediately fed to the seahorses, which thus consume the medication along with the shrimp. It’s a neat way to trick seahorses into taking their medicine, just as our moms used to do when were little, crushing up pills in a spoonful of jelly or jam. Another term for gutloading is bioencapsulation, since the medication is neatly contained within a living organism rather than a capsule.
Metronidazole is an antibiotic with antiprotozoal properties that is very effective in eradicating internal parasites in general and intestinal flagellates in particular (Kaptur, 2004). It is ideal for this because it is rapidly absorbed from the GI tract, has anti-inflammatory effects in the bowel, and was designed specifically to treat protozoal infections and anaerobic bacterial infections by disrupting their DNA (Kaptur, 2004).
There are a number of ways to gutload shrimp, but the one described below is one of the easiest and works great for administering metronidazole orally. It is impossible to determine precisely what dosage of medication each individual fish ingests when gutloading, but metronidazole is a very, very safe drug and you cannot overdose a seahorse using this method of treatment. Feeding each seahorse its fill of shrimp gut-loaded with metronidazole for 5-10 days assures that they receive an effective dose of the medication.
I prefer live adult brine shrimp (Artemia sp.) since they are inexpensive, readily available, easy to bioencapsulate, and can be gut loaded in freshwater as described below. To medicate the brine shrimp, dissolve approximately 100 mg of metronidazole per liter or about 400 mg per gallon of water and soak the shrimp in the resulting freshwater solution. If the metronidazole you are using comes in liquid or capsule(powder) form, you can use it as is. But if the metronidazole is in tablet form, be sure to crush it into a very fine powder (you may have to use a household blender to get it fine enough) and dissolve it in freshwater at the dosage suggested above. Soak the adult shrimp in freshwater treated with the antibiotic for 15-30 minutes and then feed the medicated shrimp to your seahorses immediately. (Don’t let your pumps and filters "eat" all the brine shrimp!)
The brine shrimp are soaked in freshwater, not saltwater, because in theory the increased osmotic pressure of the freshwater helps the antibiotic solution move into their bodies via osmosis. But in fact nobody knows for sure whether the antibiotic is diffusing into the brine shrimp or they are ingesting it in very fine particles (brine shrimp are filter feeders and will take in whatever is suspended in the water with them) or whether the brine shrimp merely become coated with the antibiotic while they are soaking in it. But that’s not important — all that really matters is that gut-loading adult brine shrimp with medications this way is effective.
Keep the seahorses on a strict diet of such medicated brine shrimp throughout the treatment period to get as much of the antibiotic into the seahorses as possible, and mix up a new batch of medicated freshwater to soak the brine shrimp in for each feeding.
As an alternative to gut loading or bioencapsulation of the medication, the metronidazole solution can also be injected into freshly killed ghost shrimp, Hawaiian volcano shrimp (red feeder shrimp) or even frozen mysids using a fine syringe and then administered by target feeding the ailing seahorse with the injected shrimp. Again, you’ll have to prepare new metronidazole solution daily and inject enough of the frozen shrimp for a day’s worth of feedings.
In addition, Tom, here are Tracey Warland’s instructions for gutloading brine shrimp with metronidazole or other anti-parasitic medications:
Metronidazole, is one of the low impact parasite meds, it is often hard to overdose on this med, there are however more effective meds that can be used. Praziquantel (by droncit, available at most vets) is a better more effective med.
With parasite meds I usually use about (liquid form) 2.5 mls to 1000 mls of water, place adult artemia in the solution for about 30 minutes, rinse and fed out 5 days in a row, leave for 2 weeks and retreat for 5 days.
If the med you have is in tablet form they are usually 100mg tablets, crush one to a very fine powder, you may even have to blend it in a household blender to get it fine enough for the artemia to eat and add this to 1000 mls (1 litre) and repeat as above.
Unfortunately eating well and not gaining weight is one of the classic signs of internal parasites.
I would remove her from the tank to feed out the medicated food to ensure she gets the majority of them and it would not hurt to feed out the food to the others also.
Most parasite meds are death to inverts so it is wise to feed them out in isolation.
Happy Seahorse Keeping
As you can see, Tom, the exact dosage of metronidazole to use when gutloading or injecting shrimp is not crucial at all. Metronidazole is a very safe medication that you really cannot overdose via gutloading.
If the affected seahorse is no longer eating, are simply not interested in adult brine shrimp, then it should be treated with the medication in a hospital tank (no carbon filtration). Since metronidazole is only active against anaerobic bacteria, it will not affect beneficial Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter species, and you can thus maintain biological filtration in the hospital tank throughout treatment (Kaptur, 2004). Dissolve 250 mg of metronidazole for every 10 gallons of water in the hospital tank, and the medication will be absorbed through the seahorse’s gills (Kaptur, 2004). Stay on top of the water quality in the treatment tank with water changes as necessary, and redose the tank with a full dose of metronidazole daily regardless of how much water was changed (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). (Metronidazole is oxidized over a period of several hours, so the entire dose needs to be replenished daily; Kaptur, 2004.) Treat the affected seahorse in isolation for a minimum of 5 consecutive days.
When administered properly, metronidazole is wonderfully effective at eliminating intestinal parasites, and there should be signs of improvement within 3 days of treatment (Kaptur, 2004). The seahorse’s appetite should pick up, and as it does, those characteristic white stringy feces will return to normal (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
In summation, if the seahorses are still eating, administering the metronidazole orally via gut-loaded shrimp is often extremely effective (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). With anti-parasitic medications such as praziquantel and metronidazole in liquid form, this can be accomplished by using 2.5 mls of the medication to 1000 mls of freshwater, soaking adult brine shrimp (Artemia spp.) in the solution for about 30 minutes, and then feeding them to the seahorses for 5 days in a row, and then repeating the same treatment again two weeks later.
[Note: 20 drops equals 1 ml, so 50 drops of the medication equals 2.5 mL (20 drops/ml x 2.5ml = 50 drops). Also 1000 mls equals ~ 1 quart, so in order to gut load the adult brine shrimp with the liquid form of the medication, you would place 50 drops of the medication in a quart of saltwater and soak the brine shrimp in that for half an hour before feeding it to your seahorses.
Intramuscular injections of metronidazole at a dosage of 50mg/kg repeated every 72 hours for a total of 3 treatments are also extremely effective in treating internal parasites, but in most cases this is impractical for the home hobbyist.
Metronidazole is extremely effective in eradicating intestinal flagellates, but it is not the best choice for deworming seahorses.
If you have the liquid form of praziquantel (Prazi Pro) you can gutload the adult Artemia and bioencapsulate the medication in the same manner as liquid metronidazole. Just mix 2.5 mls of the liquid praziquantel to 1000 mls of water, soak the adult brine shrimp (Artemia spp.) in the resulting solution for about 30 minutes, and then feed them to the seahorses for 5 days in a row, and then repeat the same treatment regimen again two weeks later.
You can use either saltwater from your aquarium or dechlorinated freshwater for dissolving the liquid praziquantel and soaking the adult brine shrimp, but again I prefer to use the freshwater since that may help the adult Artemia to absorb more of the medication and the freshwater also helps to disinfect the live brine shrimp while they are soaking.
Praziquantel can also be administered as a bath either at 10ppm for 3 hours or at 1ppm for 24 hours. However, anti-parasitic medications are generally tough on invertebrates in general, and if your seahorse setup includes sensitive invertebrates, it would be much better to administer the medications orally as previously discussed or to treat the seahorses in a hospital tank where the inverts won’t be affected.
Adult brine shrimp can also be gut-loaded with fenbendazole (Panacur) by soaking them in 250mg Panacur /kg food and then feeding the medicated brine shrimp to the seahorses for three consecutive days. Repeat the three-day treatment regimen again one week later. As you know, fenbendazole is an anthelmintic agent or dewormer, and if you suspect your seahorse has a problem with cestodes or roundworms, as indicated in your post, then Panacur should be included as part of your treatment regimen.
Or you can administer the Panacur as a bath instead, as explained in the post on this forum titled "Hydroids!"
Fenbendazole (brand name Panacur) is an inexpensive anthelmintic agent (dewormer) used for large animals such as horses, and the de-worming granules can be obtained without a prescription from stores that carry agricultural products (e.g., farm and ranch equipment, farming supplies and products, veterinary supplies, livestock and horse supplies, livestock and horse feed). If you live in a rural area, those would be good places to obtain it as well.
However, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind when treating an aquarium with fenbendazole. Administering a regimen of fenbendazole (FBZ) or Panacur will eradicate any hydroids, Aiptasia rock anemones, or bristleworms from live rock or live sand, thereby rendering them completely seahorse safe. The recommended dose is 1/8 teaspoon of the horse dewormer granules (22.2% fenbendazole) per 10 gallons of water. Dose aquarium with 1/8 teaspoon/10 gallons every other day until you have administered a total of 3 such treatments (Liisa Coit, pers. com.). Even one dose will do a fine job of eradicating bristeworms, but Aiptasia rock anemones and hydroids are a bit tougher and may require 2-3 doses to eliminate entirely.
Because fenbendazole is essentially a de-worming agent, it will destroy any bristleworms, flat worms, spaghetti worms or the like. The FBZ or Panacur treatments are best administered to the live rock in a bucket or hospital tank before the LR is introduced in the main tank. Otherwise, the massive die-off of the worm population in the aquarium may require large water changes in order to prevent a dangerous ammonia spike! And after the treatment is completed, its a good idea to add a portion of newly purchased live sand to the system in order to help restore its normal diversity of fauna and microfauna again (Liisa Coit, pers. com.).
Fenbendazole does not have any adverse effects on biological filtration, but be aware that it is death to many Cnidarians besides hydroids. Mushrooms and related corals are generally not affected, but expect it to have dire effects on other corals (e.g., sinularias), polyps, gorgonians, and anemones. In general, any Cnidarians with polyps that resemble the stalked family of Hydrozoans are likely to be hit hard by fenbendazole, so don’t use this treatment in a reef tank!
Also be aware that fenbendazole seems to soak into the porous live rock and be absorbed indefinitely. I know one hobbyist who transferred a small piece of live rock that had been treated with fenbendazole (Panacur) months earlier into a reef tank, where it killed the resident starfish and Astrea snails. So enough of the medication may be retained within treated live rock to impact sensitive animals months after the fenbendazole was administered. Don’t treat live rock intended for reef systems with fenbendazole (Panacur)!
At the lower dosage recommended for nursery tanks and dwarf seahorse tanks with fry (1/16 tsp. per 10 gallons), fenbendazole normally does not harm cleaner shrimp and decorative shrimp. With the exception of Astrids (Astrea), Coit and Worden have found it does not usually affect the types of snails typically used as cleanup crews (e.g., Nassarius, Ceriths, and Nerites). It will kill starfish and other echinoderms but copepods, hermit crabs, and shrimp are normally not affected.
Macroalgae such as the feathery or long-bladed varieties of Caulerpa or Hawaiian Ogo (Gracilaria) are not harmed by exposure to fenbendazole at even triple the normal dose. In fact, if you will be using Caulerpa in your nursery tanks to provide hitching posts for the fry and serve as a form of natural filtration, it’s a very wise precaution indeed to treat them with a regimen of fenbendazole beforehand.
So aside from being an effective dewormer, fenbendazole (FBZ) or Panacur is primarily useful for ridding bare-bottomed nursery tanks and dwarf seahorses setups of hyrdroids and Aiptasia anemones, ridding Caulerpa and other macroalge of hydroids or Aiptasia before its goes into the aquarium, and cleansing live rock of bristleworms, hydroids, and Aiptasia rock anemones before it is introduced to the aquarium.
It can also be used to eradicate bristleworms, hydroids, an Aiptasia from an established aquarium if it does not house sensitive animals such as live corals and gorgonians, starfish, Astrea snails, or tubeworms and other desirable worms that may be harmed by FBZ, providing you monitor the ammonia levels closely and are prepared to deal with the ammonia spike that may result from the sudden death of the worm population.
Okay, Tom, those are my stats on the matter. It wouldn’t hurt to treat your seahorses for internal parasites by administering any of the medications described above orally via bioencapsulated feeder shrimp, so that’s something you may want to consider.
Otherwise, keep a very close eye on your H. reidi stallion for any new signs or symptoms of a health problem, and be prepared to isolate him and treat him with a good regimen of aminoglycoside antibiotics if he develops any new symptoms indicating a bacterial infection.
Best of luck with all of your seahorses, sir.
Pete GiwojnaAugust 16, 2010 at 6:49 am #5175tjdouglasGuest
Thanks so much for responding so quickly! I really appreciate it. It does seem that my seahorse has now developed positive buoyancy issues since I wrote to you last night. So I guess his chest cavity was swelling before he actually started showing buoyancy problems.
Do you recommend I start treating with Diamox? I have some on hand.
Thanks again so much for your advice!
TomAugust 16, 2010 at 6:49 am #5176Pete GiwojnaGuest
Okay, sir, if your stallion has developed positive buoyancy, then we can be confident that he is suffering from internal gas bubble syndrome (GBS), which causes the swimbladder of the seahorse to become hyperinflated and/or gas to be released within the coelomic cavity of the seahorse. If the seahorse is still eating, then administering Diamox orally can be helpful in treating this condition, but it is a difficult problem to resolve and the most dangerous form of GBS a seahorse can develop. I will explain the best way to use the acetazolamide (brand name Diamox) in a case like this later in this message, Tom, but first let’s discuss internal GBS in a little more detail and go over all of the treatment options that are sometimes helpful for treating this problem.
Gas bubble disease is not at all contagious; it isn’t caused by any sort of pathogen, so you needn’t be concerned that it is going to spread to the rest of your herd like an infectious disease, Tom. Since it is not actually a disease, I prefer to refer to gas bubble disease as a syndrome and call it gas bubble syndrome (GBS). Even though it is not an infectious disease, the rest of your seahorses are still not out of the woods, sir. GBS is an environmental disease that is triggered by certain conditions within the seahorse tank itself, so you will need to correct the conditions in your aquarium or the rest of the seahorses could also be at risk. (Because of their heavily vascularized, physiologically dynamic brood pouch, mature males that are actively courting or breeding are the most susceptible to GBS.)
One of the measures that sometimes helps with internal GBS is to pressurize the seahorse at depth in a tall container, Tom. As a rule, the deeper the container and the greater the hydrostatic pressure at the bottom, the more effective recompressing and then decompressing the seahorse will be in relieving this type of problem.
You can also consider partially deflating the seahorse’s swimbladder by performing a needle aspiration in order to help relieve the positive buoyancy, and treating the seahorse with Diamox orally can be helpful if the seahorses still eating. I will explain all these options in more detail for you below:
As you know, the swelling in the chest and abdomen of your seahorse is due to a different form of gas bubble syndrome. When the gas emboli that trigger GBS form in the capillary network of the gas bladder (the rete mirabile), hyperinflation of the swimbladder occurs, resulting in positive buoyancy. And 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).
That’s what’s I believe is happening to your stallion, Chris. New gas emboli have formed and are either causing the gas bladder of the seahorse to become overinflated, or are causing gas to build up within the coelomic cavity of your male, or both. This condition is known as internal GBS, and it is much more difficult to resolve successfully then external GBS (i.e., tail bubbles), chronic pouch emphysema or other forms of GBS.
There are a few treatment options in such cases:
(1) First of all, you can try manually deflating your stallion’s gas bladder. If the bloated chest and abdomen he has developed is due to a hyperinflated swimbladder, releasing some of the excess gas and partially deflating the gas bladder may provide him with relief and counteract the tendency to float.
(2) Secondly, you can try pressurizing him at a depth of at least 40 inches in a homemade decompression chamber.
(4) Thirdly, you can try treating him with the Diamox orally, if the seahorse is eating, or Diamox plus antibiotics in a hospital tank, if the seahorse is no longer eating and the Diamox cannot be administered orally.
The simplest of these is to manually deflate is 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.
Here is a e-mail from Lindsay Parker at the Monterey Bay Aquarium explaining how they use this procedure to restore normal buoyancy when their prize leafy seadragons have problems with positive buoyancy:
Recently we have had issues with Leafy Dragons becoming buoyant. The most common scenario is that we arrive in the morning to find an animal floating at the surface, on its side, often swimming in a circular pattern. By candling the animal we confirm that the swim bladder is enlarged and then aspirate the extra gas out of it using a small syringe. The aspirated volume depends on how over expanded the swim bladder seems, typically though it ranges from 1cc-2cc. At that time we also begin an injection series, a combination of Acetazolamide and Ceftazidime, and often end up tube feeding.
Animal Husbandry Department
Monterey Bay Aquarium
886 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93940
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 in more detail below.
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, so that’s also something you should strongly consider, Tom. In your case, I would suggest pressurizing the affected seahorse in a homemade decompression at a depth of at least 40 inches as described below. If you think it would be helpful, he can be treated with antibiotics and Diamox while he is undergoing the decompression cure to help him recover from any infection that may be involved. External GBS typically responds extremely well to treatment with Diamox, but internal GBS is a much more serious condition, and often responds better to pressurization, in my opinion. But if you can combine the pressurization with antibiotic therapy and Diamox, that will increase the chances of a good outcome.
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, but can be helpful if combined with antibiotic therapy and pressurization.
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, Tom:
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 female seahorse will be able to see well under the ambient light levels that penetrate and 50-gallon bucket. You won’t be feeding her while she’s undergoing the decompression cure, so she doesn’t need to be able to see well enough to hunt small prey or anything like that, and the darkened conditions may give her a sense of security and help her relax, since she won’t be feeling so exposed and vulnerable.
If you want to keep an eye on him periodically while he’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 (also named Christine) has 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 and treatment with Diamox. 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, neomycin, and nifurpirinol are the antibiotics I prefer. I would recommend using two of them (i.e., kanamycin/neomycin or nifurpinol/neomycin) in combination for even greater efficacy, as described below, but if you can only obtain one of them, kanamyacin is the best choice in my opinion:
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 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.
Nifurpirinol is a nitrofuran antibiotic that is the active ingredient in many commercial preparations designed for use in the aquarium. It is stable in saltwater and rapidly absorbed by fish, making it the preferred treatment for fungal infections in seahorses (Burns, 2002). Nifurpirinol is photosensitive and may be inactivated in bright light, so use this medication only in a darkened hospital tank.
Nifurpirinol may be combined with neomycin (see below) to produce a potent broad-spectrum medication that’s effective against both fungus and bacteria. Nifurpirinol/neomycin is therefore a great combination to use when you’re not certain whether the infection you are treating is fungal or bacterial in nature.
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 sufficient Diamox, you can also consider treating your bloated stallion with the acetazolamide, Tom, but it often works bests for subcutaneous emphysema and pouch emphysema, rather than internal GBS. Acetazolamide can either be administered orally by injecting a solution made from Diamox (the tablet form of acetazolamide) into feeder shrimp 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 stallion is no longer eating, Tom, then you will need to administer the Diamox in the deep pressurization chamber and/or a hospital tank as a series of baths by crushing up the medication and adding it to the treatment tank instead (if you add the medication to the deep pressurization chamber, you can only add the initial dose, since obviously no water changes are possible while the seahorse is undergoing compression/decompression):
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 the sole light 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 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 in a hospital tank, if it is to have any affect.
Okay, Tom, those are my thoughts on the matter. Pressurizing the seahorse at a depth of at least 40 inches is probably your best bet, and if you can treat the water in the homemade decompression chamber with antibiotics and Diamox at the same time, that will be even more helpful. But if the stallion is still eating, go and try administering the Diamox orally to him while he remains in the main tank, especially if you are able to perform a my last version and relieve his positive buoyancy.
Best of luck resolving this problem and restoring your stallion to good health, sir!
Pete GiwojnaAugust 16, 2010 at 7:58 am #5177tjdouglasGuest
Thanks so much for the great information. You are so generous to share all of this! I started a diamox bath last night, but I think I will run out to the local hardware store and pick up a tall rubbermaid container so that I can try the decompression approach (and simultaneously use the diamox) as you suggest.
I do have one question about this process…I hope you do not mind. In my homemade rubbermaid "decompression chamber" should I still run a cycled sponge filter? I have been using a cycled sponge filter with my reidi’s diamox bath since yesterday in order to keep the ammonia and nitrites from building up. Would it be wise to continue to use a cycled sponge filter in this decompression setting. Since we don’t want to lower the compression, I understand that we don’t want to make any water changes during the compression treatment. So is it wise to keep a sponge filter going to keep ammonia and nitrites down?
Thanks so much for your helpful advice!
TomAugust 17, 2010 at 2:18 am #5178Pete GiwojnaGuest
You’re very welcome, sir!
Yes, if you have a cycled sponge filter that’s an excellent idea to include it in the Rubbermaid decompression chamber so that it can prevent any ammonia or nitrite spikes while the seahorse is being recompressed and then decompressed again. That should be very helpful, just as you said, sir, because you will not be doing any water changes (which would necessarily change the water level in the homemade "decompression chamber" and should be avoided). Just don’t anchor the sponge filter all the way at the bottom of the Rubbermaid receptacle; rather, keep it within 18 inches of the top for best results.
Good luck resolving the internal GBS, Tom.
Pete GiwojnaAugust 17, 2010 at 3:33 am #5179tjdouglasGuest
Dear Pete….thanks so much! I will keep the sponge filter near the top of the chamber as you suggest.
Much appreciation for all of your help and generous advice!
TomAugust 18, 2010 at 3:19 am #5181tjdouglasGuest
I am sorry to keep bothering you, but I am afraid I could use your advice yet again. I hope I have not become a nuisance.
I was "compressing" my seahorse at the bottom of a 50 gallon rubbermaid container with diamox for several hours when, unfortunately, raccoons raided my yard and patio in the middle of the night and pulled the whole thing over! (Bet you don’t get raccoons in Kona! But do you get feral pigs in your yards at night?) Fortunately I heard all of the commotion and ran out and saved the seahorse who was still in about an inch of water but seemingly unharmed (and unbitten…thank goodness!!!) Since had used up all of my reserve water filling the decompression tank I had to place the seahorse back in the regular tank with his usual buddies.
Now I honestly don’t know whether to resume compression or not. He looks really good today. Obviously the several hours of treatment he underwent was great for him. The swelling of the swim bladder has significantly gone down (though still is not completely gone). He can anchor at the bottom of their tank (30" tall tank) and is eating his favorite food – live ghost shrimp. He still has some positive buoyancy issues but it is greatly improved compared to before he went through the treatment.
Since he is doing so well, (eating, anchoring to the bottom, does not seem to be in discomfort as far as I can tell) do I wait a couple of days and see if his swim bladder completely resolves itself, or do I start compression and diamox treatment again? Of course, if I was to resume compression treatment I would be certain that the container was "raccoon-proof" this time.
Thank you so much for your advice! Many apologies for the long-winded message.
TomAugust 18, 2010 at 5:53 am #5182Pete GiwojnaGuest
Wow, that’s quite an unusual development, but thank goodness you were Johnny-on-the-spot and able to rescue your stallion from his predicament and drive off the marauders!
I am very happy to hear that the seahorse has survived the very rapid decompression from having the water drained from the 40-inch tall container so quickly, and you certainly did the right thing by making an emergency transfer back to the main tank. It is encouraging that he is doing so well since he was returned to the aquarium and that your male seems to have benefited from the brief period when the increased hydrostatic pressure recompressed him at the bottom of the container, but my primary concern is whether or not there will be any after effects from the unusually rapid decompression.
As you know, the recompression-decompression cure is helpful in treating internal GBS because the increased hydrostatic pressure at the bottom of a tall container causes the seahorse’s gas bladder to contract or shrink somewhat, and causes embolisms in the blood and tissue of the seahorse to go back into solution and be resorbed. After the seahorse has been compressed in this manner for 2-3 days, or whatever period is required under the circumstances, it is SOP to very gradually decompress the seahorse afterwards over a period of several hours. In your case, however, the pesky raccoons accomplished the decompression in a mere matter of moments, and there is a danger that the gas emboli could reform and come back out of solution again at the reduced pressure. Depending on where these gas emboli happen to form and lodge, this can potentially cause a variety of problems.
In order to stave off any such problems, I would recommend administering Diamox to the seahorse orally via medicated feeder shrimp now that he is eating again while he is in the main tank where he is most comfortable. In the meantime, go ahead and prepare more saltwater premixed to the proper pH, specific gravity, and water temperature so that you are ready to recompress the seahorse again should it become necessary. There will be no harmful effects if you ultimately need to recompress the seahorse for a longer period of time, since this procedure can be repeated as often as needed.
Keep a close eye on your stallion and make preparations to repeat the recompression if necessary, and get a daily dose of Diamox into him orally in the meantime, and hope that things work out for the best.
In the meantime, Tom, here is some more information on gas bubble syndrome (GBS) and some measures or precautions the home hobbyist can take to help prevent such problems 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).
Different parts of the body can thus be affected depending on how the
initial gas emboli or micronuclei form, grow and spread. During an
episode of GBS, bubbles may initially form in the blood
(intravascular) or outside the blood (extravascular). Either way,
once formed, a number of different critical insults are possible.
Intravascular bubbles may stop in closed circulatory vessels and
induce ischemia, blood sludging, edema, chemistry degradations, or
mechanical nerve deformation. Circulating gas emboli may occlude the
arterial flow or leave the circulation to lodge in tissue sites as
extravasular bubbles. Extravascular bubbles may remain locally in
tissue sites, assimilating gas by diffusion from adjacent
supersaturated tissue and growing until a nerve ending is deformed or
circulation in nearby capillaries and vessels is restricted. Or,
extravascular bubbles might enter the arterial or venous flows, at
which point they become intravascular bubbles. Extravascular bubbles
can thus become intravascular bubbles, and vice versa, via diffusion
and perfusion. This is important because it means that under certain
conditions extravascular seed bubbles or micronuclei can enter the
bloodstream and migrate from their birth site to other critical areas
as intravascular bubbles. If untreated, the gas bubbles worsen and
the condition is fatal.
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.
Reducing the specific gravity and water temperature in the seahorse tank 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, if possible, 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 most species can tolerate a specific gravity as low as 1.010. (Do not NOT reduce the specific gravity any lower than 1.010, which can be fatal!) 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.
That’s my thinking with regard to preventing GBS, Tom. I suspect that very few of the factors mentioned above apply to your seahorse setup, sir, but they are common problems for many home aquarists.
Best of luck with your plucky stallion, sir! After surprising his initial problems with internal GBS and even a midnight raid by raccoons, hopefully he is due for some good luck.
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