A Healthy Aquarium; Disease Prevention;
By Carl Strohmeyer
Disease prevention is probably one of the most important aspects (although a generalized statement) of keeping a healthy aquarium.
I have kept up many aquariums (marine and freshwater) during my years of aquarium maintenance. It was more of a challenge with clients than my personal aquariums because many of my customers overfed or did not tell me fish were sick until it was too late. As well, I have had many service clients or online customers/readers simply ask me “why” they often have so many problems.
Taking measures to lower the chances of fish becoming sick is the best remedy for avoiding illness-related issues. For instance, many common diseases such as Ich can be limited by good preventive measures, while many other diseases such as Dropsy (see this article), Columnaris, and Aeromonas are opportunistic.
These diseases are often the result of poor water quality management (Ammonia Poisoning, High DOC, Constant Stressors, Low Calcium and other electrolyte levels) which can be outright prevented.
It is also noteworthy that all the medications in the world will not cure a fish when poor water parameters and related issues exist in an aquarium; these issues must be corrected first!!
My experience maintaining literally 1000s of aquariums gave me a unique perspective as compared to a pure hobbyist. What I mean is that I (and my employees) were at many clients' aquariums only once per week or less. Thus, I did not have the luxury of being able to make sure everything was fine with these fish everyday (kind of like the average hobbyist going away for a one or two week vacation and hoping everything would be OK).
In fact, my largest client (the Bahooka Restaurant) was gained because an employee of the restaurant had an Arowana that was sick and none of the medications being advised to her by others were working.
She heard about me through word-of-mouth and I recognized that she had tank conditions that were not healthy. This prevented her fish's own natural defenses from allowing it to recover. As well the medications sold to her were not the right medicines for treating the illness the fish had. Her fish got better after correcting these problems and the rest was history (this aquarium service account launched many other accounts for us including a contract with Disney).
I later utilized about a dozen aquariums in a room as well as the use of multiple aquariums at my now largest client (Coaster Co. of America). I also performed many controlled tests where I monitored certain water parameters. I studied the effect on fish and water parameters of the regular addition of positive mineral ions), filtration methods, UV Sterilization, feeding and more in these tests. These variables were subtracted/added and measured over time (over 5 years in one test) as compared to control tanks I used.
More recently I have spent 1000s of hours in researching many of the results from my (and others') tests in order to provide a better explanation of these results. I do this to separate real fish keeping facts from anecdotal observations.
Back to the subject, during my time performing aquarium maintenance, I had to look at EVERY parameter and way to keep a healthy aquarium. I could not keep my customers' fish alive by relying on the many aquarium-keeping myths that still float around in this hobby.
Sadly many that were put to rest many years back such as the Raw Shrimp Cycling method have been resurrected on the Internet by irresponsible websites, blogs, forums, and Yahoo Answers.
Another example of one such myth is one about bio wheels (see this article: “Do Bio Wheels really work”). This is not to say Bio Wheels do not work, just not to the level of hype they have been made out to be (& this is a very minor myth as to effect on aquarium health compared many of the others still prevalent today).
More noteworthy myths exist to which I conducted many controlled tests and later research to explain my results. Just some of these include: the quality of many popular brands of fish foods, filtration, medications use, cleaning procedures, UV Sterilization, Redox Potential, aquarium cycling & water chemistry including the need for positive mineral ions.
This aspect of chemistry along with Redox, The Nitrogen Cycle, and the use of UV Sterilizer are among some of the most misunderstood aspects of aquarium keeping I have found based on conversations, emails, forum posts, etc. In fact when it comes to water chemistry/mineral ions the amount of misinformation in forums and elsewhere is mind boggling, making the Chemistry Article a must read!
What I found is that if ALL points of disease prevention are practiced, the healthier, more colorful, and long-living your fish will be. I had very few losses and many of my newer customers noticed the difference after switching to my service.
I have had many forums criticize me for trying to scare aquarists into needing equipment such as UV Sterilizers or for explaining the science in my aquarium chemistry article. However, I think it is far from that, as everyone should know what all the risks are and every possible way to keep the healthiest aquarium possible. To put this another way, would it be honest to tell someone that their little goldfish they won at a carnival will do just fine in a bowl and not need anything more? I do not think so.
My test results and research speak for themselves.
I personally have resisted adding disease charts because these proliferate all over the internet & elsewhere. Many are very “cookie cutter” in their descriptions and can be misleading in my opinion. I feel that understanding prevention methods and knowledge of antibiotics, chemical treatments, and organic treatments will go much further in treatment and disease prevention than a disease chart that has a "one size fits all" approach.
I recommend reading the companion article below about Medications/Treatments for more information that will help you make an educated choice when treatment of fish is required, rather than using a “dart on the wall” approach. “Aquarium Medications/Treatments; How they work”
Please read on: each step listed below is an important part of the Aquarium/Pond disease prevention puzzle (in particular steps 1-10)!
If what you want is a healthy successful aquarium, it is important that ALL steps are followed with the exception of step #11 (which is an important step if you are starting over after constant problems). These steps represent over a decade of tests and controlled studies. Each time you subtract each of these steps, you lower your chance for success.
Omitting any of these steps or following one or two halfway, lowers your chance of preventing illness in your fish, so if you are frustrated with your aquarium due to constant “issues”, please follow all the steps outlined here before you give up on this wonderful hobby!
Regular “quality” water changes are extremely important. By quality I mean to not over clean the water by taking fish out and washing the gravel. You want to use a gravel vacuum and do partial water changes that disrupt the fish as little as possible. The purpose of this is to remove organic debris before it can fully go through the Nitrogen cycle, eventually increasing your Nitrates and lowering your ph.
The use of a recirculating cleaning filter such as a simple Sludge Remover Vacuum can increase the efficiency of a cleaning where a tank has high amounts of organic mulm or has been through a period of disease exposure.
You also want to de-chlorinate the water so as to not add stress to the fish or environment. There are many good products for this: Prime , Start Right, Stress Coat, Amquel Plus, just to name a few.
Regular small incremental water changes are one of the best maintenance procedures you can perform (if not over done). These will cut pollutants, often add necessary minerals (depending on the water source), and often improve the aquariums Redox Balance (again, depending on the water source).
Here is a list of Reasons why Water Changes/Tank Maintenance on a regular basis is important:
• Nitrate Control
• Improved Mineralization, (GH, Electrolytes, etc.)
• Improved pH and KH Stability
• Lowering of Organic Mulm/Sludge
• Removal of harmful elements/toxins
• Control of Bio-Load
• Redox Balance
• Removal of Waste
• Control of Algae Growth
• Rinsing of Filter Media
• Aid in Disease Eradication
Another note to regular water changes; these are also important WHEN your fish are sick as well, performed before each treatment. These water changes should also include a thorough “wiping down” of the glass (on ALL sides) to dislodge algae that can harbor disease pathogens.
Water changes (which includes a thorough gravel vacuuming) are also recommend after a disease cure has been reached, for cloudy water, or after many fishless cycling methods that will often leave a tank with high nitrates (this generally is not as much a problem with the “seasoned filter media method”).
Generally when fish are present, changes over 50% are not recommended as larger water changes can be hard for fish to cope with large changes in mineralization, pH, etc. (which affect osmoregulation), this again is where a cleaning micron filter is a good idea. When fish are not present (or if it is felt this is necessary as the risk of osmotic shock is lower than that of other issues), a 100% water change may be performed, or even a double 100% water change/vacuuming where by the aquarist changes 100% of the water, then fills then 100% is changed immediately again.
However it should be noted that a 100% or even double 100% water changes is not always the answer to a problem with pathogens or similar (such as cloudy water) as even with complete water changes with thorough vacuuming (even the use of a micron filter for cleaning such an Aquarium Cleaning Machine is not 100% certain) will not remove every Ich tomite, nematode, bacterium, or Saprolegnia zoospore. Only a tank bleaching/chlorination is 100% sure.
As an example of what I am talking about based on my tests/studies, here are a few examples of why water changes are not a 100% positive method of eradication:
*Example A: I have had cases of detritus worms, where by I changed double 100% water changes and vacuumed only to see them reappear. Luckily these are basically harmless and lowering organic mulm via these water changes will eventually starve most of them out.
*Example B: Similar to the above example, I have had cloudy water, then again perform double 100% water changes with gravel vacuuming to see this bounce back in a few days, until the source of the problem (generally missed organics or a poorly cycled aquarium) corrected, which often is not an over night fix.
*Example C: I have had Ich outbreaks (or even introduced for the sake of the test), where by again these double 100% water changes/vacuuming were performed, then fish were re-introduced and another Ich outbreak occurred.
*Example D: In MANY tests of disease pathogens (or opportunistic pathogens) such as Saprolegnia, Streptococcus, Columnaris, etc. This same double 100% water change was performed, only to see the problem return when fish were re-introduced as the pathogen would still be present, even if in much reduced numbers (although the use of a UV Sterilizer improved these results).
Another risk in "too large" of a water change is pH stress if new water alters the pH more than .5 on the logarithmic pH scale. Similar would be oxidative stress from too large a change in Redox.
The above examples are NOT to say that water changes (especially a double 100% water change) do not improve the above situations, it is just that they should not be depended upon to be fail safe. This is especially true after a fish die out, where the better course of action would be to bleach the tank and then re-start your bacterial colonies.
On the flip side, these large changes may be a good start in taking care of a non lethal detritus worm infestation, bacterial cloud, or even after certain methods of fishless cycling where being 100% certain is either not necessary or less of a concern.
I recommend two filters for redundancy, and I never totally throw out all media, rather I rinse part of the filter media in used aquarium water so as to preserve beneficial (aerobic) bacteria for proper biological filtration (ammonia and nitrite removal). Sponge Pre Filters are a great addition to HOB filters in particular they improve bio filtration, especially during filter media changes.
Keep in mind that the primary function of filters is to remove waste mechanically and biologically (& possibly chemically as well). If your filter is not performing these basic tasks, you need to change or improve your filters.
Circulation goes hand in hand with filtration and often with more than one filter you will achieve good circulation and gas exchange (oxygen/CO2). Many power heads have aeration adapters that can improve this surface gas exchange further.
An air stone coupled with an air pump can also improve circulation (vertical in particular) and even some filtration via water movement in the aquarium that bathes aerobic bacteria that often cling to surface areas or in the case of live rock in marine aquariums simple water movement actually performs considerable filtration when properly applied by moving water around the live rock (please see the above filtration article).
Good circulation coupled with good filtration is important for maintaining dissolved oxygen levels between 5-7 ppm and will allow for better bio filtration and a more balanced Redox Potential as well.
One question I am often asked is “Can I have too much Filtration”, the answer is yes, however let me qualify this answer; as many Reef Keepers can attest to, if your aquarium has multiple aerobic bio filters or even mechanical filters that trap organic debris but are not cleaned/changed often your tank can become what is commonly called a “Nitrate Factory”. Although high nitrates are not as important a factor for many tropical fish (long term exposure is still harmful though), high nitrates over 20 ppm or even less are harmful to many delicate reef inhabitants.
So the point is to counter your aerobic bio filtration (which removes ammonia & nitrites but results in ever increasing nitrates) with water changes, use of micron cleaning filters, live plants such as Hornwort, products such as Purigen or Matrix, de-nitrifying filter methods such as the use of live rock crumbles (marine tanks only), volcanic rock or similar that allows for anaerobic de-nitrification while not producing Hydrogen Sulfides.
Please see this article for more about Nitrate reduction including methods specific to marine or freshwater aquariums: “Aquarium Nitrates”
If you have a bowl, this task is more difficult although it most bowls over 1 gallon utilize a Hydro Sponge #1 Filter, as well regular water changes are important (in a bowl I recommend approximately a 2/3 water change) and the addition of products such as Wonder Shells to aid in water quality in between water changes is important.
 Use ultra violet sterilization:
UV sterilizers prevent many bacterial, fungal, and protozoa diseases. In addition they help with oxidation properties (Redox Potential) of the water and in so doing, water clarity & fish immunity.
This "tool" is NOT essential HOWEVER UV Sterilization is one more piece of the disease prevention puzzle. I would also state that some of the statements that UV Sterilizers are useless are FALSE and NOT based on any real scientific evidence, as they DO help for all fish (in fact my studies with goldfish showed marked health improvement). Simply put, if you can afford one you SHOULD have one as part of your aquarium equipment.
Many quality UV sterilizers are not all that expensive especially when the cost of your fish, your time, and often the medications that may not be used are considered (which can easily cost more than the UV Sterilizer). For example the good quality Terminator 5 Watt UV Sterilizer is $59.99 as of the writing of this article.
If a top notch UV Sterilizer is desired, the TMC Vecton or Advantage are second to none and are worth every penny of the approximate $125 and up these UVs cost.
Another point to the use of UV Sterilizers is proper maintenance; often aquarium keepers install a UV Sterilizer and then forget about this device, however it is important to change your UV-C Bulb every six months for optimum performance!
Although no one step as outlined here in this article will solve all your aquatic problems, the use a properly installed UV Sterilizer is a one of the more proven steps to a healthy aquarium.
The bottom line as to the use UV Sterilizer, is if you are having constant problems and do not have a properly installed UV Sterilizer for disease prevention and Redox (of which there are many facets of Redox balance from mineral cations to lowering free radicals such as with UV-C), you have NOT done all you can for maintaining a healthy aquarium, and I have years of evidence to support this fact (I would also note that I have noted with clients aquariums over the years that the addition of a UV Sterilizer cut the use of medications in ½, thus saving money here, so if cost is a question, this along with the value of your prize fish is reason enough!)
 Do not over feed! Also feed QUALITY fish foods (not the over hyped brands that dominate the market):
Use quality, aquatic based foods, not foods high in cereal, beef proteins and fats, and soy proteins. Also foods high in unusable amino acids (which make up proteins) add to your nitrogenous wastes which in turn eventually add up to higher nitrates, which although are note a major problem, prolonged exposure to high nitrates will weaken fish and lower disease resistance.
Some good brands: HBH, Ocean Nutrition, Blue Lagoon, Sanyu, Hikari, Spirulina 20, and Omega. Some brands to avoid: Tetra, Hartz.
BTW, many have fed Tetra Foods and raised generations of fish on it, however this is NOT scientific proof that it is quality food; the label and side to side tests are a more accurate measure! Often the fish could have done better yet with another food.
This is probably one of the most important aspects of aquarium disease prevention, along with cleaning/water changes and filtration/circulation, and NOT ONE aspect of Aquarium chemistry should be ignored by a serious aquarist. Unfortunately based on emails, forum questions, and aquarium maintenance "field calls" the one aspect of disease prevention that is most commonly incorrect.
Important parameters include:
• PH; stability is what is most important, Note that ammonia is more toxic at a higher ph (at pH under 6.5, ammonia begins to convert to less toxic ammonium)!
• KH; 50 ppm or higher, depending on the fish kept, much higher in SW, etc. A stable KH maintains pH and an unstable KH is a predictor of an unstable aquarium bio load
• Ammonia; 0 ppm,
• Nitrites; 0 ppm,
• Nitrates; below 40-50 ppm for FW, below 15-20 ppm for SW and even less for Reef),
• Positive mineral ions. A GH of 100-500 ppm (depending on the fish kept) provides the BASE for needed calcium and other important mineral cations for proper osmotic processes and healing from infections and wounds (having a GH over 100 ppm does NOT guarantee positive mineral ions, aka electrolytes are available to fish).
• A Balanced Redox (a water chemistry parameter that more recent research is proving its importance in disease prevention!)
While most aquarium keepers understand the importance of the nitrogen cycle and resulting high ammonia dangers of an aquarium that is not fully cycled (if at all), the importance of Calcium, Magnesium and other positive mineral ions (electrolytes) are an often forgotten component of proper aquarium health, however they are ESSENTIAL TOO! I have little incidence of Dropsy and Swim Bladder infections as well as clearly longer lifespans when these elements were present (along with good feeding practices and regular cleanings). This is an area I cannot stress enough and there is so MUCH research to prove this yet is so often ignored in anecdotal forums such as Yahoo Answers.
Unfortunately since GH test kits do not differentiate between minerals such as calcium that have lost their positive electrical charge and those still positively charged, this is not always a reliable method of discerning this (a GH of 200 ppm may still be lacking the necessary positive mineral ions).
This is why it is important to regularly change water with ionized water (most tap and well water have adequate ionization, while many bottled, RO, DI, and soft water does not), as well the regular addition of minerals via Wonder Shells, Mineral Blocks, AragaMight, SeaChem Replenish or other methods is extremely important. I have personally found that Wonder Shells are the most effective and simplest method to achieve this for freshwater aquariums (I have also used these or similar products for marine aquariums too).
*Please note that an aquarium is a closed environment and you cannot expect even with regular water changes, for mineral cations to not get depleted in this closed environment! This is another aspect many aquarium keepers miss, especially those keeping Amazon River or similar environment fish.
As an example you must realize that the Amazon is constantly supplied with mineral ions from the Andes Mountains that are then quickly depleted by the acidic soft water environment. Bringing this back to an aquarium, if you immediately drive out all positive mineral ions in a mis-guided attempt to duplicate the Amazon environment, your fish will be constantly deprived of these essential mineral ions! This is analogous to a person avoiding all sun and then refusing to take any vitamin D supplements.
As well at a pH of 6.0 or less most all nitrification ceases (even at 6.5 it is minimal), which might be OK in the Amazon or SE Asia body of water, however these natural waters have tributaries and are generally constantly "flushed" (there are exceptions of coarse due to monsoonal flows).
For more information about this, please read these articles (which include links to many research articles to support my claim): “AQUARIUM GH, KH, Ph, MINERAL CATIONS/ELECTROLYTES”.
The section on GH and Calcium in particular is a MUST read for those who truly are interested in preventing disease in their aquarium.
As to pH, many aquarists will spend too much time chasing a “perfect” pH when a STABLE pH is more important (which I can speak to in the 1000s of aquariums I have maintained at different pH and other parameters). I have seen Discus (a fish which comes from waters often under 6.5) breed in aquariums with a pH above 7.5. What is stressful is a pH that is not stable therefore a good KH or acid buffer is important.
What I have found FAR MORE IMPORTANT is electrolytes and calcium (which will also affect a good Redox Potential) present than a so called perfect pH. The discus under my care were much more healthy with a KH of around 50 ppm, a GH around 100 ppm and a Redox Potential around +125 to -200 mV than with a pH under 6.5 (please note that these numbers just given are for discus, for many fish such as livebearers I kept a much higher KH and GH).
*Back to the Nitrogen cycle; High ammonia and nitrite levels make fish extremely susceptible to infection and will eventually kill the fish outright, of which maintaining an environment conducive to a healthy nitrogen cycle is important. This includes being aware of the dangers of certain medications and realizing that low pH environments are not conducive to proper nitrification, although at a pH of 6.7, most "total ammonia" is actually NH4 ammonia, but this can change quickly with a any condition that suddenly spikes one's aquarium pH, including a water change resulting in a sudden and deadly conversion of non toxic NH4 to very toxic NH3! (see the chart found in this article: Aquarium & Pond Test Kits; Ammonia and Ammonium Chart)
Prolonged nitrate levels above 50 ppm will stunt fish growth and lower fish immunity. Nitrates (along with Redox) are not a problems for fish health in the short term as ammonia is, however the statement that nitrates are not poisonous is another aquarium keeping myth. Nitrates over 30 ppm have been shown to kill cephalopods and nitrates over 20 ppm (some studies show even lower) have been shown to cause blue baby syndrome in humans, so why would long term exposure to higher nitrates not be detrimental to fish?
*Although not essential, knowing about Aquarium Redox Balance is another tool for keeping disease free aquarium. The simplest way to look at this is if you have Redox reduction (around +125 to -200 mV), your aquarium water would be like having anti oxidant vitamins in it. I should be noted that if correct cleaning procedures are met (with healthy new water, as not all new water has a balanced Redox), regular mineral cations, and UV Sterilization, your Aquarium Redox is most likely to be fine.
While not easy to understand, more and more studies in human health are showing that properly ionized water with at least a reasonable amount of mineral ions and carbonates will improve immune response and health.
The bottom line is that while many aquarium keepers understand the importance of low ammonia, nitrite levels, many do not understand the importance of mineral ions and a stability of water buffering; I cannot emphasize more that your aquarium will never be 100% if your water parameters are not 100%.
Not to pick on some well intentioned forums, but I have read or have been told of so many anecdotal ideas from the use of Tums, Plaster of Paris, cups of Crushed Coral sand (for FW tanks), that simply are bad science and do not work. When I finally have convinced the service client or person inquiring via email or forums to properly maintain their GH, KH, pH, minerals ions; most often the constant problems ceased.
For whatever reason, improper water management advice seems to run high among Betta keepers (please take this as constructive criticism if you own a Betta or visit a Betta forum), yet once these water parameters are corrected including the use of properly mineralized water, in most instances the health issues decline or cease all together.
Although this is an area where I have incomplete evidence (this does not mean the assumptions are wrong, just not totally proven), it is still an area where one should not short change your fish. I should also note that this IS a proven area when it comes to healthy anemones and coral in marine aquariums and plants in freshwater. The theory (and also as per my more limited tests/observations) is that the wavelengths that are beneficial for many animals such anemones as well as plants benefits fish in proper assimilation of nutrients as well as aiding in an balanced Redox Environment.
This starts with adequate lighting (the watts per gallon suggestion is outdated but still a good starting place) as per watts, lumens per watt and PAR (Photosynthetically Active Radiation). Generally a lamp/light around 6500 Kelvin temperature will provide this (and many lights employed by aquarists do not meet these simple basics). There are inexpensive lights such as these CFL 6400 K aquarium lights which fit a standard incandescent fixture, making these lights an easy alternative to cheap/poor quality lights. Honestly at the price of these previously mention lamps, there is little reason not to have the best lighting for your aquarium possible.
The new T2 lamps/fixtures are an even better alternative, while the Aqua Ray LED Lights are second to known in the light energy produced and how close these lights duplicate natural sunlight.
UPDATE: From Redox Potential; As it Pertains to Aquariums "Recently reviewed and updated tests have also shown the positive benefit of near-infrared to infrared light in the improvement of Redox Reduction and wound healing." Please read this article for MUCH more about correct aquarium lighting: “Aquarium Lighting Information” (This is a complex subject that is best understood in full, so I recommend reading the article in its entirety when possible.)
I will also add as to lighting, although this is not as important a piece of the fish health puzzle as say Aquarium Cleaning/water changes, it is still a part especially when view as how many aspects of life can be traced back to the sun, even if indirectly. As well this new evidence as per the Aquarium Redox and wound healing further proves the importance of CORRECT lighting for fish only aquariums.
 Too Much Care
This section may sound ridiculous, however in both (admittedly anecdotal) observations of customers who took care of their own aquariums and my own my scientific tests of service clients aquariums I have noted that when a tank is “over cared for” that the end result is a more problematic aquarium.
What I mean by this statement are these points where both in tests and observations can have detrimental effect on an aquarium environment:
• Chasing pH: Often aquarists purchase products such as pH down or even use products such as Baking Soda which may be temporarily OK for pH adjustment, however the end result is often a pH that bounces around as much as .5 to 1 point on the pH scale. This constant change in pH is actually more dangerous than the actual pH since the pH scale is logarithmic and a 1 point change in pH is a tenfold increase or decrease in actual pH.
Better is establishing a stable KH and GH via products such as Wonder Shells for GH and SeaChem Buffer for KH (there are other satisfactory products as well). Even in soft water aquaria, the use of blended RO water may be helpful in keeping a stable pH.
• Too large a water change: often aquarists will over worry about certain aspects of their aquarium such as nitrates or simply by seeing what is perceived as too much “dirt” and end up changing copious amounts of water such as 80% changes that can be disruptive to aquarium chemistry often resulting in fish stress.
Also washing gravel, washing all filter media in tap water (or completely changing all filter media/cartridges) or similar procedures (such as removing everything to clean aquariums) so as to have a sterile environment will result in a tank never fully cycling which is very dangerous for long term fish health.
• Following varying and different advice from others that often does not agree with the real science behind what is outlined here. Unfortunately the internet (& many chain pet stores) is flooded with anecdotal advice, forums, articles that regurgitate the same tired information that has been around often for decades that has no basis in modern science.
• Over medicating; this can be especially problematic with some antibiotics that are primarily gram positive such as Erythromycin (found in Maracyn) as this can also severely disrupt your nitrogen cycle.
There is nothing wrong with treating a sick fish tank, especially when the entire tank is sick or likely will be, however choose medications wisely and do not continue to pump medications for every problem you might perceive. A medicated bath or dip may often be a better answer (or a hospital tank) over constant medication.
• Simply having your hands in the tank constantly; This is a more anecdotal statement, however I have observed that my customers that constantly had there hands in the tank “messing with things” would often encounter more problems. This may be from stress to the fish, oils or other substances form ones hands and arms or simply disruption of the environment in unseen ways.
The bottom line is with the exception of my last comment, I have seen and tested differences in fish health, Redox, water parameters, and more when tanks are “over managed”. Even the last comment has validity even if less testable, so this too should be avoided.
Do not over medicate or under medicate, then change water (preferably before each treatment too).
Another point is a that often a weak, old, or constantly stressed fish (such a Mbuna Cichlid that is at the bottom of the “pecking order” that is constantly harassed), will often be a starting point for opportunistic infections and as hard as it may be to do, removal of these fish which includes putting the fish down (out of his/her misery) is often albeit sadly a must do!
Also note that all the medication in the world will not help if you have not followed the above steps and keep good water conditions.
Here are a Medications/ Treatments that SHOULD be kept on hand BEFORE you need them in an Emergency:
• Pimafix; an excellent albeit mild herbal gram negative anti bacterial and anti fungal for early stage treatment (generally not full blown diseases).
Melafix is the cousin treatment to Pimafix which is more gram positive and generally less effective, however it is still useful to have on hand to combine with Pimafix or to treat just by itself usually in the case of fish injuries or ulcers, especially in pond fish (Melafix works well as a treatment used like you would Neosporin for a wound in humans, except that Melafix is used in the water).
• Medicated Wonder Shells; excellent for prevention of many external parasites such as Ich and velvet, these are also useful for fungus/Saprolegnia.
This product is especially when introducing new fish or for sensitive fish such as Discus (which also often suffer from lack of many minerals that this product also provides). Wonder Shells also come in bowl size.
It is also noteworthy, the use of Regular Wonder Shells (even if not used on a regular basis) be included during any treatment since Wonder Shells are a proven way to increase essential mineral cations that fish need even more during times of stress or disease.
• Quick Cure; one of the strongest anti parasitic treatments available.
OR ParaGuard makes an excellent substitute for more sensitive fish and more recent tests have shown this to be one of the more effective Ich/external parasite treatments available today, although Quick Cure is generally better for Costia.
• Kanamycin ( Kanaplex); a very effective gram negative antibiotic, can be combined with Nitrofurazone or Metronidazole
• Metronidazole; unique anti parasite (including internal) and bacterial properties (especially internal).
• Nitrofurazone (Furan Two); excellent for lower ph applications and more gram positive bacteria application.
• Triple Sulfa; Great for collapsed or torn fins as well a strongly recommended back up to Ich Treatments such as Quick Cure for common secondary infections. Also an excellent standby if others such as Kanamycin fail for diseases such as Columnaris
• Sodium Chloride (plain salt) and Epsom Salts; Sodium chloride will help with osmotic function in your display aquarium and Epsom salts (best used in a hospital tank) are also helpful for improving osmotic function (in diseases such as Dropsy.
• It is also noteworthy that Neosporin or similar (such as Generic Triple Antibiotic Ointments) can be used to directly rub onto fish wounds provided this can be done without adding more injury to the fish.
• Neomycin is a “maybe” medication to keep on hand, I find its uses a little more limited, however it can be very useful for diseases of the digestive tract due to some of its properties.
This cannot be emphasized more, yet is quite simple, if you continue to have problems with a current source from your fish, try another (maybe you can get a good recommendation from a friend, etc.) If you find a good source, stick with it, even if the price is higher.
This is one of the more basic points in disease prevention/aquarium success, yet is one I have found many aquarium keepers constantly ignore.
 When you purchase fish (Quarantine, baths, dips);
This is also an important step that both retailers and retail buyers of fish often miss the importance there-of.
The quarantine or at least bath/dip method of acclimation can prevent the many ectoparasites that are often present on fish brought in by retailers from large fish farms. This includes Ich, Monogeneans & Trematode Flukes & many more. There is also often a high incidence of internal parasites such as many Nematodes (worms) found in imported fish from these large fish farms. These are more difficult to prevent, although medicated diets (such as those containing Metronidazole) can be effective, as well medicated baths (with salt, Metronidazole, Methylene Blue) can help somewhat as well.
Whether simple acclimation or more advanced acclimation is used, this process is important even if your source for fish were 100% disease free (which none is), as the stress of pH changes, ammonia build up in the shipping bag, and more can causes stresses that add considerably to the chances your new fish will come down with a disease, OR WORSE; become ground zero for a new disease outbreak that infects your entire tank!
The point is, this is an important step of aquarium disease prevention and should NEVER be ignored!
*First make sure all the fish in the aquarium are healthy (if the fish store has a centralized system [which I do not recommend, but most do nowadays], check ALL the aquariums).
*Second, float your fish in the bag for 30-60 minutes for temperature and osmotic stabilization, then open the bag and SLOWLY add your aquarium water to the bag, a little at a time during this time period.
*Third, I also like to add a drop or two of Methylene Blue at this time (Methylene Blue is very difficult to overdose, so exact amounts are not as important as other medications/treatments). Metronidazole or ParaGuard can be added during this acclimation time (Metronidazole can be safely double dosed for this short time, however ParaGuard should be used at normal dose or only half dose for sensitive fish.)
*Forth, dispose of the water in the bag to avoid contamination. Fourth, add a shock preventative that adds electrolytes like Start Right, Prime, Stress Coat, etc.
*Fifth, if a quarantine tank is not used (as is often this is not possible for most aquarium keepers), the use of a preventative treatment in the display tank after adding the new fish is advisable. The Medicated Wonder Shell is very useful for this; however the use of half doses of ParaGuard, Quick Cure, or similar products can also be helpful (although not quite as wide spectrum)
Additional Marine Fish Acclimation Info:
*Besides the above, I ALWAYS at minimum provide a 3-5 minute pure freshwater dip (acclimated with marine buffers to the correct pH/KH to prevent stress)
This is 90% effective for prevention of Cryptocaryon and Oodinium.
Consider the more advanced quarantine below.
Better or for fish shipped over longer time periods (such as fish purchased on line or from overseas breeders, etc.)
You need to be even more careful in the acclimation process. Depending on the care given to the fish you are receiving (whether fresh or saltwater), this can take up to a few hours. The usual problems for fish that have spent more than 4 hours in shipping is ammonia/nitrite toxicity and CO2 buildup which results in much lower pH than the water originally shipped in. Once the shipping bag is opened there will be “gassing out” of CO2 resulting in rapid increases in pH which can stress or even kill fish that are already stressed very quickly.
To address this, the shipping bag should only be opened just enough to allow a drip tube so as to slowly drip water from the display (or whatever aquarium will be receiving the new fish) at a rate of a drop every few seconds. I usually place the bag in a tub of aquarium water so as to slowly temperature adjust and allow for gravity dripping of the water (I use an airline valve to adjust the drip). I will also add a dose of Methylene Blue as per water volume for ammonia/nitrite toxicity (brown blood syndrome) to the water during this slow acclimation time.
Obviously time in shipment, amount of food in the fish’ gut at time of shipment, amount of fish and air in the bag will all affect how stressed the fish will be upon arrival especially as per CO2, ammonia/nitrites.
I should note that Kordon makes a “breathable” shipping bag that has quite an internet “buzz” going, however my interviews with several international shippers gives a mostly thumbs down to this product.
Here are a few points (+ or -) about this bag:
+ The bags allow oxygen and CO2 exchange which also lowers pH shock upon arrival.
+ Lowers size of shipping container as NO air needs to be added to the bag.
- The bags rupture easily; many shippers have told me that bag ruptures are triple normal.
- They still do not aid with ammonia/nitrites
- If bags come in contact with each other, they do not work well and packing them for the inevitable rough handling of shipping is nearly impossible or at least very time consuming.
- The bags do poorly with multiple fish per bag, in part because the bags are designed to hold small amounts of water so that fish can come close to the sides of the bags which multiple fish per bags usually does not allow.
- Higher cost.
- The bottom line is that the shippers I asked reported HIGHER losses with these bags.
Do not get me wrong, I think these are a unique idea, especially for smaller individual shipments, however based on my discussions with real world shippers that do not work well.
Quarantine or Hospital Tanks
If possible a quarantine or baths are good disease transfer preventative steps.
For a quarantine tank I recommend as large and aquarium as space allows for this, generally at least a 10 gallon (although this is not always possible and even a sterile 5 gallon bucket can work if need be).
Having this tank running constantly OR at least adding aged filter media is very important so as to not have ammonia spikes that will defeat the purpose of quarantine. I recommend a bare tank with a seasoned Sponge Filter . A saltwater quarantine tank for prevention or treatment may be set using live rock and an air stone for bio filtration.
It is important to note that when quarantine tanks/hospital tanks are employed that I have aquarists inadvertently cause more stress using this quarantine/hospital due to high ammonia/nitrite levels which is why I strongly recommend keeping a running sponge filter or similar for your quarantine/hospital tank. Simply moving a seasoned sponge filters or a piece or two of live rock from your display tank (for saltwater) is often all is required. If Methylene Blue is used, this may temporarily destroy your bacteria in you bio filter or live rock, however this is still a minor price to pay so as to not add further stress from high ammonia/nitrites, especially when the quarantine lasts more than 48 hours.
For treatment I recommend a Medicated Wonder Shell OR (not “and”) Methylene Blue combined with a Malachite Green products such as ParaGuard . Monitor ammonia and other parameters (make sure there are no pH swings) while the fish are in quarantine. Generally if your fish come from a good source 48 hours is enough, however up to a week may be needed.
Metronidazole can be added to either the MB/ParaGuard method or Wonder Shell for added Trematode, Nematode, Monogenean Parasite prevention.
Finally, it is important to cover this quarantine or hospital tank with a towel or similar so as to keep in near total darkness. What this achieves is to calm fish, lowering stress which in fact speeds recovery and/or allows for better disease prevention of new fish arrivals in quarantine.
I also have a theory as to why keeping a hospital tank in the dark often helps considerably (sometimes even main display aquarium); Fish instinctually hide and get stressed for their own fear of being harmed or even killed by other aquatic inhabitants. This then causes fish to often get even more sick from this stress. By calming the fish, both the medications and the fish' own natural defenses can work together for a more quick recovery or sometimes recovery itself when just using medications fails.
Often a quarantine tank is not possible or practical (as in my aquarium maintenance business). This is where a 30-45 minute bath is very useful for BOTH freshwater and saltwater. I would make sure to adjust pH so that there is no pH shock, especially for saltwater fish.
A bath can be performed in as little as 1 quart of water (or even less) or in a 1 gallon Rubbermaid (or similar) container or a small BARE tank (not gravel, décor though). I generally use a 1 quart pitcher with ½ teaspoon of salt and several drops of MB (I also recommend rubber gloves and old towels, rags, paper, etc spread around since Methylene Blue is messy and stains).
For freshwater I would add Methylene Blue at double normal tank treatment strength (as per bottle instructions) then add salt (NaCl) at about 1 teaspoon per gallon (Epsom Salts can also be uses at 1/4 teaspoon per gallon in baths used for treatment, especially in cases of bloat, water retention, selling, etc.)
The salt (regular salt; NaCl) can be increased for difficult treatments, especially with salt tolerant fish such as livebearers (it is best to slowly add dissolved salt to increase levels gently in salt amounts over 3 teaspoons per gallon, even in salt tolerant fish). Generally for most fish (even catfish based on University of Florida studies) 2 teaspoons per gallon can be tolerated for up to 30 minutes (many fish can tolerate 4 teaspoons per gallon), although if unsure about your fish’ tolerance, gradually add the salt via a dissolved solution during the first half of the bath.
A few more tips:
• I also recommend keeping the “bath” container in a location that does not allow the temperature to drop more than 2 degrees during this time so as to prevent shock when transferred back to the holding/display tank.
• If at all possible I recommend keeping the fish that are being given baths in a Breeder Net Box (see picture) or similar in the tank or in another filtered bare tank so as to make capture easy and less stressful for both you and the fish (if too much stress is incurred capturing the fish for each bath, this can negate the positive effects of the bath).
• ALL baths should start with water from the fish’ holding tanks water, so as to avoid pH and temperature shock. As well, ALL baths should have fresh Methylene Blue, salt & other medications if used, otherwise many medications can and will degrade and be less effective or even toxic in some cases. The bottom line here is to throw away all bath water after completion of each and every bath.
• Although most bottles of Methylene Blue do not come with a dropper any more, I recommend finding a dropper that will fit the bottle or use an eye dropper so as to limit MB stains/mess.
• I generally do not recommend baths for larger fish (unless you are sure of your fish handling abilities), such as over 6-8 inches (15- 20 cm.), as often handling of these fish can be difficult and cause quite a mess. As well larger fish can be more easily injured due to the difficulty in handling them.
However, if a larger fish is in poor condition and question arises that the fish is already in a severely weakened condition, a bath or better, a dip may be attempted (see below for more about “dips”)
Potassium Permanganate can be substituted for Methylene Blue for treatment baths for ailments such as Flukes, cloudy eyes, & some parasite and bacterial infections. HOWEVER for "pure" preventative baths, ammonia poisoning or unknown problems, Methylene Blue is by far the better choice.
Another key point is that Methylene Blue can quite SAFELY be overdosed as it takes high amounts with long term exposure to be toxic, while Potassium Permanganate should never be overdosed.
For saltwater I would add Methylene Blue at double normal tank treatment strength the Dilute the saltwater to 1.015 to 1.009, making sure your pH stays up by adding any buffers necessary before adding fish (1.009 is a must for Cryptocaryon prevention/removal). The purpose of adding or lowering salt (whether SW or FW) is to change osmotic pressure which is an aid to parasite removal as most parasites such as Ich or Cryptocaryon cannot tolerate these changes as well as fish.
Medications in Baths; Another options to baths is (IN ADDITION to the salts and Methylene Blue, but NOT combined with Potassium Permanganate), you can safely add many antibiotics at double normal recommended dose for the 30 minute bath, this can both increase the effectiveness of the bath and the antibiotic added.
Medications that generally are good choices for baths are;
* Metronidazole which is s good choice for intestinal infections since it is not readily absorbed through the intestines.
* Kanaplex OR Minocyline for Columnaris, Dropsy.
* Nitrofurazone for Aeromonas or Furunculosis
* Usnea is an experimental alternative that has similar properties to Metronidazole and can also be effective for some viruses and possibly tumors. I use about 1 tablespoon per 6 oz. preparation for a 1 quart bath.
We now have Fish Bath Video, please scroll to the bottom of the page to view
Dips and similar
For known problems (or sometimes as a preventative for new fish from questionable sources) a 5 minute dip is even more effective (albeit more stressful to the fish). In a dip, I again adjust pH and add Methylene Blue, however in the case of the marine fish, I will use a specific gravity of 1.001 for the saltwater fish and a specific gravity of 1.015 for the freshwater fish. This dip should be no less than 3 minutes and no more than 5 minutes to be effective.
A dip is often a better choice than a bath for a large or otherwise “spastic” fish due to the much shorter duration. As well a dip, albeit much more harsh than a bath (when used as described), may be a better choice for a very ill fish that may be “at deaths door” and the risks of a dip are low when compared to the fact of the probable imminent death of the fish. A dip is also a good choice for problems that stem from fluid build-up and poor osmotic function, such as many causes of “Pop-Eye”.
*Another similar idea is to directly drop or “paint” with a Q-Tip (or similar implement) Methylene Blue, Potassium Permanganate, or Hydrogen Peroxide onto a problem area such as Saprolegnia/fungus, Columnaris, or similar. This can be VERY effective for stubborn external infected areas on a fish.
Potassium Permanganate & Hydrogen Peroxide are generally more effective for the above noted infections.
For an expanded article about Fish Baths & Dips, please see this article/post from Aquarium Answers: Fish Baths/Dips
-for supplemental (& even primary) treatment of Bacterial infections, wounds, sores, Fungus (Saprolegnia), parasite infestations & more
A FEW HELPFUL CONVERSIONS
(use accurate teaspoons, not silverware):
*Teaspoon = 4.929 mL
*Tablespoon = .5 fl. oz. = 14.787 mL
*For mixing salt for a dip; 1/2 dry cup will make a specific gravity of about 1.023- 1.025; For 1.015 specific gravity for a dip, use approximately 1/3 dry cup.
 Aquarium Sterilization (Using Bleach or Salt);
Sometimes it becomes necessary to sterilize an aquarium after a disease or storage. Assuming you have not stored any chemicals nearby (especially with acrylic tanks which tend to absorb more).
All you need to do to sterilize an aquarium for use is to clean it with a saltwater solution (about 1.035 specific gravity or about 2/3 cup salt per us gallon). You can let it sit for a few days or just rinse out your tank after about 30 minutes with freshwater. For marine tanks, let the tank sit for about 30 minutes with freshwater first. This is effective for cases of restarting an aquarium after storage or uncertain water conditions.
Bleach (household bleach):
In cases where parasites, bacteria, or other unknown pathogens have ravaged your aquarium (major disease outbreaks that have wiped out a tank), the above salt method may not be enough and use of chlorine/bleach sterilization (usually at an approximate ratio of 20/1; water/bleach). Many disease pathogens capable of encasing themselves in a hard shell which is capable of withstanding changes in temperature, drying, high or low salt (which is why the salt method is NOT 100%), acids, bases, and other conditions that occur in nature, for which chlorine/bleach is the only sure way of ridding your aquarium of these bugs.
I recommend running the tank, ALL filters, décor WITH this bleach solution for 24-48 hours (make sure ALL carbon and other chemical absorbents such resins are removed). This may create quite a foam up, especially if you have a lot of organics in your aquarium, so do not be alarmed by this.
When you use bleach, make sure to use a de-chlorinator such as Start Right and rinse VERY well chlorine breaks down rapidly and the sun can also be employed for bleach removal)
You can also use chlorine bleach (no perfumes) to clean rocks, ornaments prior to introduction to your aquarium or simply to disinfect or clean. Contrary to some online urban myths, this is perfectly safe as long as you leave it either in the sun for a few days or what I and my other Professional Aquarium Maintenance colleagues do; soak them in rinse water that contains a de-chlorinator that contains Sodium Thiosulfate or complexed hydrosulfite salts (such as Prime).
I have only used and tested this method a few times, so I cannot provide as good of information as I did with the previous methods (my tests were more anecdotal than controlled).
What I will say is than from my observations this method is the least effective of the three (again this is based on observations, not controlled tests). As well make sue to neutralize the vinegar with baking soda after finishing the sterilization process so as to not leave residual vinegar that although not nearly as harmful as bleach (which bleach is Very easy to neutralize with most common aquarium water conditioners), residual vinegar can still alter chemistry if it slowly leaches out from seams of the aquarium, and this can result in dangerous pH drops, especially in tanks with low buffers (KH).
Without trying to sound too modest, I rarely had outbreaks of even common diseases such as Ich in the 100s of aquariums in my care (discounting my LFS quarantine system), as I was VERY careful to take EVERY step in preventative care which includes the right water parameters for the fish kept (such as a KH of 50 + and GH of 100+ for general aquariums and 240 + for livebearers), regular and PROPER water changes (proper meaning good vacuuming procedures even in “live sand” of reef tanks that many say should not be performed, the key is the correct way), good feeding practices with a varied and healthy diet, and finally the use of properly installed well made UV Sterilizers (not the cheap UVs sold by many internet retailers for $40).
Keep in mind that just because someone states that they have raised many fish in a certain way using a certain procedure that is not scientifically based, does not make it so, especially if this aquarist performs most other aquatic husbandry procedures to the best known scientific standards, these will often over ride the one or two poor procedures. Water changes is an area where I have observed most aquarists doing this well, and being a very important procedure, this can help cover the poor or left out procedures such as poor diet, lack of proper mineralization or even non-essential procedures that are still very useful such as UV Sterilization. But why leave out other good procedures, especially when they are within your budget?
A little background (from “Aquarium Information”); when I first started writing these articles for the internet (something many of my clients asked for years), I made them VERY basic. My early feedback was rather harsh as many said it was "nothing special", then some who knew me better said that although they were still better than many in content due to less anecdotal information, they did not come close to the delivering the information they knew I could and that my constant research should be reflected. Many experts in SEO told me similar as well. So now, although some of the articles are still more basic and not all that unique, many however will have well researched information you will not find elsewhere in one location and this information is only best understood when read in full.
I will make my point as to why I feel it is so important that these articles and their links/resources be read in full and not in snips which can result in anecdotal or poor information dissemination;
"In the 1980s I was mentored by an Endocrinologist (MD) whom was also an avid fish keeper (mostly marine). He helped me much understand the ins and outs of medications and one time gave me an in depth medical article that he though had useful information that could be applied to fish as well. Much of the information was not readily easy to understand for me, so I skipped over many sections and gleaned the points I wanted.
Later I was making some points to the Dr. and he stopped me and said I was incorrect and if I had read the article in full, to which I replied, 'no'. He then said that there is no way I could understand this article without reading it in full and applying ALL the information contained there in".
My point is, often it is easy and unfortunately ALL too common in this hobby to read just what we want, and many web sites (such as about.com) are good at satisfying this basically lazy desire (of which I too have been guilty of), however this often leads to poor understandings of the subject or worse.
Another point for those who stick to the closely held anecdotal beliefs that so badly permeate the aquarium keeping hobby rather than read researched articles such as these here or at Aquarium/Pond Answers, is best summed up by another Mentor of mine, (Reggie) at an aquarium supply wholesaler that finished his business career there (after most of his decades of business in different industries specializing in making poorly managed businesses successful again) told me this:
"I have never seen a more dishonest and back stabbing business than the Aquarium industry".
His point was about how often he found persons in this business/hobby would outright lie or simply ignore new/good science to either make a sale or not give up their tightly held anecdotal beliefs.
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