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Aquarium First Aid: Warning Signs, Diagnosis, and Treatment
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
Nutrition, Anatomy, and Health
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Many situations can arise in an aquarium that demands immediate attention from the hobbyist in order to protect the fish and invertebrates that are housed within. Described here are warning signs of an emergency, the equipment you should have to determine what the problem is, and equipment necessary to correct it.

Warning signs

Fish behavior
The behavior of the fish should be your first indication of problems within the aquarium. Some of the signs to watch for include:

  • Livestock losses
  • Rapid breathing
  • Irregular movements
  • Color loss
  • Unusual markings or growths
  • Fish stop eating

Environmental changes
Changes in the general appearance of the aquarium can also be an indication of water problems. Some of the typical signs related to imbalances in water chemistry include:

  • Poor expansion in corals and invertebrates
  • Poor growth or death of plants
  • Cloudy water
  • Water with a strong smell
  • Increased algae growth

Equipment to determine the problem

Test kits
A quality test kit should always be on hand and should include tests for ammonia, nitrite, pH, nitrates, phosphates, and a hydrometer if it is a saltwater aquarium.

The following is a general guideline to the problems that the different water parameters can cause in the aquarium along with a solution. Compare the warning signs that your aquarium exhibits to the following, and test those parameters to determine if they are the culprit.

Ammonia and nitrite: Excess amounts of either of these nutrients can be responsible for all the signs listed above. If toxic levels of either are present, perform 25% water changes daily until the values return to zero, and incorporate a chemical ammonia neutralizing media into the filtration.

pH: The pH of the aquarium water can be responsible for all the signs listed above. If abnormal, perform a 25% water change and add the necessary pH buffers.

Nitrates: Excess nitrates in the aquarium will lead to excessive algae growth as well as health problems with the fish at high levels. Perform 25% water changes with nitrate free water weekly, and incorporate a nitrate reducing chemical media into the filtration.

Phosphates: Phosphates encourage algae growth, cyanobacteria in saltwater, as well as inhibiting the calcification process within corals and coralline algae. Perform 25% water changes with phosphate free water weekly, and incorporate a phosphate adsorbing media into the filtration.

Equipment to correct the problem

Water changing equipment
Keep on hand all of the equipment that you need to perform a water change. This equipment should include:

  • Siphon hose
  • Buckets or garbage cans large enough to hold at least 25% of the aquarium's water capacity
  • Power head or air pump, for aerating the make-up water
  • Heater and thermometer, for make-up water
  • Dechlorinator, if using tap water, and salt for a saltwater aquarium

Chemical medias
The following chemical medias are useful in both emergency situations, as well as general maintenance:

  • Ammonia neutralizing medias
  • Activated carbon or organic removing resin
  • Phosphate and nitrate adsorbing media
  • Toxic metal or copper remover
  • Appropriate pH buffer and spare media bags

Hospital aquarium
A hospital aquarium is a separate aquarium that is much smaller than the main aquarium, and used to medicate ill fish, and for quarantining new fish before acclimating them to the main display. One of the Eclipse systems ranging in size from 2 gallons up to 12 is an excellent option. This system will need to have a heater and thermometer, preferably a dark colored gravel, and some form of shelter for reducing stress on the fish.

Medication
If any of the fish in the aquarium show signs of disease, it is important to transfer them to the hospital aquarium. In the event that illness should become evident in the aquarium, having a broad range of treatments on hand will help save valuable time in combating the illness. The medications that we suggest for emergencies are:

  • Furanase
  • Erythromycin
  • Copper

If copper is used, you will also need a copper test kit to monitor the levels within the hospital aquarium.


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