Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make – #5

The #5 Mistake – Not Understanding Filtration

Mastering the ins and outs of filtration in aquatic systems can seem a daunting task for new owners, but we’re going to make it SO EASY!! To start out, there are three types of filtration going on in your fish system:

  • Mechanical (floss, sponges, pads) – These components remove particulate from your aquarium. They need to be cleaned regularly to maintain water flow rates throughout your aquarium.
  • Biological (bioballs, ceramic media, strapping, floss, sponges, media bed) – These provide housing for your good bacteria that keep your nitrogen cycle running smoothly. They need to be cleaned carefully so you do not remove too many of them.
  • Chemical (UV, carbon) – These components change the action of particulates in your water. UV lights kill algae and carbon will alter any chemical treatments added to your tank. UV light has NO EFFECT on bacteria or parasites living on your fish.

When you clean your tank, understanding what each part does will illustrate how to clean it. Mechanical filtration can be cleaned fairly thoroughly. Chemical filter components need to be replaced regularly for proper function. Biological filtration needs to be cleaned with old tank water and not until sparkling! 

Watch our video on how to properly clean your fish tank and media.

Combo Filters

These filters come with a combination of filtration types, usually sponges (mechanical/biological), carbon (chemical) and zeolite (chemical – ammonia scrubber). You do not have to use all of the components! Our office just uses the sponges; carbon is not necessary and an ammonia-scrubber isn’t needed for established, well-maintained systems.

Floss Cartridges

These are the most useless filters in the aquarium hobby. They are not meant to last and hemorrhage money. Switch them out for a sturdy sponge that you DO NOT need to replace every month. Only replace your filtration when it is about to fall apart.

Pressurized Filter

This is the most common type of filtration used on outdoor fish ponds. These units contain many small plastic beads used to house good bacteria for ammonia conversion. They need to be backwashed on a weekly basis to make sure the media is not compacted. Once compacted, these units need to be cracked open and cleaned.

To keep your fish happy and healthy, it is important that you do your maintenance regularly! Here’s a handy checklist to make sure you do everything on a regular basis: For Fish Tanks and For Koi Ponds

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Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make – #7

The #7 Mistake – Feeding Your Fish Too Much

One of the more common “healthy” pet issues we see in all of veterinary medicine is obesity, and fish are no exception. They may have better control than your golden retriever, but overfeeding your fish can have more severe consequences than just rounder fish.

Unfortunately, there is no absolute calculation to tell you how much to feed your fish. It depends on their species, temperature, water quality, other stressors, the type of food, formulation and current disease processes. For cats and dogs, it all depends on body size and life stage. If you take any bag of cat or dog food and look at the back, it will tell you what life stage the food is intended for and what amount to feed for body weight. (This assumes that your pet is the correct weight for the body type and structure.) But when was the last time you weighed your pet fish? Fish should be fed based on body size, but we know this is an impossible task for most owners. Thankfully, fish are pretty good at determining when they are full. A bigger problem is what happens when there is too much food in the tank.

So what should I do to ensure my fish are not overfed? We recommend using the 5-Minute Method. It is very simple:

  1. Sprinkle a little bit of food into your tank. We recommend mixing it close to the filter return so all fish can get a fair share.
  2. When all the food is eaten, sprinkle a little bit more. If the food is not completely consumed, WAIT.
  3. Continue for 5 minutes or until the fish stop eating.

NOTE: Some species, like betta fish, are not great at regulating their intake. Keep in mind that their stomachs are about the same size as their eyeballs. Only a few pellets once or twice a day is adequate!

Why does this method work?

The biggest problem with overfeeding a fish tank is not just fat fish, but increased stress on your biological filtration. The breakdown of fish food, since it contains a lot of protein, causes an increase in the ammonia levels in your tank. Using this method makes sure that the food ends up in the fish, not the bottom of their tank. If you’re unfamiliar with ammonia and the nitrogen cycle, read this explanation.

For more information on fish food in general, watch our webinar.

Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make #9

The #9 Mistake – Adding Fish Too Early

You have a plan, you got your tank and all the additional items, so it’s time to add the fish! But how many fish do you add? In what order do you add them? In the beginning, your biggest hurdle will be establishing your nitrogen cycle. This cycle is made up of commensal bacteria living in your substrate and biological filtration media (sponges, matting, bio balls, ceramic cubes etc). These helpful bacteria convert the primary fish waste of ammonia into nitrite and from there into nitrate. Ammonia and nitrite are highly toxic to fish, and can cause lethargy, loss of appetite and death.

When a tank is brand new, the bacteria have not been colonized. There are many commercial starters promising to “instantly start” your tank, but they are the aquatic equivalent to snake oil. Our office tested over half a dozen of these products with no decrease in time to conversion. You do NOT need to add these products to your tank, they will come with the fish; they just take time to become established. It will take 4-6 weeks for your tank to go through all the necessary steps to become established. If you follow your tank’s progression with your water quality testing kit, you will yield a graph like this:

You will see spikes in ammonia, nitrite and then nitrate. When you see this DO NOT PANIC. It is a normal occurrence in EVERY new fish tank. It is called “New Tank Syndrome” and there is no way around it unless you have another established tank with similar water parameter requirements that you can steal some filter media from.

The best way to combat New Tank Syndrome and avoid crashing your tank with a major ammonia spike is by starting with just a few fish in your new tank. Start with one or two goldfish or 3-4 tropicals, like zebrafish or tetras, before your tank is established. Slowly increase your fish levels from there and you will never have an issue.

Be patient! It is extra work, but I guarantee by following these steps, you will not lose a fish from New Tank Syndrome. Buy a test kit, know how to use it and don’t panic when those spikes hit. By having fewer fish in a larger volume of water, you will produce a smaller, more tolerable spike, keeping your fish alive.

New Tank Syndrome

New Tank Syndrome

When you set up a new fish tank for the first time, there are a few things you can expect to happen.

With a brand new filter, your nitrogen cycle has not been established. It will take 4-6 weeks MINIMUM to start cycling your new tank. There are countless products who claim they can instantly start your cycle, but they DO NOT WORK. We tested many products and only one was able to shorten our cycle by one week.

During those sensitive weeks, your tank will undergo the following spikes in ammonia, nitrite and finally, nitrate, as those bacteria colonies are established. You tank’s temperature and filtration capacity will determine how fast your cycle is established.

As your nitrogen cycle is established, your fish can be in danger of toxic levels of ammonia and nitrite. Therefore, it is essential to keep you bioload low in those first few weeks! Rather than fully stocking your tank from the get-go, start with only a few, hardy fish until your cycle is established. Keep a close eye on your parameters with a water quality test kit. Plot your readings and you will match the graph above.

Ammonia-binding products will prevent this cycle from occurring. Your tank will be stuck in perpetual “new tank” standing. We understand that it can be very scary to see your new tank spike with ammonia, but you cannot get to the end stage without the journey in between. Keep a close eye on your parameters and bioload low in the first 4-6 weeks and you’ll be all set from then on! If you’re really worried, or your fish start to act sickly, do a small water change to decrease the spike. And if you decide to replace your filter media every month, your tank will be continually cycling. So, ignore the box, and invest in a sturdy sponge instead.

Stop Replacing Your Filters!!

Dear Fish Tank Owners,

Please stop replacing your filter media every month.

I know it says to do so on the box! But, guess what? They do that in order to SELL MORE!!

When you take out your old filter media and toss it in the trash, you are discarding all of your good bacteria. These good bacteria maintain your biological filter and keep your nitrogen cycle up and running.

Most of those floss filter pads are designed to fall apart rapidly. Replace your filter media with a sturdy sponge (search “aquarium filter sponge”) and it will last you for several years! In order to keep them clean, squeeze them out gently in your waste water after siphoning your tank.

I know this goes against everything that is printed on the sides of your box of filter media pads, but you have to trust us. We are telling you this in the best interest of your fish and system. Just try it!

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The Nitrogen Cycle

The Nitrogen Cycle

As you may well know, water quality is a significant aspect of pet fish health. Like the air we breathe, the water a fish swims in is directly linked to their overall health. As a fish veterinarian, we routinely test the water our patients swim in for various parameters. We discussed pH and kH previous, so today, let’s look at the nitrogen cycle.

As you may notice, the traditional nitrobacter and nitrosomas bacteria species have been omitted from this diagram. This is due to the fact that there are just SO MANY different bacteria species involved in nitrogen-fixation, that we cannot simply define them in these two genuses.

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In a fish tank, a fish’s primary waste is ammonia. Ammonia is produced by the breakdown of protein, the main staple of most fishes’ diets. Ammonia is excreted out through the urinary tract and gills. Ammonia is highly toxic to fish, causing death and increased secondary illness, so it is converted, through nitrogen-fixing bacteria, into nitrite. Now, nitrite can be just as bad as ammonia. Methemoglobinemia, or “Brown Blood Disease,” is caused by a build-up of nitrite. Nitrite can bind to hemoglobin in the blood and outcompete oxygen. This causes a brown coloration and the fish will asphyxiate from lack of oxygen. Thankfully, more nitrogen-fixing bacteria convert nitrite into the final nitrate. Nitrate is safe for fish at low levels, but at higher levels, and depending on the fish species’ tolerance, can cause the same issues as high ammonia. Nitrate is removed from the system by aquatic plants or water changes.

In established systems (over 2 months old with no new fish or equipment), your ammonia should be ZERO. Most low readings indicate your filtration capacity is inadequate or secondary to overfeeding. The highest reading acceptable on our test kit is 0.1 mg/L. The traditional API freshwater master test kit ranges between 0-0.25, so attaining a 0.1 reading will not occur. Due to the broad range of values, a 0.25 reading may be a false positive (reporting a higher value than what is actually present).

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There are many commercial additives for removing ammonia from your tank prior to the nitrogen cycle. Some can cause ammonia test kits to read falsely high. These additives are short-term solutions that should only be used with significant health issues. They are not a long term maintenance solution. You MUST establish your biological filtration (good bacteria) for long-term fish health. If you have persistent ammonia in your tank, consider the following solutions:

  • Is your filtration adequate? Tanks with higher bioloads (size and number of fish) will require more than standard filtration. When in doubt, always filter more than you should.
  • Are you feeding appropriately? Remember, ammonia is produced from breakdown of protein in a fish’s diet. More food = more ammonia. Check your protein levels! For more information on fish diets, read this.
  • Are you doing lots of water changes? If you are constantly removing ammonia, your nitrogen-fixing bacteria will never become established.
  • Is there ammonia in your source water? Check the level coming out of your tap or well to make sure! You may need to consider another water source.

There are also commercial additives that will “quick start” your nitrogen cycle. Sorry folks, but these are a complete scam. With the exception of one product that slightly shortened the establishment of your nitrogen cycle, it will take 4-6 weeks MINIMUM to get your tank properly cycled. By “cycled,” we mean the establishment of a complete nitrogen cycle with ammonia being converted all the way to nitrate. We recommend starting with very few fish and monitor your ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels carefully!

If you have any more questions about fish and nitrogen cycles, please comment below.

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