Swim Bladder Disease

Other than constipated goldfish, “swim bladder disease” is a very common home diagnosis. Or the more common vernacular, “My fish has swim bladder.”

Well, all fish have swim bladders, so that fact is correct, but it is not a disease. “Swim bladder disease” is most common in goldfish and koi, with a high percentage in fancy varieties of goldfish. For 99% of koi, swim bladder disease is caused by poor water quality. I have had one case of actual swim bladder disease in ONE case, shown below.

For this koi, her swim bladder is full of an sterile, non-cellular fluid. We don’t know why this happened, but it causes her to scoot around on her belly. But this is our ONE case of an actual swim bladder issue in a koi. We have had two instances of koi with tertiary swim bladders, but not causing any clinical signs.

For goldfish, 90% of our “swim bladder” cases are lethargy secondary to poor water quality. Most of our actual swim bladder cases are fancy goldfish with most likely structural deficiencies. We’ve illustrated this point previously with our case on red moor, Huxley. Compare this comet x-ray below…

To these fancy goldfish…

Goldfish are supposed to have a two chambered swim bladder, but due to their anatomy, these fancy varieties have limited space in their coelomic cavities. This sets them up for buoyancy issues from birth.

Goldfish and koi are also physostomous fish, meaning that they inflate their swim bladders by having a pneumatic duct between their esophagus and swim bladder. When they eat at the surface, it encourages air to enter the swim bladder. This is the main reason we see swim bladder issues. Goldfish are voracious eaters and if too much air gets sucked in, they can have positive buoyancy issues.

Fish with negative buoyancy may not have enough room in their body to support a larger swim bladder. However, being negatively buoyant is much safer than positively buoyant. Fish stuck at the surface are prone to air ulcerations where the skin starts to break down by being exposed to long periods of air.

External floats, such as those praised on YouTube, must be designed with the fish’s external surface in mind. Anything that rubs up against the skin will disrupt the protective mucus coat and cause secondary infection. Any float attachment will be TEMPORARY. We only apply them to get fish the surface to naturally inflate their swim bladder. We can take air out surgically, but we cannot add it in case the swim bladder ruptures.

If your fish is showing signs of negative or positive buoyancy, CHECK YOUR WATER QUALITY FIRST. Only 10% of our goldfish cases are primarily caused by the swim bladder. The other 90% are water quality, diet, maintenance or bullying/trauma. Do NOT add a float without proper surgical prep in order to minimize infection.

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Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make – #1

The #1 Mistake – Not Asking for Help

We’ve made it all the way to our #1 mistake new fish owners make: not asking for help when you’re over your head. A new hobby can be very challenging and there’s no shame in getting assistance if you’re overwhelmed.

But, as we covered with mistake #3, not all sources of help should be treated equally. Just because somebody wrote it on the internet, does NOT make it true. Cause and effect can be misinterpreted and hobbyists are known for corroborating evidence that is not connected. Here is a common example:

Owner A buys medication from store B, which claims it can cure their fish of disease C. The medication, be it anti-parasitic, anti-bacterial or anti-fungal, requires multiple doses with multiple water changes in between. Owner A uses medication as prescribed and the fish gets better. Since 90% of our clinical cases are secondary to poor water quality, it is more likely the increased water changes cured the fish, NOT THE “MEDICATION.”

But, you see this on the internet and think it must work for your fish with the same issue. But your water might be different with a different species of fish and a different pathogen (bacterial, parasite, fungus). All that you can see is how your fish is behaving, which sounds similar to Owner A.

Too many owners reach straight for the treatment without a diagnosis. You just want to make your fish healthy – NOW. Your water looks fine, so it can’t be the water. And this is where many fish owners fall out of the hobby. They try X number of medications, read all they can on the internet, but without a diagnosis, the fish will eventually perish.

What about calling your aquatic veterinarian?

We understand it is a foreign concept for many. One of our colleagues starts many of his professional talks by asking the following question:

If you walk up to 100 random people on the street and ask them, “my fish is sick. What do I do?” What are the top 3 responses?


A. David Scarfe PhD, DVM, MRSSAf, CertAqV
  1. Dr. Google
  2. The pet store
  3. Flush it

No where in that list is “call your veterinarian.” Well, it’s time to not only add it to the list, but make it the ONLY response. If you need help with your fish, CALL AN AQUATIC VETERINARIAN. (Click link for a vet near you.) If you have a veterinarian for your cat/dog/horse/etc, see if they are interested in helping. They can directly consult with an out-of-state aquatic veterinarian to help your fish. Have them call us! If you are in California or Nevada, CALL US and we will help you! If you want to pay for our veterinarian’s license in a state we do not cover, CALL US. If you are not in your state and need help, CALL US. We cannot guarantee we’ll be able to give you more than basic husbandry help, but WE WILL HELP YOU AS BEST WE CAN.

Fish X-Rays

Fish X-Rays

A few months ago, we first met Huxley and Darwin. They are both moor goldfish with big, bulging eyes and short, stubby bodies. Huxley is red and Darwin is black. When they first presented, Darwin had a growth on his dorsal fin and Huxley was on his belly at the bottom of the tank. A quick water test reveled that their water had a low pH, high ammonia and very low kH (alkalinity). This is commonly referred to as Old Tank Syndrome. Usually caused by a lack of maintenance, this case was compounded by the source water with a low kH as well. Darwin had the mass along his fin removed and changes to the maintenance procedure were made.

A few months later, Huxley (red moor) presented for lying on his side, a change from his belly-sitting behavior previously. Knowing the issues fancy goldfish can suffer with their anatomy, Huxley’s owner brought him to Westside Animal Hospital in Santa Cruz, CA who we partner with to perform radiographs, also known as x-rays. To perform radiographs on fish, they are sedated using a water-soluble drug, then picked up out of the water and positioned on a plastic sheet on the radiograph table. We use plastic bags and bubble wrap to make little slings to keep them straight up and down. They are only out of the water for approximately 20-30 seconds and then returned to the sedation water while the radiographs process. Here is what we found for little Huxley…

 

Huxley – Right lateral

Huxley – Dorsoventral

There’s a lot going on in these radiographs, and can be very confusing for those of us who have never seen an animal radiograph before, let alone one of a fish. Here are some more fancy goldfish for reference…

You’ve heard Rusty’s story before, but here are his radiographs

You’ve also met Lemon before

And here’s a comet goldfish for comparison…

This fish presented with a pebble stuck in its mouth. Can you find it?

All fancy varieties of goldfish originally descended from the standard comet goldfish. Can you see how their anatomy has changed to suit their external appearance? Most notable is the swim bladder. Fish have internal air balloons called a swim bladder that helps them maintain neutral buoyancy. Most carp species, including koi and goldfish, have a cranial and caudal air sac. You may note in the fancy radiographs, they only have one or in Rusty’s case, one almost on top of the other. It is completely normal for fancy goldfish to only have one air bladder, and it may even appear over-inflated. This over-inflation is an adaptation to limited tail movement. These goldfish have been bred for beautiful external features, not room for normal internal anatomy and swimming behavior.

What is most apparent on Huxley’s radiographs is the shape of his spine. Not only does it take an odd “W”-shape appearance, but two vertebrae have luxated (red arrow) or possibly fractured.

Before presenting, although negatively buoyant, Huxley was able to maintain an upright position by using his tail as a kickstand. However, following these radiographs and a neurological exam, Huxley has lost function of his tail and therefore is resigned to stay on his side. His owner is very diligent and has switched his substrate for smooth glass beads that do not irritate Huxley’s skin or grow bacteria. Huxley still has a ravenous appetite and likes hanging out with Darwin.

These cases are always hard for our staff and clients. Huxley will never swim like a normal fish. He will be on his side at the bottom of his tank for the rest of his life. His owner is aware of this and understands his limitations. The decisions concerning these cases are ultimately the owner’s paired with veterinary recommendations.

Fancy goldfish may be very beautiful, but their internal anatomy often causes secondary issues with buoyancy and visual disorders. Many of these bubble eye varieties will scar down from tiny tears. Internal anatomy limitations from external body features can cause swim bladder issues and affect buoyancy. When considering your next fish to adopt, remember that these fancy fish may be hiding a secret inside that may affect their livelihood as they grow bigger.

Fancy Goldfish Float Backpack

Fancy Goldfish Float Backpack

Some fancy goldfish can lead long, healthy, normal lives. Others, like their over-bred cat and dog compatriots, can develop genetic disorders that have no ideal treatment. Meet our little buddy, Rusty (top):

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Back when he was little, he had no issues. Swimming and eating normally, being a happy little fish with his tankmates, Cupcake (bottom right) and Zhen Zhen (bottom left). However, a few months ago, we noted that Rusty was having trouble getting to the top of his tank. This progressed to where he started to lie on his side on the bottom for long periods of time. He was able to swim up to the top for meals, and eventually graduated to hand feeding.

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In order to better see what was going on inside Rusty, we set up an appointment for x-rays. What we found was that his swim bladder had shifted to one side of his body, and due to his increasing size and girth, made it impossible for the swim bladder to inflate enough.

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So, for a long-term solution, we needed to figure out a way to help Rusty swim. We have rigged temporary suspension systems for goldfish before, but never as a potential long-term treatment. The little guy pictured below had undergone neurologic damage secondary to a severe ammonia spike. A couple of weeks on the float, and he was able to recover.

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This guy was rigged up using a block of styrofoam and a length of suture through his back. However, this was only a temporary setup. Rusty’s would have to be more long-term. So, our vet team sprung into action!

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A small strip of plastic was threaded through Rusty’s dorsal fin and tied behind his pectoral fins. Several attempts had to be made in order to find a place where the strap would stay on and not interfere with his swimming. Then, a small sytrofoam peanut, donated by UPS Store #6455 in the same plaza as Aquatic Veterinary Services, was tied onto the strap.

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Obviously, one peanut is much to buoyant for this tiny fish, so the peanut was gradually trimmed down.

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For right now, he is still a little too positively buoyant, but our vet staff wanted to give him some time to get used to his new apparatus before learning to swim again. You can come meet Rusty at our Scales & Tails event this Saturday from 5p-9p. For more information, please see our Event Page.

We will keep you updated on his progress!