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.

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Preventing Disease in Fish Tanks and Ponds

Preventing Disease in Fish Tanks and Ponds

Everyone always wants to know how to keep their fish system from becoming infested with some horrible disease that puts all their fish at risk. Well, it’s a lot simpler than you think!

  1. Quarantine. Quarantine. Quarantine. This includes plants and ALL NEW FISH. The stress of handling and transport is enough to make even the healthiest of fish turn on your tanks inhabitants. Fish cannot be sterilized and always have pathogens on them, including parasites, bacteria and fungi. Most problems occur when new fish, invertebrates or plants are added to an established system. Set up a separate hospital tank and have it at the ready whenever new fish are on their way in. 4-6 weeks is the MINIMUM requirement for all new additions. For more information, be sure to watch our Quarantine Practices webinar!
  2. Maintain your water quality through consistent maintenance, proper feeding and adequate filtration. Water quality is the #1 thing owners can do to keep their fish healthy. Get a test kit, know how to use it and what normal parameters look like. Not all fish systems will be identical! Keep up with your maintenance. If everything is a bit discombobulated, use these handy checklists for tanks and ponds.
  3. Feed your fish a good quality diet that is species appropriate. Look for a food with appropriate levels of protein, fat and carbohydrates. We are happy to give consults on diet for FREE. If you want to learn more about fish diets, watch our webinar.
  4. Note any signs of disease early and take precautionary measures. You set up that hospital tank, right? Learn the physical and behavioral signs of disease in fish through our free webinar.
  5. If you think something is wrong, ASK NOW! Don’t wait until a small problem becomes big and hard to manage. Our job is to help you take care of your fish, plain and simple. We can work within your budget to make sure your fish get the care they need. Call us at (831) 346-6151 or email hospital@cafishvet.com.

Follow those rules and your fish will thank you! Being healthy and disease free is the way to be, no matter what your species!

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.

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).

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.

Water Changes & Fish

Water Changes & Fish

Most fish kept as pets are maintained in artificial systems; tanks and ponds meant to replicate their “wild” environment. In a “wild” environment, water flushes into and out of a system through streams, rivers, brooks, rain or the ocean. In an artificial tank or pond, water will come in and out at the owner’s discretion, commonly called a water change. There are many ways to improve your system by getting it very close to a “wild” system, but it’ll never be the same. Let’s get started with some of the various claims our office has heard over the years.

“I never do water changes and all my fish are fine. The out break of (fill in your chosen disease here) has nothing to do with the water.”

In most of these systems, commonly referred to as “natural” systems, a lot of plant debris and sludge can usually be observed. All the nitrates produced by the fish waste is going into the plant growth. This is a fine way to manage your nitrates. But what about the fishes’ other wastes? How do you remove the hormones they produce? What exactly is living in the sludge from months or years of fish and plant waste? In a “wild” system, hormones and other metabolic wastes are diluted out with the influx and efflux of new water, so why aren’t you doing water changes? Yes, I know water is expensive, especially where we are in California, but you can manage a system very simply with small water changes. Water removed from fish systems should always be used to water plants. Fish health is tied directly to the water chemistry. If you’ve “never had a problem before,” I guarantee everything was building up until a tipping point was reached.

“I remove the fish from the tank and do a big water change every ___ months.”

When you take water from your hose and add it to a fishes’ environment, the metabolic activity of the fish changes the water chemistry over time. By the time you get to your water change, the chemistry in the tank could be significantly different than what you originally added from the tap. When you dump that fish from his tiny bowl into a freshly filled tank, the shock of the differing water parameters can stress them out and potentially kill them. I understand that sometimes, tanks and ponds get beyond your weekly/monthly maintenance and the only way to get in and get the job done properly is to remove the fish. In order to keep your fish from stressing out either from handling, confinement in a tiny tub during maintenance or water shock, keep them in the tank while you work and never remove more than 50% of the water at one time. As long as you aren’t chasing them with the vacuum or siphon, they won’t mind a bit. And yes, you do need to use a gravel siphon.

“It can’t be my filter, because I replace my filter media every month.”

Sorry consumers, but this is only to get you to buy more filter media. By removing your filter pads every month, you essentially set your nitrogen cycle back at zero. I know those flossy pads with carbon pellets tend to fall apart that fast, but switching to a firmer sponge, that could last for several years, will be the best investment you ever make. Your fish will be so much happier not having to go through the ammonia, nitrite and nitrate spikes every month.

If you have any questions about water changes or water quality, please contact our office or comment below.

New Fish Health 101 Article: Water Changes

New Fish Health 101 Article: Water Changes

At AVSNCA, we get lots of questions about water changes. How much? How often? Get all your answers in our newest article!

Never heard of one? If you are a fish owner, you need to read our new article on Water Changes in our Fish Health 101. Right now. 

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