Ammonia Toxicity in Fish: 1 Easy Fix

What is ammonia toxicity?

Ammonia toxicity in fish occurs when your biological filtration is unestablished and you cannot convert your ammonia into nitrite or on to nitrate. This can also be termed “new tank syndrome,” but can occur for other reasons.

Your fishes’ primary waste product of ammonia is mainly caused from protein breakdown. It will then be eliminated from the fish through the urogential system and gills. If not removed, the produced ammonia can build up in the fish tank or pond, causing damage to the gills and other internal organs.

All fish tanks and ponds are artificial systems that will require human intervention to keep things running smoothly. Fish are NOT maintenance-free pets and should not be treated as so. With a few routine maintenance tasks, you will easily avoid high ammonia levels and keep your fish happy for years to come.

What are the signs of an ammonia toxicity?

Signs of an ammonia toxicity in fish can be very generalized. The most common sign of an ammonia toxicity is sudden death. Typically, the larger fish will succumb to toxic water faster than smaller fish given the relative size of their gills and exposure to toxic water. You may also see increased respiratory effort and rate, lethargy, decrease in appetite or secondary illness. Sometimes, you may have cloudy tank water, which is typically worsened by over-the-counter bacterial products.

How can I verify an ammonia toxicity?

An ammonia toxicity is easy to verify with any liquid-based test kit. Here is a good quality one to use to test for your ammonia levels. All ammonia levels should be less than or equal to 0.1 mg/L (ppm).

How does ammonia toxicity in fish occur?

Most commonly, ammonia toxicity occurs with brand new tanks with no established filtration. Called “new tank syndrome,” establishing all of your filtration colonies can take 4-6 weeks, so frequent testing and water changes are essential. Also make sure you use a gravel siphon in order to remove excess food waste and other debris that could be adding to your ammonia load.

Overcrowded fish tank ammonia toxicity in fish

Overcrowding & Over Feeding

Since ammonia increases with fish digestion, lots of fish in a small volume of water being fed a high protein diet or disintegrating fish flake will exponentially increase their ammonia output. The larger your tank, the more insurance you have against water quality issues, but if you add more fish, you will be at higher risk of high ammonia, low KH and sudden pH swings.

Understand that all fish start out very small, but as they grow, they could easily outgrow their space and filtration capacity. You can certainly increase your filtration ability to help your ammonia levels (provided they are cycled), but your fish may still be stressed out and be stunted from being too packed into a small space.

Many commercial fish diets are packed with protein and fat to promote growth. This is fine if you are a juvenile fish or in the business of making more fish, but can easily make ammonia problems worse. Most maintenance fish diets are around 28-33% protein with fat levels <7%. Fish kept in tanks and ponds are equivalent to indoor house cats in overall activity level and need to be fed accordingly.

It is highly recommended that all fish are fed a pelleted diet. Pellets hold their nutritional value significantly better than flakes. Flakes may be easier for your fish to smell, but they also degrade faster in your system, with increased ammonia going into your water. It is in your fish’s best interest to get them on a pelleted diet and feed them appropriately for their water temperature.

Replacing Your Filters CONSTANTLY

On any box of filters you may purchase, they will say to “replace your filter media evert X months.” PLEASE IGNORE THIS!! Replacing your filters does ZERO favors to your fish and will sabotage your biological filtration, causing an ammonia spike. This is how filter companies will continue to squeeze money out of your. Save your funds on one sponge that you can use forever and can be cut to fit any filter.

In addition to replacing filter media, it is important to clean it properly. Never use hot or chlorinated tap water to clean your sponges. These will eliminate the bacterial colonies you have worked so hard to establish! Best cleaning practices involve gently rinsing your filter media in your water tank water from your vacuuming. Your sponge will not be pristine or smell very good, but this exactly what you need to keep your fish happy.

Filter media can also be wiped out with any water-based antibiotic treatment. Your veterinarian should make you aware of this prior to any treatments, which is why we often prefer injectable or feed-based treatments to preserve your biological filtration. Over the counter “antibiotic” treatments, which are NOT verified by the FDA, can wipe out your bacterial colonies and cause ammonia toxicity in addition to whatever else your fish is suffering from.

How do I fix ammonia toxicity in my tank or pond?

The fastest and most productive step to fix an ammonia toxicity is a water change. Remove no more than 50% of the total volume of the tank or pond and add fresh, treated tap water. In doing a 50% change, you will decrease your ammonia levels by 50%. For example, if you are at 2.0 mg/L, a 50% water change will drop you down to 1.0 mg/L. This level is still considerably toxic, so you will need to do another water change the next day.

If you would like to do a larger water change, contact your local fish veterinarian to ensure it can be done properly with limited stress to the fish.

Over the counter “instant start” bacterial products do NOT WORK. There are many publications and research presentations that can attest to this fact. They are pure snake oil and should be avoided at all costs. Save your money for some quality food or a check up from your veterinarian.

Do NOT Stop Feeding Your Fish

If your fish still want to eat, do not make them responsible for your poor maintenance. Fasting sick fish can make things worse for them since they need energy to swim. It is important that you feed them a low protein food and you are welcome to mix in low-protein vegetable snacks for up to 30-50% of their total diet to help keep them satiated until the water corrects.

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