Swim Bladder Problems

Swim Bladder Problems


Understanding Swim Bladder Problems
By Robin & Ron Futrell
September 2001

Part I - Tailstanders, Sitters and Sleepers

For many years it was believed that if your discus began to "stand on his head" (aka headstander), "stand on his tail" (aka tailstander), "sit on his bottom or anal fin" (aka sitter) or "rest on his side" (aka sleeper) that the fish was a goner and you might as well put him out of his misery. Much information learned regarding the swim bladder in the last decade has proven this way of thinking obsolete and finally, today, we can fix most swim bladder problems when caught in time with natural remedies, common sense and patience.

One important thing to know when deciding which procedure to use in each particular case is how the swim bladder works. By understanding this simple, yet somewhat fragile organ and what it does you can avoid and/or fix most problems that occur with it. A discus uses his swim bladder to move up and down inside the tank by way of a hole, called the Sphincter, which takes in and releases air. During the process of rising to the top, air passes into this hole causing the swim bladder to fill and the fish to easily rise to the top of the water level (I think of it as filling a life raft with air, adding buoyancy so he can get to the top). Most times if you have a tail stander, sitter or layer, you have a fish whose swim bladder will not fill with air, causing him to be unable to swim properly in order to rise to the top of the water. There are many reasons this can happen but a few are large water changes (or other severe changes to their water parameters), rough handling on a long shipment or even something as simple as moving a fish from one tank to another without proper acclimation. As long as the fish's swim bladder problem is not caused by a bacterial infection, the below procedures should help you bring it back to a good working condition.

Cure for the above problems, if caught in time, can be as simple as the manipulation of the water level inside the tank in order to "exercise" the swim bladder and get it back into proper working order. We suggest keeping the temperature at the most comfortable level for a discus, which is about 86F and lowering the water level by of it's height each hour until half the water is gone, then raising it back up by of it's height each hour until it is full again. You will want to do this 2-3 times in a day gradually helping the fish up and encouraging him to move around if he doesn't do it on his own with the first full 50% change. After long or especially hard journeys the fish will need to rest so do not push him too hard or scare him as you encourage him to move around. In this manner the swim bladder will, with any luck, begin to work on it's own and start on it's way to full recovery. When working on the swim bladder keep in mind that it is delicate at this stage and more sudden changes can make the problem worse instead of better. You want to manipulate the swim bladder slowly, carefully and a little at a time while still working it enough to do some good. We've found the each hour for 50% changes, 2-3 times a day to be an efficient method of treating this problem when caught early. If the problem is caused by disease of some kind, appropriate treatment must be given before manipulation of the water level can work.

Part II - Headstanders

During the process of going to the bottom of the tank, the swim bladder will release air enabling the fish to go deep (I think of it as letting the air out of the raft and sinking). If the hole in the swim bladder is not working properly for some reason, the fish is unable to release the air in his swim bladder which causes him to go, usually, mid to top tank and be unable to swim or stand still at a proper angle (head always pointed at some degree of a downward angle). This condition is more serious than it's sister swim bladder problems but again, if caught in time, it can be treated with full recovery with no long term affects on the fish. Headstanding in discus less than a year old react more favorably to treatment than do those over 2 years old.

If you have a small tank (preferably 20-29 gallon) put him there and make sure the water is extremely clean. We like to use reverse osmosis water but spring water works well, as does tap water that is low in Total Dissolved Solids. Clean is most important. You need to take as much pressure off his swim bladder as possible so you'll have enough time to finish his treatment before his head standing becomes permanent. Lower the water level of the tank he's in until he stands up straight again but has enough room to move around. If he's in a larger tank, lower it to 1/2 full and if in a smaller tank, about 2/3 full.

With this type of swim bladder problem, your fish most likely has a blockage in the intestinal area. We use Epsom salt for this purpose as it acts as a natural laxative to the fish.
Sometimes it is gas that he is unable to pass which causes the problem and other times it may be worms or other obstructions. What happens is a membrane will grow around the obstruction and once the membrane is fully in place, the head standing becomes permanent. The swim bladder becomes full of excessive air, leaving a large knot in the middle of the swim bladder, directly above the Sphincter, which is in turn, directly against the intestinal wall. This excess of gas/air causes the fish to tip over, leaving a permanent problem. You have 5 days from the first time he begins headstanding to cure him if you lower the water level, 3 days if you do not.

Get a beefheart mixture and use 1/8 tsp Epsom salt per 4oz of food. Flatten out the beefheart and put the Epsom salt inside. Fold and refold the beefheart (like you were kneading home made bread dough) and soak in the refrigerator for an hour. If the fish is not eating well or he doesn't eat beefheart, bloodworms can be substituted by soaking the live worms inside a small bowl of Epsom salt and tank water just long enough for the first couple of worms to start dying off (3-6 minutes). Starve the fish for 12-18 hours before feeding so they'll be so hungry they won't mind the salty taste. We believe feeding to be the best way since the blockage is inside them or it could be that the hole in the swim bladder is damaged making it impossible to release air and the salty substance may help to heal it. Watch them closely to be sure they're passing their waste. When they look like they're doing better, gradually start filling the tank back up with water. If they start swimming funny again, lower the water level again until he straightens back up and repeat procedure the next day.

We have found that in the majority of headstander cases, intestinal infestations are present so you will likely need to follow up with a mild dewormer (we use granular Panacur for dogs 10 lbs and under, which is 22% Fenbendazole). This is a good, mild, all-around wormer but we recommend that it never be put inside the water. In our experience, dewormers need to be put inside their food anyway since the worms are in their gut. It works much better if fed to them as it goes directly into their intestines and stomach area, where the worms are. Many people use both Epsom salt and dewormers in the water, however, it has been our experience that when used in that manner, the problem will, in many cases, recur continuously. Dosage for deworming with Panacur is the same as the dosage used with Epsom salt only you treat them twice in one day (about 12 hours apart), then follow up in 6-8 days with two more dewormings (again, about 12 hours apart). The follow up worming will kill any hatched eggs the first worming couldn't get to. Long term infestations of flagellates, tapeworms and many other intestinal parasites can create a permanent headstanding condition in older, more mature discus. A good diet of easily digestible foods and elimination of the intestinal parasite will ensure a long life for your discus, without worries of any sudden headstanding condition.

Note: A discus that has experienced recurring headstander problems should not be moved into a tank that is much different in size/dimensions until the treatment has been given and the condition cleared up. Because of the difference in the pressure put on the swim bladder in a small tank and a large tank, doing so could easily cause a sleeper or other similar condition to appear. Once the swim bladder has been affected on a recurring basis, it is very weak and any sudden changes could, and probably would, cause more damage to the organ. In such a case, do your treatments in the same tank he is in and this will eliminate this complication. Again, only move the fish in a last resort effort to clear up the headstanding problem.

We have found the above methods to be most useful in successfully combating swim bladder problems not caused by bacterial infections. If you suspect a bacterial infection, you are advised to find a good article that deals specifically with infections to the swim bladder organ (preferably discus related) and study up on this. We hope this information will be of help to some.

By Robin & Ron Futrell


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