How to Treat Swim Bladder Disease

How to Treat Swim Bladder Disease

Swim bladder disease is, unfortunately, a common ailment in aquarium fish, and may be fatal. However, if caught in time, it is often easy and affordable to treat swim bladder disease and keep your fish healthy. Here’s how to treat swim bladder disease.

What is Swim Bladder Disease?

Most bony fish have an internal organ that is filled with gas, called the swim bladder. This little balloon is divided into two chambers, and helps them control their buoyancy in the water.

The swim bladder allows fish to control their depth without wasting energy in swimming. The swim bladder not only controls buoyancy, but it helps to control a fish’s stability in the water. In some fish species, the hollow swim bladder also helps to detect and transmit sound.

In most cases, “swim bladder disease” isn’t actually a real disease. It’s simply a catch-all term to help describe a wide range of problems with the swim bladder, whether the problems are caused by inflammation, infection, or parasites.

How to Treat Swim Bladder Disease

Symptoms of Swim Bladder Disease

Swim bladder disease is usually easy to spot because the fish displays problems with buoyancy and stability. Fish may unusually sink to the bottom of the tank, or float to the surface. They may float upside down, on their sides, or in an unusual body position. The fish may seem to be struggling to maintain their position in the water, swimming when they might normally be resting.

Other physical symptoms of swim bladder disease are less common, but may include a visibly swollen stomach or a curved spine. The fish may continue to eat normally, may eat less, or may not eat at all.

If swim bladder disease is severe, the fish may not be able to eat or feed normally. They may not be able to reach the surface of the water to eat flakes floating on the surface, or descend far enough to eat food that has landed on the gravel.

What Causes Swim Bladder Disease?

Swim bladder disease is most common in fancy goldfish and betta fish because they have short, round bodies where their organs are already close together. If an organ becomes inflamed in fish with this body type, it has a greater chance of pressing on the nearby swim bladder and affecting buoyancy. The most common causes of swim bladder disease are:

  • Air gulping while eating. If a fish swallows too much air, the stomach can inflate and be enlarged.
  • Constipation. A wide range of triggers may cause constipation, which swells the intestines and affects the swim bladder.
  • Overeating. If a fish is simply overeating, they may develop fatty deposits on the liver, which, again, presses on the swim bladder.
  • Cysts. A fish may develop cysts on their kidneys, which then press against the swim bladder.
  • Parasites or infections. When buoyancy problems appear with other symptoms, like shaking, clamped fins, and other unusual behaviors, it may be a symptom of an infection or a parasite.

In most cases, swim bladder disease in home aquarium fish is caused by feeding and digestion problems. If buoyancy problems occur along with other symptoms, it’s probably something more serious.

How to Treat Swim Bladder Disease

If you think your fish has buoyancy issues due to a parasite, infection, or other illness, consult with a veterinarian or expert about using medications or antibiotics.

If your veterinarian prescribes medication, follow the instructions for that medication and don’t follow the steps below. However, if your fish only has swim bladder problems, these are the steps to follow:

  1. Test your water. Elevated ammonia or nitrite levels can be a sign of unhealthy bacteria in the fish tank. This might indicate infection or a more serious disease. If your water is unhealthy, consider cleaning the tank and doing a water change to help restore a good water balance. Keep the water especially clean while you treat swim bladder disease.
  2. Raise the tank temperature. A colder tank may slow digestion which contributes to constipation. If your fish has issues with their swim bladder, raise the tank temperature to between 70-80°F, and keep it higher for several days while you treat your fish.
  3. Consider an aquarium salt treatment cycle. Aquarium salt promotes a healthy fish electrolyte balance while harming unwanted bacteria and parasites. While it may not specifically help swim bladder disease, it’s a good alternative to a low-level, broad-spectrum antibiotic that can help your fish recover more quickly.
  4. Fast your fish. Don’t feed your fish for three days, and observe the fish closely. Withholding food is a good way to solve swim bladder disease caused by overeating. It allows the fish to digest all the food in its system, and gives the organs time to return to normal size. Fasting for three days will not harm an otherwise healthy fish with swim bladder problems. However, make sure to feed them on the fourth day. If symptoms worsen during the fast, something else may be wrong with your fish.
  5. Feed green peas. If your fish has fasted for three days and is still struggling with buoyancy, but hasn’t developed any other unusual symptoms, feed them cooked green peas. Peas are high in fiber for good digestion, but also high in other nutrients for a healthy meal. Peas also sink to the bottom of the tank, reducing the chance that a fish might swallow air while eating them.
  • To feed peas to a fish:

    • Cook the peas until they are soft but not mushy
    • Remove the outer skin and feed one pea to the fish
    • The pea will sink to the bottom of the tank, and a fish with buoyancy problems may not be able to reach it. You may need to hold the pea below the surface of the water and help the fish reach it to eat it
    • Feed your fish 1-2 peas per day for 3-5 days

If your fish still has swim bladder problems after these steps, they may have a more serious medical problem.

How to Prevent Swim Bladder Disease

In many cases, swim bladder problems are preventable. If you have a fish with a body shape that is susceptible to swim bladder disease, or if your fish has had swim bladder problems in the past, here are some things you can do to help keep your fish swimming happily:

  • Keep the tank clean and regularly change the water. Keeping your fish tank and aquarium water clean prevents a wide range of problems and health concerns, including swim bladder disease.
  • Keep the tank temperature higher. Keeping the tank a few degrees warmer can help to ease digestion and prevent swim bladder problems.
  • Feed soaked or sinking foods. If your fish tend to gulp air when feeding, consider switching to sinking pellets that reduce their surface feeding. Thawing frozen foods before feeding, and soaking dried foods before feeding, can also cause those foods to sink down rather than staying on the surface, reducing air gulping and protecting the balance of air and gases inside your fish.
  • Feed fresh, high-quality food. Low-quality fish food can have a lot of “empty calories” that generate waste without providing nutrients. Research the nutritional needs and dietary habits of your fish tank, and choose the best quality food you can.

How to Treat Swim Bladder Disease

  • Avoid overfeeding. Overfeeding is the main cause of a wide range of fish diseases and health problems, and it’s the main cause of swim bladder disease. Preventing overfeeding also helps keep your tank cleaner for longer, so it solves two problems at once. It is also true that, like people, fish may overeat if there is extra food available and they are bored. In order to ensure that you aren’t overfeeding your fish, follow these steps:
  • Offer a very small amount of food. For example, only offer 2-3 flakes of food per fish.
  • Observe the fish eating. If the fish quickly eat all the food, you may offer 1-2 flakes more.
  • Observe any uneaten food. Food that is not eaten within 5 minutes will likely never be eaten. If you have a mixed tank with slower-eating scavengers, watch to make sure they eat food within 15 minutes.
  • Feed small meals throughout the day. In nature, fish find and eat small snacks throughout the day, and don’t have mealtimes. Feed your fish at least twice a day at regular times, but, when possible, feed very small quantities more often.
  • Keep track of feedings. If you have pet sitters or a large household where multiple people may feed the fish, consider using a visible tracker so everyone knows whether the fish have been fed.

Swim bladder disease is unfortunately common in some species of pet fish, but most of the time it’s quickly curable and easily preventable. Once you know how to treat swim bladder disease, and how to avoid overfeeding your fish, you’ve greatly improved the chances of your fish living a long, happy, healthy life.