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some help; I’d love to point you in the right direction, but before I do I have to get a quick disclaimer out of the way. So, here goes: Please note that I am not a fish vet, nor can I guarantee any of these trouble shooting tips will fix your problems with your fish tank. The purpose of this guide is to give you a starting place to help you figure out what's going wrong with your tank, and it is written from my personal experiences with my own aquaria. It is not intended to diagnose or treat your sick fish; only an experienced fish specialist who is able to see your fish in person can do that. By reading through this guide, you agree that you will not hold me accountable for dead fish, broken aquarium equipment, or anything else that could possibly go wrong, because you chose not to use your own due diligence. In short, this guide is intended for educational purposes only. Now, without any further ado, here are some of the most common fish problems people have come to me with over the past few years! You are free to redistribute this guide as long as you keep the links and information intact.
For quick reference:
My filter quit working. How do I fix it? Why is my fish bottom sitting? What are all of these little white spots on my fish? My fish is gasping at the surface of the water. What is it doing? I can’t keep algae eaters alive. What am I doing wrong? My tank is leaking, but I don’t see any cracks. Where is all the water coming from? I can’t get my fish to eat, please help! I just started up my fish tank, and I can’t seem to keep anything alive. What’s going on? Why won’t my goldfish bowl stay clean? There’s got to be an easier way to do this. My fish keep trying to jump out of the water – what are they doing? I just bought a fish and it’s fin-nipping all the other fish. How can I stop this? I can’t keep dwarf aquatic frogs alive. What am I doing wrong? My Betta fish’s tail looks shredded and it has red streaks all over it. Is this normal? I want a few more fish, but my cichlids keep killing all the new ones. What should I do? My goldfish is floating upside down. Should I flush it? I just bought a neon green freshwater puffer, but now it looks like it’s dying. What’s wrong? My puffer keeps killing all the fish in my tank. Tell me how to make it stop! How do I get rid of snails? They’re all over the place!
My filter quit working! How do I fix it?
If you’re filter suddenly stopped working, then there are two things that you should check first before heading out to buy a new one – 1) the water level in your tank, and 2) the impeller. If you’ve let too much water evaporate out of your fish tank, then you filter will slowly quit working; eventually, if you allow it to keep running while it’s dry, the motor and/or impeller will become damaged beyond repair. Additionally, sometimes, all it takes to get a filter running again is to clean off the impeller – these are located at the top of the intake tube (where the intake tube attaches to your filter reservoir), and are easy to pull out.
Why is my fish bottom sitting?
While there are some fish species that naturally hang out at the bottom of the tank, bottom sitting is usually an indication that something is wrong with your setup. Check the water quality, look for signs of a sick fish, and check to ensure you are keeping the fish in the proper environment (i.e. heated water for a warm water fish, etc.). Sometimes, all it takes to perk up a bottom sitting fish is a water change. Continue reading more in this article about reasons your fish may be bottom sitting.
What are all of these little white spots on my fish?
If your fish have a sprinkling of little white spots all over them – it will look like they have been salted – then they have fish ick. Ick is a parasite, and you will need to treat the entire fish tank set up – not just the affected fish. You can treat fish ick naturally with aquarium salt, while slowly raising the temperature of the water. You can introduce ick to your fish tank by adding the bag water when you purchase a fish; this is one of the reasons why it’s very important to make sure you are netting the fish out of the bag before placing it in its new home.
My fish is gasping at the surface of the water. What’s wrong with it?
If your fish are gasping at the surface of the water, then you need to take a look at how many fish you have in the tank, your sources of aeration and do a quick water test (I like the liquid test kits from API). Your tank probably doesn’t have enough dissolved oxygen in the water to support your stocking level, which is causing the fish to swim closer to the surface of the water where the highest dissolved oxygen content is. The easiest fix for this is adding a secondary source of aeration. However, provided that you have a quality filter that handle at least 2-3x the amount of water in your tank, and you’re not overstocking your tank, then you shouldn’t run into too many problems with gasping fish. Poor water quality can also cause fish to gasp at the surface, which is why you need to test your water. Specifically, check the level of ammonia present; even .05 ppm can be stressful to fish, especially if
they’re scaleless, like loaches, freshwater puffers and some species of catfish. Remember, the bubbles from the air stones don’t put oxygen into your water – the disturbance at the surface from all of the rising bubbles is what allows the gas exchange to happen.
I can’t keep algae eaters alive. What am I doing wrong?
The average fish tank does not produce enough algae to sustain an algae eater on a long term basis – even if you bought the pleco to get rid of algae. This is especially true if you have multiple species of fish competing for the same food source. Most algae eating fish specialize in one type of algae – they will occasionally graze on other types, but prefer a specific kind over the rest. In order to prevent starving your algae eater, you can supplement their diet with fresh vegetables – like zucchini and spinach. For more information about keeping plecos and other algae-eating fish alive, check out this post on keeping algae eaters alive, and this one on caring for Otocinclus. Additionally, algae eaters aren’t going to do all of the work for you; if you’re having a problem with getting rid of algae, here’s a breakdown of how you should handle it – The Skinny on How to Get Rid of Algae.
My tank is leaking, but I don’t see any cracks. Where is all the water coming from?
If you don’t see any visible cracks, and you’ve checked the condition of the silicone, take a look at your filter – is it overflowing? Sometimes, if you put too much filter media in (this usually only happens if you’re like me, and you put together your own media), or you don’t clean your filters and they get clogged, then they will start spilling water out the top; remember, those lids aren’t water tight! As a side note, make sure you always twist the cords to create drip loops for any electrical aquarium equipment, including the filter, heater and air pump – and never try to plug something back in if the water from your tank spilled all over the cord. It’s better to wait and let it dry, than to injure yourself because you were in too much of a hurry.
I can’t get my fish to eat, please help!
If you’re one of your fish has stopped eating, then you need to check for environmental stresses. For instance, your tank may be long overdue for a water change and your fish is just reacting to the poor water quality. Another very common cause for a fish to go off feeding is bullying – is it being picked on by the other fish? Sometimes, schooling fish, like barbs and tetras, will quit eating if you aren’t keeping them in a school because they feel insecure. A school of fish in the home aquaria should have no less than 6 fish – the more you can adequately support, the more secure the fish will fell; you will also see them act closer to their natural behavior, as well.
If you just purchased a new fish and you’re having difficulty getting it to eat, stop trying to force it! You’re only stressing it out more. Give your new fish at least a week to settle in from the stress of shipping, packing, and acclimation to your tank before you start getting panicked – fish can go a lot longer than we can without food and still be perfectly fine.
I just started up my fish tank, and I can’t seem to keep anything alive. What’s going on?
If you have just purchased a fish tank set up, then you will need to wait at least a week before you add any fish to it because the level of Ammonia in your tank is very high. If you add them immediately, you are most likely going to lose your new fish. Your tank will initially have a very high level of Ammonia, then Nitrite, and then end with an elevated level of Nitrate. You should ideally wait until at least the Ammonia and Nitrite readings are at zero – you can monitor the levels with a water test kit.
Why won’t my goldfish bowl stay clean? There’s got to be an easier way to do this.
Indeed, there is – it starts with tossing the bowl in the trash (or using it for flowers, I suppose…), and getting your goldfish into an adequately sized fish tank. Goldfish cannot live in bowls. I don’t care how many people have stories of their fish surviving for years in a dinky little glass container with no aeration or filtration; I guarantee they never saw the full potential of their goldfish. All goldfish get huge – plan on a fish the size of a softball if you’re keeping a fancy egg-shaped variety, and at least a foot for most of the singletail goldfish. I don’t recommend keeping the single-tail goldies indoors because they get far too large; your fish will fare better in a pond. However, the fancy egg-shaped types, like Orandas, can do perfectly fine in a large enough fish tank – just make sure you don’t overstock it. As a general rule, don’t put more than 2-3 in a 60 gallon tank, and always go as large as you can afford when you’re tank shopping. As a side note, you’re going to at least need to provide your goldfish tank with double filtration and frequent, large water changes at least once per week.
My fish keep trying to jump out of the water – what are they doing?
Fish don’t jump out of the water to be cute or as a playful gesture. Instead, your fish are trying to escape their tank because something is stressing them out to the point of trying to find a new body of water. The first two things I would check are the quality of the water and the other fish you’re trying to keep them with; poor water quality and bullying are the top 2 reasons most fish try to leave their tank.
I just bought a fish and it’s fin-nipping all the other fish. How can I stop this?
Did you purchase a schooling species of fish? Barbs, danios, tetras, silver dollars, and many other common fish at the pet store need to be in a school to feel secure. If you only purchased 1-3 fish, consider going back and getting a few more (only if your tank can handle that many, of course). It may seem counterintuitive, but adding more fish to the group can take the nippers attention off of the other fish in the tank – you’ll often find that they calm down quite a bit once they’re being kept in the right numbers.
I can’t keep dwarf aquatic frogs alive. What am I doing wrong?
Most people try to keep the little dwarf frogs from the pet store in unheated bowls that lack filtration – and on top of it all, it’s usually completely unintentional because no one at the pet store instructed them otherwise. In addition to the improper environment, Dwarf African Clawed frogs can be kind of tricky to feed – especially if you’re insistent on keeping them in a tank with other fish; make sure you choose their tankmates wisely. The first bit of advice I’d like to throw your way is ditch the frog pellets the pet store gave you! Instead, provide your frog with a varied diet of frozen foods, like bloodworms, and live foods, like brine shrimp; you won’t have to deal with frogs that starve to death anymore. I personally like offering them their frozen food with a turkey baster because it delivers it directly in front of them – this can be very helpful if you have them in a tank with peaceful fish because it ensures the frogs get their fair share of the food, as well (it’s much easier to keep a dedicated frog tank, though). Aside from giving your dwarf frog an adequately sized home, complete with filtration and a heater, you might also want to add some live plants, too; the more cover you provide your frogs, the more comfortable they will be. Make sure the current from the filter isn’t so strong that they’re getting stuck on the intake – if you need to, you can cover the bottom of the intake tube with a finely woven material. My Betta fish’s tail looks shredded and it has red streaks all over it. Is this normal? No, that is definitely not normal. If your Betta is being kept in a small jar or tank under 3-5 gallons, then you should immediately do a water change – if you test the water, you’ll probably see very elevated levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. Although Betta’s can indeed breathe surface air, they should not
be forced to live in an inadequate home, whether that’s a bowl, cup, or small tank, because they will be constantly swimming around in their own waste – right now, you’re seeing the effects of that. Instead, you should set your Betta up in a proper home, with a filter, aeration and a heater – if you need to reduce the suction of the filter, you can cover the bottom of the intake tube with the foot of an old pair of pantyhose, or a finely-woven filter media bag. You may have to take further action with a Betta-safe medication, as well, if the improved water quality doesn’t clear things up.
I want a few more fish, but my cichlids keep killing all the new ones. What should I do?
Before you get your hopes up, please keep in mind that may never be able to add new fish to your cichlid tank; some fish are just too territorial. However, here are a few tricks that have always helped me out: Feed all of the existing fish before you move the new fish from quarantine Turn off the lights Rearrange the decorations Add the new fish in while the lights are off Separate the most territorial cichlid for a couple of weeks and then reintroduce it after the other fish have had time to establish a new hierarchy Always have a separate fully mature tank ready if you have to remove the new fish
My goldfish is floating upside down. Should I flush it?
No, please don’t do that! You should never flush a fish as a method of euthanasia; it’s actually quite cruel. However, a goldfish with a buoyancy problem probably isn’t dying, anyway! Instead, rule out constipation before you get too panicked – you can easily do this by fasting your goldfish for a couple of days, and then feeding them a diet that solely consists of unsalted shelled peas; if you’ve separated your sick goldfish to his own tank, then you can also add Epsom salt to the water. Aside from constipation due to an incorrect diet, poor water quality may also have a part. As a side note, if you really need to euthanize a fish, the industry standard for humane euthanasia is clove oil.
I just bought a neon green freshwater puffer, but now it looks like it’s dying. What’s wrong?
This is not a freshwater pufferfish; green spotted puffers (GSP) are actually brackish water aquarium fish, and they will not thrive for very long in a pure freshwater tank. You will need to purchase marine salt to create a brackish environment – regular aquarium salt, like the one API carries, does not make brackish water.
My puffer keeps killing all the fish in my tank. Tell me how to make it stop!
Generally speaking, freshwater pufferfish are very territorial, predatory fish – they don’t play well with others. For both your puffer and your other aquarium fish to thrive, you’re going to have to find separate homes for both of them; if you need another tank on a budget, you can set a relatively inexpensive one up with an adequately sized plastic tote, a filter, and of course, dechlorinated water. You can find more great information about freshwater pufferfish at my other site, Freshwater Pufferfish – I’ve even written a book about puffers called the Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Freshwater Puffers. It’s almost 70 pages long, and it’s packed with all kinds of useful information about keeping these fascinating fish, from basic care and diet, to more advances stuff, like feeding puffers that refuse to eat and expelling trapped air. Read a review of the Beginner’s Guide to Freshwater Puffers here.
How do I get rid of snails? They’re all over the place!
Sometimes, Malaysian trumpet snails (MTS), Ramshorn snails and a variety of different species of common pond snail will hitchhike their way into unsuspecting aquaria – this usually occurs after new live plants have been added, or water from the fish bag was added to the tank after new livestock was purchased (another great reason to always quarantine everything!). Pest snails can get annoying, but they aren’t harmful to your tank – the exception to this is when their numbers grow so large that your biological filter can no longer handle the amount of waste being excreted by the fish, snails and other organic matter combined. However, that doesn’t mean that you should run out and buy a bottle of commercial snail killer from the pet store! The easiest way to get rid of them is to actually control their numbers – to thoroughly eradicate them from your tank, you would have to break everything down, bleach it, throw away the gravel and then let everything else dry for quite a while. You can quickly decrease the number of snails in your tank by tossing in a piece of zucchini after you turn off the lights – in a few hours, you’ll notice that it’s covered in snails. Just remove the zucchini, being careful not to drop too many snails off of it, and then repeat this same procedure until you have them down to a more manageable number. An explosion of pest snails in your tank is an indication that you’re feeding your fish too much – stop overfeeding your fish and you won’t have a problem with snails anymore! Trumpet snails are also quite useful for keeping the gravel/sand constantly agitated so that no dead pockets form. I don’t recommend
running out and buying a snail eating fish to get rid of them for you – remember, you still have to provide a suitable home for that fish, as well. The two most commonly suggested fish for eating snails are Clown loaches and freshwater puffers; Clown loaches need to be kept in a school (at least 6 fish), and they reach the size of a football at maturity, and freshwater puffers will take care of the snails for you, but they will also eat the rest of your aquarium fish, as well.
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