Signs of Illness in fish

Fish have a unique way of showing signs of health concerns.  Paying close attention to appearance and behaviors will help identify problems early and allow a more narrowed focus for diagnostic testing. 

Flashing/rubbing:  This describes fish that show the underside of their body (flashing) or rub against rocks or the side of enclosures (rubbing).  Generally this indicates skin irritation.  Think of this as the fish scratching an itch.  Fish displaying these signs should be checked for external parasites, and if parasites are identified, appropriate medication can be selected for treatment.  With many fish species (koi are a good example), this is also part of the spawning process and female fish may be attempting to spawn their eggs. 

Dropsy/pineconing:  This is not a disease, but it is a symptom of many possible diseases.   This refers to a fish that appears to be more round than normal with a distended body cavity.  The pinecone appearance is a result of distention of the underlying skin in a way that causes the scales to be flared away from the body.  Most of the time distension is from fluid buildup inside the body cavity.  The fluid can be the result of a serious infection, heart disease, kidney disease, obstruction of the GI tract, egg retention or many other problems.  Ultrasound and sampling of the fluid are often required to diagnose the underlying problem.  

Piping: This refers to fish at the surface of the water looking as though they are attempting to breathe the air.  Fish displaying this behavior will often be near a waterfall or other area of turbulent water flow.  Just as it looks, these fish are often desperate for oxygenated water.  This can be due to high ammonia in the water, low dissolved oxygen, gill damage, heart disease or other problems causing distress.

Floating or sinking:  This is an indication of buoyancy problems that can be due to swim bladder diseases, excess fluid (dropsy), ingested heavy objects, infections, generalized weakness or neurologic problems. 

Ulcers or wounds:  Damage to the skin and scales of a fish are concerning due to the exposure of underlying tissue to the water.  Secondary to ulcers there can be serious infections, electrolyte imbalances, fluid loss or gain.  The slime coat is one of the most important areas for defense against infections, maintenance of normal electrolyte levels and maintaining a good internal environment.  If the skin is damaged, then the slime coat has usually also been affected.  Small superficial skin wounds can sometimes become larger more serious problems if not properly addressed early in the process.

Fin damage:  Fin damage can affect locomotion, appearance of show quality fish and can spread if the damage is from a bacterial or fungal infection. 

Discoloration, dull coat, redness:  Any change to the coloration of a fish should be considered a potential health concern.  External parasites will sometimes cause excess slime coat production, leading to a dull appearance.  Redness could be a sign of a serious internal infection.  Nutritional deficiency could be affecting the normal skin pigments (many are dependent on Vitamin A). 

If you observe any of the above problems with your fish we recommend scheduling a health consultation as soon as possible.