Goldfish Swim Bladder Disorder Treatments

Fancy Goldfish varieties are more prone to swim bladder disorders

Goldfish with swim bladder disorder causing it to float upside down at the surface.Calico Oranda with a swim bladder disorder

Goldfish Swim bladder disorder, also called swim bladder disease, causes Goldfish to have buoyancy or balance problems.  This could be seen as:

  • Floating to the surface, sometimes floating upside down in severe cases
  • Sitting on the bottom and struggling to rise
  • Swimming on one side
  • Swimming head up or head down.

Some fancy varieties such as Pearl scales have been developed to such an extent that their bodies resemble golf balls.  With such a developed body shape some individuals tend to swim head down normally and this shouldn't be confused with the fish having a swim bladder disorder.

Check when the fish stops swimming.  It shouldn't have a buoyancy problem such as floating upwards or sinking.  It should be able to remain static in the water without excessive fin movements.

When purchasing young fish with round bodies I select individuals that don't swim head down because as these fish age their swimming often becomes very labored and they seem more prone to swim bladder diseases.

The Swim Bladder Regulates Buoyancy and Balance

The swim bladder (or bladders as there are two) are air filled organs that are used to regulate buoyancy and balance.

The larger rear swim bladder has an opening directly into the gut.  This is used by the fish to inflate or deflate the swim bladder slightly depending on its buoyancy needs.  This is why after a heavy meal goldfish will often go to the surface and take a gulp of air to slightly inflate the swim bladder to maintain close to zero buoyancy.

Small bones at the back of the skull are attached to the front air bladder and are used for hearing and balance.

Swim bladders are normally long sausage shaped organs.  As the body shape of some fancy varieties has become shortened and more rounded, so have their swim bladders.  This has made them more susceptible to disorders.

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Causes Of Goldfish Swim Bladder Disorders

  • Poor quality food.  Food that is stale, of poor quality or unsuitable for Goldfish will cause gas in the gut.  If there is enough gas this alone will cause the fish to lose balance.  Often some of this gas will find its way into the swim bladder causing the fish to become too buoyant.  The fish can't release the gas if it is constipated.  
  • Sudden temperature changes.  Round bodied Goldfish are particularly susceptible to chills.
  • Infection.  A bacterial attack of the swim bladder can cause loss of balance or buoyancy.
  • Water conditions.  It has been suggested that high nitrate levels in the water can affect the swim bladder.
  • Swallowing air.  Some aquarists only feed sinking pellets to their goldfish in the belief that floating food causes Goldfish to swallow air.  Some fish are predisposed to swallowing air, but I haven't found it to be a big problem.
  • Old age/genetics.  As  fancy varieties age, swim bladder problems become more common.  Observing how a fish swims is important when choosing fish for breeding, or when culling your brood.

Treatment Of Swim Bladder Disorder

If treatment isn't started soon after a fish is seen distressed, it can lead to permanent imbalance.

Fish that float to the surface will soon develop redness on the belly or dorsal area where the skin is exposed to the air for any length of time.

Step 1

Swim bladder disorders aren't contagious, but an affected fish needs to be moved to a sick bay to administer the treatments.  You also need to observe what waste the fish is passing, which can't be easily seen in a planted aquarium or one with gravel on the bottom.

The water in the sick bay should be fresh aged water, not water from the aquarium or pond as this may have caused the problem.

Aquarium Salt
Epsom Salts for Indigestion

Step 2

Add two teaspoons of Aquarium Salt and the same amount of unscented pure Epsom salts per gallon to the water.

Step 3

Do not feed the fish for the next 2-3 days or more.  Wait until you can see evidence that the fish is passing waste, or it has regained its balance.  If the fish produces excreta that hangs from the anal pore for any length of time, and may be light colored or have gas bubbles interspersed in it, this is a sure sign of indigestion/constipation.

Step 4

If the water temperature is very cold, sub 55oF (13oC), warm the water gradually over several days by 15oF (8oC).

Aim for a temperature around 68oF (20oC) or higher.

If this treatment fixes the problem after a day or two, feed a small amount of live food to the fish.  Include some green food such as cooked, shelled peas that have been crushed.  Make sure this passes through the fish before further feeding.

Slowly increase the amount of food, feeding only live food and green peas for at least a week before introducing the fish back into its aquarium or pond.  First test the water pH and nitrate levels and check the food you are using.  If in any doubt about its freshness throw it out otherwise the condition will quickly return.

If the fish doesn't improve after a few days, different treatment will be required depending on what has occurred over the first few days.

If the fish has passed waste the problem may be bacterial, or the swim bladders have been permanently damaged.

Seachem Kanaplex Antibacterial Medication

Treat the fish with an antibacterial treatment such as Seachem KanaPlex Fungal & Bacterial Fish Disease medication. If this doesn't cure the problem after a few days, the condition may be permanent.

If the fish hasn't passed any waste, don't feed it for a further 2 days then try to get it to eat blanched peas, baby spinach leaves or other vegetable matter.  Don't feed it any other foods until it has passed what is in the gut because by now this food will be fermenting and producing gas.

When All Treatments Fail

Despite your best efforts, you aren't always going to be successful treating your Goldfish.

If your fish is floating upwards and is having difficulty swimming normally, this is usually caused by a poor diet.  A few days without food and a change in diet will usually remedy the situation.

If your fish lacks buoyancy and sinks to the bottom, this is more serious.

The fish's swim bladders have been damaged by something and treatment is usually less successful.

Black Moor with a permanent swim bladder disorder.Black Moor with a permanent swim bladder disorder

If you find the fish doesn't respond to treatments after several weeks, you can assume the condition is permanent.

Aquarium Salt
API Stress Coat Water Conditioner

A fish that keeps floating to the surface will start to develop redness on areas that are exposed to the air when the fish rests.

Depending on the severity, ongoing treatment entails adding four teaspoons of Aquarium salt per gallon and two teaspoons of API Stress Coat per 10 gallons of water. This will help protect the skin against infection.

Feeding is a problem with a floater.  If the fish is able to swim upright periodically, it can be fed live foods that swim in the water column such as daphnia.

Feed foods that float as sinking foods will be too hard for the fish to swim down to, especially if the aquarium is tall.

Repashy Gel Food

If the fish is bouncing like a cork making feeding impossible, hand feeding is your only option. The easiest method is to feed a gel food such as Repashy Soilent Green or Repashy Super Gold.

A fish that sinks to the bottom has a better chance of survival.

Over time the weight of the fish tends to crush the soft belly area, and the ventral fins can be worn away from constant rubbing against the bottom as can be seen in the Black Moor image above.

It is better to have no gravel in the aquarium so the fish can slide around the bottom more easily, find food and avoid redness developing on the ventral area.

These fish often make trips to the surface in an attempt to re-inflate their air bladder so keep the water level at no more than 12 inches (300mm) deep.

Ongoing treatment is the same, but the salt can be reduced to two teaspoons per gallon.  Increase the salt level if redness develops on the fins or belly area.

Feeding a fish that sinks is easier.  The food needs to sink.  Live foods that sink to the bottom such as tubifex worms are ideal.  Repashy Soilent Green gel food sinks and doesn't rapidly dissolve as most pellet foods do.

Once a fish has had a swim bladder disorder it becomes more susceptible to the complaint recurring.

It is vital that  live food forms a large part of the diet of fancy varieties because the most common causes of this disorder are poor quality food and a lack of live food.

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