Betta First Aid Supplies and Triage Care
by "Ren" Weeks
(Photo of Sample Kit Coming ASAP)
The key to success in addressing betta health concerns is a prompt diagnosis and expedient treatment. Unfortunately, at the time your fish becomes ill, you may find yourself scrambling to obtain medications and supplies. This results in a loss of valuable time - a loss that could mean the death of your fish in the case of rapidly developing health conditions like columnaris. As thus, it is best to be prepared with all of the appropriate components of a “Betta First Aid Kit.” Preparing such a kit could be the life line your betta needs until authoritative diagnosis or advanced treatment is available.
What follows is a list of essential supplies for the isolation, triage care, and treatment of diseased or injured fish. Each item is highlighted in bold for those who are simply looking for a listing of supplies and already know their basic mechanics. However, following each item is a detailed explanation of its purpose, application, and proper usage. Finally, at the end, there is a brief section on basic betta triage, applicable to most health conditions, so that you can administer emergency care until you have the appropriate diagnosis or medications.
- A hospital tank, preferably wide and shallow, should ideally be used when treating a sick fish for several reasons: It permits isolation for closer observation, removes the afflicted fish from any possible tank mates who could be infected, prevents the accidental harm of plants and organisms sharing the tank during treatment, and also allows time to tear down and sterilize the original tank to avoid re-infection when necessary. Ideally, a hospital tank is large enough to heat, but small and shallow enough that a compromised fish will not become stressed or exhausted navigating its surroundings. 2.5g works well for bettas as it can be safely heated and is easy to dose even when using tablets.
- A heater of the appropriate wattage for your hospital tank to maintain a steady temperature of 80-84*F: A high, consistent temperature weakens parasites, strengthens immune response, speeds the metabolizing of medications, and promotes quicker healing times. (Note: The one exception is during the treatment of columnaris, in which lower temperatures may yield better results.)
- An aerator (bubbler) and air stone that can be adjusted using a valve: Though high currents can be stressful for even healthy bettas, oxygenating the water is essential to many treatments. There are several reasons for this: anti-biotics and especially anti-parasitics leech oxygen from the water, putting an additional burden on the fish's gills when it is already stressed. What's more, anaerobic bacter, often the harder to treat, proliferate in stagnant water. Finally, in the case of fish who can not surface, or are suffering from ammonia poisoning, gill disease, or gill parasites, assisting gill function could be the difference between life and death.
- Water test kits may seem unnecessary for small tanks and few fish, but make no mistake: water parameters can be highly diagnostic. Some health conditions are specifically due to or catalyzed by fluctuations in pH and hardness, nitrate/nitrite toxicity, or ammonia poisoning. These conditions can arise even with a good cleaning schedule, especially if you use tap water. For example, some tap water has ammonia in it, and requires special treatment to be safe for fish. If you have a fish with ammonia poisoning from contaminated tap but never tested, you could easily kill it by treating it for what you think is a bacterial condition while its gills are under stress.
- A plant & hide that can be cleaned or disposed of: A single silk plant offers vital perching and resting for stressed, exhausted, or injured fish, but too many plants limit your ability to observe a sick betta. Similarly, hides reduce stress by offering a secure hiding area, but select for a type where the betta can be easily viewed, such as a PVC pipe (which can also easily be disinfected).
- A 1mL syringe for dosing additives and medications. Available at most pharmacies and vet offices, a small syringe is useful for dosing powdered and liquid medications and additives in small aquariums. For example, it is much easier to dissolve 1/8 tsp Epsom Salt in 1mL warm water, then put 1/2mLin your 2.5g hospital tank then attempt to measure out 1/16 tsp.
- Fast-acting dechlorinator such as Prime or Aquasafe. You may need to perform an emergency water change in which water can not be left out to sit overnight. Having a dechlorinator that works immediately rather than after several hours is vital to fast treatment.
- Aquarium salt, not to be mistaken for marine salt. Aquarium salt has useful anti-septic properties and anti-parasitic properties as it disturbs the fluid balance of bacteria and parasites. It also alleviates stress on the gills, stimulates the production of the protective slime coat, and helps restore proper fluid balance.
- Epsom salt, available at more pharmacies and grocery stores. Epsom salt is absolutely essential when treating diseases that result in fluid retention, dropsy, and pop-eye; it reduces fluid retention to restore a healthier, more comfortable balance.
- IAL/IAE/BWE - short for Indian Almond Leaf, Indian Almond Extract, or Blackwater extract. Though not essential, I strongly suggest these additives during the treatment of any illness. IAL/IAE/BWE creates tank conditions more similar to the betta's natural habitat, restores electrolytes, adds healthy tannins to the water, and has mild anti-septic properties. It also lowers and stabilizes pH, two important elements of betta disease treatment. Note that when these products are not available, a sterilized naturally fallen and browned oak leaf, or the boiled product thereof, makes an acceptable substitute.
- A broad-spectrum anti-biotic such as tetracycline or a sulfa drug. When faced with a condition that is not obviously gram positive or gram negative, such as bacterial gill disease, going with a drug that treats both but is perhaps not as strong as a specifically gram positive or gram negative medication is often your safest best.
- An anti-biotic for gram - infections, such as kanamycin. Gram negative infections are among the most common in bettas since they thrive in similar living conditions. Most internal or fast developing betta infections, such as columnaris, are caused by gram negative bacteria.
- An anti-biotic for gram + infections, such as erythromycin. Some bacterial conditions such as fin rot are more typically caused by gram positive infections, so having a stronger medicine rather than a weaker broad-spectrum may be a consideration
- A true anti-fungalsuch as methylene blue or Maroxy™ (stabilized chlorine oxides). While many conditions that look to be fungal are in fact bacterial, it is very common for fungal infections to start on injured tissues - from which point they can cause further tissues damage.
- An anti-protozoal, normally a mixture of formalin and malachite green or copper salts. Protozoal infections such as ich and velvet are very common in bettas, particularly if they have undergone any recent stress. It is noteworthy that nitrofuran-based drugs may be effective against internal protozoal infections like hexamita
- An anti-parasitic such as metronidazol, or praziquantel. These medications treat external and internal parasites, ranging from various roundworm, to flukes, to protozoans. Please note that anti-parasitics are known for depleting oxygen in the water and should thus be used with a bubbler!
- Medicated foods (if desired) such as anti-parasitic and anti-bacterial specialty feeds by Jungle, GelTek, and other common brands. Medicated food unquestionably improves response and recovery time, but can be very difficult to convince fish to accept. What's more, it tends to be expensive and come in large quantities. You may substitute by soaking the bettas normal food in a concentrated solution of an existing medication.
It is not uncommon to observe fish with conditions relating to diet and nutrition, such as emaciation, obesity, constipation, malnutrition, or deficiency. Healthy nutrition is a vital part of the healing process, and poor nutrition a contributor in diseases. Eating and digestive habits, such as anorexia or the absence of bowel movements, can also be highly diagnostic. Therefore, always be mindful of a betta's feeding habits, and consider having the following food items handy during treatment
- A small sized, high quality pellet. Smaller pellets encourage acceptance, especially in fish with wounded or painful mouths. Pre-soaking is a good idea for the sake of releasing flavor and scent to entice anorexic bettas, and will also improve the digestibility.
- A high-calorie, palatable, vitamin-enriched frozen food. Hikari sterilizes and enriches its frozen foods and is worth the price when feeding sick bettas. These foods have a strong scent that encourages feeding, are soft enough to be eaten by fish with facial wounds, are high fat and protein for emaciated fish, and are highly digestible.
- Frozen peas or Daphnia: a blanched frozen pea is an effective way to relieve constipation, which can be fatal if severe enough. There is a wonderful guide to properly feeding blanched peas here. Daphnia have a similar effect and are preferred by some betta keepers due to the insectivorous nature of bettas.
Regardless of if your fish is sick, injured, or parasitized, there are a few basic steps you can take to encourage survival as soon as you notice symptoms, even if you do not have medications or a comfortable diagnosis at your disposal. As soon as you see signs of distress, I strongly recommend the following triage care to hopefully keep the betta alive long enough for diagnosis and treatment:
- Perform a 100% water change, or better yet, put in a hospital tank with 100% fresh water ASAP. When a fish is ill, water quality issues are the number one reason for the ailment. You can play with test kits afterwards; first, get that fish out of that water! Furthermore, once a sick or parasitized fish has been in an aquarium, you can trust that there is a good chance of harmful bacteria, protozoans, or parasites lurking in the water, plants, and gravel - doing a water change and moving to a new tank gives you time to sterilize and prevent re-infection. Finally, in the case of injuries and rot, clean water is absolutely essential to preventing bacterial and fungal infections, as well as promoting the healing process.
- Up the temperature, unless flexibacter is suspected. Warmer temperatures are damaging to many parasites, beneficial to your betta's immune system, and promote a faster healing time.
- Add aquarium salt in the medicinal dosage of ½ teaspoon per gallon of water, or 1 tablespoon per 5 gallons of water. Aquarium serves as a mild anti-septic, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial; if nothing else, it will slow the proliferation of these conditions while you scramble to find the right med! It has many other healthy benefits listed above, as well, and never hurts in treating diseases so long as the dose and type is appropriate.
- Add IAL/IAE/BWE if available, as mentioned above, this additive has many health-promoting benefits, and if nothing else will decrease the stress of your fish prior to and during treatment.
- If there is gill distress, aerate. The benefits of aerating water are discussed above. However, aeration can be stressful in small tanks especially. Make sure that the surface agitation is mild for very compromised fish that are having trouble swimming.
- De-stress the environment by moving your betta to a low-light, low-traffic, low-noise environment. Stress is a significant factor in fish health, pathology, and recovery; by creating an environment with minimal stressors, there is often a significant benefit to the fish's well being while ill.
Obviously, there is more to betta first aid than meets the eye; to be fully prepared, one needs a variety of supplies and medications at his disposal, and even then, bettas often find ways of surprising us. What is perhaps more important of thinking of every possible disaster is being prepared, maintaining a level head, and treating as rapidly as possible. Basic triage care goes a long way when awaiting diagnosis or seeking out treatment, even if it does seem simplistic, and advanced preparation can be the difference between life and death. By creating an emergency kit with some or all of the suggested supplies above, you can improve your response time and hopefully increase the chance of survival.
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