!!Please use this new, updated information when treating your fish!!
Columnaris: Information and Treatment
By "Ren" Weeks
What is Columnaris?
Columnaris is a disease that goes by many names. Flexibacter, mouth rot, mouth fungus, gill fungus, body fungus, saddleback columnaris, and cotton wool disease: all of these common terms describe one tenacious bacteria, Flavobacterium columnare, previously known as Flexibacter columnaris. This gram-negative, motile, rod-shaped, aerobic bacteria thrives in many of the same conditions that our tropical fish also enjoy, making it especially dangerous and virulent to stressed fish. Fish have been known to die in as little as 24 hours following the emergence of visible symptoms, which makes prompt recognition and treatment of vital importance.
What Are the Symptoms of Columnaris?
The most commonly observed form of columnaris often presents itself as stringy white, grey, or off-white "wool" on the fish's face, mouth, or gills. Alternate locations include the "saddle-back" presentation, in which we see a distinct band of the same substance over the back just before the base of the dorsal fin. (Other symtoms may include small gray patches on the face, gasping, and rapid fin loss, but these may be indicative of other diseases, as well). Left untreated, the cottony growths on the fish's body will eat away at the underlying tissues. One of the clear indicators of advanced columnaris is a angry red ulcer with dying white tissue around its perimeter. However, you should not wait until such ulcers appear before deciding to treat! At this stage, the disease is advancing into the internal organs, and the fish is at great risk of secondary infections or death.
Can Columnaris be Prevented?
In most cases, Columnaris is caused by some kind of stress, and as thus, is largely preventable. Prevention is always the best medicine, especially with a disease this deadly. At this point, betta owners should really listen up, because bettas are one of the most commonly afflicted species... and their strife is also likely the most easily prevented.
Columnaris thrives in warm and unclean conditions. Because bettas are kept either in a high-range tropical temperatures that columnaris loves OR in unstable, fluctuating environments; are not typically kept in cycled, filtered tanks like other species; and may even be living in very small volumes (ie. a small vase) in which waste can rapidly build to toxic levels, they are put at a heightened risk. In many cases, columnaris could have been prevented by a more stable tank environment, more frequent water changes, or less stressful living conditions.
Below are some suggestions about how you might improve your tank environment:
- Stabilize the temperature. While columnaris likes environments of 76 and above, such temperatures should not create an issue if your betta is healthy. One of the leading causes of stress in bettas is temperature fluctuations, due to the lack of a heater or living in a small volume of water (small volumes change temperature more rapidly). Volumes of at least 2.5g can be safely heated, and larger volumes still are less susceptible to fluctuations.
- Clean and pristine is the way to go. While many websites claim bettas enjoy living in filth, this couldn't be further from the truth. All fish need clean water conditions to thrive. This means zero ppm ammonia, zero ppm nitrite, and low levels of nitrate. The easiest way to maintain adequate water quality in your betta's tank is to cycle it and perform regular gravel vacuums and water changes. However, water quality can be maintained in uncycled tanks by regular 100% water changes, frequency depending on the volume of the tank.
- Maintain a low-stress environment. Stress is an important factor in the health of all fish. While temperature stress and water quality stress pose the greatest dangers, other factors may also come into play. Unstable pH and hardness, an inappropriate photoperiod, excessive vibrations, poor diet, inappropriate tankmates, an overly exposed environment, etc. are all potential stressors for your betta.
Although prevention helps keep columnaris out of your tanks, it is sometimes unavoidable. Maybe you recieved a fish in the mail whose trip was spent in a sweltering mail truck. Maybe you didn't notice the small gray splotches on your betta's face until you brought him home. Perhaps you just have an old boy whose immune system isn't quite up to par. Whatever the case, if your fish has symptoms of columnaris, you need to begin treatment right away. Remember when starting treatment that time is of the essence; I suggest doing twice daily health checks on all of your fish, and keeping a stash of medicine around the house in case of emergencies.
Below is a treatment protocol:
- Placement of the afflicted fish in a hospital tank that can be easily kept clean and medicated should initiate treatment; personally, I suggest fully disinfecting the original tank while the fish is in treatment.
- The hospital tank should be heated to approx. 74-75 degrees. 76 and above is the ideal breeding temperature for columnaris. Please note that cooling the tank is somewhat disputed. The theory behind it is that columnaris is such a rapidly progressing disease that reducing temperature may slow the spread sufficiently for the antibiotic to have time to work before too much damage is done. Keeping a betta below 74 degrees, however, is not reccomended as its own metabolic rates - and thus immune response - will be slowed as temperatures cool. Regardless of what temperature you keep your fish at, it MUST be stable.
- The hospital tank should also be dosed with aquarium salt at a concentration of 1/2 tsp per gallon. The use of salt is sometimes questioned in fishkeeping circles, as the validity of its purported effect on a pathogen's osmotic balance is disputed. However, columnaris prefers a low salinity environment, and research in channel catfish shows increasing survivorship when columnaris-infected fish are dosed with salt.
- An anti-biotic appropriate for gram negative pathogens should be utilized. Several are available on the market. Kanamycin, Nitrofurazone, Minocycline, and others have all been shown to be effective in treating columnaris.
- If possible, feed an anti-bacterial food, as columnaris typically causes both internal and external damage. GelTek manufactures several foods appropriate for gram negative organisms.
- Finally, be religious with treatment and maintenence. Pristine and stable water conditions, full course anti-biotics, a low-stress environment, and high quality diet will all help your fish to overcome this deadly disease.
- Topical application of peroxide or potassium permangenate is suggested by some websites.
- Salt baths or Methylene blue baths are suggested by some aquarists.
- Indian almond leaves, blackwater extract, and other tanin-rich additives may help produce lower stress conditions for the betta, which in turn can promote healing.
- I have personally had luck topically applying terramycin directly to the site of sores.
There is always plenty of information on the web on treating illnesses, but nothing about what to do during recovery. Bettas just exposed to the stress of a rigorous course of medical treatment are good candidates for re-infection or opportunistic disease. The following steps my be helpful:
- Full disinfection of the original tank (and if applicable, re-cycling it while the betta is still in the hospital tank) before fish's return
- Gradual return to warm (80-82) water conditions - please do not do this in a short period of time or you WILL stress your fish
- Continued dosing of aquarium salt for at least two weeks following treatment
- IAL/BWE added with every water change.
- High quality diet including frozen and live food during and following repair of damaged tissues
- Continued maintenence of a clean, stable environment (hint: this recovery "must do" should never end - always keep your fish in a clean, stable, low-stress environment!)
Columnaris is a tough disease - but it is not the end-all many aquarists and fish stores make it out to be. Please do not be discouraged and immediately opt for euthanasia when faced with this disease; it can be sucessfully treated. Results may not be immediate, and the fish may indeed suffer a significant amount of pain during treatment, but the end product - a healthy fish - is well worth it. With preventative care, early diagnosis, expedient treatment, and precise recovery care, most bettas and other fish afflicted with columnaris can expect to live a long, healthy, normal life.
Rules for Distribution:
I welcome you to share this information and any other articles I have written with other forums and websites under the following conditions:
1. Do not claim this work as your own.
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Edited by RandomWiktor, 25 April 2010 - 07:06 AM.