In some cases, swim bladder disease is a minor condition that will only last a few days, but in other cases, it can become a permanent ailment.
Where chronic symptoms are mild, a fish may be able to continue living a long and relatively happy life, but in more severe cases, euthanasia may be the kindest option.
Let’s take a closer look at the different types of swim bladder disorders so you can decide the best course of action to take with your beloved fish.
What Is a Swim Bladder?
The swim bladder is a special organ in fish that helps them control their buoyancy. By storing glasses in the swim bladder fish can maintain a neutral buoyancy and thus command their orientation in the water.
Interestingly, some fish also use their swim bladder to produce and detect sounds and vibrations.
What Is Swim Bladder Disease?
Swim bladder disease (also known as swim bladder disorder) is a catch-all term for all ailments that cause the swim bladder not to function normally. It’s much more common in captive fish than in wild fish.
Fish with swim bladder disease struggle to maintain a normal position in the water. They may float at the surface (positive buoyancy), sink to the bottom (negative buoyancy), swim on their side, or even turn upside-down.
As well as the symptoms listed above, a confirmed diagnosis can be given by taking your fish to a specialist aquatic vet for an x-ray.
Because swim bladder disorders are usually fairly easy to diagnose from swimming difficulty, most fish keepers never take their fish to a vet for confirmation.
Swim bladder problems can be attributed to a variety of causes. Whether a bacterial infection, viral infection, or parasite is involved, the root cause of the problem typically includes stress, an incorrect feeding regime, inappropriate aquarium conditions, or water quality issues.
Certain fish species such as goldfish and betta fish are especially prone to swim bladder issues, and the problem can be hereditary in fish that have been adversely affected by intensive breeding.
Fancy goldfish, for example, often have problems with their swim bladders and other internal organs due to their unnaturally round shape caused by selective breeding.
Is Swim Bladder Disease Treatable?
Since swim bladder disease is an umbrella term for anything that adversely affects swim bladder function, treatment depends on its cause.
If swim bladder disorder has been caused by a bacterial or parasitic infection, then treating the infection may see your fish make a full recovery from its buoyancy problems.
Likewise, if swim bladder issues are caused by overfeeding and constipation, fasting your fish or offering them a laxative such as cooked peas or Epsom salts might also see them return to swimming normally.
Sometimes, however, the swim bladder may be permanently damaged, and treatment won’t be effective.
Can a Fish Live With Permanent Swim Bladder Disease?
If your fish has a type of swim bladder disorder that can’t be successfully treated, it may still be able to continue living a reasonable quality of life if symptoms are mild.
If your fish is only swimming slightly out of alignment without getting stuck at the top or bottom of the tank, they could continue to live for several years.
You may need to adapt their care regime slightly, however, to accommodate their malady.
How To Feed a Fish With Swim Bladder Disease
Whether your fish has a temporary or permanent swim bladder condition, you may need to alter their feeding regime to ensure they receive enough food.
Because fish with swim bladder issues become less mobile than their tank mates, they may be outcompeted for food.
One solution is to feed the bulk of your fish at one end of the tank and wait until they’re preoccupied before feeding your sick fish more directly by hand.
If your fish is incapacitated by the problem, you may need to feed small frozen food or flake food by pipette. Although your fish may not respond immediately to direct feeding, they’ll soon learn, especially if you offer their favorite treats!
Swim Bladder Disease and Tank Mates
As well as attending to your fish’s new feeding requirements, you may also need to reconsider which other fish they can live with.
Because swim bladder disorder affects a fish’s prowess in the water, they may become more susceptible to bullying from other fish. This is especially likely in fish with long fins such as guppies and bettas which other fish can easily nip at.
If your fish is in danger of being harassed by other fish while it is sick, it’s better to place it in a hospital tank before any damage is done. Swim bladder disorder is already a stressful condition for your fish, so preventing bullying is important to prevent further stress or shock that could sometimes prove fatal.
When a Fish Can No Longer Live With Swim Bladder Disease
If symptoms are more severe, your fish may find it difficult to continue its life with permanent swim bladder disease.
If no treatments have been successful and your fish is permanently stuck at the top or bottom of the tank, you may need to consider euthanasia to prevent unnecessary long-term suffering.
Before taking this last resort, you may wish to take your fish to a specialist aquatic vet to see if any treatment can be made. If you live in the USA, you can find your nearest fish vet on this dedicated page.
11 Top Tips for Preventing Swim Bladder Disease
There’s a saying: “Prevention is better than a cure”. While treating swim bladder disorders can be complicated or sometimes impossible, preventing them in the first place with proper care is often remarkably simple.
Here are some of the best tips to reduce the chances of your fish being affected:
- Avoid highly bred, mutated fish such as fancy goldfish, parrot cichlids, and balloon mollies that are prone to swim bladder problems.
- Avoid overfeeding. For most fish, this means feeding twice a day with no more than they can eat in 2 minutes at a time.
- Feed a balanced diet. Offer a mixture of live and frozen foods, plant-based foods, and dried foods according to your fish’s requirements.
- Remove any uneaten fish food or keep a clean-up crew to eat up any leftovers so that uneaten food doesn’t contaminate your fish tank’s water.
- Install a good filter and clean it every 2-3 weeks.
- Vacuum your substrate and make partial water changes of 15-35% every 1-2 weeks with treated water of matching temperature.
- Provide plenty of rocks and plants as hiding places to reduce stress.
- Keep aquarium lights on a timer switch to create a natural day-night cycle for your fish.
- Ensure your water chemistry and water temperature are in the correct range for your fish.
- Test your aquarium’s water at least once a month or any time your fish seem unwell. Ensure nitrate levels always remain below 20 ppm.
- Observe your fish closely each and every day to ensure they are in good health and interacting peacefully with each other.
Swim bladder disease is a common yet often treatable illness that can either be very mild or extremely debilitating.
In cases of permanent swim bladder disease, a fish may be able to continue living indefinitely if symptoms are mild.
If symptoms are more serious, however, please consider consulting your local specialist vet to discuss the best course of action.