Disclaimer: This article is based on my own personal research and experience. I am not a licensed veterinarian, and this is not professional advice.
This article will go through all the questions and topics below that a fish keeper may have about swim bladder disease:
What is a swim bladder?
What is swim bladder disease?
What fish are prone to swim bladder disease?
What causes swim bladder disease in fish?
Signs of swim bladder disease
Is swim bladder disease contagious?
Is swim bladder disease deadly?
Treatments for swim bladder disease
How to prevent swim bladder disease
By the time you finish this article, hopefully, you'll be able to understand how to treat swim bladder disease in betta fish.
What is a Swim Bladder?
In layman's terms, the swim bladder is a balloon within the body of a bony fish.
The whole purpose of the swim bladder is to allow fish to control their buoyancy efficiently. The swim bladder helps fish navigate up and down the water column and stay balanced and upright.
Betta fish that have swim bladder issues usually swim abnormally.
What is Swim Bladder Disease?
For the intents and purposes of this article, swim bladder disease encompasses any dysfunction of the swim bladder.
What Fish Are Prone to Swim Bladder Disease?
Essentially, any fish with a swim bladder can get swim bladder disease. It's important to note that fish swimming to the water's surface to gulp air, such as betta fish and gourami, are more prone to this condition.
You'll often see this condition with goldfish as well. While they don't have labyrinth organs that cause them to go up to the surface of the air to breathe, they often go up near the top layer of the water column.
What Causes Swim Bladder Disease?
Several causes can lead to swim bladder disease within betta fish, which can be divided into 2 groups: external and internal:
Examples of external causes: constipation, shipping, and poor tank parameters
Examples of internal causes: bacterial infections and internal parasites
Let's deep dive into each of these causes further.
The most common cause of swim bladder disease is constipation.
There are several reasons why your betta fish may be experiencing constipation:
Using low-quality fish food
Giving a diet with no variety (i.e., feeding the same thing every single day)
If you suspect one of these is the cause of your betta fish's swim bladder disease, here's some content to help:
Bacterial Infections & Internal Parasites
Two other causes of swim bladder disease include bacterial infections and internal parasites.
Internal infections often affect the kidney of the betta fish. When the kidney does not function correctly, it can lead to internal swelling within your betta fish.
In severe cases of swelling, you'll see the scales start to poke out. This is called pineconing. It usually points to a more severe condition known as dropsy.
Dropsy is frequently confused with swim bladder disease. While dropsy often results in swim bladder disease, the good thing is not all cases of swim bladder disease are necessarily associated with dropsy.
Since dropsy is a more severe condition, we'll save that topic for another day.
A fourth potential cause of swim bladder disease is short-term shock.
A very common case of short-term shock is the stress from being shipped. When betta fish are shipped, there's no light duration, temperatures can fluctuate, and ammonia can build up in a limited amount of water.
Overall, taking a joy ride with a local FedEx guy is just not an optimal time for any fish.
Other cases of short-term shock can include sudden temperature fluctuations during water changes and/or accidental physical trauma.
Unlike short-term shock, a fifth cause to swim bladder disease can be long-term stress.
Long-term cases of stress include bad water quality or poor tank parameters.
If your tank temperature is outside the optimal range or your tank is not fully cycled, havoc will ensue.
Always test your water regularly with a trustable water test kit to ensure there are no trace amounts of ammonia (goal: 0 ppm), nitrates (goal: 0 ppm), or nitrates (goal: 0-40 ppm). Nitrate levels can vary depending on how planted your tank is.
Another type of long-term stress is a betta fish living in a community tank. How?
Bad neighbors: If your betta is not with suitable tank mates, it can be put in a constantly stressful environment
Inconsistent feeding: There is a possibility of overfeeding your betta fish when it's in a community tank since you have to put in more food to ensure everyone is eating
Genetic or Congenital Disabilities
The last potential cause of swim bladder disease is genetic or congenital disability.
Some betta fish are just genetically predisposed to having swim bladder problems. For those who have raised and bred guppies before, it's not uncommon to see a baby or two born with a sub-functioning swim bladder right out of the womb.
Signs of Swim Bladder Disease
How do you know if your betta fish has swim bladder disease? You can check for visual signs and behavioral signs.
Sign 1: Betta fish with swim bladder disease due to constipation may have a bloated stomach or an overly distended stomach.
Sign 2: Sometimes, you'll see betta fish with swim bladder disease have a spine that creates an S-curvature.
Sign 3: You may see clamped fins kept closer to the body. Clamped fins are usually indicative of an internal parasite or a bacterial infection.
Sign 4: The last thing you might see is stringy white stool. This sign can point toward an internal parasite or bacterial infection. It can also be a telltale sign that you're not giving an adequate diet to your betta fish.
Sign 1: Behavioral signs revolve around any deviation from the usual swimming patterns you see with your betta fish.
Sign 2: Swim bladder disease behavioral signs can include being overly lethargic or the betta fish staying in one part of the tank, whether at the top or the bottom. If you see your betta fish not moving around as much as they usually would... that can be a red flag.
Sign 3: Another sign is seeing your betta fish swimming lopsidedly or awkwardly. This can transpire in the form of your betta fish's head being constantly tilted upwards or constantly tilted downwards.
Sign 4: One sign I've seen in the past is a betta fish that's unable to stay in one spot. If you ever see a betta fish that can't seem to stop itself from drifting when it wants to stay put, that might be because of swim bladder disease.
Sign 5: The last behavioral sign that I've noticed is a betta fish that's unable to stay upright when laying on anything.
Is Swim Bladder Disease Contagious?
Some videos and articles claim that swim bladder disease is a contagious condition, while others say it's not. So what's the real answer?
The true answer is that it depends on the cause.
If the swim bladder disease is due to an external cause such as constipation or shock, then theoretically, swim bladder disease in these cases is not contagious.
However, if the swim bladder disease is from an internal cause such as an internal parasite or bacterial infection, this form of swim bladder disease is contagious and thus, can spread to other fish within a tank.
Is Swim Bladder Disease Deadly?
Similar to contagiousness, survivability from swim bladder disease depends on what is causing the condition.
External causes such as constipation from overfeeding, poor diet, long-term stress, or short-term stress can indicate a higher likelihood that your betta fish will survive.
In contrast, death is more likely if an internal cause is a parasitic or bacterial infection. Survivability is particularly low if the swim bladder disease results from dropsy. As stated earlier, dropsy is more severe and fatal.
Bonus tip: If there is no pineconing on your betta fish, your betta is in good shape (pun may have been intended...), and your betta fish will likely survive, so long as you are prepared.
Quarantine Tanks for Swim Bladder Disease
Before we talk about how to treat swim bladder disease in betta fish specifically, let's go into how to set up a hospital or quarantine tank.
Build a quarantine or hospital tank that specifically caters to the ailments around swim bladder disease. Not just any tank would suffice, so here are things you will need to consider:
Tank contents, plants, and/or decoration
The first thing to consider is the water depth in your tank.
Since betta fish with swim bladder disease will more likely have difficulty swimming, keep the tank shallow. I recommend a max depth of 6 inches but would personally do 3 to 4 inches.
Any deeper will cause your betta fish to exert more energy than it needs to get to the surface, resulting in additional stress to an already stressful situation.
In the quarantine tank, make sure that the tank is heated.
If you think the cause of your fish's swim bladder disease was your tank being at too cold of a temperature, then a heater is needed for your quarantine tank. The ideal tank temperature for betta fish is 78-80°F or 25.6-26.7°C.
Important note: Make sure you taper the temperature slowly so that you do not stress out your betta fish from too quick of an environmental shift.
Next up, make sure your water conditions are perfect.
If your hospital tank isn't cycled, you'll want to do water changes every day. As far as filtration is concerned, a sponge filter would be preferred. You want to minimize the flow as much as possible.
Adding floating plants can help out tremendously.
This point of adding plants is often overlooked. If your betta fish has a dysfunctional swim bladder, it will want to nestle in something to rest. Give them the option of something natural, soft, and supple like water sprite.
Do not put any substrate in your quarantine tank.
By having no substrate, you can more effectively monitor for any stool or poop that your betta fish passes. Keep your tank bare-bottomed so that you can easily observe.
Now that you have an adequate quarantine tank, let's discuss treatments for swim bladder disease.
Treatments for Swim Bladder Disease
There are three goals to keep in mind when treating swim bladder disease:
Clear the blockage that's causing constipation
Reduce internal swelling that's happening within the body.
Treat the underlying, primary cause (i.e., a bacterial infection or parasite)
With the three goals, here are 8 interventions:
1. Fast your betta fish
The first intervention is to fast your fish for 3 days.
Regardless of what is causing the swim bladder disease, put them through a 3-day fasting period. There are 2 benefits of fasting your betta fish:
It gives the betta fish's digestive system a chance to remove blockages naturally
It increases the chances that your betta fish will eat a pea (to be elaborated on further in the next section)
Throughout the 3 days of fasting, it's essential that you consistently monitor the hospital tank to see if your betta fish passes any stool.
After those 3 days, if you don't notice any stool, we can move on to my second intervention: feeding frozen peas.
2. Feed a Frozen Pea
A pea acts as a natural laxative for betta fish. This is similar to Metamucil, which is high in fiber. If you eat a high-fiber diet or if you eat Metamucil, you're more likely to pass stool.
The same rules apply to peas. Peas are high in fiber for betta fish. So once the betta ingests it, it increases the chances that the betta can pass whatever is blocking the digestive tract.
Use frozen peas, NOT canned peas or fresh peas.
Canned peas often have high levels of sodium and preservatives. Fresh peas risk having pesticides on them. If you want to use fresh peas, make sure you wash them thoroughly.
This is how to prepare a pea for your betta fish:
Get a frozen pea
You may only need 1 per day
Boil the pea for 5-10 minutes
Run it under cold water
Take off the outer shell
Betta fish cannot digest that outer layer. If they were to ingest it, this could make the problem worse.
Cut the pea into bite-sized pieces for your betta fish
Feed your betta fish 1-2 pieces per day
You can feed once in the morning and once at night
Do this for about a week and always monitor for stool.
3. Feed Daphnia
Intervention number 3 would be feeding daphnia.
Daphnia accomplishes the same thing that peas accomplish in that they act as a laxative. This alternative is for those who care about keeping your betta fish's diet closest to how it is in nature.
Peas consist of plant matter, which deviates from betta fish being insectivores. On the other hand, daphnia accomplishes the same laxative effect.
I have no preference between peas versus daphnia, but the one downside I see with daphnia is that it is not as accessible as peas are.
4. Give an Epsom Salt Bath or Epsom Dip
The fourth intervention would be an Epsom salt bath or dip.
Epsom salt is different from aquarium salt. Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate (MgSO4), whereas aquarium salt is usually sodium chloride (NaCl). When buying Epsom salt, ensure there are no additives, perfumes, or soaps. Pure Epsom salt is what we want.
There is a narrow window in which Epsom salt helps your betta fish, so be prepared, and act quickly.
Epsom salt benefits in two ways:
Epsom salt reduces swelling by reducing the water retention that your betta fish has
Epsom salts are a game-changer in dropping that water weight for those who have ever done wrestling or any sports requiring you to lose weight.
The same thing applies to betta fish. If you see your betta fish is holding a lot of fluid, Epsom salt baths may be helpful.
Epsom salt baths are beneficial for betta fish experiencing dropsy or those with that characteristic pineconing of their scales.
Epsom salt acts as a mild laxative
Similar to how daphnia and peas act as laxatives, Epsom salt can also help in that department.
If you decide to put your betta fish through an Epsom salt dip, it's essential that you know what you're doing. I would generally save this intervention for more severe cases because an Epsom salt bath can do more harm than good if done incorrectly.
I recommend you do a daily 10-15 minute Epsom salt dip at a concentration of 1 tablespoon per gallon. Do the dips in a container separate from the quarantine tank.
After the 10-15 minutes, it is crucial that you slowly re-acclimate your betta fish to normal water. Take the container with the Epsom salt and slowly dilute it with normal conditioned water.
5. Use Aquarium Salt
The fifth suggestion on my list is aquarium salt, which again differs from Epsom salt.
You'll see many articles or videos online that state aquarium salt can help cure swim bladder disease. The fact is that aquarium salt does nothing to treat the condition directly.
Aquarium salt optimizes the betta fish's living conditions so that its immune system is primed and can focus most of its energy on tackling the swim bladder disease.
If you were ever sick as a child, the first thing that comes to mind is chicken noodle soup. The soup itself does not have any antiviral properties that help cure the cold. Instead, the soup provides you with energy and electrolytes to help you naturally fight off the illness.
If you decide to use aquarium salt, you can put it in the actual quarantine tank, not in a separate container like the Epsom salt.
6. Simply Watch and Wait
The sixth intervention you can do is watch and wait.
This is more beneficial in those cases where you think the swim bladder disease is from an external cause. If you think what caused the swim bladder disease is poor tank parameters, then fix those parameters. Ideally, your betta fish will get better over time.
If you think the swim bladder disease was due to the stresses of shipping, get your betta fish out of that shipping container and into a tank with conditioned water as soon as possible.
7. Use Antibiotics
The seventh intervention would be antibiotics.
Suppose you believe your betta fish's swim bladder disease precipitated from a bacterial infection. In that case, you're going to want to try to treat it with antibiotics.
8. Use Anti-Parasitic Medication
The last and final intervention you could use to treat swim bladder disease is an anti-parasitic medication.
This is strictly reserved for cases in which a parasite is likely the cause of the swim bladder disease. My personal preference would be ParaCleanse.
So now that, you know, the treatments, what are some ways to prevent swim bladder disease in the future?
Preventions for Swim Bladder Disease
First, do not overfeed your betta fish.
Second, make sure you're giving your betta fish a well-rounded diet.
Third, it's always best practice to fast your fish regularly. If you're paranoid about using pellets because of the potential risk of expanding in their stomach, pre-soak your pellets for feeding.
Fourth tip would be to add peas or daphnia monthly or quarterly into their feeding regimen. This isn't necessary, but if you think your betta fish is prone to swim bladder disease, it won't hurt to add this into their regimen.
Next, make sure water parameters are always up to standard:
Temperature should be between 78-80°F or 25.6-26.7°C
Ammonia should be at 0 ppm
Nitrates should be 0 ppm
Nitrates should be at 0-40 ppm depending on how planted your tank is
The last tip for preventing swim bladder disease is to ensure your water changes are done correctly. When doing water changes, make sure the water being added is at or around the same temperature as the tank.
Swim bladder disease in betta fish can be treated, especially when detected early. Success simply boils down to understanding the root cause of your betta fish's swim bladder disease and acting accordingly.
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