7 Signs a Fish is Dying (Plus Ways to Help)

The sight of your little finned friend swimming merrily in its tank can bring warmth and a feeling of comfort knowing you’re not alone in the house. However, the fish will always be subjected to different elements that can cause stress and disease.

And while it is easy to tell if a family member is sick, be it a child, sibling, or parent, knowing if a fish is sick or dying is not that easy. This calls for one to be extra vigilant to spot even the slightest of changes in fish behavior and deduce what it could mean.

Notable signs a fish is dying include floating upside down, gasping for air while afloat, loss of balance, lethargy or sluggish movements, and fish trying to jump out of the tank.

That said, in this article, we will focus on three main things:

  • Signs a fish is dying
  • What causes fish to die
  • How to save a dying fish
Signs Fish is Dying
Signs a Fish is Dying

Signs a fish is dying

As mentioned, there are a few signs you should look for that indicate a fish is dying. Let’s have a look at each one at a time.

1. Gasping for air while afloat

If the water in the fish tank contains high amounts of ammonia and nitrate, it won’t be able to hold enough oxygen for the fish, which forces them to remain afloat in an attempt to get sufficient oxygen. While some fish species can breathe on the water surface with little complications, most cannot and will die if they fail to get enough oxygen.

2. Pale body-color

A fish suffering significant environmental stress will start to lose its vibrant color and become pale or dull. The endocrine system, which is responsible for fish coloration, will secret a hormone called corticosterone when the fish is experiencing stress. This is the hormone responsible for the fish’s body color fading.

3. Increased respiration rate

Another potential sign a fish is dying is an increase in breathing. When a fish is exposed to disease-causing bacteria, fungus, or is under stress, it will cover its gills with mucus secretion. This limits the ability of the fish to breathe comfortably. As a result, the fish’s breathing will increase to get enough oxygen.

4. Loss of appetite

A fish that’s about to die will show significant disinterest in food. You will find the food remains untouched for several hours and nothing you do seems to change things for the better. However, it’s vital to note that loss of appetite can also be attributed to significant stress. You can consult your local veterinarian if you’re not sure why your fish is refusing to eat.

5. Lethargy or sluggish movements

It is perfectly fine for a fish to be in a restful state. However, if it remains still in one place for several hours then you should be concerned.  You should be more concerned if you notice the fish movements are sluggish and that it lacks balance as it moves. You should also be concerned if the fish is completely disinterested in anything in or around its tank.

6. Fish trying to jump out

This is one of the surest signs a fish is dying. In most cases, a fish suffering extreme stress will attempt to jump out of the tank in an attempt to save its life. If you notice this happening, you should try to identify what could be causing the stress, and if you can’t then seek veterinary assistance.

7. Fish swimming upside down

If you notice your fish swimming upside down, it could be suffering from swim bladder disease. Although the disease is not deadly and can be cured quite easily, failure to take the necessary steps to have your fish treated can lead to stress and eventually death.

What causes fish to die

Many things can cause death in fish. The most notable ones include:

1. Water poisoning

A high concentration of ammonia and nitrate, which is common in new tanks, means the water cannot hold sufficient oxygen for the fish. The fish will struggle to get enough oxygen and severe cases lead to death. You should ensure no toxic substances find their way into the tank, including cleaning materials/detergents, soap, perfume, and more.

2. Change in water equilibrium

It takes fish a long time to adapt to a new water environment. Therefore, replacing a large amount of water in the tank will result in disruption of the balance and the fish will struggle to adapt. In most cases, fish can die after cleaning the tank for this reason.

3. Sudden temperature changes

As earlier noted, it takes fish quite some time to adjust to a new environment. This means a sudden change in the temperature of the water will not only be hard for the fish to adapt to but will also cause stress, which plays a significant role in the sudden death of fish. Changes in water temperature should be slow and gradual and not sudden.

4. Infections

Infections can also kill fish. They are divided into four categories namely bacterial, fungal, parasitic, and environmental infections. The most common diseases in fish include cottonmouth, dropsy, fin or tail rot, ich or white spot, popeye, slime disease, swim bladder disorder, ulcers, and velvet.

5. Overfeeding

While it’s true fish love to eat more often than most other pets, ensuring they are not overfed is important. You can seek the help of your local veterinarian in case you’re not sure how often you should feed your fish.

How to save a dying fish

There are a few things you can do to save a dying fish. Some of the measures you can take include:

1. Separate the sick fish

You should start by separating the sick fish from the others to avoid transmission of infections. If you have only one fish then there is no need to move it to a different tank.

2. Check the water quality

The next step is to check whether the water in the fish tank is of the right quality. Using a fish tank water testing kit (which you can buy in pet stores), test for things such as ammonia, nitrates, temperature, pH levels, and oxygen levels.

Make sure the water does not contain high levels of ammonia and the temperature should be between 50 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. You should also measure the pH of the water and make sure it’s as close to neutral pH as possible. If you find the water to be too acidic then use chemical neutralizers from pet stores.

3. Clean the tank & change the water

If you determine the water quality is not good, start by cleaning the tank to get rid of fish wastes that cause a buildup of ammonia, bacteria, and algae. It’s advisable to put the fish in a separate tank while cleaning and replacing the water.

You should not replace more than 15% of the water because doing so can cause shock to your fish which can lead to death. You should also remove all the gravel and algae. Do not use any chemicals to clean the tank because they can kill the fish.

4. Identify the infections

Identifying disease symptoms will help you know what next you should do. If the fish is gasping for air, breathing faster than normal, skimming the surface of the water, or lying still at the bottom of the tank, it indicates the water quality is poor or the fish is sick.

If the fish has lost weight and is refusing to eat, it could be due to internal parasites. A fish suffering from swim bladder disease will swim erratically, swim upside down, or rub against surfaces.

Other symptoms you should look for include torn or folded fins, protruding eyes, pales gills, discolored spots, lumps or bumps, or bloating. These are often signs of fungal infections.

5. Treat the infections

Treating fungal infections and tail rot may save your fish from dying. You need to remove the tank filter and treat the water properly. Use commercial treatments such as methylene blue to fight fungal infections or Maracyn-Two for fin rot.

You should, however, be careful before using any of these treatment options and be sure your fish is suffering from a fungal infection or tail rot. Using these treatments when your fish is not suffering from any of these problems can seriously harm them.

6. Treat the water

The presence of white spots on the fish’s body is a sign of disease caused by ich parasites or may have lice or anchor worms. Use the heat and salt method to treat the disease.

Start by raising the aquarium temperature to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 °C) over 48 hours and maintain this temperature for about ten days. This will prevent the parasites from reproducing.

You should also add one tablespoon of aquarium salt for every five gallons of water and make sure to refill the tank with freshwater every few days.

After ten days, lower the water temperature to 65 °F or 18 °C.

7. Feed your fish the right food

If the fish has swim bladder disease, changing aquarium water will not help. Instead, you should feed your fish veggies such as frozen peas due to their high fiber content and foods with low protein amounts.

Make sure not to add too much food to the tank. Doing so is likely to lead to ammonia buildup in the tank if the fish does not eat all the food, which in turn will make the fish even sicker.

8. Get rid of parasites

If the cause of the sickness is a parasite such as anchor worms, you can use tweezers to get rid of them. You need to be careful when doing this not to harm or kill your fish.

Grip the parasite with the tweezers as close to the wound as possible. This ensures the entire parasite is removed. You should also place your fish back in the water regularly so that it can catch its breath.

9. Seek veterinary assistance

In case you’re not sure why your fish is sick, the best thing to do is to seek veterinary assistance. Your vet will carry out tests to identify the cause of the sickness and recommend appropriate medications.

Be careful when using commercial medications because some can harm your fish. You should be sure of the disease your fish is suffering from to identify the appropriate medication.

Final thoughts

Fish are lovely pets and being able to tell when they are sick or in distress is important. You will be able to save their lives with the right interventions. Keep in mind the signs a fish is dying we have highlighted above as it might come in handy someday.