A Few Facts About Swim Bladder Disease In Fish

The term swim bladder disease is something of a misnomer. It would be more accurate to call it a disorder, or better yet a syndrome, since more than a single disease may be involved. Nevertheless, the name swim bladder disease has more or less become firmly established in the world of tropical fish, especially where fancy goldfish are involved, as these are the fish which seem to be most at risk. The real problem with the name is that it can mean so many different things. It can therefore be difficult to pinpoint exactly what the root of the problem is, making treatment difficult.

A Genetic Disorder - Sometimes, fish can be born with deformed bladders, a condition for which there is generally no cure, and unless euthanasia is resorted to those fish are very likely to have a very short lifespan. Fish born with deformed bladders are sometimes the offspring of fish that are being bred to produce “fancy” varieties of a certain species. Inbreeding can also be a cause of a defective swim bladder and other deformities or disorders.

Shock Or Trauma - Fish that undergo a sudden shock, such a sudden change in water quality or temperature, can exhibit what seems to be an onset of swim bladder disease, as they may swim at odd angles or orientations.  Some fish may not survive the shock, although for most, the “disease” is a temporary condition, and they will recover. Some species of fish, those that have a tendency to fight with other species, or with members of their own, will on occasion suffer an injury to the swim bladder. Should this occur, the only treatment is to first isolate the injured fish, in hopes it will recover, and then keep it separate from fish it is likely to fight with, or from fish that are likely to pick on it.

Bacterial Infection - Swim bladder disease is often attributed to a bacterial infection. There is some truth to this, but in most instances when a fish has become infected with a certain bacteria, more than the swim bladder is affected. Even if the swim bladder could be isolated and treated, the chances are one would still have a very sick fish to contend with. In such a case, a fish swimming oddly, or upside down, would be doing so because of a swim bladder problem, but the disease or disorder affecting the fish would likely be more widespread.

Treatment - Swim bladder problems tend to occur mostly in fish that have a somewhat globular shape, as is the case with most fancy goldfish. For most instances of swim bladder disease there is no known cure, principally because the exact nature of the disease cannot usually be determined, and only its symptoms are known. Very often, the swim bladder will simply fill with too much air, in which case the fish may become trapped near the surface, or find itself swimming upside down. One way to treat this particular problem is by sticking a needle into the fish and drawing some of the air out. While this may not, and probably will not, cure the disorder, it may provide at least temporary relief. Allowing the fish to fast for a short time, changing its water, and as one person discovered, feeding it a pea or two, can sometimes be a yield a positive result. Why a pea works the way it does hasn't been determined, but there is more than one source on the Internet that recommends this approach.  It seems to be a case of “whatever works”, as opposed to a scientifically-proven means of treatment. Fasting seems a good way to return the fish to normal, at least in some cases. In most cases, once a fish starts to have swim bladder problems it will eventually need to be euthanized, if it does not die on its own.

As noted above, the disease or disorder affecting a fish often extends beyond the swim bladder itself. The swim bladder may not be diseased at all, but may become deformed or distorted if another organ should expand and compress it. Sometimes there is no disorder at all, the problem being a stomach that has become enlarged due to over-eating, which then presses against the swim bladder, causing   buoyancy problems. The same can happen if the fish becomes constipated, causing the intestine to become enlarged, or if the liver or a kidney becomes enlarged. Sometimes the growth of a cyst will compress the swim bladder. When the bladder is compressed, the fish obviously is going to tend to sink to the bottom, rather than being trapped at the surface. The actions of the fish can therefore be an indication as to what is going on with the swim bladder, although that doesn't always mean that something can be done about it, with the exception of withholding food, or attempting to relieve constipation. In summary, swim bladder disease is not only a misnomer, but is something we really don't know all that much about, and we are often left guessing about what, if anything, we can do about it.