Fish health and welfare

Find out how to tell whether your fish are healthy or poorly with these handy checklists of signs and symptoms to look out for.

Signs of healthy fish

  • Appetite: Good appetite, food eaten swiftly and enthusiastically      
  • Breathing: Gills should rise and fall rhythmically
  • Demeanour: Active, alert and sociable
  • Eyes: Bright and clear      
  • Fins: Intact - watch out for tears, splits, spots or streaks of blood. Fins should also be held away from the body, not drooping or folded    
  • Position: Freely and evenly swimming
  • Scales: Should show no injury or fungal growth      
  • Vent: Clean and without stringy faeces

Signs of poorly fish

  • Sunken or distended bellies - except when carrying eggs
  • Sticking out scales
  • Pale patches on scales
  • Tiny white spots on the fins, gills or skin
  • Milky eye
  • Irregular position: A fish either sinking to the bottom or swimming to one side is a bad sign. Some catfish do swim upside-down normally, though!    
  • Lower activity levels could indicate a temperature drop and a fish that leaves the rest of its shoal may be sick
  • Common ailments
  • Oxygen starvation: Fish continuously gulping and gasping at the surface (except labyrinth species, e.g. gouramis) is a sign of oxygen starvation or poor water quality
  • Fungus disease (saprolegnia): Body and fins covered in white tufts. If they're around the mouth, then it's likely a different condition known as 'Mouth fungus'
  • White spot disease (Ichthyophthiriasis): Tiny white spots covering skin, gills and fins
  • Fin rot: Wasting of the tissue between fins - not to be confused with accidental tears, which will heal on their own
  • Dropsy: Bloated body and protruding scales     
  • Swim bladder disease: Loss of balance leading to the inability to swim properly      
  • Temperature stress: If the water becomes too cold, tropical fish are known to swim slowly. If too hot, the oxygen levels will decrease, so the fish will gasp at the surface.

Treating a sick fish

Most of these conditions are caused by poor water quality, so if you notice any of these issues, you'll need to check your water quality first. Download our freshwater fish care sheet for information on maintaining good water quality.

Visit Tetra for help identifying some of these fish parasites and the medications you can use, and read more about fish diseases at Practical Fishkeeping.

If you need help in diagnosing and treating fish disease, please contact a specialist fish vet.

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