Cichlid Bloat | Causes And Proven Treatment With Metronidazole

Aug 15, 2021

cichlid bloat

Image credits: teejaybee on Flickr under Creative Commons license

This one time, I confused my bloated cichlid for a pregnant one. I waited and waited for her to lay eggs and hold them in her mouth. But one rainy day, I woke up to a dead cichlid at the bottom corner of the tank with her mouth wide open. This was back in 2007. When I didn’t have enough resources to study up on what was wrong with my cichlid. 

And although you can find a lot of information on the world wide web these days, I found a lot of misleading and scattered info on cichlid bloat. And that inspired me to write this blog today. 

Let’s begin with:

What Is Cichlid Bloat?

Cichlid bloat is the disease of the digestive system which leads to abnormal swelling and eventually death in days if not treated on time. Cichlid bloat is without a doubt the most prevalent disease to plague aquarium-kept African cichlids. 

It is often popularly referred to as Malawi bloat, but it’s not exclusive to Lake Malawi fish. Fish from Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika are equally susceptible to this deadly disease, if not more. 

That being said, researchers have shown that cichlids that primarily consume plant-based matter are more prone to it.

What Causes Cichlid Bloat?

There’s a debate on whether cichlid bloat has a bacterial origin or is caused by parasites. Upon reviewing multiple scientific journals and studies, I have concluded that it is caused by a protozoan parasite present in the fish’s gut.

As it turns out, these unicellular organisms are always present in a cichlid’s stomach and are usually harmless. But there’s a catch – under stressful situations, these protozoans proliferate at a compound rate and completely block the intestinal tract. As a result, your fish significantly loses its appetite. 

As the number of parasites grows, they move beyond just the intestinal tract and start punching holes in the walls – which in turn causes the fish to bloat. 

Remember, when a cichlid suffers from bloating, it doesn’t die from starvation but from internal wounds and ulcers afflicted on the organs. 

In my experience, I have also met owners who believe cichlid bloat is strictly caused by a bacterial infection like dropsy. 

Truth be told, there isn’t one universally accepted cause behind it. But from what I have studied and my own experience, I’m pretty positive protozoans have something to do with it. 

There’s also quite a bit of debate surrounding whether cichlid bloat is contagious or not. There’s no one consensus, but if your cichlids are exposed to the same factors that cause it, they’ll all develop cichlid bloat together. 

Let’s have a look at the top 3 stressors responsible for cichlid bloat.

Imbalanced Diet

An imbalanced diet is usually the number one cause behind cichlid bloat. For instance, if you feed a high-protein diet like blood worms and pellets to herbivore cichlids, they’re bound to experience bloating. 

See, the thing is that herbivore cichlids have long intestinal tracts that take their sweet time to digest food. As a result, the decomposition of improperly digested and excreted food can often irritate the intestine wall, causing the child to develop bloat.

Likewise, avoid giving soft and mushy food like brine shrimp – opt for crunchier options like mysis. Always make a point to research your cichlid’s dietary patterns and needs. For example, if your fish doesn’t eat meat in the wild, don’t give them shrimps, krills, and worms. 

Here’s a link to frozen pellets by Ron Demers that I give my cichlids. Ron is someone who’s bred African cichlids for over 25 years! So I guess he knows a thing or two, right? 

This pellet mix is formulated with a balanced amount of veggies, proteins, and minerals. What I love the best about this product is that it doesn’t contain potentially harmful fillers. 

Stress Due To Various Factors 

As hardy as cichlids are, they’re also known to be quite prone to stress. And several factors could stress your fish – it could be anxiety to find a suitable nesting spot, territorial animosity, bullying, and foul water parameters. 

Suppose your tank’s not well equipped with a sturdy filtration system. In that case, ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite levels will rise, causing the water to be toxic and stressing your fish. Don’t cut corners when installing the filtration system since cichlids produce a lot of bioloads. 

Canister filters work best for a cichlid tank. Here’s one I recommend from OASE Indoor Aquatics Store. Made with German engineering, this filter has been making quite a buzz in the fishkeeping scene lately. 

It’s a high-end canister filter with a heater inside the canister and a 4-step filtration process. Head over to Amazon if you are interested to know more about its excellent features. 

Adding Too Much Salt

A beginner’s mistake while raising cichlids is adding generous amounts of salt to emulate the natural setting and parameters. While your intention might be kind, it often backfires in unprecedented ways. 

It’s true that Africa’s rift lakes are alkaline and have very hard water (pH level: 8-8.9 and general hardness: 200-400 ppm). However, adding regular salt will not alkalize the water. To make the water hard, you need to add a predetermined amount of calcium and magnesium. It’s quite tricky to achieve the general hardness from scratch. 

That’s why I take the help of Seachem’s Cichlid Lake Salt that’s been precisely formulated to replicate the natural environment of African rift lakes. 

However, remember that minerals don’t stay suspended in water for too long. Thus, it’s critical to regularly conduct several water changes and add buffering agents to maintain hardness. 

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Symptoms Of Cichlid Bloat 

The earliest sign of cichlid bloat is lack of appetite. It is then followed by bloating of the stomach, white and streaky feces, and a lot of panting. If not treated on time, your cichlid could also develop red ulcer marks, which can very well be fatal. 

Here’s a list of all possible symptoms of cichlid bloat:

  • Appetite loss 
  • Spitting out food 
  • Severe panting 
  • Lethargy 
  • Red marks around the anus 
  • Skin ulcerations 
  • Lifted scale 

With cichlid bloat, symptoms usually only manifest later after internal damage has been done.

Signs like redness and ulcers mean extensive damage has already been dealt to internal organs like bladders, kidneys, and lungs. Following the appearance of secondary symptoms, the fish will not leave for more than 24-72 hours. 

So, make sure to start the treatment as soon as you see even the slightest symptom. 

How To Treat Cichlid Bloat?

As soon as you spot a cichlid with a bloated tummy, immediately transfer it to the hospital tank. If multiple cichlids are suffering from cichlid bloat, it could be more convenient to treat the whole tank instead. There are two effective and proven methods to treating cichlid bloat: using metronidazole and clout. 

Unfortunately, Mardel Clout is discontinued and is now seldom available commercially. So, here’s the antibiotic Metronidazole, also known as Metro, which is very effective for parasitic protozoan infections. 

This drug is commonly sold under names like Metroplex, Octozin, and Flagyl. It is also used for treating other freshwater fish illnesses like a hole in the head. 

You can administer metronidazole in two ways: dosed in a water column or orally. It’s far easier to administer through a water column. 

Start by adding 100mg (around 1 scoop) for every 10 gallons. Repeat the dosage every two days as needed. If luck is in your favor, your fish will heal within a week or so. 

If you’re going to treat orally, it’s best to use Seachem Metroplex combined with Seachem Focus. This will help bind the metroplex with food better and prevent it from leaching out in the water. 

To prepare the food, mix one scoop of the metroplex, one scoop of focus, and some fish pellets with water. Let the mixture rest for at least fifteen minutes before pouring it into the tank. You can keep the food refrigerated for up to 3 weeks if needed.

Metronidazole works better with elevated water temperatures. So you can raise the temperature slightly, but remember, it depletes the tank’s oxygen level. So you also want to increase aeration. Raising temperature also helps with metabolism and heightened immunity. 

When using the treatment, it’s also wise to turn off any UV lights or chemical filtration since they can meddle with the treatment’s active ingredients. 

And don’t forget to remove zeolite and carbon media if there are any. These media are capable of absorbing the medicine and hence making them ineffective. 

Alternative Treatment For Cichlid Bloat 

These treatments are usually only effective at preventing the bloat or treating it at the earliest stage. You can add 1 tablespoon of Epsom salt for every 5 gallons. But make sure to do it gradually over a few days to prevent shock. 

This method is mainly used to treat symptoms like dropsy. 

You can also give boiled peas to your cichlid since peas are known to act as natural laxatives. However, with cichlid bloat, fish drastically loses its appetite. So it can be quite a challenge to feed peas in the first place. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

two cichlids

How Do You Know If Cichlid Bloat Is Cured?

If your cichlid is successfully cured, the swelling will go away gradually. The scales will also flatten out. Once the feces look normal and your cichlid regains its appetite, you can assume it’s cured and transfer it to the old tank. 

Make sure to observe the signs because cichlid bloat is also somewhat believed to be contagious. 

How To Prevent Cichlid Bloat? 

To diminish the chances of cichlid bloat, make sure to keep the water clean and healthy at all times. Feed nutritious meals they can easily digest. Avoid using regular salt to alkalize the water. And lastly, ensure the fish is leading a stress-free life.

Will Cichlid Bloat Go Away?

Yes, cichlid bloat will go away as long as it is detected and treated early. The treatments mentioned above are most effective if implemented soon. However, if your fish has already started showing secondary signs like red marks, the damage could be irreversible. 

Final Words: Cichlid Bloat 

Cichlid bloat is an entirely preventable and curable disease if necessary precautions are taken. Just make sure you take the right step at the right time, and your cichlid will bounce back to its normal state in no time. Good luck! 

Happy Reading!

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rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.