How To Save A Dying Cichlid? 4-Step Guide

Dec 1, 2021

How To Save A Dying Cichlid

On average, cichlids live for around 6-10 years. Well, this is a ballpark figure, though. There are at least over 1,600 species known to us, and I can’t account for all of them in this article. However, sometimes, a cichlid’s life is cut short due to factors in or out of our hands. Is there any way to prevent it? How to save a dying cichlid? 

In this blog, I will tell you in detail about different scientifically proven ways to save a dying cichlid. Let’s have a look. 

How To Save A Dying Cichlid?

  • Remove the sick cichlid immediately 
  • Check and fix the water parameters
  • Examine the fish’s symptoms 
  • Book an appointment with the vet 

Remove The Sick Cichlid Immediately

This might be irrelevant, but you should remove the sick cichlid immediately. This step is critical so you don’t transmit a potential disease to other tank inhabitants. 

Fill the hospital tank with the main tank’s water and acclimatize the sick fish gradually using the floating bag or drip acclimatization method. Abrupt changes in the environment will shock the fish and worsen its symptoms. 

Check And Fix The Water Parameters

The first thing you should do if your cichlid is showing grave signs of sickness is checking the water parameters. I know we tend to overstate it a lot. Still, wrong water parameters are the number one reason behind diseases and untimely death in cichlids. 

To check the water, we recommend using liquid-based test kits like the API Freshwater Master Kit that are more reliable and accurate than strips. 

Here’s a quick look at how the water parameters should look like for cichlids:

ParameterAfrican Cichlids American Cichlids 
Temperature24-28°C (75-82°F)24-28°C (75-82°F)
pH 7.5-8.56.5-7.4
General Hardness160-200 ppm70-140 ppm
Carbonate Hardness120-140 ppm80-100 ppm
Ammonia 0 ppm0 ppm
Nitrite 0 ppm0 ppm
Nitrate Below 20 ppmBelow 20 ppm

If the tank’s ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels are above what’s mentioned in the table, you will need shots immediately. 

A fish suffering from ammonia poisoning will exhibit signs like red or purple gills due to bleeding, darkening, gasping, lethargy, and increased mucus production. 

A fish suffering from nitrite poisoning will display symptoms like panting, listlessness, brown gills, rapid gill movement, loss of appetite, and hanging near the outlet. 

And lastly, a fish experiencing nitrate poisoning will show signs like loss of equilibrium, curled head to tail, lethargy, listlessness, and high respiration rates. 

You need to act immediately to reduce the tank’s toxicity. Performing water changes, cutting down the amount you feed, aerating the tank, unclogging the filter, and vacuuming the substrate are some steps you can take. 

You can also take the help of medications that are used to eradicate specific compounds. There are specifically formulated products available from trusted brands like API and Seachem.

Examine The Fish’s Symptoms 

Once the sick fish has settled in the new tank, observe it closely for a few days so you can properly diagnose it. Sometimes, changing water, cleaning the tank, and feeding the right food or fasting are all that a fish needs to feel better. 

I’ll touch on a few possible health conditions in cichlids and their symptoms. 

Respiratory illness: gasping for air at the surface, breathing heavily, and lying idly at the tank’s base

Parasitic infections: spots and blotches across the body or a specific spot, loss of appetite, faded and shriveled look, and reddened gills

Fungal diseases: cotton-like growth on skin and gills, white patches, folded or torn fins, discolored spots, bloating, protruding eyes, and pale gills 

Fin rot: frayed fins, white spots or blotches on fins, inflamed fins, fins’ edges turning black or brown

Swim bladder disease: Erratic swimming patterns like swimming upside down, floating at the top, and sinking to the bottom; difficulty maintaining buoyancy 

I’ve already mentioned the signs of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate poisoning above. Don’t forget to consider them as well. 

Once you examine your sick fish, don’t forget to carefully absorb the rest of the population for any signs of illness. 

Book An Appointment With The Vet

If the signs don’t subside in a couple of days and the fish makes no progress, it’s time to call the vet. It may be enticing to medicate the fish on your own, but only experiment if you’re okay losing the fish! 

You must discuss with a professional the best way forward to treat the cichlids. As you already know, fish are pretty delicate and sensitive – there’s not really enough room for mistakes. 

How To Save A Cichlid That’s Jumped Out Of The Tank? 

cute cichlids

Cichlids aren’t prolific jumpers. But sometimes, their inquisitive side gets the best of them – tempting them to find out what’s on the other side of the tank. Long story cut short, they end up on the floor, flapping in distress and slowly suffocating to death! 

If you come home one day to a scene like this, chances are the fish can be saved if you act smart and fast. 

First, you can decode if the fish is alive or dead by looking at its eyes. If their eyes are bulging out and expressive, it means the fish is still alive.

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to save a dying cichlid:

  • Pick up the fish gently. Make sure to channel as much delicacy as possible. While you hold the fish first, the chances are that it will look rigid. You mustn’t bend the fish or forcefully try to loosen it up. This can inflict internal injuries. 

  • Place the fish in the water right away. For that, fill a bucket with the tank’s water. Placing the fish in the main tank may stress it out as opportunist tank mates will try to attack or even nibble. Once in the water, the oxygen will fill life into your poor cichlid. 

  • Once the fish finally settles and stops suffocating, you may want to remove the dirt off the fish if there’s any. Chances are that if the fish was lying on a floor, the gills would be covered with dirt and making it difficult to breathe. To clean the fish, gently stroke its sides with your fingers. You can also stroke the belly’s underside to prompt the fish into breathing. 

  • After the dust has settled down, you can transfer the fish to its tank. Next, focus on providing as much oxygen as possible. For this, you can take the help of an air bubbler or air stones. 

  • Once the fish returns back to normalcy, there’s one secondary step that we advise you to take – saltwater treatment. Place your fish in saltwater in a separate tank. You can use either Epsom salt or aquarium salt – don’t use table salt! Both these salts are known to eradicate toxins from the fish’s body. 

  • You can add salt in a ratio of 1 tablespoon per gallon of water. Place the fish in the water for a few minutes before relocating her. However, if it shows any signs of discomfort and stress, remove it immediately. 

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Why Do Cichlids Die?

Here’s a list of possible reasons why cichlids die before their time:

Poisonous water: Heavy amounts of harmful compounds like ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite will deprive your fish of oxygen and slowly suffocate it to death

New tank syndrome: A tank that hasn’t fully cycled contains dangerous amounts of ammonium and nitrites. On top of that, there won’t be enough good bacteria present in the tank to tackle them. 

Sudden and rapid water changes: A sudden change in large quantities of water will disrupt the tank’s natural environment and effectively shock your cichlid. The water should be changed often but in small amounts and gradually. 

An abrupt temperature change: Cichlids prefer water on the warmer side. And they don’t react too well to sudden changes in temperature. It will stress out the fish and weaken its immunity – exposing it to numerous pathogens present in the tank. 

Toxins in the tank: Sometimes, even the smallest amount of unexpected toxins can be the reason behind a fish’s untimely death. It could be detergents and soaps that you weren’t supposed to use in the tank, bug spray, perfume, hand lotion, and so on.

Wrong feeding style: Both underfeeding and overfeeding can wreak havoc on your fish’s health. Obesity and malnourishment are equally dangerous. Give your cichlids 3-4 small meals a day. 

Stress: Stress is a silent killer of cichlids. It’s tempting to think about what a cichlid has to stress about, but all of the reasons I mentioned above can make your fish anxious. An anxious fish has a compromised immune system and will succumb to secondary illnesses. 

Signs Of A Dying Cichlid

Cichlid group

  • Strange swimming patterns 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Spots and marks on the body
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Protruding eyes
  • Fading colors
  • Bloating

Strange Swimming Patterns 

A dying cichlid will be disoriented and swim in strange patterns. It may go up and down continuously, swim in circles, dart across the tank, or stop swimming at all. 

Loss Of Appetite

Cichlids are voracious eaters with a big appetite. If your fish stops eating all of a sudden or eats very little, this is a red flag. You will often find soggy, uneaten food in the tank. 

Spots And Marks On The Body 

Depending on what disease your cichlid has contracted, the fish will develop unnatural spots and blotches in its body. It could be white, tan, brown, or red blotches. 

Breathing Difficulty 

A healthy fish breathes effortlessly. But a cichlid suffering from an illness will have a hard time. You will often find the fish gasping at the surface to intake oxygen difficultly.

Protruding Eyes

Protruding eyes is yet another common symptom of sick and dying cichlids. The eyes will profusely stick out of the fish’s head, giving the fish a very dazed look. 

Fading Colors 

A healthy fish retains its original lively color. But when a fish is dying, the colors begin to fade away. In fish, the endocrine system is responsible for its color. In sick fish, the system produces a stress hormone called corticosterone that’s responsible for fading colors. 

Bloating 

Bloating is a pretty prevalent sign of a dying cichlid. The stomach will grow disproportionally large compared to the fish’s body. 

How To Save A Dying Cichlid After Water Change?

Whether your cichlids are from African lakes’ hard and alkaline waters or the soft and acidic waters of the Amazonian basins, they are used to highly stable water parameters. Therefore, they don’t react well to the sudden changes in their surroundings. 

As a result, the fish is often sent to a shock if you perform a large water change and disrupt their environment. 

Here are the steps you should take to save a cichlid dying after water change:

  • Check the temperature 
  • Test pH levels
  • Test nitrate levels
  • Test ammonia levels
  • Test chlorine levels 
  • Check the air pump

Check out this article for more in-depth knowledge on the subject and our product recommendations to carry out different tests. 

Water changes are done with the best intentions. Still, they can backfire in unexpected ways if you commit even the slightest mistake. However, that shouldn’t discourage you from performing water changes. 

The rule of thumb is to perform 20-25% water change weekly, but this rule isn’t etched in stone. It all boils down to your stocking number and the size of your tank. 

Just make sure you don’t commit beginner mistakes like cleaning the filter and gravel on the same day and performing big water changes abruptly. But above all, make sure you don’t overdo it and kill all the good bacteria in the process! 

Final Words: How To Save A Dying Cichlid? 

The bond we share with our fish isn’t as expressive as the ones we share with our furry pets. But for a fish parent, it’s quite heartbreaking when the fish’s life comes to an abrupt end – even more so if it was young and perfectly healthy. 

If your cichlid jumps out of the tank and is suffocating, the first thing you should do is gently pick it and place it back in the water. It’d be best to put the fish in a separate container. But time’s limited, and you have to act quick – so if the main tank’s the only accessible water body at the moment, place it back there! 

Once the panic mode is over for both you and the fish, you can focus on things like providing proper aeration, removing dirt from the body and the gills, and giving a saltwater bath. 

And if your cichlid is down from an illness, performing water changes, providing the right diet or fasting (if necessary), closely observing the symptoms, and discussing with the vet for the correct diagnosis and treatment can definitely help extend the fish’s life. 

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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.