The Art of Quarantine
by Bob Goemans
Professional aquarists are devoted users of quarantine methods and for good reason, as they understand what animals undergo from time of capture to arrival at their doorstep. These extremely caring and knowledgeable people realize what an unhealthy specimen could do to their usually very large captive systems if not first quarantined! In fact, this ‘process’ is also used for new arrivals going into their smaller systems, as it’s simply the right thing to do, as there’s no way to tell, even if healthy looking, what this animal could develop over the coming weeks. And fish are not the only ones to be quarantined, as similar precautions are also taken with various invertebrate. Is it just a matter of being paid a salary to accomplish these precautionary measures, or is just good animal husbandry? Without a doubt, it’s ‘the’ proper animal husbandry.
Nevertheless, hobbyists mostly use what I like to call the “Dump and Pray” method when it comes to adding new additions to their aquariums! I often find this puzzling since those animals coming to hobbyist aquariums probably endure greater health threats from capture to arrival at local stores than do those going to public aquariums, as those institutions have the capability to put together specific collection trips where animals are carefully collected and given more healthful surroundings during transportation than those collected solely for the hobby.
Do most hobbyists use the dump and pray method because they don’t understand the relationship between parasite and host, possibly the stress level associated with capture, or that many transportation inadequacies exist? Or could it be they just don’t have the space or time to practice good quarantine procedures? Past experience has shown all are reasons for not practicing adequate quarantine procedures!
I’ve often heard that fish in the wild are always healthy looking, and in fact, I’ve also experienced healthy looking fish while diving. But the fact is that fish in the wild can live with various parasites and continue to function normally and look healthy. And that’s because many parasites have a special relationship with their host and are simply very happy maintaining a small population of their species without damaging the host. Simply put, the environment, i.e., salinity, temperature, nutrition, and/or stress level, is satisfactory for both host and parasite to remain healthy and continue their ‘balanced’ relationship. Therefore, a healthy looking fish is just that, healthy looking, but somewhere in its makeup there’s a possible minor parasitic infestation just waiting for a window of opportunity to occur and increase its numbers.
And when does this timeframe that befits the parasite come about? When it comes to the capture of that fish, as the balance swings in favor of the parasite! Once captured, the “fight or flight” response comes into play where all built-in survival strategies are routed to escaping. The fish then shuts down all non-essential processes such as digestion and the immune system for immediate use of energy for the purpose of escape. And no fish, no matter how well cared for from time of capture to arrival at your doorstep are as good as they were in the wild. They are stressed, usually starved, and have been held captive in many different and questionable water conditions of which none come near the pristine quality of their natural surroundings. In addition, the approximate ten days to two week relocation process from the wild to your aquarium is just about what parasites need to take advantage of this ‘window of opportunity’ to increase their numbers. Furthermore, wounds incurred from collection and/or unsuitable tankmates during relocation are another problem, as bacterial infections often begin in this time period. So, no matter how good the fish looks, it really isn’t a healthy happy fish!
The above should help clarify the first three possible reasons associated with hobbyists not understanding the need to implement quarantine procedures and therefore apply the dump and pray method. Nevertheless, I would like to believe that hobbyists are somewhat familiar with these aspects, and because there’s lack of space or time, simply resort to placing new arrives directly in the aquarium without a prolonged inspection period, such as what quarantine provides. In fact, they are often lulled into non-compliance with adequate quarantining procedures because they are purchasing a fish that ‘looks’ quite healthy, and the decision is to place it quickly into their aquarium with other healthy looking fish where it can be ‘happy.’ But even if the fish arrives looking in excellent health, it’s not, and there’s no doubt the conditions in their aquarium are not going to be what they were in the wild. Without a doubt, the new arrival will have a smaller world, different tankmates, different foodstuffs, and reduced water quality to name just a few. And, past stress levels have given any existing parasites the favorable conditions to begin expansion of their numbers. The result of all this could be a very good chance of a disease outbreak looking for a place to happen, and that would be in their aquarium!
Since quarantining makes so much sense and the equipment needed to accomplish it is quite minimal, why don’t more hobbyists do it? Again, time and space are probably the answer. So lets look more closely at those aspects, as you may be surprised how uncomplicated and undemanding they are!
As for equipment and supplies, the quarantine tank is just that, a small environment that can house a new fish in somewhat comfortable surroundings while its owner makes sure it’s free of any maladies. The 10-gallon tank would suffice for most small and medium size fish. Maybe a twenty would be better for somewhat larger fish. My preference for filtration would be a previously established external hang-on-tank (HOT) biological filtration system or sponge filter, as that will immediately provide the needed bacteria for accomplishing the nitrification cycle. I happen to prefer the previously established HOT filter because it’s capable of housing other filter media such as activated carbon. An airstone or very small powerhead, possibly one that sweeps the surface water, is another item needed to keep dissolved oxygen as high as possible. As for substrate, none would be the best way to go. Nevertheless, if you think some is absolutely necessary, then use a non-carbonate based medium. The reason for this is that just in case a malady does occur and an ionic copper based treatment is utilized, the medium will not help remove the medicine. As for decorations, artificial rock will help make the new fish feel somewhat at home while in this transition mode. Again, artificial rock would not have to be removed if the quarantine tank were turned in to a hospital tank. And the quality of the water in the quarantine tank should be equal to that in the show aquarium, i.e., same pH, salinity, and with no ammonia and nitrite. I should note small quarantine tanks with all the fixings so to speak, such as shown in this photo, are often available through better local shops for less than 100 dollars! And if you do decide to go this road, suggest coating its outside side and rear panels with black paint, and/or black paper, so as to reduce the stress of its inhabitants. The less movements outside the tank seen, the less stress incurred. And this small quarantine world should be prepared and up and running several days prior to the new arrival(s).
As for the amount of time involved, I would tend to believe a few hours at the most to get everything placed and operating. Ongoing time depends upon various conditions, but maybe 15 minutes a day should cover most applications. As for space, not much! As to the period of time the fish should remain in quarantine, I recommend 30 – 40 days. If everything goes well, the specimen can be transferred to the show aquarium. If at all possible, the fish should ‘not’ be ‘netted’ out. A container should be dipped into the quarantine aquarium after any obstacles are removed, the fish trapped inside, and then moved to the show aquarium. Furthermore, if everything went well, this small quarantine aquarium could be kept going if further additions were planned. If not, there’s always storage space the garage!
Unfortunately, things don’t always go smoothly in these type tanks, which just happens to be the reason for quarantining, and if so, the tank can be turned into a hospital tank. Generally speaking, the maladies most often incurred are the fairly common external parasites Cryptocaryon or Amyloodinium, where the usage of copper is by far the most useful treatment regiment. Above, I mentioned the ionic form of copper, nevertheless, there’s another form, a chelated product. Both are good for these maladies, however, I prefer the ionic form, even if it does take more monitoring than the chelated form. The reason for this the ionic form precipitates quite readily, whereas the chelated form does not. That may seem like the chelated form is easier or better to use, however, not always true. Chelated products must only be tested with a copper test kit made by the same brand company making the product or one recommended by them. If not, the wrong dosage level will occur, and that’s often a death sentence to the fish being treated. Furthermore, chelated products require higher treatment levels, simply because the copper itself is bound with various heavy metals. Also, the treatment dose is directly tied to the quantity of water being treated, which is always difficult to judge. Nevertheless, if all aspects surrounding the use of a chelated product are adhered to, chelated products are excellent. Yet, even though there is more monitoring/ongoing dosing with ionic products, lower copper levels are needed to be effective and accuracy is easily attainable with various copper kits. And if the quarantine tank does not contain carbonate type substrates, i.e., sand or rock, ionic forms of copper treatments are fairly simple to establish and maintain.
Nevertheless, whatever type copper is used, activated carbon, if being used, needs to be removed, as it would reduce the strength of the medication. And copper in any form will kill the filtration bacteria, therefore, the nitrification processes have been impaired and attention now needs to focus on monitoring ammonia levels. Water changes are the way to handle that problem area. And keep in mind; long-term unnecessary copper treatments suppress immune systems, making fish more susceptible to other pathogens. Also, keep in mind some angelfish, blennies, butterflyfish, cardinalfish, dragonets, and wrasses exhibit sensitivity to copper. And since copper increases the animal’s mucus covering, dragonets may suffocate since they normally have a heavy coating of mucus.
When it comes to fish, the choices are clear: dump and pray; quarantine; or, have the local dealer hold the specimen for at least ten days while the animal has a chance to regain some of its stability. Those purchasing through mail order have only the first two choices.
Quarantining, easier said than done, but well worth the effort!