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Understanding the Relationship Between Water Quality and Fish Diseases

In this article you'll learn how aquarium water quality and fish diseases are directly related and get tips for maintaining good water quality for your fish.


cichlid ram xs 6970335Even if you are new to the aquarium hobby you have probably heard it said that high water quality is the key to keeping your fish healthy. But what exactly is water quality and what does it have to do with preventing your fish from contracting diseases? Learning the answers to these questions is something every aquarium hobbyist should take seriously. If you understand the relationship between water quality and fish diseases you will be better equipped with the knowledge necessary to keep your aquarium clean. A clean aquarium is, after all, the key to healthy aquarium fish.

What is Water Quality?

Water quality is simply a term aquarium hobbyists use to describe the condition of the water in an aquarium. This term encompasses a variety of measurements including pH, water hardness, salinity and chemical content. PH is a measurement of how acidic or alkaline the water in your aquarium is, measured on a scale from 0 to 14 with a value of 7.0 being neutral. The hardness of aquarium water, measured in degrees of general hardness (dGH or °GH), is a measurement of the mineral content of the water. Salinity is, of course, a measurement of the amount of salt in the water. In addition to monitoring the pH, water hardness and salinity of your tank it is also wise to keep an eye on the chemical content. Toxins like ammonia and nitrites may build up in the tank over time and if you do not take steps to remove them, your fish could suffer.

How Water Quality Can Affect Fish

You probably already know that in order to make sure your fish thrive in captivity you must simulate their natural environment as much as possible in your home tank. Recreating the natural habitat of your fish requires more than just mimicking the substrate, lighting and temperature – you must also match the water conditions. Some species of fish, like most Anabantoids, can naturally be found in slightly acidic waters whereas many Cichlids and some species of Tetra prefer a higher pH. If the pH in your tank does not match the requirements of your fish, they could become stressed or die as a result. Stressed fish are much more susceptible to disease than healthy fish – some of the most common fish diseases like Ich are most often brought about by poor water quality. You may also encounter problems with the beneficial bacteria in your tank if the pH drops below 6.0. Beneficial bacteria are extremely important in maintaining the nitrogen cycle and if your tank pH drops too low, these bacteria could die and the tank could recycle, killing your fish. As the tank cycles, the water quality could drop dramatically which could also result in an increased chance of your fish becoming sick.

Water hardness is another important aspect of water quality that can affect fish health. Water hardness is a measure of the mineral content in tank water and the higher that content is, the more difficulty fish may have in maintaining the proper balance of body fluids. In cases like this, fish are likely to become stressed and, as a result, could become more susceptible to diseases such as bacterial, fungal and viral infections. The hardness of the water in your tank could also interfere with any medications you are using to treat fish diseases. Some medications, such as chloramine-T, can become toxic in water that is too soft so be sure to consider the water hardness in your tank when medicating sick fish.

How to Monitor Water Parameters

aquarium test kitFortunately, monitoring the water parameters in your tank is easy – all you need is an aquarium water test kit. You can find these kits online or at your local pet store, typically for under $20. Aquarium water test kits usually come in two forms – one in which you dip test strips into a cup of tank water and another in which you collect samples in small test tubes and add drops of a test solution. Once you have taken the sample, you need only compare the color of the sample to the chart included with the test kit. In order to maintain stable water parameters in your tank it is wise to test the water quality once a week. When you are first setting up your tank, however, it may be a good idea to test more frequently. While your tank is cycling it is wise to keep an eye on the levels of ammonia and nitrites. Once the tests start to pick up nitrate readings it is usually safe to assume that that nitrogen cycle has been established.

Tips for Keeping Water Quality High

The best course of action to take if you hope to keep the water quality in your tank high is to perform regular water changes and to ensure that the tank has adequate filtration. Your aquarium filter should incorporate both mechanical and chemical filtration in order to remove solid as well as dissolved wastes from aquarium water. Performing weekly 10% to 25% water changes will help to keep the water in your tank from becoming too hard as the water evaporates, leaving minerals behind. Water changes will also help to counteract the negative effects of waste build-up in your substrate. While some waste build-up is necessary in order to keep the nitrogen cycle going, excessive waste can put a strain on the beneficial bacteria in your tank and may result in decreased water quality.

Another way to keep your aquarium clean is to engage in tactics that prevent it from becoming dirty in the first place. Introducing algae-eating species of fish into your tank can help to control algae growth which, if allowed to spread freely, could eventually impact water quality. It is also wise to avoid overfeeding your fish in order to prevent the excessive build-up of waste in your aquarium substrate. Only feed your fish as much as they can consume in 3 to 5 minutes and remove uneaten portions of sinking pellets and wafers from the tank after an hour. If you make the effort to keep your tank clean, your fish will be much less likely to become stressed as a result of poor aquarium water quality and they will also be less likely to contract diseases.

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