How to Save A Dying Fish? [Measures To Be Taken]

How to save a dying fish? If you’re a fish tank owner, at some point of your fishkeeping journey you may have experienced a dead fish or one of your fish is dying. I have had such instances on several occasions, and I also revived the dying fish a few times.

As a general rule, water change is the first action to take to save a dying fish. After that, testing the water parameters, and doing the necessary adjustments are essential to alleviate the symptoms, and revive the dying fish.

The ultimate objective is to try changing the thing that’s causing the fish to die. Therefore, finding the reason is always helpful in saving the fish.

Can you save a fish that’s dying?

Goldfish that Goldfish that is dying floating at the top of the water in its bowl
Goldfish that is dying floating at the top of the water in its bowl

With proper diagnosis and treatment it’s possible to save a dying fish. However, it depends on how worse the condition is, and what measures have been taken.

For example, if the fish is dying because of poor water quality, then fixing the water parameters will be enough for the fish to survive. However, if the fish is badly affected by any of the fish diseases, it is likely that the fish is going to die unless any miracle happens.

There are some fish diseases with no cure. If your fish is afflicted by those diseases you have nothing to do but to let the fish die. In such cases, people prefer to euthanize the fish to reduce its suffering.

How to Tell if the Fish is Dying?

Is the fish suffering real or just playing dead? You need to know before you take any action. Some fish pretend to be dead in order to attract their prey, and some even do that just to seek attention.

So, what are the symptoms that a fish exhibits before going to die?

  • Labored breathing
  • Gasping near the surface
  • Cloudy eyes
  • Clamped fins
  • Difficulties in swimming
  • Lack of interest in food
  • Discoloration
  • Staying out of the group if it’s a schooling fish

If any of the signs prevail you are sure that the fish is suffering, and you have to take proper steps to save your beloved pet fish.

How do you revive a dying fish?

You have to take a systematic approach to help your dying fish to survive. There are many factors to consider before you act. Some of them are:

  • What kind of fish?
  • Is the tank properly cycled?
  • Are other fish sick?
  • Can you spot anything unusual on the fish?
  • Did you stock the tank in the right proportion?
  • How long have you had them?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • What are the tank mates?

Finding the answer to those questions will eventually help you to diagnose the actual cause of the fish suffering.

Here I’ll write a few effective steps that you need to take immediately irrespective of the tank situation.

This measure is not applicable if the fish shows distress signs after a water change. I’ve discussed that in the later section.

Step-1: Perform a water change

The most common reason for fish suffering is poor water quality. When toxic material increases in the tank it causes stress to the fish. Stress reduces fish immunity and makes them susceptible to being affected by diseases.

Inadequate tank maintenance and cleaning is the root cause of waste buildup. Water change is essential for most the tanks. Unless you’ve created a complete ecosystem in your tank, where fish, plants, and micro-critters live in harmony.

Before you know what is the exact cause of fish misery, do a 25-50% water change to improve the water quality. If you have the testing kit, checking the water parameters is recommended to figure out how much water you need to change.

Alternatives: If you have the option to transfer the sick fish to a quarantine tank, please do that. In this way, you can prevent other fish from being affected. Ensure the quarantine tank is properly set up with filtered water and optimum temperature for the fish. Observe the sick fish, and try to understand what’s the cause of fish’s suffering. After that, provide the necessary treatment.

After that try to figure out the actual reason, whether the fish is disease affected or victims of bullying by other fish, or something else.

Step-2: Check & Adjust the Water Parameters

The Second step is to check the water parameters carefully. The requirements vary depending on the fish types. You should know the specific tank demand of the fish you are keeping. However, in general, if you have tropical fish you can follow the below table as a reference.

ParametersRecommended Range
Ammonialess than 0.1 mg/l
Nitrites0 mg/l
Nitratesless than 10 mg/l
Temperature75-82 degrees Fahrenheit
KH (Alkalinity)greater than 100 mg/l
GH (General Hardness)greater than 100 mg/l
Oxygen SaturationMore than 70%

Test the water, and check if any of the parameters are out of the recommended range for your fish. Among them, ammonia, and nitrite spike can have a sudden and serious impact on the fish which happens in tanks undergoing new tank syndrome.

Others are also important, prolonged exposure to unsuitable pH, temperature, nitrates, etc. can harm your fish in the long run and may pose a threat to their survival.

If you found any of the parameters is over or under the safe range try to adjust them. Install a suitable heater to maintain the temperature, check if the filter is working properly or not, and try to adjust the pH and hardness. Try to make gradual changes, otherwise, a drastic alteration will negatively impact the fish.

Helpful Resources:

Check if your tank has adequate oxygen. Test for oxygenation to help ensure that the oxygen saturation is more than 70% if you have the planted aquarium. If it lacks the necessary oxygen you need to increase that immediately.

I have a separate article on how to increase the oxygen level in a fish tank, I encourage you to read that one for your guidance.

For more fishkeeping-related guides, please refer to the general fishkeeping info section of this site.

Step-3: Carefully Examine The Fish

Dying goldfish with bumps on its scale
Sick goldfish with bumps on its scale

In most cases, changing water, and adjusting the water parameters help fish to back to normal life again. However, if the fish is disease affected the suffering may not improve until proper treatment is provided.

So, in this step examine the fish body, eye, fins, and scales for possible disease. Here are some of the common fish diseases:

Swim Bladder Disease: Fish affected by swim bladder disease find difficulties to control balance while swimming. Fish swims erratically, often upside down or floating upright. In addition, fish may often be found rubbing against the surface. All those symptoms indicate swim bladder disease.

Fin Rot: Fin rot is very common among aquarium fish. It is caused by bacteria. However, the root cause is usually stress. Milky white areas appear on the tails and fins. As the infection progress, fins become ragged as small pieces of fins begin to die and fall off.

Fungal Disease: Fish may be affected by fungal disease in exposure to inappropriate tank conditions. The most notable sign is a white or grey spot on the fish’s skin. If the disease headway to an advanced state those spots can be visible also on the body, fins, and gills. Other signs are protruding eyes, lumps or bumps, clamped fins, etc.

Internal Parasite: If your fish is showing a lack of appetite, listlessness, or swimming erratically it may be an indication that the fish is affected by internal parasites. These parasites live in the fish’s stomachs, and digestive tracks, eventually making them unwilling to eat. Inadequate tank maintenance and dirty water are the main causes of internal parasites.

Breathing Problems: Breathing problems can be seen if the water lacks sufficient oxygen, or the fish gills are damaged due to an injury. Fish hovering near the surface to gulp oxygen, rapid breathing, or laying at the bottom is the main indication that the fish is having breathing issues.

So, try to identify the disease by which your fish is affected. If you have other fish, observe them if any one of them is showing the same disease symptoms as the dying fish.

Step-4: Provide Proper Medication

Once you’ve identified the disease, now it’s time to provide a proper cure. If the fish is affected by internal parasites or fungal disease, the heat & salt method is a good way to follow.

Dying Fishes with ich / white spot
Fishes with ich / white spot, a common parasite with freshwater aquarium fish, goldfish, fancy fantails, and red cap orandas.

Heat & Salt Method

  • Raise the temperature of the fish tank to 86 degrees Fahrenheit in the course of 48 hours.
  • Keep the tank at this temperature for 10 days, and add one tablespoon of aquarium salt for every 5 gallons of water.
  • Change the water every couple of days. After that reduce the temperature to the desired temperature for your fish species.
  • You can apply the heat and salt method if you’ve other healthy fish in your aquarium. Doing this will ensure no single parasite or worm are present in the tank.

Blanched Peas

If your fish is affected by swim bladder disease, providing them with fiber-rich food like blanched peas is a good way to relieve the hardship.

Don’t overfeed your sick fish. Provide the food only at the feeding time. And if the fish finished the last feeding. Leftover foods can cause ammonia problems which can worsen the situation for the sick fish.

Remove Worms With tweezer:

Sometimes worms especially the anchor worms attach themselves to the fish skin. They gradually burrow deeply inside the fish’s body. In that case, removing those worms with a tweezer can help your fish to relieve.

However, this should be done with caution. Otherwise, it may end up harming your fish. Professional or expert help you may take to deal with this issue.

Commercial Medication:

Using commercial medication is also a great alternative. If you are confused about what caused the fish ailment using commercial medication can help you to treat any illness.

However, it’s always better to use the medication for the disease you’re sure of. You can get fish medications from a local pet store or online.

Seek Help From A Vet

The best way to treat the dying fish is to seek assistance from a vet. You can consult over the phone or show the video of the sick fish to the vet professionals. Either way, the vet can diagnose the problems, and provide the necessary treatment.

However, if you have to take the sick to the vet, ensure you are carrying the sick fish in a plastic bag covered by a plastic bag.

Aquarium fish in plastic bag
Transparent plastic bag with water and golden fish and water dropping through a small hole

Step-5: Set Up The Tank Properly & Do the Maintenance

After you provide the necessary treatment, it’s now time to investigate what went wrong. Have you cycled the tank properly? Was the stocking quantity right? Are the tankmates suitable? Are you following a maintenance schedule?

If you didn’t cycle the tank properly and added the fish too early, then it’s obvious that your fish will suffer. Some of the hardy fish may adjust, however, the weaker ones can’t. So always make sure you have established a nitrogen cycle in your tank before you introduce any fish.

Overstocking deteriorates the water quality fast. Therefore, knowing the right fish density for your tank is vital. Additionally, you need to make sure you have a big enough tank to accommodate all the fish.

Not all fish are compatible to live with each other. Some fish are aggressive, on the contrary, some are peaceful. You shouldn’t mix aggressive fish with peaceful fish. If you do, be sure to add plenty of hiding spots so that fish can hide from the predator fish when it’s required.

The last thing I want to emphasize is following a cleaning & maintenance schedule. Regular cleaning of the gravel, decors, etc., along with water change will help you provide the best environment for your pet fish.

how to save dying fish after a water change?

Fish can suffer after a water change also. It happens mostly when a massive water change has been performed, for example, 50% or more than that.

A large water change alters the water chemistry suddenly. In addition, it may cause temperature shock and loss of beneficial bacteria.

Temperature shock occurs if you don’t prepare the water well. You should preheat the water as close to the temperature of the tank before adding it.

Quarantine the dying fish
Transferring the dying fish into another tank

With a massive water change, you can lose the beneficial bacteria in a large portion. The situation may exacerbate if you clean the tank and the filter on the same day as the water change. In that case, ammonia & nitrite spikes can lead your fish to suffer.

So, what can you do to save the dying fish after a water change?

  • You can transfer the fish to a quarantine tank with filtered water, and maintain the temperature for the fish.
  • In the meantime, try to restore the water chemistry and establish the nitrogen cycle fast in your main tank.
  • If you don’t have the accessibility of a quarantine tank, change another 25% of water. Preheat the water so that it matches your fish’s requirements. Do a 10-20% of daily water change unless the tank is cycled again.

What to do after the fish dies?

A dead goldfish in the aquarium
A dead goldfish in the aquarium

After all your efforts if the fish dies, you have nothing to do but dispose of the fish. You can’t resuscitate a dead fish once it has stopped breathing.

There are several ways you can dispose of the fish. The most respected ways are burning in the backyard or in the house planter. However, people often do dispose of the fish in different ways.

I have an article on how to dispose of a dead fish, I inspire you to read that one to get some ideas.

More Resources on fish death:

Wrapping Up

Finding the root cause is essential to saving a dying fish. Your fish can die because of age also. If you think the fish is not dying because of old age, follow the steps mentioned above, and hopefully, you can be able to revive your fish.

If you find this article helpful, please feel free to share it with your friends. For any questions regarding fishkeeping, please put a comment below.

Sujit Modak

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