Betta fish can experience many different kinds of less than lovely diseases, illnesses and conditions during their lifetime. One of these undesirable conditions, that is also the topic of this article, is the parasitic infestation of “Ich”. Also known as White Spot Disease, Ichthyophthirius multifilis (Ich) in betta fish is actually quite common, easy to identify and simple to treat.
Ich is a protozoan parasite that loves to live in home aquarium environments. Ich is also found in native waters, but is much less of a prominent problem because the smaller amount of fish per volume of water. If you think about Ich as hatching and spreading from an egg (called a “cyst”) as bees would if a beehive were to fall and shatter, you wouldn’t be far off. Oh, and when they hatch, we are talking hundreds to thousands of the parasites all at once. In a large body of water, the Ich would spread quite thin and often not be able to find a suitable host (fish) to infest. In a smaller, closed aquarium environment, the odds of Ich finding a host (your betta) after emerging from the cyst stage are much greater.
In an aquarium, the individual Ich larva has a much easier time finding a host to latch onto. Hundreds of these Ich parasites can find their way onto your betta’s body, gills and fins. Overwhelmed by this barrage of parasites, the betta can eventually die from a number of Ich related conditions. Respiratory distress due to Ich invoked gill damage. Numerous punctures in the betta’s body due to Ich can cause an osmoregulatory imbalance (wiki for those interested). Fungal and Bacterial infections taking hold in the open wounds of the fish caused by Ich is also a big concern.
The identification of Ich is fairly simple as it resembles a sprinkling of salt or sugar on the betta. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is why it’s also known as white spot disease. These small white spots may be apparent anywhere on the betta’s body. They may not be spread evenly throughout however, and can sometimes be limited to specific areas such as the gills or fins alone.
Betta fish suffering an Ich epidemic may show slightly different than normal behavioral characteristics. Bettas tend to erratically zip around in the water quite rapidly when they have Ich. You may notice that your betta is deliberately trying to rub up against things like aquarium accessories or the tank’s substrate. While I personally have not had Ich on my body, I get the feeling that it is itchy…
During this time and as the condition worsens, the betta may start to show other typical signs of distress. Bettas may clamp their fins. They may stop eating. Often they become lethargic. They can also become quite slimy. While these conditions are not specific to betta fish suffering through Ich, they are associated and can be helpful in determining what exactly is wrong.
While there are several types of anti-parasitic medications you can use, you really have to be careful. Betta fish are relatively delicate when it comes to dosing with medicines and can sometimes react negatively when they are given them. There are also some cases where the betta medicines administered are ineffective and/or not needed at all. This is all written to say that you want to make sure that you assess the situation right the first time before subjecting your betta with chemicals that it may not need. This is not written to dissuade you from using medicines when they are called for.
Betta learn about Ich
At 86°F (30°C), Ich will completely cease to reproduce.
To best understand how to go about treating betta Ich, getting acquainted with the basic Ich life cycle is important:
The first stage of this parasitic life cycle is the Trophozoite stage. In this stage the trophozoite embeds itself into the skin of the fish, feeding on tissue cells and body fluids. As a protective mechanism of the fish, cells are produced and formed around the trophozoite. These newly produced cells of the fish are what you eventually see as the small white spots indicative of Ich.
The second stage starts when the trophozoite transforms into a trophont. The trophont at this stage will detach itself from the host fish, leaving behind an open wound. The trophont then is free to swim about until at last finding a safe place to settle in.
The third stage is the reproductive stage. This is when the trophont, after finding a place to settle, will produce and surround itself with a sticky wall of sorts. When the trophont does this, it is actually forming the cyst from which hundreds, and quite often thousands, of tomites will form.
The last stage is the infectious stage. Tomites are free to swim the betta’s aquarium water until at last finding a host to attach to and begin the entire cycle anew. Tomites that fail to find a host shortly after forming will die.
The entire Ich life cycle is dependent on certain temperature ranges. The warmer end of the parasite’s survivable temperature range will encourage growth and spreading at every stage. The colder end of the parasite’s temperature range will slow the life cycle process down at every stage. Now, you are never going to want to keep a betta in a tank this cold, but as a baseline for you, at 64°F (18°C) the entire Ich life-cycle takes between 10 to 12 days to complete.
A very interesting thing to take note of is that at 85°F (29.4°C), Ich will not infect a new host (betta in this case). At 86°F (30°C), Ich will completely cease to reproduce. Finally, at 89.5°F (32°C), Ich will not survive at all.
Betta Get Ich Treatment
This increase in temperature alone, in theory, will eventually resolve the Ich problem by itself given enough time.
Alright, now that we have gone over the entire Ich life-cycle, we can now start to talk about getting rid of Ich. We are going to address dealing with betta Ich by using several different approaches. Because we can utilize several different treatment plans for Ich, we stand a much better chance at eradicating this parasite quickly and completely. Careful observation of your betta during treatment is critical as there will be changes made to the environment the betta lives in. When using a particular treatment, if you notice any negative reaction with your betta, stop that treatment and choose a different one.
Heat the aquarium to 86°F (30°C).
Betta fish are tropical fish and can tolerate the aquarium’s increased temperature for the purposes of Ich treatment. 86°F is the temperature at which Ich will no longer reproduce. This increase in temperature alone, in theory, will eventually resolve the Ich problem by itself given enough time. What you want to make sure that you do when trying to achieve the 86°F mark, is incrementally raise the temperature. Try to raise the temperature by no more than 1°F-2°F per hour. This can easily be done with an aquarium heater with variable temperature controls. Once reached, you have to maintain this 86°F temp for 10 days. As was explained above, the complete life-cycle of Ich is about 10 days. The increase in temperature also speeds up and shortens the Ich life-cycle. If the Ich is no longer able to reproduce, after the 10 day cycle, it will not begin again. Keep a very close eye on your betta during this 10 day period for any (really) abnormal behavior or signs of distress. Mind you, the betta will probably be showing signs of abnormal behavior anyway due to the Ich.
Thoroughly oxygenate the aquarium.
The higher temperature also gives a boost to your betta’s immune system. With the increase in the betta’s metabolism, there will be an increase in oxygen consumed.
One of the effects of increasing the aquarium’s temperature is that your betta’s physical metabolism will increase along with it. The higher temperature also gives a boost to your betta’s immune system. With the increase in the betta’s metabolism, there will be an increase in oxygen consumed. On top of that, even in a fishless tank, as water temperature levels rise, the oxygen levels fall. Betta suffocation is generally regarded as a bad thing. Fyi.
Because of the lowered oxygen levels in the betta’s tank, increasing surface agitation of the water is necessary to increase available oxygen to the fish. Keep a close eye on your betta for signs that he/she isn’t suffering oxygen deprivation. Betta fish tend to gasp for air and primarily swim at the surface if they are having a hard time breathing. If you see that your betta is gasping for air, you need to increase aeration. If you have a filtered aquarium setup, you can increase aeration by lowering the water level in the tank. With the water level lower, the filter’s water return will create more of a splash on the surface thus increasing aeration. If you do not have a filtered betta aquarium, you can use an air-stone (aka bubble-stone). The air-stone should be placed near the surface of the tank’s water.
Perform partial water changes daily.
Changing out 25% of the water in the betta’s aquarium daily is very beneficial for several different reasons. It will help provide a clean and lower stress environment for your fish to swim in while battling the parasites. By taking out and replacing some of the water daily, you will be removing some of the free swimming parasites with it. By adding new, clean water back into the aquarium daily, you will be adding fresh oxygen to the betta’s tank. You may also want to add water conditioner to the water during changes. Kordon makes a product called NovAqua+ that will simultaneously dechlorinate and condition the water while helping treat any open wounds left on the betta that were caused by Ich. It should really go without saying that you should read the directions of any additive to the aquarium thoroughly before subjecting your betta to them. Lastly, concerning the 25% water changes themselves, if you notice that your betta is becoming overly stressed because of them, you may consider cutting down on the frequency of the changes or decrease the percent of water that you change out.
Micron filters capture Ich.
A fairly cheap and easy way to remove some of the free swimming Ich parasites from the betta’s aquarium is to use micron rated water filters. Diatom filters may also be used to achieve the same end. Micron filters not only do a good job at gathering up free floating Ich, they also work in capturing Ich cysts as well. The cysts can sort of be thought of as the Ich eggs. Saying that just to keep things simple. The first stage of the free swimming Ich is the tomite. Tomites are, in size, approximately 30 microns. This is easily large enough for a micron filter to capture. As you perform your daily water changes, you should also change the micron filter out with a new one.
There are micron filters available that can be reused. Filters that can be reused generally do not perform at the same quality level as filters requiring replacement after each use. I’m not writing that in here to discourage you from buying a reusable filter, but rather to give you an experienced opinion. If you decide to use a reuseable filter, rinse it thoroughly in very hot water. To be sure that you have killed any of the captured Ich in the filter, you may want to boil the filter for several minutes. Remember that Ich cannot survive at temperatures of 89.5°F (32°C) and above. Boiling simply removes any doubt.
Remove the substrate from the aquarium.
Gravel, sand and other substrates make for great Ich homes to start their Ich family.
After detaching from the host fish, the Ich (tomont stage) swims around looking for a place to settle in and start reproducing. Gravel, sand and other substrates make for great Ich homes to start their Ich family. Temporarily removing the substrate from the aquarium limits the real estate available to the Ich. Removing the substrate also make siphoning the aquarium’s floor much easier. Tomonts will largely be located on the floor of the aquarium, substrate or no substrate, so siphoning it is more than recommended.
Some aquariums have live plants in their substrate that cannot be removed. It is not completely necessary to remove the substrate in order to eliminate Ich. You will surely want to remove the substrate if practical though. If you choose to leave it in the aquarium, spend time siphoning the substrate as thoroughly as possible.
Use aquarium salt.
Ich parasites are sensitive to salt. Aquarium salt disrupts the regulation of fluids of the Ich. The addition of 1 teaspoon of aquarium salt for every 1 gallon of water is all you need for this purpose. You should always premix the aquarium salt in a separate container of aquarium water before adding it to the Ich affected tank with the betta in it. Never add raw aquarium salt directly to the bettas aquarium. Doing so can cause serious harm to the betta. You can treat the aquarium with this dosage up to three times total. You should space out the three dosages 12 hours apart. The salt will be slowly removed as you perform your daily water changes.
Aquarium salt baths.
An additional use for aquarium salt in treating betta Ich is making a salt bath for the betta. If you have more than one betta affected by Ich, you should make individual baths for each if you decide that the betta’s need them. Aquarium salt baths have a much higher concentration of salt in them versus the addition of salt in the betta’s normal aquarium. This much higher concentration of aquarium salt can exterminate the Ich that is currently embedded in the body of the betta. It does so by eliminating the Ich’s ability to maintain their fluid balance.
To make an aquarium salt bath for a betta fish, you need to completely dissolve 1 tablespoon of aquarium salt in 1 gallon of water that has been conditioned. Because you will be removing your betta from its aquarium and placing it into the separate bath container, you need to make sure that the prepared salt bath is the same temperature as the aquarium. You do not want to shock your betta by placing him/her into a bath that is warmer or cooler than the aquarium he/she just came out of. Make absolutely sure that the aquarium salt is thoroughly dissolved before placing your betta in the bath.
This much higher concentration of aquarium salt can exterminate the Ich that is currently embedded in the body of the betta.
Begin the salt bath treatment by placing the Ich affected betta fish in a container (filled with it’s existing tank water) that is slightly larger than the fish. Yes, this sounds small. For salt baths however, small is what you want. If the salt bath container has to be larger, wider is better than taller. Wider is better in this case as the increased surface area of the salt bath water allows for increased oxygenation of the water. It also gives the betta a bit of wiggle room from side to side.
Slowly begin adding the aquarium salt bath mixture into the small container that the betta is in. You are going to want to add the mixture until you see that the betta is exhibiting a mild form of stress. There is a better than good chance that you will not end up needing to use all of the prepared salt bath mixture before this happens. Once the betta starts showing mild stress from the added mixture, you want to stop adding and then let the betta soak for 30 minutes. During this time, keep a very close eye on the behavior of the betta. You are looking to see if the betta is having any dangerous reactions to the treatment. Completely halt the salt bath treatment and return the betta to the original aquarium if the fish tries to jump out of the container or rolls over.
After the 30 minutes are up, take some of the tank water out of the betta’s normal aquarium and use it to dilute the salt bath water. You want to do this gently and in stages. After the betta has been acclimated back to the original tank water through dilution, carefully remove the betta from the small salt bath container and place back into the original aquarium. You do not want to add any of the salt bath water to the betta’s aquarium during transfer. After 48 hours have passed, you may repeat this betta salt bath treatment. This procedure can be repeated up to 3 times.
Patience and Persistence is Betta
After 10 days of this Ich treatment have passed, all of the Ich should be eradicated. The betta should also be completely healed from the effects of the treatment. It is vital that you keep the temperature of the aquarium at 86°F during the entire 10 day period. Again, 86°F is the temperature at which Ich can no longer reproduce. If the temperature has fallen below that 86°F mark, you may need to start the treatment from the beginning. Starting all over again could cause a great deal of unnecessary stress on the betta.
Betta to prevent Ich
There is a commonly known myth about Ich that states that the parasite is naturally present in all aquariums and simply lays dormant until the right time to attack arrives. Luckily, this is simply not true. There is, however, the possibility that a fish which is naturally resistant to Ich can carry along with it a small degree of Ich infection and exhibit no apparent symptoms of the disease. If this Ich resistant fish suffered some degree of stress which in turn lowered its naturally strong Ich defense, the infection may then present itself to a full blown degree that came out of nowhere. While this scenario remains a possibility, Ich infections are generally brought on by the addition of a new fish in the aquarium.
It is a sad fact that many betta fish bred in large scale betta farms harbor Ich in their travels to pet stores. This is yet another good reason to thoroughly inspect the betta fish you are considering bringing into your home. Even when there are no immediately obvious signs of an Ich infection, the betta fish may still be carrying the condition with them. Try to pay particular attention to the betta’s gills as those are not as likely to be checked for Ich while at the pet store. If you are getting tank mates for your betta, or maybe bringing home a female betta to join a sorority, it’s a good idea if possible to quarantine any new fish in a container separate from the other fish. If, while in quarantine, the new fish start to develop symptoms of Ich or any other disease, you will be glad that you didn’t let the fish immediately join the other healthy fish. The standard quarantine time for observation is about 2 weeks, but that may continue longer if you believe it’s necessary. If you are still unsure of the possibly of parasitic infection of the fish in quarantine, you may decide to administer anti-parasitic medications during the quarantine. These anti-parasitic medications usually cover a broad range of typical parasites such as flukes and worms as well.
A video of Betta Fish Ich (sort of)
I always like to include a video in these betta guides. It would seem that the world is in desperate need of good, clear betta fish Ich videos. This one will have to suffice for now though. In the first 30 seconds and at about the 1:15 mark you will see the best shots of the Ich on the bettas tail. Ich is pretty difficult to capture on a camera. This betta has already started treatment and seems to have been improving. The video is entertaining none the less, as is the commentary! Watching it will make you smile, and I’m sure that would be a good thing after reading this Ich-y article. (I finally let myself use that pun!)