Guppy Fish Dropsy Disease – Causes & Treatments

If you’ve never heard of dropsy, then you’re not the only one. Only fish owners would know about this problematic issue that keeps killing their pets.

Dropsy is a medical condition also known as bloating, caused by an accumulation of water or other fluids in the fish guts and other internal organs. This isn’t exclusive to fish, though, as humans can also get dropsy.

Stick with me to find out more about this disease, whether it’s deadly, and how to prevent/treat it!

What Is Dropsy?

Diagnosing dropsy in fish is easy – look for a bloated and round belly, with an oval shape and with protruding scales. It’ll look like a pine cone, basically, which is a rather weird image for a fish. But that’s dropsy for you!

Also known as the swollen belly disease or bloating, dropsy isn’t common in fish, especially guppies. But this also means that when it hits, it hits badly. The disease leads to a fluid buildup in the colonic cavity, which could result in an amoeba or bacterial infection, or polycystic kidney disease.

It’s not pretty and it’s “not” not-dangerous. But fortunately, the disease is treatable in some respect, if it’s not caused by bacteria. In that case, it’s completely impervious to conventional treatment methods.

Will Guppies Recover from Dropsy?

No, dropsy is not treatable if it’s caused by bacteria. And it’s also contagious, so if you don’t isolate the sick fish, they’ll infect the entire aquarium without you even noticing. There’s a catch, though. Fish with a strong immune system won’t get dropsy even if it’s contagious.

The good news is that, when caused by stress, water pollution, or improper nutrition, dropsy can be treated. Epson salt, timely quarantining, high-quality food, and antibiotics are great treatments for dropsy, if treatable. Your fish’s immune system should become better if you make water changes and provide high-quality food, so much so that even dropsy won’t survive.

Causes and Symptoms for Dropsy

Dropsy doesn’t have just one cause, and many factors can contribute to the risk of infection. Once a fish gets infected, others may also receive the disease because of contagion. So, it’s good to know both causes and symptoms of dropsy so you can prevent an outbreak in your aquarium.

Fish with a vulnerable immune system will get infected with dropsy because of mycobacteria. Despite being very rare, this bacterium causes one of the most severe forms of dropsy. I recommend keeping your fish healthy, feeding them high-quality food, and doing water changes regularly to keep their immune system intact.

Several factors can weaken the immune system of your guppies:

  • Rare water changes, which leads to bad-quality water
  • Inadequate food (low-quality)
  • Spikes in ammonia and nitrite levels (dead fish carcasses, pile-up of food on the bottom of the aquarium)
  • Fluctuating water temperature which will mess up the fish’s immune system
  • Stress caused by aggressive tank mates or transportation to and from other aquariums

Fortunately, there’s only one probable cause for dropsy in guppies – water pollution. If you don’t perform regular water changes or you allow food to pile up on the tank bottom, then the water quality will drop sharply. The ammonia and nitrite levels will also increase uncontrollably, making the water almost toxic to the fish.

Stress isn’t a likely cause for dropsy unless the stressors are persistent and of a great magnitude. Some stressful situations here and there won’t have any impact on the immune system of the fish, which means it won’t get dropsy even if an infection is spreading in the aquarium.

Guide On Treating Dropsy

As I said before, if bacteria are the cause for dropsy, the disease is untreatable due to its fast infection rate. The best way to counteract this is to isolate and euthanize the affected fish before they infect the rest of the aquarium. If the dropsy is caused by other factors such as stress or polluted water, there are several ways to treat it:

  • Treat the entire tank with antibiotics
  • Dip infected fish in a container with Epson salt in it (2 tbsp of Epson salt per gallon of water)
  • Impose a state of quarantine in another tank (I recommend a bare-bottom tank with a sponge filter)
  • Feed your fish with high-quality food such as flakes

To expand on these points, the first thing you have to do is quarantine the sick fish. Isolate them in a different tank as soon as you spot the first signs of infection. Fortunately, they haven’t infected the other fish yet. You should also perform a 50% water change on the original tank that houses your other guppies. Watch over them and see if they develop any dropsy symptoms.

While you can treat the entire tank with Epson salt, I recommend doing short baths in salt since it’s more effective and less time-consuming. In a separate tank, put 1 gallon of water and 2 tbsp of Epson salt. Take the infected fish and leave it in the treating tank for 30-45 minutes. Repeat this every day and see if the symptoms get better.

Another treatment method to dropsy is feeding your fish good-quality food. I absolutely never recommend that you feed old food to your fish. If it’s any older than 6 months, you’re better off buying a new box of food than risking the health of your fish. Homemade fish food is another great idea that I’ve personally attempted with great results.

Your last option is antibiotics if the sick fish don’t get well after treating them with Epson salt. You’ll need to ask your veterinarian for an antibiotic prescription if you need one. But otherwise, antibiotics should get rid of dropsy from the tank, if you dose them well enough. One last thing is that you should regularly check your tank for ammonia and nitrite levels while treating the tank with antibiotics.

Preventing Dropsy 101

It’s always better to prevent than to cure. That much is true with dropsy as it is with any other fish disease. As I said, dropsy is likely caused by bad water quality, stress, bad diet, or a filthy tank. Make sure you deal with these problems and dropsy will be the last thing on your mind. To do this more efficiently, follow the steps below:

  • Don’t overfeed your fish
  • Don’t overcrowd the aquarium
  • Perform regular water changes of at least 30%
  • Don’t put guppies together with other aggressive fish in the same tank
  • Clean the filter and vacuum the substrate in the tank
  • Don’t feed old food to your fish
  • Use a heater to balance out the temperature and keep it stable
  • Variety is key when it comes to food

If you follow this guide, the chances of developing dropsy in your aquarium will be abysmally low. Even if you do, the treatment methods above should give you an extra fighting chance against this deadly disease. Your guppies will thank you endlessly if you give them this second chance at life. Follow the guidelines above!

Is a Swollen Belly Always a Sign of Dropsy?

No, not always. Females with a swollen belly are most likely pregnant if they haven’t given birth to the fry. If they did, and their bellies are still bloated, then something’s wrong. Dropsy could be the cause but don’t rule out constipation either. This arises from overfeeding, something that may happen with males too. Usually, bloated males are either constipated or have dropsy.

I’d recommend keeping a close eye on your guppies and watching their behavior and appearance. You should always be aware when female guppies give birth so you can be sure the bloating is not from a natural cause. As for males, a swollen belly is never normal.

While it may be hard, almost impossibly so, to differentiate between pregnant female guppies and dropsy-infected ones, the truth becomes clear after they give birth. At that moment, pregnant ones will become less bloated but infected ones will remain the same. It’ll be easy to spot the sick ones!

There’s a sure-fire way of knowing whether a guppy has dropsy, though. Watch its spine. Has it become bent and deformed, with pale gills and elevated scales? Then the problem is most likely dropsy, and it’s past treatment already. Euthanasia is the only way out.

Fortunately, dropsy doesn’t appear to be painful for fish. Did you know that fish can feel pain, by the way? Recent studies and research show this, and there’s good reason to believe them. By dropsy in humans (edemas) cause intense pains before potentially leading to death. So, it’s not a pretty scenario.

Is Epson Salt Actually Good Against Dropsy?

Most evidence points to the beneficial effects of Epson salts on dropsy-infected fish. But make no mistake, if the dropsy is caused by a mycobacterium, Epson salt will do diddly-squat. It’ll only make the fish a bit salty before it dies, so there’s that. But if the dropsy is caused by something else, Epson salt should be highly effective at treating and possibly even curing the disease.

If you perform regular salt baths on the infected fish, it should lead to beneficial effects within a few days. But if it doesn’t, then your last resort is antibiotics, which are quite a bit stronger than Epson salt. They will increase the ammonia and nitrite levels in the aquarium, so I recommend keeping a close watch on this.

Can Fish Dropsy Spread to Humans?

While humans can develop dropsy by themselves (edema), interspecies infections aren’t possible. So, you can’t develop edemas if you touch your dropsy-infected fish. That’s good since edemas are painful as hell. However, I’d still recommend wearing rubber gloves when treating sick fish. Otherwise, you may carry the disease to other fish.

Isn’t Euthanasia A Bit Drastic?

Not one bit, when the dropsy is in its final stages and the fish can’t be saved. You’re only wasting tank space and lowering your chances of treating other fish. When the fish has already developed past the protruding scales symptom, euthanasia is the only solution you have left. Don’t fret, though, you can still kill your fish in a humane way with:

– Clove Oil

This sedative is deadly for fish. So, mix 1 gram of clove oil with 10-15ml of warm water and pour it in a gallon filled with half a gallon of water. Put the sick fish inside and wait for 15 minutes. That’s it, the fish is euthanized and it didn’t feel a thing because clove oil has potent sedative effects.

– Anesthetic Overdose

Anesthetics can only be bought with veterinarian prescriptions, so go to your local vet and ask him to do this for you. The procedure involves sinking the fish in a small container with half a gallon of water and some anesthetic inside. In approximately 30 minutes, the fish will overdose on anesthetic and die without feeling anything.

To make sure your fish is dead and not pretending to mess with you, check for any gill movements. Wait for about 10 minutes after the last gill movements, and then you can be sure that the fish is dead. To avoid this kind of situation, try to manage your fish well enough so you prevent the onset of dropsy in the first place.

Wrap Up

Dropsy is a very dangerous infectious disease that should be prevented at all costs. If you follow my guidelines, you should find it easy to avoid dropsy. But if it still happens despite your best efforts, then there are several ways you can treat your fish. Quarantining, Epson salt, antibiotics, and good food will likely kill the disease at its roots and save your fish.

If the disease advances too quickly, then euthanize your fish. Similarly, if you’re sure the dropsy is caused by a mycobacterium, then I suggest euthanasia from the get-go. This type of dropsy is untreatable and you’ll only risk infecting other fish if you try to treat it with conventional methods. It’s better to accept that the fish is as good as dead and be more careful next time!

Guppies   Updated: September 16, 2022
avatar I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets.
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