Why Is My Fish Gasping for Air ?

Take a close look at your aquarium. Is your fish gasping for air? If this is the case then you should immediately do something about it. Fish gasp for air because they need oxygen and they go to the surface air to be able to breathe properly.

Sometimes fish gather around the filter outflow or by the waterfall just to find oxygen. Fish gasping for air is a problem for many pet owners because in some cases the fish can die. This is why you should take seriously the oxygen levels in your aquarium.

Keep on reading as we’ll discuss what you can do to provide your fish with a better living environment.

Why Do Fish Gasp for Air?

The terms “gasping” or “piping” are used to describe a fish which is experiencing difficulties breathing at the water surface. You can easily know that this is happening because one part of their mouth is usually above the surface. This is the easiest way to know that your fish isn’t getting enough oxygen.

A fish is just another animal and like all animals it needs oxygen to fuel their cells and support their metabolism. Fishes get oxygen through their gills, which are specialized structures that extract dissolved oxygen from the water. If the fish is in a water that lacks sufficient oxygen , the fish will have difficulty extracting enough oxygen through their gills and may start to gasp for air at the water’s surface.

Sometimes your fish will be gasping for air because the water temperature is too hot. It’s hard to know as there are many reasons why your fish lacks oxygen. Keep on reading as we’ll discuss the main reasons that affect the oxygen levels that your fish consumes.

Inadequate Filtration

Inadequate filtration can lead to fish gasping for air. That’s why is crucial that you provide your fish with a properly sized aquarium and full-functioning filter. Maintaining healthy water conditions in an aquarium requires a filtration system that is working properly.

If the filtration system is inadequate, waste can build up in the water and lower the oxygen levels, which is bad for the fish. The fish may struggle to get enough oxygen as a result, gasping for breath at the surface. So if you see your fish gasping for air at the surface, check your filtration system and see whether it works properly.

Also, you should have an aquarium that is the adequate size for your fish. Keep in mind that air diffusion on the surface of the water is not sufficient for most pet fish species.

Filtration is important because it provides oxygen to the water and it supports nitrogen cycling. Furthermore, high concentrations of poisonous substances like ammonia and nitrite, which are formed by trash, can also injure and stress fish, increasing their requirement for oxygen.


The dissolved oxygen in the water can be depleted faster by fish housed in crowded conditions than it can be replenished. This is particularly problematic in the summer in outdoor ponds because warmer water contains less dissolved oxygen.

Because algae and other aquatic plants require oxygen at night, the morning just before sunrise is when dissolved oxygen levels are at their lowest. A pond’s oxygen levels can be kept higher by removing algae and reducing the quantity of fish.

New Tank Syndrome

When you buy a new aquarium and start the filtration it will go through a nitrogen cycling process which is called “New Tank Syndrome”. All new aquariums go through this process in which beneficial bacteria colonize the filter and convert ammonia to a safer product.

The water will get increases in ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels during this process. These spikes can severely damage and even kill your fish if they are placed high enough. In order for the helpful bacteria in the biofilter to have time to thrive and keep up with the fish waste that is being produced, it is important to add fish gradually over the course of several weeks to a new aquarium.

New Tank Syndrome is typically caused by putting too many fish together too soon. Remember, high ammonia levels can kill fish by damaging their gills.

Brown Blood Disease/Methemoglobinemia

The transition of ammonia into nitrite is the middle stage of the nitrogen cycle. Methemoglobinemia, often known as brown blood sickness, may result from a persistently high nitrite level.

In the course of this disease, blood hemoglobin and nitrite bind and release oxygen. No matter how much oxygen you add to the water, it will never reach the tissues of your fish, resulting in asphyxiation and death. By detecting the nitrite level using a common test kit, it is quite simple to check if this is happening to your fish,

Gill Damage

In some cases your fish grills can be damaged due to a disease. If the water is dirty, this exposes the fish to a lot of contaminated debris and toxins such as chlorine, ammonia and heavy metals. Even if there’s enough oxygen in the water, your fish grills will be damaged and you will see your fish gasping for air at

There are some viral diseases that cause grill damage such as Koi Herpes Virus and Carp Edema Virus. In addition to making your fish gasp at the surface, these viruses can also cause sudden death or lethargic behavior in your fish. Other than supportive care, there is no therapy for any viral illnesses that affect fish. Your veterinarian may need to get in touch with state regulators to report certain diseases depending on the virus that is prevalent in your pond.

There are certain parasites that replicate in the gills known as White Spot or Dactylogyrus that can also cause gasping. In some cases your fish may show other signs of disability such as decreased appetite, lethargy or flashing.

It’s not easy to find treatment for all parasites but it’s advised that you resist the urge to dump a bunch of medications in the aquarium. In some cases aquatic parasites enter the aquarium through a new fish. If you want to prevent the spread of parasites, establish quarantine protocols to ensure that you have a clean system.

Diagnostic Processes

If you want to determine whether the water in your aquarium is clean you can use a a liquid-based test. In some cases the results will be within a normal range and this means that you will need to contact an aquatic veterinarian. They will conduct a secure physical examination to evaluate your fish’s gill health and search for any underlying illnesses. A gill biopsy sample is frequently obtained in order to examine it under a microscope. It may occasionally be necessary to send further samples to a lab for additional testing, such as virus testing.


So, once you examine the aquarium’s water chemistry, you should take further steps to fix all issues. A rapid solution for nitrogen cycle problems, such as high ammonia, nitrite, or nitrate, is a 50% water change. Before introducing it to your aquarium or pond, test your tap water for chlorine or ammonia (chloramine) and treat it with water conditioners if necessary.

But be careful and cautious, the inappropriate temperature or pH should be corrected slowly. Making drastic changes in the water very quickly can cause the fish to die from shock. What you can do is test the water daily and make changes until the results are better.

Your veterinarian might advise additional parasite treatments or medicines depending on the illness condition.  There is no “one size fits all” cure for gill injury and the gasping, as there are numerous factors that contribute to a grill damage.  Depending on the type of parasite identified, the right treatment must be taken. Avoid giving your fish any over-the-counter medications since they may weaken them and worsen any existing health issues.

How to Prevent Gasping for Air

So, how to avoid the awful situation of seeing your fish gasping for air? To prevent this situation ensure that the aquarium has proper filtration, aeration and proper water quality which includes pH, temperature and ammonia levels. Avoid putting many fishes in one space as overstocking the tank will certainly be stressful for your fishes. Keep in mind that they need to have enough swimming space as well as hiding places. Also, provide your fish with an appropriate amount of quality food.

Proper Maintenance

You may need to clean the filtration system quite frequently or few times a month depending on your aquarium setup, the quantity of fish, the various species kept, how much food is served, and how frequently you feed your fishes.

Fish are not “maintenance free” pets and will need routine upkeep to maintain a healthy environment. Remember,the quality of the water a fish swims in is essential to their general health.

Regular Water Testing

So, how to make a proper maintenance routine for your aquarium? Just test the water chemistry regularly, this is the best advice we can give you.

For a good maintenance system, measure ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, kH (alkalinity), and temperature  by using a liquid-based test kit at least once a month Avoid using test strips.

Check levels regularly at first daily, then weekly, particularly if you are adding filter components, additional fish, or changing their food. Ask an aquatic veterinarian about the needs of the fish species in your aquarium if you’re unsure of what your criteria should be. To ensure accurate results, replace your test kit once a year.

Quarantine Protocols

It’s completely understandable that you don’t want to wait a certain period before you add a new fish to the aquarium. However, this is a must. The new fish has on it the bacteria and the parasites from the pet store’s aquarium systems. The fish may also have some disease and you may not be able to spot the signs of illness. If you just dump them in a healthy system it may cause chaos.

An individual must be completely isolated during a quarantine and the same goes for a fish. So get a separate tank, pond, or tub with separate filtration . A 4-6 week quarantine period is advised to protect your fish. This period should be that long because a fish may be sick and you may not know because there’s an incubation time before the fish shows any signs of illness,

The temperature of your tanks will have a major impact on how rapidly all these disease processes develop .Although the processes will go faster in warmer water, you shouldn’t heat your quarantine tank to speed up the process.

Your fish’s immune system can suffer immensely from improper temperatures, and even if they “pass” quarantine without incident, they may still be ill.A quarantine can sound like a boring activity but it can save the lives of your fish.

So,there are many things that cause fish gasping. Poor water quality is one that can be easily fixed, but other problems require veterinary attention so they can be properly identified and treated.

Commit to your scheduled maintenance , check the quality of your water frequently, and be sure to quarantine any new residents in the aquarium for a month or as long as six weeks. Take care of your fish and remember that they are not “low-maintenance” pets.

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