Fish breathing rapidly

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Setting up your first aquarium ever and proudly filling it with great-looking fish is pure joy. At the same time, however, realizing something is wrong with your beloved new pets and not knowing what it is can become a real nightmare.

Therefore, knowing to recognize some potential complications before they become life-threatening is vitally important. Respiratory distress is among the most visible signs to follow, so if you are asking yourself “why are my fish breathing heavily and rapidly?”, we are here to help. 

Aquarium Fish Breath Heavily

There may be several reasons hiding behind a rapid and heavy breathing condition. Luckily, most of them can be influenced by you, so you can react promptly and improve your pet’s health state before it gets much worse.

– Lack of Oxygen

Fish that are not able of absorbing enough oxygen from their water can obviously display visible breathing problems. Indeed, their bodies are in such cases literally struggling to function, and they can die pretty soon if their environment is not improved at the soonest.

If you do not have a proper filtration system, use plastic plants only or forget to perform regular water changes, there can certainly be a lack of oxygen across your tank. In such cases, your fish will probably either stick around the top levels gasping for air or will try collecting it from the filter exit.

To avoid such unwanted situations, you should maintain the water pristine clean as well as “keep it fresh”. Regular water changes, good filters and plenty of healthy greenery will all improve the oxygenation levels across the tank.

Furthermore, you may consider setting a simple air stone at the tank bottom, whose main purpose is producing oxygen.

If you are in the middle of an emergency crisis, you can turn to a simple yet effective trick: use a glass or a jar to collect some tank water and then pour it back inside from a fair height.

– Ammonia or Nitrites

In most captivity tanks these should be at zero during all times. Not allowing any ammonia or nitrite to endanger the life of your precious pets is crucial and it can only be kept under control with regular water testing as well as with often partial water changes.

If you are for some reason avoiding cleaning your tank and change its water, even when you have invested in a great filtration system, ammonia and nitrites will rise sooner or later.

Fish produce waste, some meals are left uneaten and some plants can start decomposing, and this can all bring to ammonia or nitrite spikes. If that happens, your fish will be basically “burning out”, unable to breathe.

They can also display visible skin burns or similar irritations, but the only way to be certain is to test your water parameters.

The only successful way of keeping ammonia and nitrites at zero is to regularly clean your tank and the water inside it.

– Aggressive Mates

If you notice a fish panting across a community tank, one of your first guesses should probably be aggressive mates. Indeed, this happens more often than keepers like to think it does, and some fish are easy targets for natural bullies.

When a fish is bullied, it can develop a serious level of stress and, as a consequence, it will be unable of keeping its heart rate normal and will breathe rapidly.

If you are suspecting such a thing is happening across your tank, the simplest way to confirm that is by carefully observing your pets. How do they interact, and is there any fish which keeps swimming away from the rest of the group?

If you notice any behavioral changes such as fin nipping or even some visible signs like injuries, you should probably intervene and isolate your bullied fish for a bit.

In order to avoid such stress in the future, make sure to choose your tank mates wisely and according to their natural instincts. And remember, you should always keep an eye at their behavior.

– Birth Giving

If you own a pregnant livebearer fish, please keep in mind that your fish will have more trouble in giving birth than its egg-layer tank mate will have to scatter the eggs.

Indeed, livebearers have to keep their fry inside them for a few cycles and wait for them to become fairly large before giving them birth. This, obviously, requires much more effort from their side and they can start panting during the process.

Birth giving is a completely normal and natural happening and there is nothing special you can do for your pet here, other than ensuring she has all the best living conditions.

– Temperature Shock

It is unavoidable for a fish to feature breathing difficulties if it has been subject to a temperature shock. Indeed, the same happens to people when exposed to such abnormal spikes.

The easiest way to verify that is by checking your thermometer. If the temperature is much different than it was earlier, you may be sure this is what is causing your fish to struggle.

This happens mostly when the heater is malfunctioning or when a new fish is introduced to the tank without a prior period of adjustment.

You should be aware of the ideal temperature ranges for your fish species and you should always maintain such levels stable.

– Stress

Any stress trigger can lead to a compromised immune system and develop breathing difficulties among your fish. Therefore, please avoid these as much as possible. New tanks, inappropriate environment, travel, aggressive tank mates, or various diseases can develop stress.

– Disease

Fish breathing with trouble when being sick should not come as a surprise to anyone. This can be caused because of purely respiratory diseases, but also because of others that simply do not allow your fish of functioning normally.

Wrapping Up

Every fish can sooner or later start breathing rapidly or heavily. Sometimes, however, such conditions can be either avoided or improved by proper human care.

Learning to distinguish the various scenarios and knowing how to react is, therefore, vitally important.


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Why Is My Fish Breathing Fast? (5 Reasons, Solutions)

Ranchu and Celestial eye gold fishes breathing on fish tank's surface

Watching your fish in their tank should be a relaxing, joyful part of your day, but what happens when you notice something is wrong with your fish?

You might notice your fish breathing fast or gasping, and you might be wondering if that could be serious.

It’s easy to find yourself afraid for your fish at first, but it’s important to remember to keep calm while you figure out the problem.

There are a few different reasons your fish may be having trouble breathing, so let’s get down to the bottom of it quickly.

Why Is My Fish Breathing Fast?


There are multiple reasons your fish may be breathing fast, with the most common being a lack of oxygen in their tank.

Fish need air to breathe just like a human does.

Their gills filter oxygen out of the water, so it can get to their lungs and then into their bloodstream.

There are a few quick fixes to help a fish that is having trouble breathing, but the first step to fixing a problem is to identify it.

More often than not, your fish’s rapid breathing can be traced back to their environment and the water conditions.

It’s important to avoid panicking when you notice your fish gasping.

Taking them out of their tank and placing them in unprepared water will likely only shock them, and it could do more harm than good.

Leave your fish where they are and make gradual changes to their tank.

Let’s tackle the issue of low oxygen levels first, since getting proper air to a struggling fish is crucial.

1. Low Oxygen

One of the reasons your fish may be having trouble breathing is a lack of oxygen.

When there are low oxygen levels, your fish will begin to gasp or spend a lot of time at the surface of the tank.

Active fish will become sluggish, develop a loss of appetite, and of course, begin to breathe rapidly.

Fish cannot survive for long without proper oxygen, so it’s important to act quickly.

The best thing to do is to perform a large water change and increase water movement to create better oxygen flow.

Once the low oxygen has been dealt with, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The top causes of low oxygen are overcrowding, elevated water temperature, a lack of water movement, and in some rare cases, live plants can be to blame.

2. Overcrowding

mix colors of platy fishes

If you believe overcrowding is to blame for a lack of oxygen, it’s best to invest in multiple tanks and divide up your fish.

However, if you want to keep them all together, you should invest in a larger tank to house them in.

Overcrowding can also lead to numerous other issues, such as aggression, stunted growth, and various illnesses.

If you’re a breeder, it may be wise to stop the process temporarily until you have room to raise more fry.

Try not to stress your fish too much when moving them, and make sure their new tank’s conditions match their previous one.

3. A Lack of Water Movement

Wavy transparent water

A lack of water movement can be solved by investing in a good filter.

A powerful filter should disturb the water enough to break any surface tension and send oxygen down into the tank where your fish need it most.

Your filter should take water from the bottom of your tank to be pushed back in at the top to increase aeration

You can use air stones to disturb the water’s surface as well.

Air stones are attached to an external pump which will send bubbles through the water to disturb the surface and allow air in.

The actual bubbles themselves don’t fill the tank with air; it’s simply for circulation.

You may have also heard that fish swimming rapidly will aid in aeration, but while that is true, it may not be enough to properly aerate your tank.

Once the oxygen level in your tank is higher, your fish should stop gasping and return to normal, but if not, move on to the next problem that may be to blame.

4. Elevated Water Temperature

Fish tank water temperature thermometer

When the water’s temperature is too high, it’s unable to hold as much oxygen.

Take the time to measure the water’s temperature and adjust it slowly because cooling the water down too quickly could shock your fish and do more harm than good.

You can change part of your tank’s water to adjust the temperature, and once the water is at the proper temperature, it’s important to take the proper steps to keep it there.

Monitor heaters and lights that you may be using to warm the water and consider investing in a thermometer to help monitor your tank’s temperature.

It’s important to make sure the tank’s water doesn’t get too cold, either.

Avoid placing your fish’s tank in a window, as the window will leach the heat from your fish tank and may put your fish at risk.

Keep in mind that, when adjusting water temperature, you shouldn’t go below your fish’s recommended temperature, as it could send them into shock.

If your fish are tropical, we don’t recommend lowering the temperature by much at all to avoid making your fish susceptible to sicknesses.

5. Live Plants

aquarium with plants

Finally, we move onto live plants.

Live plants should receive care, just like all the fish in your aquarium.

When live plants are placed in a tank, they require light in order to produce oxygen, so where there isn’t enough light, there likely won’t be enough oxygen.

Keep in mind that increasing the light in your tank will directly affect your fish through temperature.

However, oxygen levels aren’t the only thing a plant can affect as there are also plants which can cause ammonia poisoning.

Ammonia Poisoning


Another, equally serious cause of gasping in fish is ammonia poisoning.

Ammonia is a toxic nitrogenous waste that is produced when organic materials begin to break down.

It can affect your fish’s gills and blood and reduce their ability to absorb oxygen.

Ammonia poisoning can be very serious if it isn’t dealt with quickly because even brief exposure to ammonia poisoning can cause gill damage.

It’s also important to remember that, when the pH levels are thrown off, the tank’s nitrogen cycle will be affected as well.

Ammonia poisoning can occur when the wrong type of plant is submerged in water, such as bamboo.

Bamboo leaves, when fully submerged, can yellow and release ammonia into the water.

It’s important to do thorough research on each live plant you plan on adding to your tank to make sure it belongs in the water.

Other than rapid breathing, signs of ammonia poisoning include lilac or red gills, a loss of appetite, and lethargy.

The top causes for ammonia poisoning include using tap water in an aquarium, excessive excrement, and uneaten food.

You may think that larger tanks are immune to ammonia poisoning, but that is simply not true.

Any tank can be affected; it’s all situational.

Ammonia can accumulate in the water, no matter the size of your tank, due to a combination of unsafe plants, overcrowding, or a surplus of uneaten food.

It’s important to test your water and keep an eye on your fish’s tank between cleanings.

To avoid ammonia poisoning, be sure to clean out your tank regularly and avoid overfeeding your fish.

Even if your fish don’t have ammonia poisoning per se, any presence of ammonia is a cause for concern.

Remember that there is no safe level of ammonia.

Treating Ammonia Poisoning

Sick goldfish lying in the bottom of the aquarium

If you’ve tested the water for ammonia and you’re certain it’s the issue, you should begin treating your fish immediately.

Lower the pH of the water as soon as you can and consider doing a water change.

Take a moment to assess your fish’s behavior and determine whether they look distressed or not.

If they seem distressed, it may be best to use a chemical pH balancer to try to neutralize the ammonia.

Be sure to avoid adding new fish to your tank until the ammonia is under control.

After either performing multiple water changes or using a chemical pH control product, it’s advisable to test the water with a standard test kit.

If the ammonia levels are still high, excessive feedings may be to blame.

It may be necessary to put feedings on hold for a couple of days to keep uneaten food from accumulating.

If your fish are still gasping after ruling out potential ammonia poisoning, there may be an underlying illness affecting your fish.


Sick goldfish with bumbs on its scale, fish bowl

If you’ve adjusted the oxygen level in your tank and ruled out ammonia poisoning, the cause may be an illness that will require a little more care.

There are certain parasites which can affect a fish’s gills directly and potentially kill them.

It’s best to consult a veterinarian for assistance when a parasite or other illness may be involved and directly affecting your fish’s health.

There are numerous diseases and parasites which can affect your fish, and it’s important to take any potentially affected fish to a vet or treat them in a quarantine tank.

How to Prevent Your Fish from Gasping Again

There are a few different ways to keep your fish healthy, and the best ways to keep them from gasping for air include the following.

Make sure your tank has proper aeration, and the oxygen levels are high enough to keep them healthy.

You should also make sure the tank’s pH levels are appropriate for all the species in your tank.

All that really needs to be done to keep your fish from gasping is keep their tank clean, maintain their water at the correct conditions, and be sure to only place suitable live plants in your fish’s environment.

It’s also important to make sure there is beneficial bacteria in your tank’s filter.

Another good idea is to monitor your fish and their behaviors between water changes and while they recover from potential ammonia poisoning.

All in all, in a lot of cases, rapid breathing can be easily fixed.

It’s just a matter of identifying the problem quickly and keeping calm while you fix it.

Breathing Clearly Now

Now you know what to do when your fish begin to gasp.

It’s important to pay close attention to your fish and their behaviors, and it’s a good thing when fast breathing is caught early on.

Now your fish should be in better health, and you have less to worry about.

We hope your fish are doing much better now, and you enjoy the time you spend watching them in their home.

How did you solve your fish’s issue?

Do you have any tips or advice you would like to share?

Leave us a comment down below and let us know—we always look forward to hearing from you!

Filed Under: Guides

Recognizing Rapid Breathing

Aquarium keepers know that the best way to ensure fish stay healthy is by observing them and looking for any changes in appearance or behavior.

However, when a change does occur, it can be difficult to determine what’s causing it, particularly if the change is something like a saltwater fish breathing heavy.

Fish breathing rapidly can be caused by several factors including stress, parasites, or high ammonia levels.

Fortunately, a bit more observation can usually tell aquarists what’s causing the change in their fish.


How Do You Know If Your Fish is Struggling to Breathe?

Sometimes, even determining whether a fish is breathing heavily to begin with can be a challenge.

A fish that’s struggling to catch its breath may appear lethargic or may not move around the aquarium as quickly or as much as it once did.

The fish might float near the surface of the water, or it might sink to rest at the bottom of the tank.

Looking at the gills of a fish breathing rapidly is also a good way to determine what might be going on. Fish that are out of breath usually flutter their gills much more quickly than normal.

The gills might also be covered in mucus or may appear inflamed.

Fish that are not getting enough oxygen may also lose their appetite. Observing the fish carefully to see whether it eats can give some clues about the fish’s health.

Aquarium keepers may also want to take note of whether the fish is gasping to breathe all the time or if it only happens now and then.

Read: How to acclimate saltwater fish

Why is My Fish Breathing Quickly at the Bottom of the Tank?

A saltwater fish breathing heavy and staying near the bottom of the tank usually points to exhaustion in the fish.

Often, particularly in crowded tanks, fish can become aggressive, and some fish might get chased around, which can cause a fish to stop and take a breather at a safe spot on the bottom.

Sometimes some corals or anemones will also reach out and sting fish, which can cause the injured fish to drift to the bottom. The sting can also cause the fish to gasp rapidly.

If there’s a bully in the aquarium, keepers may need to separate some of the fish into different tanks.

Why Are My Saltwater Fish Breathing Fast? 1

Fish that are lying at the bottom of the tank may also be suffering from parasites. Different types of parasites can attack the delicate gills of saltwater fish.

The fish’s body attempts to protect the gills by forming a thick coating of mucus. Unfortunately, this mucus layer also inhibits the fish’s breathing.

If the fish has any white or brown spots on its body, particularly near the gills, or has any other color changes, it can be a sign that the fish has parasites.

Fish that have parasites also tend to rub up against rocks or other aquarium decorations to relieve the itch or pain the parasites are causing.

Researching the fish’s specific symptoms can give aquarium keepers a good idea about what type of parasite the fish has, and the fish can then be moved to a quarantine aquarium and treated with a medication designed to get rid of that particular parasite.


Why is My Fish Breathing Quickly at the Top of the Tank?

Fish that are breathing quickly at the top of the tank usually aren’t getting enough oxygen from the water itself, so they’re sipping oxygen from the air at the surface.

A lack of oxygen in the aquarium water can be caused by something as simple as a filter or aeration system that isn’t powerful enough.

If the water in the aquarium is quite calm and there’s little agitation, aquarium keepers may need to invest in better aeration.

Adding additional filtration or water movement to different areas can often help to boost the aquarium’s oxygen level.

Adjusting the flow of the filter can also help to pull oxygen into the water.

Fish may also breathe rapidly and swim to the top of the tank when the ammonia level is too high.

If the tank hasn’t been properly cycled or there are too many fish for the cycle to keep up with, ammonia levels can spike.

These levels are quite toxic to fish. Ammonia can burn a fish’s gills and can make it difficult for the fish to take in enough oxygen.

Aquarium keepers can check the chemical levels of the water by using an aquarium test kit. If the ammonia level is too high, a partial water change can be performed until the level drops back down.

If the tank is overstocked, some of the fish may need to be removed to prevent another spike. The addition of more filtration, live rock, reduced bioload can aid in keeping ammonia in check.

In addition, frequent maintenance tasks and water changes help to reduce waste can lower the risk of ammonia spikes.

Marine Depot Aquarium Supplies

Why is My Fish Breathing Quickly After a Water Change?

Why Are My Saltwater Fish Breathing Fast? 2

There are a few reasons that a fish might breathe quickly after a water change. A large water change can stress fish, which may cause a burst of energy.

This stress can lead to a bout of fast breathing. In addition, the newly added water may not be as oxygenated as the water that was in the aquarium previously.

Adjusting the powerheads or wavemakers in the tank can help to quickly add more oxygen to the water.

New water that’s added to the aquarium may also contain a higher level of chlorine and other chemicals. This can cause a fish to breathe rapidly, as it can make it difficult for the fish to take in oxygen.

Of course, using only RODI water for your saltwater tank will eliminate these chemicals.

Test kits can help you determine all the necessary water parameters to ensure everything is within limits. You can test the water before and after water changes if you like.

After a water change, if you notice fish breathing rapidly, adjust the aeration and water flow in the tank. Most saltwater aquariums aim for a 10-20x turnover rate or higher.

Keeping proper water movement will prevent your fish from rapid breathing due to the loss of oxygenated water.

Categories FishSours:

Breathing rapidly fish

How to Treat a Fish with Heavy Breathing Who Isn't Eating

Learn how to treat fish who are breathing heavily and not eating with the help of aquarium expert Joseph Caparatta in this Howcast video.


If your fish are breathing heavy and not eating, there's something going on, either the fish are sick or the water is not good. Maybe one of the parameters has slipped out of range, it could be the temperature, ammonia, nitrite, pH, anything of those things will cause stress on the environment and cause the fish's immune system to be suppressed. When there's something wrong and the fish are stressed, the first thing they do is they don't eat. A lot of times they breathe heavy. If there's a parasite that's affecting their gills, they're going to breathe very heavily. If they're being chases around, if there's an aggressive tankmate, they're going to breathe heavy.

Fish should have a very unlabored breathing. It should be very steady. Without being a marine biologist, you should be able to recognize normal breathing versus heavy breathing. If the air pump stopped working or the filter which provides the oxygen for your particular aquarium has slowed down, maybe the oxygen levels are low, maybe the tank is too stocked. The fish have grown over the last 6 months and now there's not enough oxygen for the amount of fish that you have, so the fish are breathing heavy. If there's nitrites in the water, that prevents the fish's blood from carrying oxygen, so you should test your nitrites and see if they're elevated. All of these things will result in a fish being stressed if they're breathing heavy. If they're breathing heavy, you want to make sure that the water chemistry is good, they're not being chased, they're not suffering from any ailments, make sure they don't ick on them, and try to get their breathing to go to a normal rate.

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Fish Gasping For Air - Ask The Aquaponics God Ep9

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