Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Aquarist veterinarian's mission to educate people on proper care of aquarium fish goes beyond optimal diet

Fish are commonly kept as pets, though they don't seem to get the same amount of visibility when it comes to their care and overall needs. It doesn't seem fair that they need be inured by that notion. 

I was doing research for another piece on aquatic animals when I had the realization that perhaps I should focus on one core facet of their care that seems to be ignored: what they eat (or should be eating). Pet food is something that comes up often when I'm chatting with those that share life with dogs, cats and birds, but with fish, never. 

In my research, I discovered that there's a lot of information out there — pet stores, books and yes, the internet — and too much of it seemed questionable, so I decided to dig a bit deeper by seeking a reliable source.

Aquarist veterinarian Dr. Charlie Gregory has always been fascinated by the ocean and what goes on beneath the surface. And in a conversation with him, his enthusiasm about the creatures that inhabit a world that can seem quite foreign to us humans was quite clear.

Gregory, who is owner of Boynton Beach, Florida-based Healthy Aquatics notes that commercially-available pelleted and flake foods besides being easy to find are great for lots of reasons. They do, however, require care in how and where they're stored, and as I learned, you can go further in optimizing your aquatic animal's diet by incorporating variety with other foods — and it's easier to do than you might think.

Flakes and pellets

When comparing brands, Gregory notes that "it all comes down to ingredients." 

The first ingredients should include things like salmon, krill, plankton, protein sources such as that. Ideally, a protein content of 45-55% should be listed and good brands include Ocean Nutrition, New Life Spectrum Thera and Tetra. (That said, herbivorous fish, like tangs and blennies, don't require that percentage of protein and benefit from something like Ocean Nutrition 2 diet.)

Pellets have the advantage when it comes to ready-to-feed diets because less food is wasted — which not only saves money and product, but results in a cleaner tank. Don't neglect a detail like the size of pellet that you're offering: large pellets for large fish, medium for the medium-sized creatures and of course, small for the littlest members of the tank. Pellets need to be able to be swallowed whole in one bite.
flickr photo by FromSandToGlass

Flakes are especially helpful where small ones are concerned, as they are manageable for the fishes' smaller size. But in this case, Gregory clarifies, use the big flakes. 

The integrity of these two types of food is crucial. To keep the food fresh, appealing and safe to eat, the suggestion is to keep only what you'll need for a week's supply in a resealable container that's airtight, and the rest in the freezer or refrigerator. 

Changes in temperature and humidity can adversely affect the quality of the product, and spoilage can result over time. 

"Things like the Omega-3 fatty acids break down easily, and aside from that, fungus can grow — and that's not something you want in your tank," Gregory says.

And as he points out, forgoing the super-size containers of fish food is a big help. Purchase smaller containers, and do so more often.

Other healthy choices 

Nori isn't just for making sushi — this variety of seaweed is another healthful option. So long as as the nori is plain (no seasonings of any kind, please), you're in good shape. Simply attach a piece to the side of the tank with a suction cup clip made for this purpose. 

Skip the store-bought frozen food that you can buy from pet stores and make your own. Because you'll be using human-grade ingredients, the quality is optimal. Gregory encourages people to head to the supermarket for fresh seafood or grab a bag of frozen mix. Shrimp, scallops, squid, clams are perfect choices. A few pulses in a blender or food processor — again, taking into consideration the size of fish in your tank — and adding a little plain gelatin, which acts as a binder and protects the integrity of the food while in the freezer, is all it takes. Spoon the mixture into ice cube trays (think regular size for large tanks, mini cube trays for small aquariums) freeze and store in sealed freezer bags for up to a year. 

More food for thought 

Live food, like feeder fish should be avoided and for good reason: they are often cultivated poorly and can introduce disease into your otherwise healthy tank. 

"Over feeding is a common problem," adds Gregory, who says that not only does wasted food contribute to algae growth in the tank, but unhealthy weight in the fish. 

"You would be surprised at how little food fish really need to be healthy."

His rule: in an average-sized tank (5-20 fish) introduce only enough food that the fish can eat in about 10 seconds. To help them — goldfish and triggerfish, most notably — avoid swallowing air as they eat, dip your finger into the water to tap the food and let it tumble down instead of allowing it to float on top. 

It seemed important to ask about how to handle having your fish fed while you're on vacation. 

"Fish won't starve in 2-3 days," and erring on frugality when it comes to feeding while you're away can help avoid an algae problem, something that seems to happen if someone else is at the helm. For long periods of time, be very specific with your directives on amounts and frequency, and you could always pre-portion and label rations.

Educating the public-at-large

Though helping people understand proper care of their aquatic species is an ongoing passion in Gregory's work — part of his time is spent with residential clients with an average tank to organizations with large public aquariums — he also has his sights set on doing the same with the next generation. 

"We're working to ramp up the education side now — working with the schools, including those in Palm Beach." 

Aside from the marine biology presentations at local schools, the professional team at Healthy Aquatics also offers hands-on event experiences on marine biology at their facility in Boynton Beach. Educational excursions to local ecological sites and more are also available. 

As Gregory emphasizes, these unique creatures are not 'pets'.

"They are living things, and deserve to be treated as such."

Click here for more information on Healthy Aquatics and the services and programs they offer. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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