When I had my first aquarium in my teens, I mistakenly fed my community tank fish with medium-sized sinking pellets.
While the larger fish lapped them up, a smaller Cardinal tetra managed to get one lodged in its throat.
If you’re wondering if fish can choke, the answer is yes!
And I can tell you from my own scary first-hand experience that they can! But how to recognize this and what to do if your fish is choking? – let’s find out…
What Causes a Fish To Choke
A fish usually chokes when a large piece of food or a foreign object gets stuck in its throat – specifically the esophagus, or canal that connects the mouth and the stomach.
In the case of my Cardinal tetra, it was in the form of a large, hard fish pellet, but fish can choke on other things too.
The Dangers of Choking
Like all animals, fish need oxygen to survive. But instead of breathing air, fish species absorb oxygen from the water through their gills.
If the flow of water from their mouths to their gills is blocked, your fish won’t be able to keep breathing and may suffocate.
This is the worst-case scenario and can lead to death quite quickly if the obstacle is not removed.
If the obstacle is smaller or lodged a bit further down in the esophagus, your fish will still be able to breathe, but it may not be able to continue eating food.
If the esophagus is completely blocked, no food can reach the fish’s stomach.
If this is prolonged for a long period of time, your fish may become weak and thin, and eventually die of starvation.
Stress and Shock
Choking can also adversely affect your fish indirectly by causing them to suffer stress.
In a serious case, your fish may become shocked and panicked, straining their system, and making them vulnerable to attack from other fish.
What Are the Symptoms of a Choking Fish?
Symptoms of Suffocation
As we’ve discovered, choking in the oral cavity can prevent a fish from breathing normally.
If this is the case, you’re likely to see your fish gasping, opening its mouth wide in an attempt to pass water through its gills. Gill movement will also become very rapid.
If the condition deteriorates, the fish will likely become fairly motionless, perhaps hanging still at the bottom of the fish tank or at the water’s surface.
If it’s not treated fast, your fish may start to lose control of its orientation, swimming sideways, upside down, or even floating at the water’s surface.
If the obstacle is not removed, your fish will eventually die from a lack of oxygen.
Symptoms of Starvation
If the item is lodged further down in the esophagus or is small enough to allow the fish to breathe, it may still prevent the fish from eating.
Witnessing this in my Cardinal tetra, I could see the fish was obviously distressed by the obstruction and had no interest in more food until this first piece had gone down!
So, lack of appetite and generally looking unwell are the most noticeable symptoms of a fish being unable to eat due to choking.
Put your face up close to the aquarium glass and see if you can spot the item that’s stuck. A magnifying glass may be helpful, especially if it’s a small freshwater fish.
How To Treat a Fish That Is Choking
If your fish is displaying symptoms of suffocation through choking, you need to act immediately by applying the following steps. Leaving the fish unable to breathe properly could result in death in a short period of time.
If your fish is breathing sufficiently but you’ve identified a blockage in the esophagus, you could leave your fish alone for 24 hours to see if the obstruction clears itself.
Hard pieces of food can soften in time and get swallowed or spat out, and even hard objects might eventually clear themselves.
But if, after a day, the obstruction is still there, it’s time to get it out. Here’s how:
Gather Your Equipment
You’ll need a net, a wet cloth, and a long pair of tweezers. Tweezers without sharp points are preferable to avoid hurting your fish.
Catch Your Fish
Using your net, usher your fish into a corner of the tank and raise your net towards the surface of the water as gently as possible to catch your fish.
Hold Your Fish Still
Using a wet cloth, hold your fish securely and still in one hand. Be careful not to damage your hand or the fish if your fish has a spiny dorsal fin. Wait for your fish to rest still before attempting to remove the obstacle.
Remove the Obstacle
With your other hand, use the tweezers to reach into the fish’s throat and remove the obstacle. Work swiftly but also be exceptionally careful to avoid the tweezers damaging your fish’s throat.
Return Your Fish
Once the obstacle is removed, gently return your fish to the water. If your fish is shocked and could be threatened by tank mates in the main tank, consider moving it to a quarantine tank to recover.
How Can I Prevent My Fish Choking?
The greatest danger of choking comes from feeding your pet fish large food items.
Fish pellet foods such as cichlid pellets of koi fish pellets, earthworms, crickets, shrimps, and other fish can all be too big or hard for your fish to swallow properly and can become lodged in their throat.
If you’ve experienced your fish choking in the past on large food particles or are worried about the dangers, try to feed your fish on easy-to-swallow fish foods such as flake foods, bloodworms, brine shrimp, or daphnia instead.
If you do use pellets, make sure you choose the correct pellet size and type for fish (e.g. betta pellets for betta fish) and make sure there aren’t any smaller fish in the tank that could choke on one by mistake.
Some types of fish such as cichlids also love playing with pieces of gravel. If you’ve had a problem with your tropical fish choking on gravel before, you could consider changing your tank substrate to sand or grit, which won’t pose a choking hazard to your fish.
So did my Cardinal tetra survive? Thankfully, yes!
Although the food lodged in its throat made it difficult for it to breathe for a while, I suspect the water softened the food, and it eventually got swallowed down. Phew!
Other fish keepers, however, have been less fortunate.
Keep a close eye on your fish during and after feeding time to make sure that all foods are easily swallowed and act fast if your choking fish is experiencing breathing problems.
By removing the obstacle promptly, you could keep your fish alive.