Oscars are one of the fiercest and most menacing of all aquarium fish, but that doesn’t make them invulnerable to diseases.
It’s not uncommon for Oscar keepers to report white patches on their Oscar’s skin – a legitimate cause for concern. But while you may assume that white patches on your Oscar are fungal infections, you may be surprised to learn that these can be due to other causes, too.
Let’s take a closer look at three diseases that can produce white patches on an Oscar’s skin, and how to prevent and treat them.
3 Causes of White Spots or White Fluff on Oscar Fish
There are several possible causes for white spots or white fluff appearing on your Oscar’s skin, fins, or mouth. While these might look like fungal infections, some of them are, in fact, parasitic or bacterial pathogens.
Ich (White Spot Disease) in Oscars
Ich is one of the most common diseases of freshwater and saltwater aquarium fish. Also known as ‘white spot disease’ or ‘ick disease’, it is caused by the protozoan parasite, Ichthyophthirius multifiliis (Translation: “fish louse with many children”!).
Symptoms of Ich
Ich can be a fatal disease, so it’s important to diagnose and treat it as soon as possible. Symptoms include:
- Small white spots – looking like grains of sugar or salt on the fish’s body or fins
- Fish flashing – fish itching or scratching against aquarium rocks, gravel, or ornaments
- Bruising or scale loss – a fish’s skin and scales can become damaged from scratching
- Lethargic and increased respiration – a sick fish may become exhausted and inactive
- Loss of appetite
- Sudden death of one or more fish in the aquarium
Causes of Ich
Ich is a contagious parasitic infection and is normally introduced to an aquarium by an infected fish bought from the pet store.
It may, however, lie dormant for several years until a weak fish appears for it to strike. Ich also thrives in poor water conditions, when an aquarium hasn’t been maintained properly.
Treatment of Ich
Since there are other diseases that it could be confused with, you may want to take your precious Oscar to a qualified exotics vet to make sure you diagnosed the symptoms correctly before treating them.
Common ways to treat ich include raising the aquarium water temperature, adding aquarium salt, and using purpose-made veterinary medications.
Because treating ich requires a detailed understanding of the parasite’s life cycle, it’s best to read up on it thoroughly before attempting treatment. You can find out more about diagnosing and treating ich from our dedicated guide here.
Cotton Wool Disease (Columnaris) in Oscars
The appropriately named ‘cotton wool disease’ is also known as cotton mouth disease, columnaris disease, saddleback, and black patch necrosis.
Although it may look a lot like a fungus, all of the above names point to the same bacterial infection known as columnaris (Flavobacterium columnare).
Symptoms of Cotton Wool Disease
White, fluffy patches on skin, mouth, and gills – the most obvious sign of cottonmouth disease is the appearance of cotton wool-like growths on your Oscar’s skin. Although the mouth is a common site of infection, it can grow anywhere on the fish’s body, from nose to tail.
- Pale gills – if the cotton wool disease spreads to the fish’s gills, you may notice the gill tissue appearing paler than normal.
- Lethargy – as the bacterial infection takes hold, your Oscar may feel exhausted and struggle to swim properly.
- Loss of appetite – As with most serious diseases, your sick Oscar may refuse to eat if badly affected.
Causes of Cotton Wool Disease
Columnaris is an interesting type of commensal bacteria that can occur in healthy fish without harming them. It’s only when an aquarium fish becomes stressed and their immune system is weakened that it can become prey to a harmful infection.
Water temperature also plays a key role. Columnaris can become especially virulent when water temperatures are raised – it appears to thrive best at 80°F, which is the upper end of an Oscar’s preferred temperature range (75-80°F).
Treating Cotton Wool Disease
Because cotton wool disease is easily confused with fungal infections, it should be properly diagnosed by a qualified vet. Treatment consists of dosing the fish with antibiotics, but this should never be tried until a definite diagnosis has been made.
Whatever the condition, white patches on your Oscar need diagnosing and treating promptly. If cotton wool disease affects more than 50% of your Oscar’s body, it’s very unlikely to make a full recovery. In this unfortunate case, it’s kinder to euthanize your fish than to allow it to die slowly.
Water Molds (Saprolegnia Infections) in Oscars
While parasitic and bacterial infections tend to be more common than fungal infections, white patches on your Oscar may indeed be due to Saprolegnia fungal infections, commonly known as ‘water molds’ or ‘cotton molds’.
What are Water Molds?
Water molds or ‘Saprolegniales’ are common components of the aquarium ecosystem where they normally spend their time harmlessly breaking down decaying organic matter such as dead plant leaves and uneaten fish food. Achlya, Dictyuchus, Saprolegnia, and Aphanomyces are all members of the water mold family.
Occasionally, however, these water molds can turn nasty and attack aquarium fish, including Oscars.
Symptoms of Water Molds
When water molds become pathogenic and infect a fish, you’re likely to see the following symptoms:
- Fin rot and ruptured fins – Fins are sometimes the primary site of infection and can follow on from bacterial fin infections.
- Darkening skin – In the early stages of infection, skin may darken before turning into a cottony mass.
- White, yellow, gray, red, or brown cotton-like mass on skin, fins, gills, and face – At later stages of infection, fluffy or fuzzy-looking patches are the classic symptoms of water molds.
- Skin erosion – Eventually leading to loss of scales and even exposed flesh.
- Eventual death – If the infection is left untreated, your fish could die.
Causes of Water Mold Diseases
As I mentioned, water molds are normally harmless organisms that perform the legitimate role of breaking down organic materials in the aquarium. Only occasionally will they infect fish.
When and why this happens is a complex process. In brief, it is thought that harmless water molds become harmful pathogens when there is poor water quality and a fish with weakened immunity.
When too many aquarium waste products such as fish waste and uneaten food aren’t cleaned up, these molds can proliferate, reaching unnaturally high populations. Since these poor water quality conditions also weaken your fish’s natural defenses, the water mold only needs to find a site of infection such as damaged skin or fins to invade.
It is thought that lower-than-ideal water temperatures (75-80°F) or sudden temperature drops can also trigger a water mold infection.
The precise causes for water molds and their symptoms are explored more fully in this excellent 2019 Iranian scientific case study of an Oscar that died from an Achlya spp. water mold infection.
Treatment of Water Mold Fungal Diseases
As with the bacterial cotton-wool disease, water mold fungal infections need to be diagnosed by a qualified vet before treatment can begin. These two diseases may look very similar but are caused by very different pathogens and therefore require different treatments.
Water molds won’t respond directly to antibiotics, but since they are often secondary infections that follow an initial bacterial infection, your vet may prescribe antibiotics to clear up the primary infection first.
When water quality has been improved and the initial bacterial infection has been overcome, a healthy fish will often be able to shrug off the water mold infection by itself. If not, anti-fungal medications may be needed.
Fungal Infections in Oscar Eggs
While we’re here, it’s also worth mentioning that water molds can infect an Oscar’s eggs, too. Infected eggs will have the same white, yellow, or brown fluffy mass growing on them that can also grow on an Oscar’s skin.
Once an egg has been infected, recovery is very unlikely, so it’s best to remove infected eggs from the tank before it spreads to other eggs, and potentially your Oscars, too.
Several diseases can cause white patches on your Oscar, and not all of them are fungal. What these diseases do have in common is that they’re all much easier to prevent than cure!
All three of the infections that we’ve discussed are common organisms in healthy aquariums that will only strike when water quality or your Oscar’s immunity becomes extremely compromised.
Good tank maintenance and a healthy, diverse diet is the key to protecting your Oscar and any other fish from such unnecessary and potentially fatal diseases.