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Ammonia Toxicity

By: Dr. Greg Lewbart

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All animals produce nitrogen compounds as a by-product of normal daily metabolism. Dogs and most other mammals produce urine which consists primarily of a compound known as urea, and most species of fish produce ammonia which is very toxic in the aquarium. Under normal circumstances, fish in the wild don't have ammonia toxicity problems since they live in millions or even billions of gallons of water and their ammonia becomes quickly diluted and incorporated into the nitrogen cycle where it is detoxified by naturally occurring bacteria.
High levels of ammonia in the aquarium is probably the number one killer of pet fish. Any measurable amount of ammonia indicates either an overloaded aquarium (too many fish or too much food) or an inadequate filter. Many aquarists suffer from a problem called "new tank syndrome." This problem arises because people place too many fish into an aquarium with an unestablished or inadequate biological filter.

Patience is key when beginning a new aquarium. A few hardy freshwater fish like tiger barbs can be used to start the nitrogen cycle in your aquarium. After four or five weeks, other compatible fish may be added to the aquarium.

Another common cause of elevated ammonia levels is a damaged or compromised biological filter. Since the biological filter consists of "good" bacteria which can be sensitive to certain antibiotics, all drugs should be used under the direction of a veterinarian familiar with your fish and aquarium. Antibiotics that are dumped into the water as a "shotgun" treatment can compromise a biological filter resulting in elevated ammonia levels.

Ammonia is also affected by the pH (dissolved hydrogen ions) of the water. When the pH is above neutral (greater than 7.0), it is primarily in the toxic or unionized form. If the pH is below 7.0, a significant portion of the ammonia will be ionized and not as toxic to the fish. Ammonia is especially harmful to marine fish since saltwater aquariums are almost always maintained at a pH of between 8.0 and 8.5.

Veterinary Care

Your veterinarian will be able to test your water and confirm whether or not you have an ammonia problem in your aquarium or pond. If an ammonia problem is identified, then she or he will, combined with your input, identify the source of the problem and make efforts to correct it. In most cases, treatment will be supportive (clean water, plenty of oxygen, good food), and your fish will begin feeling better once the ammonia levels have been reduced to an acceptable level.

Home Care

An elevated ammonia level needs to be dealt with immediately in the form of water changes or physically removing the fish to an aquarium or other container with clean water. If the ammonia levels are high (greater than 2.0 parts per million) then you may have to perform daily 25-50 percent water changes. Remember that if you are using municipal water, it will likely contain chlorine or chloramine. These chemicals are added to the water to make it safe for human use but they are very toxic to pet fish.

Always use a water conditioner that is labeled to neutralize chlorine and chloramine before adding new water to an aquarium or pond. These water conditioners are available in most pet stores.

Preventative Care

Prevention is the best solution for ammonia poisoning. By not overstocking, overfeeding, or overmedicating your aquarium, the chances of an ammonia problem are greatly reduced. Coupling these strategies with an adequately functioning biological filter will insure that ammonia toxicity will be something you only read about.

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