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Fish Care for the Vacationing Aquarist

By: Dr. Robert S. Bakal

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Imagine returning home from a fabulous two-week vacation only to find all of your prized fish dead and the aquarium you have been maintaining so rigorously a total disaster.

It¹s probably not so hard to imagine for many of you that have kept fish for any period of time. In fact, it is likely this has happened to you at least once. But we can't stay home and keep constant vigil over the aquarium – we all need a vacation once in a while. Fortunately, there are some alternatives that will allow you to enjoy your much-deserved time off and have piece of mind that your fish and aquarium are reasonably safe.

The biggest mistake most people make is that they ask a friend, neighbor or relative to come in and take care of their fish. This may be fine if the person has fish experience and some knowledge of aquarium care. Unfortunately, many do not, and they end up killing your fish with kindness by overfeeding them, figuring if a little food is good then more must be better. Little do they realize that they are overwhelming the nitrogen cycle and causing a build-up of toxic by-products that might ultimately kill your fish.

Several alternatives are available to the home aquarist to deal with just this problem:

Automatic feeders. These are a good way to take care of your fish while you are away on vacation by feeding your fish at appropriate intervals with a pre-measured amount of food. There are some drawbacks to these feeders.

  • They require electricity to work. In the case of a power outage or if their batteries go dead they will not work at all.

  • If you will be gone longer than the number of food chambers on your feeder you will have to have someone come in and refill it, which offers the possibility that the person may add too much food or accidentally change the settings on the feeder.

  • Many of these feeders require manual calibration, which can lead to problems if they are accidentally miss-set.

  • Like any machine, even when properly set they can malfunction. If the feeder were to malfunction and deliver all the food at once you would have an even larger problem then you would have with someone over-feeding them.

    Despite these drawbacks, automatic feeders can be a great way to feed your fish when you are away. Just be sure to test them before you leave and have someone come in periodically to check and make sure they are working properly. If they need to be refilled during your time away, pre-measure the food into individual containers, and show the person that will be refilling them exactly how to do it.

    Feeding Blocks. These are formulated to dissolve slowly over time and release food into the water for your fish to feed on. They are very convenient and easy to use.

    Again, there are some drawbacks to using this type of feeding strategy.

  • The rate of the breakdown of these blocks is dependent on water chemistry. For this reason there is no way to know for sure how long it will take a block to break down and how much food would be available to the fish at any given time.

  • This can either result in too little feed being released, which will do little for your fish, or too much being released which can foul and cloud your aquarium.

  • Many species of fish will not eat this type of food due to the size and composition of the feed, in which case you are simply going to foul your tank as the block dissolves.

  • Many bottom feeding fish, such as Plecostomus sp., may spend a great deal of time feeding on the block, preventing other fish from getting very much, if any, of it.

    Perhaps the best alternative is to actually have someone come in and check on your fish daily or every other day. The most important thing you can do in this case is to spend some time educating the person about how to take care of your fish and why it is so important not to deviate from the correct protocol.

  • Explain the way biological filtration takes place and what happens when you feed too much.

  • Show them articles on Petplace.com or print them out so they can have the materials to read and understand.

  • Measure out and package individual daily allotments of food before you leave and instruct the person how to feed the allotted food.

  • Provide the person with a daily checklist to follow and make sure he understands it and has no questions.

  • Have the person go through everything and do it all before you leave so you can be there to provide any assistance and answer any questions.

  • Provide the person with a telephone number for you, or someone you trust, to deal with emergencies or questions regarding your fish and the aquarium.

    If you are unsure that you can get someone capable and/or willing to take care of your aquarium and fish under these circumstances, then it may be best not to worry about the fish at all. With rare exception, it is better to not feed the fish at all then to have someone over-feed them. Fish will do fine for fairly long periods of time without food. Weekends or even several days without food are generally no problem for fish to handle. In fact, most fish will tolerate going without food for much longer periods of time. For trips of a week to two weeks, you may want to feed the fish a few more times a day for about a week or so before you leave on your trip, which will allow them to store some extra energy. Be careful not to overfeed during this period or you may cause the very problem you are trying to avoid.

    When the Power Goes Out

    There are other things to consider when leaving your aquarium while taking a vacation. If the power were to go out for an extended period of time your tank would gradually become depleted of oxygen. For this reason it is a good idea to have a battery-powered air pump available as a back-up and plenty of batteries available to keep it running. If you have someone coming in to check on your house and/or other pets, even if they are not taking care of your fish, you should instruct them how to set up and run this air pump in the event of such an occurrence. This one procedure could save all your fish.

    During such times anyone taking care of the fish should be instructed to stop feeding the fish until power is returned. Aquarium lights should be left off. Leaving aquarium lights on may result in your returning to a green, algae-laden aquarium that could take a great deal of cleaning to get back in shape.

    Most aquaria get enough light from the room for the fish to be able to see what they need to. Alternatives to leaving the lights off are to use a timer or to have the care-person turn them on for periods of time. With regard to timers, they are mechanical devices, which can fail or malfunction. If they do fail the effect may very well be the same as if you had just left the lights on. If you do have a caretaker turn the lights on be sure to have him turn them off before leaving. Again, be certain to explain why this is so important and what can happen if the light stay on.

    Good planning and communication can result in very good care of your fish and aquarium and a tremendous sense of security for you while you are away, allowing you and your fish to enjoy your vacation.

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