Treating Ich in a Planted Aquarium

Ich (which is short for Ichthyophthirius multifiliis … try and say that 10 times fast!) is often mistakenly refered to as “Ick” but regardless of the word used this is a common parasite that affects freshwater fish. Visually you can see it on an affected fish by looking for little white spots that will appear all over the fishes body and fins. These white spots are parasites that are burrowing into the fish and causes them great discomfort. You may notice your fish rubbing against decorations in the tank in an attempt to find relief.

Ich has a cycle to it. Lets start with the Ich on your fish, it will feed for awhile, then detach and fall to the floor of the aquarium (gravel, decoration, plant, whatever). At this time it will begin replicating by the hundreds/thousands. When finished the hundreds/thousands of new Ich parasites will be free swimming and looking for a host. They don’t live long in this stage, and it is the only stage in the cycle where any form of medication can kill the Ich. Once they find a host, they reattach and become immune to external attacks.

Our new Betta has come down with a case of Ich, and since the aquarium contains live plants it complicates the treatment as it limits the options available. I thought I would share our findings and results.

How you treat ich is … widely varied. If you search for treatments online you’ll come up with all kinds of various ways to treat ich, and only one thing in common between all treatments so we’ll cover that first.

This is temperature. Raising the temperature will decrease the cycle time making things happen faster, and thus giving your fish relief from these little buggers as fast as possible. Remember, Ich is only vulnerable during its free swimming stage so the faster you can get it to that stage, the faster you can kill it. You want to jack it up to at least 85 degrees if your fish can handle it, if not go as high as you can before you start seeing signs of stress in your fish. At 85 degrees it is much less likely that your fish will gain any new infections and with no hosts, the Ich dies. If you can go just 1 degree higher to 86 the ich parasite can no longer reproduce. If you have really high temperature fish that can withstand 90 degrees for a few days (minimum 4 days) the temperature can outright kill the parasites itself.

Most fish can’t take 90 degrees though, so you’ll need to supplement with some kind of medication. The ‘natural’ way recommended is using aquarium salt at 1 teaspoon per gallon. This can be adjusted as needed depending on the salt tolerance of your fish. However, in a planted aquarium this will mean the death of most plants and is not at all recommended if your aquarium contains any live plants. In addition, if you don’t see your fish being Ich free within a few days you may need to use an actual medication.

So out of all the medications at the pet store, what should you use? We are using Coppersafe. In speaking with other planted tank aquarists they have reported good results with using it and with minimal affect on the plants. You’ll want to do a 50% (at least) water change before dosing the Coppersafe. If copper levels get too high, its toxic to both plants and fish so it is important to do the water change to remove remaining copper from your plant fertilizer and to discontinue the use of plant fertilizer until the Ich treatment is completed. Also, when dosing remember that the actual water gallons your tank holds is going to be less than the advertised number of gallons, dose for actual gallons of water in your tank!

You must treat your entire tank, the Ich will be EVERYWHERE and not just on the fish. You can not just remove the infected fish to a hospital tank, and leave the others in your main aquarium. If you wish to stick with the ‘natural’ salt method, you may remove your fish (all of them) to a hospital tank so that you are not putting salt in your planted aquarium. Ich needs a host to survive so just jack the temperature up in your main tank to 90 degrees and leave it for a week while treating your fish in the hospital tank. Just remember … most people’s hospital tanks will not be cycled… that massive ammonia levels will be majorly detrimental to your fish. I can not recommend this at all unless your hospital tank is cycled.

Once dosed, leave your tank alone for at least 1 full week. A lot of sites/forums will recommend aggressive cleaning daily of the gravel in your tank to try and suck up and remove as many of the parasites as possible as they replicate in the substrate. I personally believe this is hogwash and just an attempt to make you feel like you are actively doing something to help your poor fish, but I believe the negatives far outweigh any positives you may get out of this exercise.

  1. As mentioned above, a single Ich parasite that drops to the substrate will replicate into hundreds to thousands of new parasites. There is no possible way to suck up every single one, not even close, so you will not be preventing the replication of new parasites, only slightly slowing it.
  2. Water changes are stressful to your fish, they don’t like you rooting around their tank. They don’t like their home shrinking and then a torrent of new water rushing in and get even more stressed if the water temperatures are dissimilar. You do NOT want your fish to have any additional stress, you need their immune systems as strong as possible.
  3. You need to re-dose the medication for the new water going in. And remember, copper is toxic to both fish and plants in the levels get too high and there is no easy way to test your copper levels.

I would only recommend water changes if you are in an un-cycled tank and need to remove Ammonia/Nitrite.

My last bit of advice is to remove the filter if it contains carbon. The activated carbon will remove any medication you add, so it’s not doing you any favors by being there. In a planted aquarium you shouldn’t have carbon anyways. If your filter does not contain carbon, you can leave it alone. The Coppersafe will not affect your beneficial bacteria as it is not an anti-bacterial agent, Ich is a parasite.

For our Betta he has ~30 or so visible spots, we’ve increased his temperature to 86 degrees (Bettas actually enjoy a higher temp) and have dosed the Coppersafe. The Betta has responded by blowing a bubble nest and is actively swimming around. I’ll make another post as the treatment progresses to give updates.

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