Unknown Catfish, Mystery Deaths

Trying to identify an unknown catfish that is dying.

Q. I have a problem with my salmon-tailed catfish. Three out of four of them have died, all with the same symptoms. They developed off-white patches around their heads and pectoral fins. From these a transparent algae-like strand develops.

I’ve used Aquarium Pharmaceuticals’ Multi-Cure and added small amounts of sea salts to the aquarium, but it doesn’t help the catfish. My 55-gallon aquarium has an external power filter and a single airstone. The pH is around 6.6 and the temperature is kept at a constant 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The substrate is plain, natural aquarium gravel with a few creek stones and one piece of thoroughly washed driftwood.

The other aquarium inhabitants are two tiger oscars and one firemouth cichlid fish. I would like to know what I’m doing wrong or what I’m not doing that I should be before I restock. I can’t stand any more catfish deaths! Could you please suggest an algae-eating catfish and any other catfish suitable for my aquarium?

A. I’m amazed, although pleasantly so, that you receive Aquarium Fish International magazine in Australia. I’m also flattered that you sent your inquiry from the land down under to me.

If only I could help you! To begin with, I don’t have any idea what a salmon-tailed catfish is (some catfish expert, right?). After much frustration, I realized that your question was valuable for the readers of this department to see. Why? Because it emphasizes the importance of providing as much information as possible when submitting a question to this column.

Are your salmon-tailed catfish algae-eaters (plecos)? Do they have a suckermouth? Do you know the country of origin? I realize that you supplied the common name for your fish — most people do, but it would be helpful to have some frame of reference, particularly when the information is coming from another country.

Your letter does give me the opportunity to ask the readers of this column to consider a few things when submitting their questions. When supplying a trade or pet shop name for your catfish, please also try to supply a description. It’s not really that difficult to do — after all, you own the fish. You will have to examine it closely!

How many pairs of barbels does it have? What type of mouth does it have — suckermouth, frontal mouth, downward-facing mouth? These can be important identification keys. What does the catfish actually look like? Are the eyes small or large? What is their approximate placement? What is the approximate size of the fish? Please indicate if you are using standard length (nose to base of tail fin) or total length (nose to end of tail fin). A good frame of reference is that a U.S. dollar bill is 6 inches long. There is no such thing as too much information, even for those readers who supply a scientific name — what if it’s incorrect?

What size is the aquarium, how many gallons and what is the shape? There’s a lot more swimming room in a 30-gallon “long” aquarium as opposed to a hexagon aquarium. What else lives in the aquarium? In this case, you supplied much of this information, but often hobbyists do not.

I’d also like to comment about your “creek stone and thoroughly washed driftwood.” I am really opposed to collected materials being placed in a home aquarium. Unless you are an expert in such things, you could be introducing trouble into your aquarium. The small amount of money you might be saving is insignificant when compared with the problems that might result from these materials and the subsequent fish losses. It’s really not worth it!

Now, on to your problem. I was not familiar with Aquarium Pharmaceuticals’ Multi-Cure and I could not find a literature reference for it. I called Aquarium Pharmaceuticals and spoke to a corporate vice president. He was very helpful except for the fact that his company does not make a product called Multi-Cure. Laughingly, he commented that unless the questioner lives in Australia, he probably had the wrong company name. I immediately informed him that this was indeed the case. Evidently, before Aquarium Pharmaceuticals (USA) became an international company, there was an existing company in Australia with the same name. Multi-Cure must be their product.

The reason I was trying to obtain product information is because it’s important to know what the manufacturer states the medication should be used for. So I am still batting zero in answering your question.

However, I hope I can be of some assistance for the last part of your question. I know how frustrating unexplained fish deaths are. You asked for some suggestions as to catfish you could successfully keep in your aquarium. Because you are currently keeping both Central American (your firemouth) and South American (your oscars) cichlid fish, both of which do quite well at a neutral pH, there are a great many South American catfish for you to choose from.

My suggestion — a personal preference — for an algae-eating catfish would be a Pterygoplichthys species or a Panaque species, such as the blue-eyed or royal plecos. Any of these fish can more than hold their own location or territory in a cichlid fish aquarium. Additional catfish might come from the families Doradidae or Aspredinidae. I have found Megladoras irwini to be a fantastic tankmate for neotropical cichlid fish!

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Fish · Lifestyle