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Discus Fish Disease, Symptoms and Treatment Guide


Your discus fish are important to you and keeping them free of illness is a big challenge. Most discus fish are being imported or sold from hobbyist to hobbyist, making it a risk to go from bag to tank.

discus fish disease guide

Everyone, at some point, is guilty of bypassing quarantine tanks in a hurry to add the new discus into their tank. Every time we skip quarantine, we take the risk of introducing parasites and disease to our tanks.

Below are several examples of symptoms and visual cues to look for when trying to spot parasite, bacterial and stages of disease onset. I will do my best to put links to images to help visually diagnose better.

If you would like to donate some of your pictures so we could use them on this guide, you can upload them to our Tropical Fish Pictures Forum or email them to support@tropicalfish.io and let me know it's cool to use them for this guide.

Symptoms and Diseases

We will continue to grow this guide to help discus fish hobbyist quickly identify and treat symptoms and diseases. Please bookmark this page, feel free to contribute by commenting below, posting in our forum or sending us an email.

Rapid Breathing
Tipsy / Head Standing
Leaning on Side
Bloat / Swollen Belly
Fin Rot / Tail Rot
Skin Ulcers
Hole in the Head
White Stringy Feces
Cloudy Eye


Rapid Breathing

If you notice your discus rapidly breathing it could be a sign of poisoning from ammonia, nitrate, chlorine or chloramine. It may also be an indicator that not enough oxygen is in the tank. Either way, your discus is signaling it cannot breath and needs your immediate attention.

On rare occasion, a skittish discus can run himself around the tank and temporarily exhaust itself. If this is the case, your discus should return to normal breathing patterns in a few minutes.

Let's break this down into new discus, just introduced to your tank and a established discus, one that has already been in your tank and is now showing rapid breathing.

If it is a new discus just added to your tank, begin by dropping an air stone into the tank and increasing the oxygen levels. Test the water using an aquarium test kit for abnormal readings for ammonia or nitrate levels. Another sign that lack of oxygen is the case is if your discus is heading to the surface of the tank to get air.

Like a dolphin or whale breach the surface to get oxygen, breaching the surface water for air is a clear sign their is lack of oxygen in the water. Adding an air stone and increasing oxygen levels in the water can help restore discus breathing patterns.

In the case of a new tank, if the water in the tank was not completely cycled, it could create a poisoning or gill burn situation.

An un-cycled tank could have contained chloramine or chlorine if the water source was from the tap. Using a de-chlorinator such as SeaChem Prime will help remove harmful chlorine that can cause gill burns and poisoning.

SeaChem Prime will also detoxify harmful Nitrate and Ammonia in the water, reducing or preventing further gill damage.

If your existing discus in your established tank begin to show signs of rapid breathing, use a water test kit. Identifying and removing harmful nitrate and ammonia build up should be first on the list of things to do.

Using SeaChem Prime and water changes will help restore water parameters. Look for left over food, a dead fish or other decaying matter that could be causing your water to foul.

With an established tank, you should have a routine schedule for canister filter or hang on filter clean up. All filters need cleaning at some point, the more routine your maintenance schedule the less fluctuations in your water quality.

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Tipsy / Head Standing

For discus, head standing or tipsy is rare. If you do notice this, it could be a sign of poor water quality. To confirm, use a water testing kit and look for abnormal readings for Nitrite.

If you can confirm that Nitrite and other parameters are out of range, do a water change with cycled water. If you do not have cycled water, use water treated with SeaChem Prime to remove harmful toxins from the water.

Watch your discus, if the behavior persist, do another minor water change and continue to check in on your discus fish. The matter should resolve itself.

In addition to the water changes, you can add a bit of aquarium salt to help reduce stress your discus fish might be experiencing. Aquarium salt does increase water hardness so measure out about a tablespoon. Don't over do it and remember the salts will evaporate and get removed with water changes.

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Leaning on Side

Leaning and even laying down can be temporary or a sign of something more serious.

When discus are transported from one tank to another, typically it is using a bag. If you can imagine, the water pressure in the bag is not as great of a force on the discus. When the discus is put in to a larger tank, the tank has more water than the bag. This causes pressure on the discus fish, pushing it down towards the bottom of the tank.

A solution to place your discus after transportation or importation into a tank with about an inch of water in it. Then gradually dripping water into the tank until the tank reaches its final water height. This will allow for the discus to gradually adjust to the increasing water pressure, instead of getting crushed by the weight of a huge tank.

If this is not a new discus, do water test and look for abnormal parameters such as Nitrite, Nitrate or Ammonia. If you find and readings that are off, do a small water change using cycled water or water treated with SeaChem Prime.

Continue to watch your discus for changes in behavior. You can also add a tablespoon of aquarium salt to help with stress your discus may be experiencing.

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Bloat / Swollen Belly

Observing your discus having a huge or bloated abdomen is very serious. Typically caused by over feeding, it can also be a sign of intestinal blockage or parasites.

To treat, it is best to remove the discus and place it in a smaller quarantine tank. Medication and water changes will be easier and less costly.

If you suspect you have over indulged your discus with live food and it is now stuffed to the gills, give it time to digest. Some discus know when to stop eating, others are like little piggies and will eat every last bit they can. You can place your bloated discus into a smaller quarantine tank and put a tablespoon of aquarium salt in the tank.

Aquarium salt will help reduce stress and serve as a laxative of sorts. Do not feed your fish until you see it passing the digested food it has already eaten. Keep the tank clean, do water changes as needed and add aquarium salt as needed.

So what happens if your discus is still bloated after a few days? If you feed live food, you may introduced a bacterial infection or intestinal parasite.

How can you tell? If you see long stringy white feces, see the remedy below, you might have an intestinal parasite. If your discus fish is passing its food but still seems our of sorts, it is probably bacterial.

For bacterial, you want to treat your discus fish with General Cure by API, a solution designed to treat a spectrum of bacterial nasties. Continue to keep your discus fish quarantined, do regular water changes and use aquarium salt as well. You should begin to see the bloated abdomen reduce in size and your discus become active and wanting to eat.

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Fin Rot / Tail Rot

Any kind of rot on your discus fish is a sign of bad water quality. It means that your water quality is bad for your fish but great for bacteria that is eating your fish alive!

To treat, move your affected discus fish to a ten gallon quarantine tank, do a water test to make sure your water parameters are not out of the ordinary. Treat the water with Prime from SeaChem if needed to remove toxins from water. Do regular water changes that are larger than usual. Wipe down the insides of your tank and clean up any debris in your gravel.

Treat your tank with an anti-bacterial solution like General Cure by API to help destroy the bacteria that is feasting on your discus fish.

Fin rot and tail rot is reversible and your discus fish should make a full recovery.

In rare cases, missing fins can be caused by fin nipping fish like raspborras. Although the cause can be from nipping, the damaged fin can become infected by bacteria and the cycle begins. Remove fin nipping fish from your discus tank, fin nipping will not stop and it is not worth the headache.

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Skin Ulcers

Discus fish are known to be a bit skittish. If they get scared enough they can bump themselves around the tank, hitting something rough enough to create an open wound or missing scales. A wound, even small one can introduce a bacterial infection.

First, make sure your tank is clear of any decoration that can be dangerous to your discus. Larger rocks, glass heaters, neon castles, etc. Although they look cool, once a discus darts off, they tend to smash into things.

Note on internal tank heaters, they can burn your discus. Discus can drift either while sleeping or by being skittish and come into contact with the hot surface of your heater. Burns can become infected and lead to death if left untreated. Newer heaters now come with a protective cover to prevent burns to you and your fish. If you have a larger tank, look into an inline heater that connects with your canister filter.

If you notice a gash or infection beginning to take hold, remove the discus and place them in a smaller quarantine tank. Ten gallon tanks work best, easier to make water changes and less medication is used.

Treat the discus with an anti-bacterial solution like General Cure by API. Keep doing regular water changes and use aquarium salt to help reduce stress. As the days progress, the wound should become smaller and eventually disappear. Some scaring might occur, your discus should return happy and healthy to its larger tank.

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Hole in the Head

A combination of poor diet and parasites cause hole in the head disease in discus fish. A weakened discus who has a poor daily diet will be a target for many diseases. Hole in the head is nasty, it looks exactly how it sounds. The infected discus fish develops puss filled holes on the front part of their head between the eyes. If left untreated, it will kill your discus.

If you suspect hole in the head disease, treat it with a broad spectrum anti-parasitic and anti-bacterial solution like ParaGuard by SeaChem. Also use General Cure by API, several people have reported success with curing hole in the head with General Cure.

Remove your discus fish from your main tank and place it in a quarantine tank. A ten gallon tank will work just fine, save you time in water changes and with less water to treat it will be easier on the pocket with medications.

Continue with regular water changes, feedings and clean up any left over food to prevent bad water quality. You can also add Aquarium Salt to help with the stress your discus may be going through.

The holes should begin to heal and although some may never completely seal up, your discus should make a full recovery.

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White Stringy Feces

If you see long stringy white feces trailing behind your discus fish, you might be dealing with internal parasite. If left untreated, could lead to bacterial infection and ultimately death of your discus fish.

To treat, use General Cure by API to help your discus recover. Remove your discus and place them in a ten gallon quarantine tank. Continue to watch your discus and do regular water changes. Your discus fish will continue to pass any remanence of white feces it has in its intestines. Your discus fish will begin to eat again, feed it small amounts, cleaning up any left over food.

You can combine treatment of General Cure with ParaGuard by SeaChem. Also a tablespoon of aquarium salt can be used to help ease the stress of your discus fish.

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Cloudy Eye

If you see your discus fish develop a cloudy or milky eye, your discus fish may be experiencing a bacterial infection.

Do a quick water test to make sure your water parameters are not of the ordinary. Do a water change a bit larger than usual and wipe down the sides of your tank.

Remove the affected discus and place it in a ten gallon quarantine tank. Begin treatment using General Cure by API and watch your discus for improvement. Continue to feed your discus fish a high quality diet and clean up any left over food.

You can also add Aquarium Salt to your tank to help reduce the stress your discus fish is experience while in quarantine.

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Closing Thoughts...

Although we tried to include everything, we can't get all on the first shot right? So if you don't see something above, feel free to ask us in the in the comments below so we can add it to the list and create a better guide. Also, if you find that you have a better solution, please share it in our forum or post it below. The idea is to help hobbyist find the solution they need and treat their sick discus fish.

If you would like to donate some of your pictures so we could use them on this guide, you can upload them to our Tropical Fish Pictures Forum or email them to support@tropicalfish.io and let me know it's cool to use them for this guide.

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