Ammonia Poisoning: Symptoms, Prevention and Control

Vienna Zoo: Trouble in Paradise
Ammonia poisoning, also referred to as ammonia stress, nitrogen stress, or nitrogen poisoning, is often considered one of the most common causes of death of aquarium fish.

Causes of Ammonia Toxicity

Problems in water quality often pave the way for ammonia toxicity. Ammonia is a biological waste product of fish, decaying plants, algae, and uneaten food. This toxic substance is produced when these materials break down inside the tank.

As the levels of ammonia increases in the water, there will be a resulting displacement of oxygen in the tank water by ammonia. The more ammonia present in the water, the less oxygen will be available to your fish and the beneficial microorganisms that function as your biological filter.

New aquariums have also been linked to cases of ammonia toxicity because of the presence of high ammonia levels coupled with a small population of nitrifying bacteria that can convert ammonia into less potent forms. It may take up to six weeks for a new tank to be completely cycled and have acceptable levels of ammonia and nitrifying bacteria.

Besides inefficient tank cycling, important predisposing factors of high ammonia levels include small tanks and overpopulation.


Early signs of ammonia toxicity include fish that seem to be struggling to breathe at the water’s surface. They may have reddish or purple gills that appear to bleed. The fish will soon start to lose their appetite and become increasingly lethargic.

In some cases, fish can be observed at the bottom of the tank, with fins fixed to the body. If ammonia level is not corrected, the body tissues will be affected as manifested by the appearance of red spots on the fins and body. The buildup of ammonia inside the tank can irritate and eventually damage sensitive fish tissues like the gills.  This signals internal and external bleeding that can eventually lead to death of the fish.

Depending on the concentration of ammonia in the water, poisoning can occur suddenly or over a period of several days.

Addressing Ammonia Toxicity

In order to nip the problem in the bud, you must first identify what is causing the elevated levels of ammonia and address it appropriately. There is a need for prompt intervention to correct the problem and save your fish.

For many hobbyists, the first step is to do a water change. It is best not to use to ammonia remover at this time for it can have long-term negative side effects on the tank’s aquatic environment.

A water change will remove some of the ammonia and allow the tank’s biological filter to begin processing excess waste.

A water change may not correct the underlying issue, however it is a short-term answer to removing some of the ammonia. When making a water change, make sure that your tap water has been treated with a dechlorinator to remove chlorine and chloramine.

Other important measures that you can undertake include the following:

    • Stop feeding your fish so there will be less ammonia produced. Don’t worry for they can survive for a few days without any food. Feeding can resume when ammonia levels are about 0 ppm.
    • Make sure the tank’s filter is fully functional.
    • Improve tank aeration by putting air stones or air pumps

About the Author:

Peter Hartono is the founder and CEO of Just Aquatic – a proud Australian company that provides excellent online aquarium supplies for betta fish tanks, goldfish tanks and also aquatic plant care products carrying top of the line brands including API, biOrb and Exo Terra.

Aquarium Water Testing

There are various important reasons to have your aquarium water regularly tested. Tank water parameters have a direct influence on the life span and well-being of the tank inhabitants. Needless to say, keeping your water parameters within proper levels will certainly save you money and time.

The enclosed environment within a tank demands not only regular maintenance, but also your knowledge of how to test your tank water and interpret the results correctly.

You have to bear in mind that even if the aquarium water appears to be clean and clear, that does not necessarily mean the water is perfect for the tank inhabitants. Dangerous elements and compounds that are lethal to fish may be present, and may not be detected without using good quality water testing kits.

Every hobbyist should have water test kits available at all times and be able to interpret the test results. Specific test kits are available for the four basic parameters that you must check on a regular basis— ammonia, nitrates, nitrite, and pH. It doesn’t really matter whether you have an aquarium that has been newly set up or one that’s been maintained for many years, water test kits should always be on hand and available when needed.

There may be several tests indicated to maintain water quality, however there are tests that should be carried out on a regular basis. Aside from the four parameters already mentioned above, you will also need to test for GH and KH.

General hardness (GH) is a measure of magnesium and calcium dissolved in water. On the other hand, carbonate hardness (KH) refers to the concentration of carbonate and bicarbonate ions that is dissolved in water. Each of these parameters has a specific test kit that you can buy from any fish store or in online shops.

aquarium water testing



Ammonia is a normal waste product of fish. It is also produced when organic matter and uneaten food breaks down inside the tank. High ammonia levels in the tank can cause poisoning and may be fatal if the situation is not addressed as soon as possible.

Exposure to high levels of ammonia can cause damage to the protective coating of the fish and compromise their respiratory and immune systems. Ammonia toxicity can eventually cause internal and external bleeding that can be life-threatening.

When testing for ammonia, make sure that levels should be zero, and maintained at that level. Any trace of ammonia in the water can stress fish out.


Nitrite is a by-product of ammonia and is slightly less toxic. However, it is still harmful to the tank inhabitants, thus should not exceed zero during testing.


Nitrate is a byproduct of ammonia and nitrite. Although not quite as toxic, very high levels of nitrate can stress fish and decrease their immune function, making them more prone to developing disease. If you are breeding fish, nitrate levels should also be kept very low.

In a suitable environment, nitrate levels should be maintained at 40 ppm or below. Low nitrate levels can easily be maintained by doing regular water changes.


Basically, water pH specifies whether aquarium water is acidic, alkaline or neutral. A pH of 7.0 is classified as neutral, while pH that falls below 7.0 is acidic and alkaline when it is above 7.0.

About the Author:

Peter Hartono is the founder and CEO of Just Aquatic – a proud Australian company that provides excellent online aquarium supplies for betta fish tanks, goldfish tanks and also aquatic plant care products carrying top of the line brands including API, biOrb and Exo Terra.

Is There Truth To The “Barracuda Glass Experiment” Story?


Some of you may have browsed the Internet and read about an experiment involving barracudas. The experiment involved a school of barracudas, a tank of water, a clear sheet of glass and another school of fish that barracudas enjoy eating. An aquarium would be filled with water and a sheet of glass placed in the middle. A harmless group of fish would be placed on one side. On the other, the barracuda, who would immediately try and attack the other fish.

The Story Goes Like This

Allegedly, the barracuda would continue to try and attack its prey, despite the presence of the glass between them. This would continue until the barracuda accepted that the fish were simply incapable of being touched. The kicker? After removing the glass, the barracuda would still resist attacking.

Years of seeing this circulate on the Internet makes one wonder: did this experiment actually happen? And if it did, what were the actual results?

A Good Tale, But Very Likely Not Real

The major reason why this story is likely false is because there seems to be no way of verifying an actual experiment. Something like this would be of major interest a person interested in the habits of fish. And yet not one peer-reviewed article seems to be available. When the story is written or told, it’s always vague. Someone did the experiment in Japan, or was it Europe? It was a scientist, wasn’t it? Unfortunately, there are no exact names and places.

One source even suggested the reader try this, although it’s hard to imagine a person could just go and buy a barracuda without some kind of special permit.

Experiment Was Likely Never Meant To Be Taken Literally

Aside from being an urban legend of sorts, the “barracuda glass experiment” story serves a purpose; it informs the reader of the dangerousness of accepting mental and emotional defeat. The lesson is that often there are barriers to getting what we want out of life. And that no matter how hard we try, it may feel as if you are going nowhere. And then one day, that barrier is gone. But because you’ve already accepted that you cannot achieve a goal, you’ll no longer try, even if there’s nothing stopping you —even if the barrier was only ever in your mind.

The result is that the idea of using barracudas for an experiment was likely never something that actually happened. Instead, the barracuda-glass wall story seems to exist to motivate readers to not give up on their goals and to try and get the most out of life. In other words, don’t learn the lessons of failure so well that you believe success is no longer possible.

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