What's killing my rams?

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A reader asks our experts why he has lost four of his Gold rams over a short period of time...

Q) About a year ago, over a period of three months, I lost four Gold rams. Symptoms were a loss of colour and bulging eyes. Water tests were fine, but my local retailer advised that the fish were better suited to a lower pH (I now add RO water into my weekly water change and as a result it’s at pH7.0). The shop recommended a treatment for the rams which I applied about four days apart, but I can’t remember the name. Obviously, it wasn’t successful.

I left everything for a while to settle down and once the levels seemed stable, I introduced two Blue rams in October last year and a further three in January. My water conditions have continued to be stable, save for a small increase in nitrate.

Last month one of the rams purchased in October died. The only noticeable thing was a loss of colour and, as this fish was the smallest of the five and was quite shy, I assumed it was just a weaker specimen. But yesterday, after several days of looking ill, my male fish, purchased in January, died. There were white patches on the brown area of his head, some loss of body colour and he had bulging eyes.

Water tests are fine. The aquarium is a Jewel Lido 120, about three years old, and contains bristlenoses, Rummy-noses, a male Fighter, Amano shrimp, Otos and an Asian ram.

I did not try any treatment on this occasion. The retailer I bought the rams from hasn’t reported any issues. Any advice would be appreciated.

KEVIN THOMPSON, VIA EMAIL

A) Peter replies: Where a fish has both eyes bulging, it suggests some sort of systemic infection affecting the whole body. If it was just one bulging eye it would be more likely to be a localised infection occurring within or behind the affected eye.

Typically, these systemic infections are due to certain viruses or certain bacteria — but it’s difficult to say which is more likely.

The fact that the disease is restricted just to the rams could indicate a virus (many are fairly host-specific) or possibly certain bacteria. There is a virus reported in rams (which may affect other cichlids too), which is a type of iridovirus. That said, the reported symptoms: appetite loss; respiratory stress; abnormal swimming; paleness, eye problems; skin haemorrhages, don’t entirely fit with the symptoms you describe, other than the pale colour and bulging eyes.

Whether viral or bacterial, treatment is tricky. Unfortunately, viral diseases of fish are untreatable, and systemic bacterial infections can be challenging to treat, particularly using over-the-counter remedies. Having said that, it can be hard to stand by and do nothing, so you may want to try treating the affected rams (ideally in a separate tank if you have one), with a broad-spectrum bactericide from the aquatic shop, and see if there are any improvements.

Either way, I’d avoid acquiring any more rams for fear of passing the infection to any newly acquired fish.