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Don’t Get Too Excited About That Viral Goldfish “Wheelchair”

The contraption, though surely built with the best intentions, may do more harm than good.

The goldfish in question, decked out in his customized wheelchair. (Twitter/@taylorndean)
smithsonian.com

If you have scrolled through social media over the past 48 hours, you may have spotted a photo of a cute goldfish with little currant eyes and a pouty mouth, its body wrapped in a tiny contraption of mesh and tubes. According to Tanya Chen of Buzzfeed News, the fish suffers from “incurable” swim bladder disease, which renders it unable to control its buoyancy in the water. So an enterprising employee of an aquarium shop in San Antonio made the fish its very own “wheelchair.”

A customer reportedly brought the fish into the shop because it was hovering at the bottom of its tank. So the employee in question, identified only as “Derek,” decided to wrap airline tubing around the little guy to help him float.

“I added some valves to the bottom of it, which acted as a ‘chair’ to prop him up,” Derek told Chen. “I added weights to the bottom of the ‘chair’ and something to keep him afloat on top (styrofoam), and slowly removed pieces until I achieved just the right buoyancy to make it easy for him to swim around without feeling like he’s dragging around a chair.” The wheelchair has since been updated to include less tubing and more mesh, making it “more comfortable” for the little critter.

Adorable? Sure. Ingenious? Definitely. Beneficial to the fish? Maybe not.

Dr. Catherine McClave, a marine biologist at The Fish Doctor, Inc., told Smithsonian.com that while the teensy flotation device is “certainly very clever,” it runs the risk of chafing the fish’s skin, which can in turn result in severe infection. “The integument, or the skin of the fish, is its first line of defense,” McClave said. “And if there is something up against that that rubs [the skin] … and the skin opens up, then they're going to be susceptible to whatever is in the water. And then it's really easy for them to get a systemic bacterial infection.”

"I can't imagine that the fish won't come down with other issues [caused by its wheelchair]," she added.

It isn’t clear how the fish came to be diagnosed with chronic swim bladder disease (Derek has not yet responded to Smithsonian.com's requests for comment). But if the fish hasn’t been seen by a professional, getting him into a vet’s office would certainly be the first step on the path to recovery.

“Swim bladder disease” is really just a blanket term for a host of problems that might cause a fish’s swim patterns to become wonky. Many of these problems can be easily corrected—if they are properly diagnosed and treated.

As McClave explains, one of the most common causes of swim bladder disease in goldfish is improper nutrition. The swim bladder, a gas-filled sack that helps a fish control its buoyancy, is connected to the esophagus and alimentary canal. Many goldfish owners feed their pets pellets, but these snacks are low in fibre and can cause fish to become constipated, which in turn puts pressure on the swim bladder.

Pellets are also problematic because they float at the top of the tank, meaning that fish have to spend a lot of time gulping their food down. The swim bladder becomes inflated if the fish swallow too much air, causing them to float at the top of their tanks, swim upside down, or incline to one side, according to The Goldfish Tank

Bacterial infection is another common cause of swim bladder disease—and if a fish has a bacterial infection, a poorly maintained tank is likely the culprit. “Usually the fish can fight off bacteria like we can, unless they're immune compromised,” says McClave. “But if the fish is immune compromised, that's usually a result of poor water quality. That's why the water quality is really the most important thing for fish, because they're breathing through the water.” 

Tumors can also deflate the swim bladder, which would cause the symptoms associated with swim bladder disease. Those willing to spare no expense for their aquatic critters can ask vets to perform a host of diagnostic procedures—X-rays, ultrasounds, barium series.

“Fish medicine has really changed a lot in the last two decades,” McClave said. “Now there's diagnostic capabilities available for fish like we've had for dogs and cats for many years.” 

The treatment for swim bladder depends, of course, on the source of the symptoms. Constipated fish should be put on a fast for a few days, and then routinely fed chopped, fibrous veggies like zucchini and carrots. They can still eat pellets, but only in moderation. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. And it is crucial to ensure that fish are immersed in a clean, healthy environment.

“Proper water quality is the best thing: maintaining the proper water quality for the species of fish that you are keeping, and maintaining your filtration, and maintaining your exhibit at all times,” McClave advised.

The only course of treatment for a fish tumor is surgery—a pretty dramatic option to be sure, but some pet owners are prepared to pay the price. “You would not believe the amount of money people spend on two-dollar fish,” McClave said.

But maybe it isn’t so surprising. Concerned fish owners might be willing to shell out heaps of cash for the same reason that Derek—surely acting with the best intentions—took the time to craft a wheelchair for a goldfish in need. People love their animal companions, a lot. And as McClave notes, “Fish are pets too.”

Update March 20, 2017: Derek responded to Smithsonian.com's inquiry after the article was published. He mentioned that prior to creating the chair, he attempted to treat the fish by changing its diet and administering medication. None of these actions appeared to improve its condition. He is currently keeping close watch on the affects of the chair on the fish. Derek writes: "[The fish] has been in the new chair for a while now and I can't find it causing any rubs or issues, and I do check daily. If it did, I would discontinue [use of] the device immediately."

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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