My son has a sick fish in his pond over which we are both worrying. The trouble with pond fish is that they have many places to hide if they are unwell, and you only usually see them from above, so unless there is an obvious and visible problem, they can quickly deteriorate.
There is not a great deal left for us to do, as we know that by the time a fish reaches this stage, the end is almost inevitable. If there were a fish vet locally, and if the sensitive golden orfe would survive the trip, and if there were any reasonable hope… a lot of ‘ifs’ for a fish, but he has been with us a number of years and, along with the forty others with whom he shares the pond, he is part of the family. So we do what we can, making sure the water quality is good and aeration plentiful, that he is not baking when the sun comes out, and, odd as it may sound, we both sit with him, offering any comfort our presence and empathy might bring. Meanwhile, the whole euthanasia debate runs through my mind, getting nowhere as it vies for supremacy with hope.
If the fish were a dog or a cat and in pain, we would have no such problem. The vet would treat the problem until and unless there was nothing more to do…and then he would advise us about what to do next. An animal who was comfortable would be brought home to end its days in peace, but if it were suffering, the vet would make that clear and do what was best for the creature. And that’s where the sticking point comes with a fish… there are no ‘gentle’ methods of euthanising a fish when you have to do it yourself. In desperation, I did all the research for an earlier sick fish who thankfully passed on before it really began to suffer. It all boils down to one factor, whichever method you use (and there are some barbaric ones out there on the internet…) you have to kill it, swiftly and surely… and I honestly don’t think I could. Not when I know the creature so well. And that is without the moral, ethical and spiritual debate about whether or when it is right to make that decision for another life.
I have an aquarium rather than a pond, and am facing a similar dilemma. The difference here is that I have a window on their world and know each of the fish intimately. I can see the slightest change in behaviour or appearance. I know, for example, that the two little black phantoms only have torn fins because they are males competing for breeding territory. It will stop in a day or two and they will settle into tolerance of each other, their fins will heal… until they decide to have another battle.
Oddly enough, I too have a sick fish. I noticed straight away when he began to ail. It was nothing much…a slight variation in colour, the way he kept looking at me through the glass, something not quite right about his demeanour. I took steps immediately, checking the water parameters, cleaning the filter, doing a partial water change. I starved them for a day then fed them shelled peas to see if it would help (it often does). I even medicated the tank. The weekly water changes were increased… anything to maintain the best possible environment…but to no avail. The little gourami started to swell and within a day or two it was evident he had dropsy.
Out came the Epsom Salts, out came the fish to be bathed in salt solution twice a day. After the first time, he didn’t seem to mind, but just sat in the container looking up at me as I watched over him. But it didn’t help any either. He grew paler, swelled more, and finally his scaled took on the dreaded pinecone pattern of terminal dropsy. There is nothing more that I can do except wait…but how do you offer comfort to a fish?
His mate seems to know what is happening though and has taken that role upon herself. At first it was a tentative touching with her feelers… then she began to follow him around, touching and grooming him. Finally, as I watched with tears streaming, the sick fish found a sheltered spot in a plant and she joined him, her front fins and feelers seeming to hold him, her face pressed close to his.
As the other fish come close to check on their companion, she guards him. She has gently pushed him deeper into the plant with her feelers when they have come too close and warned away others more curious. It is incredibly moving to watch. I can’t bear to separate them and move him to a hospital tank.
It is all too easy to project human emotion onto the creatures in our care, perhaps we cannot help but do so when it is the only lens we have through which to view the world. Fish seem alien in every way… they live in a world we can only observe through glass or water, they have no facial expressions with which to communicate and their body language is not easy to read. Except that, when you live with them by your side each day, you learn to read each subtle sign and expression. The way they swim and move their fins, the variations they display in their colours, the way they interact with you through the glass… and they do… makes them as individual as you or I. Perhaps we could learn a few things about the kindred nature of Man from watching fish.
Are fish sentient beings? Do they have emotions? Can they feel elation or sadness? You have only to live with them to be certain that they can and do, even if it is not always in a way we completely understand.
I watch the little female holding her mate with what can only be termed tenderness, guarding and protecting him as his condition worsens, and I worry for her too, anticipating her loss as her mate seeks her side and she curves around his swollen body. If love alone could heal him, he would be well.