An Holistic Approach to Keeping Puffers

Frederick L. Calalang

  Does your puffer have fin-envy?  Is that why it keeps nipping the fins of your other fish?  Perhaps it needs therapy?  Do you think your puff is overcompensating for some hidden anxiety by overeating?  Are you wondering if Prozac will damage the buffering capacity of your tank?  The answer to all these questions is--I don't know.  I'm not certain Freud had puffers in mind when developing his "free association" therapy.  The only thing you could possibly look up is the effect of Prozac on the buffering capacity of your tank.  But hold on!  Before you go dosing your fish with anti-depressants, let me concede the obvious: Yes, the preceding questions are quite ridiculous.  Holistic care for your puffer, however, is not as ludicrous as it sounds.
    Despite its "new age" sound, being holistic about maintaining your puffer simply means you are approaching its care from a complete perspective.  That is, taking care of everything, from the obvious physiological requirements to the overlooked mental (or instinctive/reactive state, let's not debate that here...) needs.  Taking these factors into consideration will not only improve your puffer's health, but its appearance as well.  For puffers, looking good translates into feeling good, since healthy puffers are more resistant to disease.  Accordingly, stressed puffers will often contract all sorts of ailments (especially ich).  The bottom line is, we keep these fish (and most others) because they relax and captivate us.  They are interesting to watch, weightless and beautiful in their medium.  This is especially true with puffers.  They have a "face" that may release oxytocin into our systems, as happens when we see "cute" infant animals. (Discovery, 2001)  This cultivates a "caring response", and also has a calming effect. (Hrdy, 12/95)  This obviously has its therapeutic value for us.  It may be this reason why some of us(myself included) find these fish so irresistible.  As you view the spotted green puffer in the photograph, oxytocin is probably being released as you think "aww, how cute".  As any aquarist who has had sick fish will tell you, this works in quite the opposite way when the fish is ill.  Watching your fish fall sick and die over a few days is obviously not the most relaxing situation.  With this in mind, if your puffer looks good, he's usually feeling good; which translates into you feeling good.  Puffers are among the more unique fish for your tank, but as you may or may not know, are also some of the harder fish to keep.  This page will cover, in general, both physiological and mental needs of your puff.
    The most obvious  factor of keeping puffers is keeping an eye on their water.  For some species salinity is often a widely overlooked factor.  As you already know, puffers require specific water parameters depending on which species you own.  If your puffer is brackish, I suggest using a good synthetic salt mix to achieve the correct specific gravity (salinity) of its water.  Proper salt mix includes nutrients and minerals that some aquarium salt just doesn't have.  By proper salt mix, I mean the type used by marine aquarists.  Check with the Species Specifics page of Puffernet to see what mix, if any, your fish needs.  Always mix the salt first before adding it to your tank.  If you add salt directly to your tank, some parts of the mixture may not dissolve as quickly as the others, and this can be problematic.  Once the correct salinity is achieved, you'll undoubtedly see an improvement in the natural coloration of your puffer.  Overall water quality is important too.  Although this is true with all fish, this is especially true for puffers.  Test your tank at least once a week to monitor ph, hardness, and ammonia.  Don't neglect water changes.  If you have to make changes to your tank's water chemistry, the operative word here is SLOWLY.  If your tank gets a little out of sorts, make the changes over days, not hours. (with the exception of ammonia--get that stuff out of there!!)
    Another physiological factor is diet.  Feeding your puffer is probably the most fun you'll have with this fish.  It's a way for us to interact directly with our puffs, and it's tempting to overfeed.  While keeping their stomachs full (to an extent) is probably a good idea, overfeeding puffs has the same result as overfeeding any fish...the accumulation of detritus.  This is especially problematic, since it will spike your ammonia to levels your bio-filter can't handle.  It can also cultivate the growth of fungus in your tank, which scaleless fish like puffers are especially susceptible to.  Only feed quantities your puffers will eat. (unless you have some good tank partners in there to clean up)  Giving your puffer variety in its diet is important as well.  Be holistic about it.  Understand that in nature, few puffers subsist on one kind of food.  If they were in the wild, they would no doubt have to eat a few different food items.  Feed them meaty types of food, but alternate the dinner plate from time to time.  It's much healthier for your puffer to eat different kinds of food than the same thing day after day.  I have read of some puffers taking prepared food such as shrimp pellets, (although I haven't had any luck) so you may try to include that on the weekly menu.
    Also pay special attention to their teeth.  A puffer's teeth are constantly growing, and they need to be worn down.  Snails, shrimp (with the shell on) and the like are perfect for this, and add to a nice variety for your fish.  Live food is a plus too.  It's not vital, but IMHO eliciting the "hunting" mechanism is good
for your puffer.  It's a natural behavior for your fish, and it keeps them active.  My puffers seem to be a lot healthier when they get to hunt and forage.  It's not so bad for you either, as you get to see your puffer chasing live ghost shrimp or foraging for snails.  Feeder guppies are good too, but you must use caution, since these fish are often kept in extremely overcrowded conditions.  Those conditions often lead to disease running rampant in their tanks, which may be passed onto yours if feeders are not quarantined properly.
    Now onto some less obvious factors.  Much of my holistic theory involves duplicating (as close as possible) the environment the puffer would have had in the wild.  As this is never 100% possible, duplicating the situations as closely as possible is important.  I really believe that psychological wellness is a major player in the health of pufferfish.  I sound crazy, right?  Well, it's known among most veteran pufferfish owners (and cowfish, for that matter) that overly stressed fish tend to be more susceptible to disease than those that are without such "worries".  It would seem (although I haven't done empirical research) that there is some correlation involving the immune system and stress level of puffers.  Your puffer will often give you signs that they are stressed.  Take special note of the varying shades in your fish.  Don't overreact to the dark discoloration, since pufferfish change color according to mood.  Some will also vary their coloration as a means of camouflage.  Do be vigilant, however, that the change in color is not a permanent one.  In species with a white belly such as T. fluviatilis, ventral discoloration is a sign of stress or sickness (discoloration such as blackness or spotting/rings).  Their underbellies are white in a healthy puff.  This stress can be physiological (e.g. water conditions) or psychological.  Sometimes this will cause the puffer to stop eating or act timidly, often hiding where they can.
    While coping with the physiological stress factors are largely up to you as the fishkeeper, the solution to psychological stress in the tank is shared by you and your fish.  Again we look toward
that particular puffer's natural habitat.  Does it dwell near sandy bottoms or rocky ones?  Perhaps both?  If it is rocky, what size is the substrate?  Does it like to clear sand by "blowing" it away, to reveal some prey within?  What kind of cover does it normally find safe haven in?  Does it prefer to forage or hunt?  Is there a much larger fish that the puffer is actually considering a predator?  These are some of the questions that will help you address the needs of your fish.  Let's not forget the food chain.  As ornery as puffers can be, they still need places to feel safe.  They also need some hunting/foraging territory with adequate space (keep them in the largest tank possible).  Plants, caves, rocks, really depends on your puffer.
    For example, I have a pair of Green Puffers living in a brackish tank (50 gal., 189 liter). Half the tank has small smooth gravel, while the other is a nice neutral sand.  I had begun to raise ghost shrimp in the tank, and placed some snails in there as well.  I supplemented them with bloodworms and the occasional clam.  They were getting very fat, but I noticed that after eating they went straight to the glass and performed their little "up and down" swimming pattern against the side of my tank.  This was always disconcerting to me, as it seemed they were trying to flee the water due to bad conditions.  After checking the conditions and deeming them well within their required parameters, I turned to an analogy drawn for me by a former Biology professor.
    Her question to our class posed the scenario of two backyards, and two bird feeders.  Each feeder had identical structure and exactly the same food.   One feeder was frequented by practically every bird in the neighborhood, while the other was practically never visited.  What could be the major
determining factor?  Well, without reiterating the many fruitless attempts in my lecture hall, the answer was quite simple.  Cover.  The bird feeder in the first yard (she didn't tell us this in order to make her point stand out--grrr!) had been positioned near the shrubs and trees, while the second was placed right in the middle of the lawn.  Of course if the second bird feeder were the only one around the birds would visit that one, but you can see what the preference is.  There is a valid premise at work here.  Here we find the same physiological situations in both backyards (same food).  The main difference is a behavioral one (lack of cover in the second yard).    Going back to my tank, I gave it a good look and noticed how sparsely planted it was.  I had only a few placed in the back, and they weren't very full.  I soon planted one side of the tank rather heavily (the side with the gravel) and introduced a fake bogwood branch that ran the length of the tank.  I placed some smaller, foreground-height plants in the far corner of the sandy portion of the tank.  Soon after all the planting and bogwood-placing (the puffers watched me in curiosity the entire time), I saw the greens begin to explore.  They hovered through practically every part of the new aquascape, eyes moving in all directions like a kid in a toy store.  Now it was time to see if my holistic assessment was right.  I couldn't wait for the puffers to unearth snails, so I defrosted some bloodworms in a separate bowl and squirted them into the tank in normal fashion (with my trusty turkey-baster).  As usual, the greens happily devoured them, but then something different happened.  One took his fat little belly and hovered over to the planted section, settling on the bottom rather contentedly, with just a few flutters of his pectoral fins every now and then to keep him in place.  The other went to the underside of the bogwood and hovered there, seemingly content.  While they still carry on as normal, I see this behavior shortly after they eat.  It seems they like to rest after a good meal.  They don't do the "up and down" anymore. 
    As you can see, it's important to consider other factors along with the physiological needs.  Another example is exemplified by the Congo puffer (T. miurus).  This puffer is mostly bottom dwelling, with its eyes evolving to the top of its head.  This puffer's feeding behavior involves it waiting on the
bottom either partially buried in the sand (so only its eyes and mouth are somewhat visible), or mimicking a rock of its size using camouflage.  It uses this rather effective method to surprise its prey, springing into action and taking its meal.  I'll let you make the call.  Even though it would survive in either, do you think this puffer would be happier in a tank with sharp, small gravel, or one with a sandy substrate and a few rocks its size?  What about a tank such as the one I described earlier, but with the bogwood or driftwood covering much of the floor?  Okay enough rhetoric, let's move on.
    Understanding what your puffer's natural habitat is like and what its basic feeding behaviors are is just as important as knowing your puffer is stressed to begin with.  Try to take into account the situations it may encounter in the wild and provide for them (everything but the predation please!).  Do allow them to be at the top of the food chain, of course.  Overall, just try and imagine what they would have to do on a daily basis in the wild.  Don't forget to research your puffer and see what its natural habitat is like.  Knowing the normal behavior of your fish is important.  You need to know when it is stressed, and what is making it stressed.  You can learn more about stress indicators at Puffer Pathology.
    Keep an holistic approach while caring for your puffer, and you'll see marked improvement in the overall health of your fish.

On a sidenote, I just want to share something that every veteran puffkeeper knows:
D o   n o t   m a k e   y o u r   p u f f e r f i s h   " p u f f "  !!!
This is a last-ditch defense mechanism for your fish.  This comes as a fight or flight response, when neither is an option.  It is incredibly stressful for your puffer to do this.  It's especially bad if it does this out of the water, as it will be "swallowing" the air.  Why is this bad?  Sometimes puffers that take in air cannot expel it, and this causes them great harm.

©2001 F. Calalang  all rights reserved.

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