Emergency Seahorse Care Part I: Sedating

By: | Date: 02/20/2004 | No Comments |

Emergency Care Of Seahorses

One particular problem serious seahorse keepers and breeders face is lack of veterinary support. Some vets are willing to try to help, but most turn seahorse keepers away due to lack of aquatic animal experience. It’s gotten better over the years, but many times the hobbyist is then left with the choice of letting their beloved pets waste away, or attempting to try advanced care techniques themselves. Tube feeding may be necessary when a seahorse stops eating. Administering medications by injection may also be the only chance of saving the life of a very sick animal.

These series of articles are for those hobbyists who feel its necessary to go the extra mile in supportive care for their seahorses. The procedures described here should be carefully considered and can be dangerous to both human as well as seahorse. It is advised you read the document carefully, and if you decide to attempt these procedures, do so at your own risk. Sometimes even when performed correctly, you can lose an animal due to sheer stress. But there are times when the only hope for survival is to take such risks.

Equipment you will need.

To perform any of these procedures, you’ll need some basic equipment to get started. Most of the equipment you’ll need is the same whether for force feeding or injections.

  • Two shallow dishes with tank water. (just shallow enough to cover seahorse ventrally)
  • Clove oil
  • Small vial or baggy
  • One or two iv catheters with the needle removed (one for injections, two for force feeding)
  • One or two syringes without needles
  • Syringes with needle, 28 gauge or smaller (for injections only).
  • Sterile water for injection (for injections only)
  • Accurate Scale (Digital is best)
  • Air Pump (optional)
From left to right, back row: scale, air pump, sterile water, 28 gauge syringe, syringe and catheter, cup of liquid food, "dummy" seahorse, antibiotic, clove oil, small vial Front Row: Pan with tank water and clove oil, air line, syringe and catheter with fresh seawater, pan with fresh seawater.

From left to right, back row: scale, air pump, sterile water, 28 gauge syringe, syringe and catheter, cup of liquid food, “dummy” seahorse, antibiotic, clove oil, small vial Front Row: Pan with tank water and clove oil, air line, syringe and catheter with fresh seawater, pan with fresh seawater.


Sedating is the first step to many procedures, including administering injections and tube feeding. You may even used this to perform minor surgical procedures such as tail tip amputation in severe infections, or biopsies for disease identification. There are many different kinds of anesthetics for fish, MS-222 or Clove Oil being the most common. Because clove oil is easy to obtain though health food stores, this article discusses its use. MS-222 should come with instructions of its own. Note: Clove oil has been found to be toxic in humans and mice, so it may be in fish as well. While it’s been used safely by many aquarists, caution is always warranted when handling clove oil for your own safety and that of your fish.

Clove oil needs to be emulsified to work. This is what the small vial is for. Put a little bit of tank water from the first shallow dish in the small vial and add clove oil. You’ll be using two – three drops of clove oil per liter of water. Shake the vial well, and add to the first dish. Mix the water. At this point you can add the seahorse.

Catheter used for reviving sedated seahorses.

Catheter used for reviving sedated seahorses.

It takes 3-10 minutes for most seahorses to become sedated. You must watch closely in this time to make sure the seahorse doesn’t completely stop breathing. Also, some seahorses do not like this process, and may literally jump. This is normal, but you want to watch to make sure one doesn’t get enough height to actually get out of the dish.

While its passing out, you’ll want to prepare the syringe and catheter you’ll need to revive it with. Take a syringe without needle and place the catheter tip on it. Fill it with water from the second dish (no clove oil). When you are ready to revive the seahorse, you will carefully place this in the snout and depress the plunger to pass fresh seawater over the seahorses gills. If the seahorse appears to completely stop breathing at any point during sedation, you will also use this to revive the seahorse.

Once sedated, you can do pretty much anything you need to to the seahorse. Some don’t seem to pass completely out and may move a little when anything truly invasive is done, such as a biopsy. So be prepared and expect a little movement. I tried to keep all my procedures under 10 minutes, although I’ve heard they can be kept under for over an hour safely. Since I have never done this, I would not recommend trying it. If you do have to leave it sedated for a long period of time, keep a close eye on the gill movement. I would even go so far as to recommend using your fresh seawater syringe and passing water over the gills every ten minutes.

Reviving a sedated seahorse.

When you are finished and ready to revive the seahorse, place it in the second shallow dish. Insert the syringe in its snout just past is mouth opening (it doesn’t need to be very far in). Depress the syringes plunger to pass water over the gills. I usually do short bursts like if it were breathing. Do this until it is breathing is regular again.

NOTE: Some times it seems to take a VERY long time to revive them. I had one that seemed to have completely stopped breathing. I was sure I had lost it, but I continued to attempt to revive it even though I was sure it was dead. After about 5 minutes, it started breathing again. I wouldn’t give up for at least 20 minutes of reviving. Even then, leave it in the fresh tank water for an hour just in case. There have been stories of Koi appearing to be dead and then hours later reviving. It’s not likely to come back after 20 minutes of constant reviving, but it doesn’t hurt to wait before disposing of the body, just in case.

On to Emergency Care Part II: Tube Feeding

Document last updated 8/13/2015

Leave a Reply

More in Disease and Health (8 of 12 articles)

More in Disease and Health (8 of 12 articles)