Emergency Seahorse Care Part II: Tube Feeding
Tube feeding, sometimes called force feeding, is done with seahorses that are too weak to eat on their own, need to be feed medication that can’t be mixed with food, or are unable to eat because of complications, such as snout rot or weak snick.
IMPORTANT! with tube feeding, you always run the risk of injuring the inside of a seahorses snout and should only be done when everything else fails. Tube feeding should not be used when you have a seahorse that is refusing to eat frozen, but is perfectly capable of eating live food. Some people have mistakenly assumed that if their wild caught seahorse isn’t eating frozen food or brine shrimp, it needs to be force fed. This is a bad idea as the seahorse is otherwise healthy, but needs the appropriate food (see food article).
Tube feeding works best when the seahorse is sedated. It can be done without sedation but this stresses many seahorses, so may be best to sedate beforehand. It’s also difficult to tip the snout back appropriately without sedation as most seahorses will resist this. See the instructions for sedating on the previous page.
To tube feed, you must get an appropriately sized catheter. I prefer 22 gauge for small snouted seahorses, and 20 gauge for larger ones. Some may need a size as small as 24 gauge, but you risk not being able to get any food through the catheter. You can obtain these from vet clinics, and some online seahorse suppliers sell them.
You will need to make a mash of food that can fit through the syringe. I generally use mysis, fish flakes, algamac 3000, ro/di water and either spiraling or astaxanthin. Both are great supplements and as an added bonus make a good dye so you can see when the seahorse has passed the food rather easily by watching for bright green or bright orange feces. Blend the ingredients together in a blender or food processor, then pass through a fine mesh to strain the large pieces out.
Once you have the food prepared, you will need to draw the food up using the catheter to ensure that the food will pass freely through the catheter when feeding. Often, even after straining the food there are particles that are too big and jam up the catheter. You simply release some of the food back and start again. It can be tedious to fill even a half cc of food, especially if using mashed mysis. I usually try to get 1cc in the syringe. Most will come out the gills, but this (hopefully) assures enough food will get into the seahorses stomach.
When you have everything ready, you can start sedating the seahorse. Once it is fully sedated, you will gently tip its snout upward until its trigger (hyoid bone) is sticking straight down. (note, sometimes the trigger will not go all the way down, do not force it).
Put the syringe tip in the water and express any air that has gotten in the catheter (a small amount usually will). Insert the catheter as far as it will go into the snout without resistance. You may have to withdraw and readjust a couple times. The catheter should go past the trigger to about where the gills begin. One it is in place, slowly depress the syringe plunger to feed. Be sure to hold the syringe very steady so when you’re depressing the plunger, you’re not also forcing the catheter any deeper.
I usually do the feeding in two parts. I release half the food into the seahorse, then use the fresh seawater syringe to clear its gills out. I then repeat the process of tipping the head back and force feeding the rest of the food, and then again clear the gills. After the gills are clear, I put the seahorse into the second shallow dish to revive.
One big problem with tube feeding is that very little food actually gets into the seahorse. If you used a bare bottom hospital tank, you can monitor its feces to know just how much it did eat, but it won’t be a lot. This is why its only a temporary life saving measure. The sooner the seahorse is eating on it’s own, the better it’s chances for survival. If you use a natural colorant in the food mash, such as astaxanthin or spirulina, you can monitor for red (astaxanthin) or green (spirulina) feces.
Document last updated 8/13/2015