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What are Fish Lice?

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson

Fish lice, otherwise known as Argulus, are disc-shaped crustaceans that feed on fish by injecting a digestive enzyme into the skin or gills of a fish and then sucking out the putrefied flesh. They are visible to the naked eye, usually measuring 1/5 of an inch to 2/5 of an inch (5mm to 10mm), and are a common parasite in ponds and fish tanks. Fish lice feeding on fish can also open the door for secondary infections.

Biologically, fish lice are classed as Branchiura, or fish parasites. They are also biologically classifiable as Crustacea, along with creatures such as shrimp, prawn and water fleas. Characteristics of crustacean creatures include a rigid chitin exoskeleton, which must be shed as the creature grows larger.

Fish lice are a type of parasite that can infect aquariums.
Fish lice are a type of parasite that can infect aquariums.

Fish lice mate when on the host fish, and afterward the female goes to lay eggs on plants or other objects toward the bottom of the water. The eggs are generally laid in the winter and hatch around the spring, when water temperatures rise. The creatures go through several metamorphic changes in their development, and usually secure a fish-host within four days. They continue to grow while on the fish, and the growth cycle can take anywhere between 30 and 100 days, depending on variables such as temperature.

There are two large suckers on the body of fish lice used for feeding in conjunction with their slightly smaller mouth. This causes the fish host both irritation and stress, and the affected area usually becomes inflamed. The areas of tissue damaged by the fish lice also give bacteria a chance to infect the fish, possibly leading to conditions such as skin ulcers and gill disease. The stress caused by fish lice can lead to secondary parasitic infections such as Costia and white-spot. It is also a possibility that infections are injected into the fish as the lice feed.

The most common treatment for fish lice is organophosphates, but many of these are banned in the U.S. for home and garden use. Three treatments of organophosphates over the life cycle of fish lice is generally enough to wipe them out entirely. Using a chitin inhibitor is an alternative solution, which prevents the young fish lice from developing when they malt their exoskeleton; this treatment is not toxic to fish. Chitin inhibitors can remove all traces of crustacean parasites in as little as five days.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are fish lice?

Fish lice are parasitic crustaceans, specifically from the genus Argulus, that attach to the skin, fins, and gills of freshwater and marine fish. They feed on the host's mucus, blood, and skin, causing irritation, impaired growth, and sometimes death in severe infestations. They are visible to the naked eye and can be seen as small, disk-shaped organisms on the fish's body.

How do fish lice affect the health of fish?

Fish lice can cause significant harm to fish by creating open wounds that are susceptible to secondary infections. The feeding activity of these parasites can lead to stress, reduced growth rates, and a weakened immune system. In high numbers, fish lice can even cause mortality, especially in younger fish or those with compromised health.

Can fish lice be transferred to humans or other pets?

Fish lice are host-specific to fish and do not pose a threat to humans or other pets. They are adapted to live in aquatic environments and require fish blood and mucus to survive, so they cannot live on or infect humans, dogs, cats, or other terrestrial animals.

What are the signs of a fish lice infestation in an aquarium or pond?

Signs of a fish lice infestation include visible lice on the skin, fins, or gills of fish, erratic swimming, flashing or rubbing against objects, increased mucus production, and inflammation or redness at the site of attachment. Infected fish may also exhibit lethargy, loss of appetite, and in severe cases, open sores or ulcers.

How can fish lice infestations be treated?

Treatment for fish lice includes manual removal of the parasites, followed by chemical treatments such as organophosphates, diflubenzuron, or hydrogen peroxide, which are effective in eradicating lice. It's crucial to follow the recommended dosage and guidelines to avoid harming the fish. Quarantining new fish before introducing them to an established population can help prevent infestations.

Are there any preventive measures to avoid fish lice infestations?

Preventive measures against fish lice include quarantining new fish for at least two to four weeks, regularly inspecting fish for signs of parasites, maintaining good water quality, and avoiding overcrowding. Additionally, keeping a well-balanced ecosystem with natural predators of fish lice, such as certain species of fish and invertebrates, can help control their population.

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    • Fish lice are a type of parasite that can infect aquariums.
      By: Michal Adamczyk
      Fish lice are a type of parasite that can infect aquariums.