Flashing is a behavior fish utilize to itch their bodies, most commonly associated with parasitic infections. Since they do not have arms or fingernails, they must use objects in their environment to scratch themselves. You will often see your fish dart suddenly to the side or bottom of their aquarium and flatten out like a pancake, rubbing their side against the substrate. Other signs include fish that exhibit twitchy swimming or swim in sudden bursts. Some fish will jump out of the water and use the tension of the water surface to itch themselves. This is obviously very dangerous if they do not end up back in their tank.
If you do not see your fish actively flashing, you may see the secondary signs. Signs your fish are itchy include missing scales, bruising or trauma to the head and fins. If the trauma is severe enough, your fish may be susceptible to secondary bacterial or fungal infections and trauma. If left untreated, flashing fish are likely to get worse and can die from the parasitic infestation.
Causes of Flashing in Freshwater Fish
The most common cause of flashing is a parasitic infestation. The most common parasites in freshwater tanks that cause flashing are monogenean trematodes (also known as flukes), and the protozoa Trichodina, Ichthyophthirius, Costia (Ichthyobodo) and Chilodonella. All of these are microscopic parasites and require a veterinarian to diagnose the correct parasite. The encysted stage of Ich is macroscopic and causes white spots on the skin and fin, and can be confused with fin ray fractures.
Primary parasite infestations are common in aquariums with recent additions of new fish or live plants that have not gone through a proper quarantine. However, outbreaks can occur in fish under chronic stress situations, such as with poor water quality or overcrowding.
Fish in the wild commonly have a low level of parasites on them at all times, given the nature of their aquatic habitat, but their immune system is able to keep the parasites in check. In a chronic stress situation, the immune system is weakened, allowing proliferation of parasites and bacteria.
Some fish are more sensitive to parasites than others. You may see one fish flash occasionally, but this usually does not indicate an outbreak. Multiple fish flashing, or one fish flashing several times in a row, is more concerning.
Temperature is critical to the progression of a parasite outbreak. The warmer the water, the faster the parasite life cycle and the faster your fish may become overwhelmed. If you suspect a parasite outbreak, do not adjust your temperature until you have consulted with your veterinarian. However, once the correct treatment is prescribed, it is often helpful to elevate the water temperature during treatment.
In order for your veterinarian to correctly diagnose the cause of flashing in your freshwater fish, they will assess your tank size and number of fish, check the filtration system, perform water quality analysis, and examine your fish, likely under sedation. They may have recommendations to decrease the bioload, or the total number of occupants of your tank, have maintenance protocol recommendations, or tank improvements prior to laying hands on your fish.
During your fish's physical exam, your veterinarian will take small skin mucus and gill samples. These biopsy samples will be evaluated under a microscope in order to determine if there is a parasite outbreak.
Treatment of flashing depends on the parasite causing the irritation. There are many treatment options to consider depending on the species of fish in your tank, medications already being added to your tank, the severity of the outbreak, and the status of the sick fish. There is no "one size fits all" treatment that will guarantee all your fish will magically be cured.
Some treatments may focus on correcting the primary stressor, such as poor water quality or overcrowding, rather than the parasite itself. In mild outbreaks, once the primary stressor is corrected, the fish will be able to take care of the infestation themselves.
How to Prevent Flashing in Freshwater Fish
The best method to prevent a parasite outbreak in your freshwater tank is to quarantine all new fish and live plant additions for 4-6 weeks prior to adding them to your main aquarium. This will isolate any potential sick fish and prevent many diseases, including parasites, bacteria and viruses, from entering your healthy system. If your new fish gets sick, they can be quickly and effectively treated while in isolation in the quarantine tank. Quarantine plants in a tank without live fish to break the parasite life cycle.
If you see your fish flash only occasionally, you have not added any new fish or live plants in the last 3 months, your water quality is within normal range, and you are feeding a good diet, do not be too concerned. Sometimes, a fish may just flash due to a skin irritation, or it has a very low level of parasites that they are able to clear on their own. Make a note of which fish you saw flash and when, and monitor for an increase in severity and any injuries. If you see more flashing, though, it should be investigated and treated before it becomes a problem for other fish in your aquarium.