Dwarf Puffer Near Death Experience – Small Change, Big Impact

This is a picture of our Pea Puffer fish in our 3 gallon JBJ Picotope

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I recently changed some of the equipment in our 3-gallon JBJ Picotope, which is home to Pee-Wee and a few select red cherry shrimp (RCS).  To all those folks who have a deep affection for the wonderful little creature known as the dwarf puffer, this article is for you.

Dwarf Puffer requirements

According to Seriously Fish, Dwarf Puffer fish are native to India and live in slower moving and heavily planted waters. They prefer a pH of 6.8 to 8 with a water temperature of 72 to 82 degrees and a hardness of 5-25 dKH. Clean water is a must, so regular water changes are necessary. We are able to meet the requirements of this species, so keeping them healthy in our tank is relatively easy. Technically, they should be kept in a tank that is 10 gallons or larger, but we have made this 3 gallon desktop tank a lush, single species environment. Due to the small size of this aquarium, maintaining stable water parameters requires paying close attention to any changes that are made, no matter how small.

Our Current water parameters

We keep our dwarf puffer fish in water at 5-6 dKH and at a pH of 6.8 to 7.8 with a 50/50 mix of tap and RODI. We inject CO2 at about 30 ppm.  She seems to tolerate it (at least it seems so from our limited human perception) and maintains a healthy composure and attitude.

Feeding our Dwarf Puffer

We feed her little rams horn snails that my wife breeds in a fishbowl (subject for a separate post) and a variety of frozen foods, including mini blood worms, brine shrimp and mysis shrimp, which we offer her using planting tweezers and she takes happily until her belly pooches out.  That doesn’t take much, 2 or 3 per feeding is enough for a dwarf puffer. She absolutely refuses flake food. You can watch us feed her in this video.

Keeping a Dwarf Puffer

We all know that having any creature in a small environment is a huge responsibility. This is especially true with nano aquariums.  Because there is so little water in the aquarium, even small change to the parameters can be detrimental to the livestock.  Some more than others.

We have had two dwarf puffers in our lives, and have learned that they are very particular and require that their owners maintain stable water parameters. While most of us do not replicate the natural environment of the species we keep, the best we can do is try to meet their biological requirements to keep them happy and healthy.

So, what happened exactly?

We were visiting family in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago and had the opportunity to visit Aqua Forest Aquarium in person for the second time. If you have never been to Aqua Forest Aquarium and are in the Bay Area, I highly suggest that you pay them a visit. To stay on point I won’t elaborate on our trip, but if you are an aquascaping enthusiast, visiting this place is a must. Check them out online when you get a chance.

Like many of you reading this post, we are continually upgrading our equipment and trying to make our setups look visually appealing in our homes. For us, we have a small house and a huge love for the art of aquascaping. We have 5 nano aquariums, 4 of which are in our living room. To keep our house from looking like the LFS, we try to adapt furniture that compliments our décor so that the setups we have look nice in the room they are in.

We have spent countless hours online and in and out of antique stores and thrift shops to find the perfect size table or stand to fit whatever size setup we are working on. We like using canister filters and inline equipment on our display tanks, and designing ways to hide the equipment in modified pieces of furniture to make the setups aesthetically pleasing. You can read about how we design custom aquarium stands in the article we wrote,  Custom Aquarium Stand – Finding the Right Furniture.

We only changed a few things

This is a picture of our JBJ Picotope that is the home for our Dwarf Puffer. This is the kit that has the original equipment.We decided to improve the looks of our 3-gallon JBJ Picotope and give our little dwarf puffer fish a home renovation. I am always looking online for the latest and best equipment for my aquariums. We decided we wanted to remove the ugly HOB filter and light that came with the kit (our plants were suffering greatly because of the mini fluorescent).

I searched for a quality LED light and mini canister filter. We like to keep all the equipment out of our tanks and keep the focus on the scape.  So after weeks of planning and discussion, my wife and I decided to make these changes.  Since we were planning a trip to San Francisco anyway, it gave us an excuse to visit Aqua Forest Aquarium.

Our new equipment

This is a picture of the new Shiruba XB-303 canister filter we purcased for our JBJ PicotopeA few days after our return from San Francisco, I installed our new purchases. The whole process seemed simple and problem free. The filter we purchased from Aqua Forest Aquarium was a Shiruba XB-303. I highly recommend this filter for a nano aquarium under 5 gallons. The flow was perfect, the filter is super quiet, and the ugly HOB is gone!

We purchased a Jardli Spin mini Outflow and a Jardli Mini Inflow to eliminate the clutter showing in the aquarium. These are nice pieces and I am very happy with this purchase.

This is a picture of the new equipment that we installed on our 3 gallon JBJ PicotopeThe light we purchased was an Atledtis E6+ Pro with the R-1 remote control dimmer. This is an amazing light. We were having problems growing Monte Carlo plants with the original fluorescent light, and within 30 days had explosive growth.

At first we were concerned that our Pee-Wee would cop an attitude because we made some changes to her world. It was only a day later that we realized that our dwarf puffer’s attitude was the least of our problems.

Here is where I wasn’t paying attention

While setting up the filter, I installed the media as required for this model, seeded the filter with the media from the hideous HOB. Once the media was in place, I filled the unit with RODI water. My reason for using RODI was that I did not want to kill the bacteria I seeded the filter with. I don’t know what I was thinking. I use dechlorinated tap in all of my aquariums.

Here is the critical part that I overlooked – the filter holds about a gallon of water.  The JBJ Picotope is a 3-gallon tank, but only holds about 2 gallons with the Lace rock, plants, and substrate inside it. If my math is correct, I replaced one third of the complete volume of water in this setup, therefore changing the parameters of the environment our dwarf puffer fish lives in.

The next day

This is a picture of our Dwarf Puffer hiding behind a rock in our JBJ PicotopeWhen our poor little fish would not eat or even come out and say hello as she usually does, my first thought was that she hated the increased flow. Dwarf puffers are native to very still waters, and having calm places in the aquarium for them to swim is necessary. The lighting was also considerably increased, so the sun in her world had changed.

I sometimes try and think from a fish’s perspective, and I’m sure that it is nowhere near what a fish thinks. I know when summer comes here in Phoenix, I get an attitude too.

Even though I was concerned, I thought she was just a little irritated and hoped that she would come around in a day or two and adapt to the changes.

Day 3

After the third day, our Dwarf Puffer was looking horrible. Her belly started shrinking and turning a dark color, and her colors had faded quite a bit.  I started to panic and decided that we needed a hospital tank for our fish. We had one but my wife scaped it.

I ran into Petco on my way home from work and bought a cheap Aqueon 5 ½ gallon tank, a large plastic plant, and a cheap internal filter. I got home, started to fill the small aquarium with water only to discover one of the corners at the bottom leaked. So now, really frustrated and concerned, ran back up to Petco to return the merchandise. It was a horrible experience. There is a reason I try my best to stay out of the big box stores. I exchanged the tank and hurried back home.

When I arrived, my wife had just got home from work, so I shared my experience with her. After a short debate, we decided that Pee-Wee looked pretty far gone and considered the fact that moving her may cause even more trauma, and we may lose her anyway.  We thought she may be even more unhappy in a strange environment and decided to alter the direction of the outflow to reduce the current and turned the light to a lower setting to make our fish’s suffering as minimal as possible as she left this world. We were really upset about this.

Our Dwarf Puffer started to make a comeback

When Pee-Wee was still alive the next day, my wife decided to add a few rams horn snails.  A few days later our little dwarf puffer was weak, glassy eyed, and continued to refuse food from the tweezers, but still alive. So we added a few more snails.  Another day or two and she began to swim around a bit more.  She  gradually improved over the next few days and finally, about 2 weeks after I installed the new equipment, I got her to eat a frozen blood worm.

I finally realized the mistake I’d made

Several days later, I was thinking about water parameter requirements for plants and livestock. The water quality and parameters in nano aquariums are highly susceptible to small changes, and dwarf puffer fish are sensitive to change. If you are going to keep a dwarf puffer, or any other species in such a small environment, please pay attention to what you are doing. ANY small change greatly affects the world your fish live in!

What I should have done

If I had known that it was the drastic change in the water parameters that caused our fish to be sick, I would have done a couple of water changes to bring the parameters back to stable conditions.

In spite of this traumatic experience Pee-Wee Puffer survived, but she was mad at us for a while.  She has now bounced back, regained her normal healthy appetite, and once again greets us when we are in the room. I never thought I would consider a fish a pet until this experience.

While we have come a long way in learning how to care for our fish since we started in the hobby, this experience reminds us of how much we still have to learn.

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