Vacation Time

Who’s Gonna Feed The Fish?

As dramatized by the late Dr.Seuss in his classic literary tale of urban woe (The Cat in the Hat), mankind has long been concerned with adequate care of pet fish when the regular caretakers are unavailable. Unfortunately, unlike the pink Pisces in the Suess narrative, most aquarium fish appear unwilling to give the sound (but unheeded) verbal advice as to their maintenance, much less express concerns for the household as a whole.

That’s where you come in….

Summer marks the time when many American families pile into their minivans to try to “get away from it all”. To be sure, they’d like it “all” – including their tropical aquarium fish – to still be around when they get back, so it’s in everybody’s best interest to make sure the fishes’ needs are met.

The most pressing concern is feeding, and there are several time-tested products available to meet that demand.

Time-Release Blocks. The most common method of vacation fish feeding is using the inexpensive feeder blocks that slowly dissolve or are grazed upon, releasing food over the course of a few days to two weeks. These seem to be quite adequate for a typical community tank of tetras, barbs and the like, who can generally be counted upon to eat practically anything organic with gusto. The blocks are less effective for larger or aggressive fish, as a few dominant individuals will often declare the block to be their own, or a glutton will whittle them away in a few hours. The binders used in feeder blocks do slowly dissolve in the aquarium water, but are generally safe for a typical freshwater community tank if not used too frequently between water changes. It is probably best not to use them in tanks where water chemistry is critical, such as marine aquariums or the soft/acid setups sometimes used for discus and other South American species.

Mechanical feeders. A better, though somewhat more expensive (at least in the short term) solution is mechanical feeders. There are several designs available, and if their fish eat dry foods, the hobbyist can probably find a suitable feeder to deliver it. Most are designed to feed flake or small granular foods, but at least one larger model can be used for pebble-sized pelleted foods. The size of the portion can usually be set, although some models require more guesswork than others. The timing mechanism also varies from model to model: some simply feed approximately every 12 hours, others can be mechanically set a bit more specifically, and some require a Ph.D. in electronics (or the equivalent 10 year old child) to program.

The obvious advantage to mechanical feeders is that fish won’t need to adapt to a new, or worse yet, a lesser food than their owners have been feeding them all along. They are suitable for most types of fish – even saltwater – although larger tanks may require multiple feeders. On the downside, by their very nature they clog quite easily when placed too close to water, so the hobbyist needs to install them properly above the tank, well away from the splashing of airstones and pumps. Their biggest disadvantage is initial cost, but at a buck or more a pop for feeder blocks, mechanical feeders are cost effective in the long run.

Alternatives for Special Situations. For fish with vegetarian leanings, adding a healthy bunch or two of “anacharis” (Elodea species) or “hornwort” (Ceratophyllum demersum ) is an all-natural solution that allows 24 hour grazing. For young fry or other smaller fishes, there is a brine shrimp hatchery that can be installed inside the aquarium, and the tiny shrimplets (“nauplii” if you really want to get technical) wander out into the tank continuously as they hatch.

Do fish really need to be fed so regularly? Most fish could survive for a few days with no food at all; in fact some hobbyists have recommended an occasional fasting period for aquarium fish, although the benefits are not easily measured in the home aquarium. On the other hand, smaller fish often begin to decline in health rather quickly, and could easily be at risk within a week or so. Similarly, younger fish may survive but fail to develop properly without frequent, regular feedings. Aggressive fish often become even more so when hungry, so there could be casualties from brutality even if there are none from malnutrition.

One Last Meal. It’s a natural temptation for a fishkeeper to give an extra or extra-large feeding shortly before leaving town. Uneaten food of course begins to foul the water within a few hours, and even the excess food that is devoured is only partially digested before becoming fish waste a few hours down the road. If the resulting pollution is substantial and left unattended for days, the hobbyist might be offering a “last meal” in a manner he did not intend.

One Last Live Meal. Even riskier is the practice of feeding predatory fish a week’s worth of “feeder” fish shortly before leaving on a trip. At best, they will all be eaten immediately and wasted, much like the standard foods overfed in the preceding example. More often, all the feeder fish are only killed, and their decaying remains foul the water, probably resulting in disaster. Even if they survive to be consumed on cue each day, the sudden change in fish load often upsets the ammonia/nitrite balancing act in the tank.

Almost as important as the health benefits for the fish are the psychological benefits for the fishkeeper. Most hobbyists take good care of their aquarium fish when they are home, and don’t want to worry that their prized possessions are suffering in their absence. There’s a lot to be said for peace of mind, and a vacation is a lot more fun when the aquarist is confident that all will be well upon his return. And if the aquarium keeper is confident that the fish will be fed in his absence, he’ll be less likely to overdo it before leaving.

Friends. Friends are great, and everyone should try to keep a few on hand. In a perfect world, every aquarist would have a nearby, trusted friend that is also an avid hobbyist, and is willing to stop by several times a day to feed and inspect the aquarium. In the real world, a friend possessing all of these qualities is hard to find, and neither a well-meaning novice nor an unreliable expert is a good bet to properly oversee the fish tank while the owners are away. An oversized feline stranger with a tall red & white striped hat is best rejected right off the bat.

If not, your fish may not like it, “not one little bit.”

SIDEBAR: Other vacation concerns.

Nourishment is the first thing most aquarists will think of when planning a fish-free vacation, but there are a few other possible pitfalls.

Heat or Cold. Many people save a few bucks on heating or cooling by adjusting their thermostat to uncomfortable levels when no one is home. They should be reminded that someone IS home – their tropical fish – and to try to keep them in mind. A closed-up home without air conditioning can easily stay in the 90’s during a summer warm spell, and many an aquarist returned come home to an accidental “fish boil.”

Heat or Cold.New Additions. Many aquarists get the notion to add a few new fish to their home tank shortly before vacation. This is begging for trouble, as any problems with incompatibility, poor acclimation or disease will go unattended for days or weeks, threatening not only the newcomer but all the oldtimers as well.

Lighting. The best advice is to put the aquarium light on a timer, especially if there are live plants or other photosynthetic residents. This is in fact the best option even when the aquarist is home. If there are no light-requiring organisms in the tank, another option is to leave the aquarium light off and a room light on, yielding enough light for fish to find food, but not enough to induce algae growth.

Last Minute Changes. Any changes done the aquarium – including water changes, adjusting heaters, cleaning filters and adding equipment – should be completed several days before departure, so that any resulting problems can be dealt with. This especially includes the addition of vacation feeding blocks or mechanical filters.