Is your puffer becoming a little long in the tooth? Is it starting to resemble Bucky the Beaver? Then it is time to trim your puffer’s teeth!
All puffers need hard-shelled, meaty foods to keep their teeth trimmed. Like rabbits, their teeth grow constantly and can overgrow enough to cause starvation in the fish. Puffers eat crustaceans in the wild. Foods for smaller puffers are frozen/freeze-dried krill/plankton, gut-loaded ghost shrimp, glass worms, crickets, worms and small snails (the size of the puffer’s eye). Snails are an essential part of a puffer’s diet, especially when the puffer is small. Many serious puffer keepers breed their own snails. The easiest way to start your snail nursery is to gather them from live plants at your local fish store. Most folks won’t mind your taking them, since they are considered pests. Do not feed your puffers the ice cream cone shaped snails called Malaysian Trumpet Snails! MTS’s shells are too hard for puffer’s teeth and have been known to crack them, making it difficult for them eat correctly.
For larger puffers, there are many more crunchy foods to eat. Large puffers will eat scallops, shrimp, crab legs, mussels, clams, oysters, squid, lobster and crayfish. Mine love to chase live crayfish, fiddler crabs and gut-loaded ghost shrimp. I gut-load (pre-feed) my live food with algae wafers, so my puffers get their veggies. You should be able to buy most of these foods at the fish department of your grocery or produce store, freeze and later thaw in warm vitamin water as needed.
Lack of the proper diet will result in overgrown teeth. Once they are long, the puffers will not be able to open their mouths to eat and will starve to death. Sometimes the puffers will try to eat but just spit back their food. At that point, no amount of crunchy foods can help and the puffer’s teeth must be trimmed by hand. Two species of freshwater puffers that need a constant daily supply of snails are the South American puffer (Colomesus asellus) and the less common bronze or golden puffer (Auriglobus modestus). Without enough snails offered to them, they would need their teeth trimmed every 4-6 months. I have both species and do trim their teeth often.
A note about the dangers of using clove oil:
As a community, we are learning clove oil may not be a safe choice to use repeatedly for sedating puffers. Since our SAPs will probably need their teeth worked on every 4-6 months, it is not advised to use clove oil for repetitive usage. It stops the fish from breathing, cuts off O2 to the brain & can possibly cause eventual brain damage. Some members are finding their puffers wake up from clove oil induced sedation slower and slower each time, and sometimes do not wake up at all after repeated sedations over their lifetime, or display erratic and uncoordinated behavior, indicative of brain damage.
Another risk of clove oil is the way it clings to porous surfaces. Many puffer owners set aside a specific container to use for sedating fish with clove oil, due to the strong scent it leaves behind, no matter how much you wash and rinse the container. This is dangerous, as there still may be a significant amount of the oil remaining in the pores of the container, and next time you use it, your fish may be subjected to a larger dose than you intend. To avoid this risk, only use glass containers that are washed until no trace of clove smell lingers, and rinsed thoroughly, or if you prefer, dispose of the container holding the clove oil solution when you are finished with the procedure, never reusing it.
Clove oil is ok to use in an emergency, but if you plan on keeping your puffer for a long time (as we all wish to do!), please purchase tricaine methanesulfonate (also referred to as MS222) to tranquilize your fish. MS222 can sometimes be found under the brand names Tranquil or Finquil, with Finquil being available for purchase at the time of this writing at: http://www.drsfostersmith.com (see the sticky in the General Discussion forum on rebates).
Please follow the manufacturer’s safety and application instructions when using MS222. Often, puffers are more sensitive to medications and chemicals than other fish, so start with the lowest recommended dosage until you know how your puffer reacts. As with clove oil, return your fish to clean, unmedicated water as soon as possible to begin the recovery/wake up process. In general, the trimming instructions stay the same when using MS222 instead of clove oil.
For puffers under 4″, fill two, one-quart containers with 3 cups of tank water. Put 3 drops of clove oil in 1 container.
Clove Oil & Cuticle Nippers
Cuticle nippers are best to use for smaller puffers, as they are very sharp, curved and have a nice point to them.
Add the fish. Within 1 minute the fish will roll on it’s side and then lay on its back. It will seem dead. This will look scary to you, but your fish will be fine.
After 60 seconds, your puffer should roll over on its back and be ready for trimming.
Take the fish out with a net, (as to not harm it’s skin with the oils of your hand) and hold it through the net. Peel back the net, until the puffer’s head and teeth are exposed. Quickly but carefully clip its teeth with cuticle nippers, being sure not to cut its mouth. Their teeth are different than you’d think. It’s more like clipping a fingernail. Try clipping straight across and as short as feasible. Make sure to pull down the lower lip and check those teeth too.
Peel back the net to expose the puffer’s head and teeth. Clip straight across and as short as feasible.
Place the puffer in the container of fresh tank water. You should see it breathing. After 1 minute it will right itself, and within 2 minutes it will be swimming around. After your puffer seems calm and is swimming normally around the container, you may place it back in the tank. Keep an eye on it for a while; it should be swimming as if nothing has happened.
This all needs to be done as quickly as possible, as clove oil can also be used for painless euthanasia of fish. The first time I attempted this procedure, I didn’t use clove oil. The fish squirmed so much I cut the poor things upper lip off and it never grew back. Also, once the fish is tranquilized, you may remove it out of the water, without the worry of it puffing with air. A puffer puffing with air can become a deadly proposition, if the air can’t be removed. I do not recommend tranquilizing your fish if it is sickly or has been weakened due to starvation–it may not recover!
Please note, puffers needing dentistry, have been as small as one inch and as large as 2-3″. This process can also be used on larger puffers. You will need a much larger container and a Dremmel tool for trimming. I also suggest a 2nd pair of hands for handling the big guys.
Good luck, stay calm and happy trimming!