V. Help! My Puffer is Air-filled!

What to do if a puffer inflates with air?

Almost anyone who has heard of a puffer can tell you what makes them different from every other fish. It is their amazing ability to double or triple their size when needed for their protection. This amazing ability is made possible by unique adaptations. First, they do not have ribs. This allows their stomach to expand without having bone interference. Second, they have specialized muscles around their stomach and within their mouth to funnel water into the stomach. Finally, puffers have a thick rubbery skin that can expand easily. Both the stomach and skin are also pleated and folded, providing more room for expansion. Nearly all puffers also have spines that become very visible and erect when the puffer is in its expanded form.

Within the hobby, it should be remembered that the puffing ability is a defense mechanism and a puffer parent should never try to force the puffer to inflate. Doing so is very stressful for the puffer and may lead to health issues. This being said, should you one day find your puffer fully inflated and looking at you incredulously for seeing him in this state, don’t worry, many puffers have been known to “practice” their puffing. Fahaka puffers seem to be the most likely to perform this act and are also known for doing it just to get attention or food.

Another concern in the hobby is transferring puffers from one tank to another. This is a stressful time for any fish, but it is particularly dangerous for puffers. This is because if a puffer inflates while out of the water, it fills with air, a situation that often proves fatal. A puffer cannot expel air from its expanded stomach, and will float upside down on the surface of the water until it dies. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent this from happening and to rescue a puffer who has inflated with air.

If your puffer takes in air or you find one that has, find either a glove or a net to hold the puffer. Take the puffer in your hand using a net or glove, to protect the puffer from oils and other undesirables. You want to position the puffer underwater with its head pointed toward the surface of the water. Carefully take hold of the puffer supporting its entire body. To do this and restrict the movement of the fish, hold the head and body, the bones of your hand parallel to the fish’s spine and along its back and the fingers wrapping the head , avoiding the eyes as much as possible. Use your other hand to gently nudge the stomach to help the puffer release the air. Throughout the process, the puffer may attempt to reinflate. This is okay because the puffer is underwater and will refill with water, further helping to expel the air. If you need to “burp” a puffer larger than 6 or 7 inches, it may be necessary to enlist the help of a few extra hands. Also, with a large puffer, gloves will work better than a net to hold the puffer.

Fortunately, this problem is completely preventable. The easiest way to prevent it is to bag the puffer while still in the tank. Basically, place the bag in the tank with the puffer. Roll down the sides of the bag. This process helps the bag remain open and if done right, allows you to remove the bag with the correct amount of water. Using a net, gently guide the puffer into the bag. Once the puffer is in the bag, lift it out of the water and unroll it. Close and seal the bag as normal. It may not be easy at first, but with practice it is a lot less stressful for both you and the puffer.

It should also be noted that puffers should not be allowed to eat freeze-dried food that has not been thoroughly soaked. Freeze-dried foods are full of air and the eating habits of a puffer can easily lead to a puffer becoming partially air filled from the food. For this reason, it is important to soak all freeze-dried food, for at least 10 to 15 minutes before a feeding. If medicine soaking the food, use cold tap water and refrigerate the food for the longer soak to minimize the possibly of contamination.

Practicing the methods mentioned above to prevent an air puff is the best way to keep puffers from going through the highly stressful experience. However, should you encounter an air filled puffer somewhere in your journey, succesfully saving that puffer will be a rewarding experience!

Thanks to RTR for help with this article.