Goldfish Breathing Fast and Heavily: 4 Effective Solutions

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As a fish owner, I tend to encounter worrying situations in my tank. For example, quite a few times, I noticed that my goldfish are breathing fast and heavily. Over the years, I learned why this issue happens and how to deal with it. Now, I am happy to share my experience.

Goldfish tend to breathe fast and heavily due to drastic shifts in water parameters, particularly pH and temperature. Yet, rapid breathing could also be a sign of toxins elevation, including ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites. That usually occurs in poorly maintained tanks and overcrowded environments.

As we proceed, I will share four essential steps to treat goldfish that breathe rapidly. I will also show you what signs indicate that the fish is stressed and why that might happen after a water change.

Why is my Goldfish Breathing Fast?

A goldfish shouldn’t breathe fast and heavily. The movement of its mouth and gills should be slow and steady. If you have observed panting in your fish, some of these underlying factors are probably the cause:

1. Drastic Water Parameters Shifts

Whenever your fish misbehave, the parameters have to be the first thing you check. After all, goldfish require a specific temperature and pH to survive and thrive. And you have to take deliberate steps to keep those parameters within the appropriate range in your tank.

If your goldfish is panting, you have every reason to assume that one or more of the parameters in the tank is wrong. If the temperature and pH are accurate, a drastic shift in these parameters could also result in rapid, labored breathing. This comes with other signs of stress, shock, and discomfort.

Goldfish are tricky because a lot of people keep them in tanks or bowls without heaters. This isn’t an issue if you trust the ambient temperatures in your home to keep the tank’s temperature within the relevant range.

But without a heater, it is pretty easy for the temperature in an aquarium to dip without your knowledge. Fortunately, the temperature isn’t that difficult to measure. The same is true for the pH. If you test your water regularly, sudden changes in the parameters are less likely to sneak up on you.

2. Prolonged Transportations

Did you add the goldfish to the tank in recent days? Fish typically struggle to acclimate to new conditions. That struggle is made even worse if they encountered stress and discomfort during transportation, especially if they had to suffer a long journey. Rapid, labored breathing is one of the signs of stress your goldfish may manifest as a result.

3. Your Goldfish Requires a Bigger Tank

Goldfish can live in bowls. However, if you have a goldfish in a bowl, you are encouraged to move it to a proper tank. This is because that goldfish will most likely grow in the future. Not only will it respond negatively to the overcrowded environment, but the waste it produces will accumulate at a faster rate, ruining the water chemistry.

This can also happen in tanks that are too small and overstocked. Another factor is ammonia accumulation, which can burn your goldfish’s gills. If your goldfish doesn’t have enough room to maneuver, panting and labored breathing will eventually ensue.

4. Lack of Oxygen

Goldfish cannot survive without oxygen. One of the most common causes of labored and rapid breathing in fish is oxygen deficiencies.[1] Oxygen deficiencies have a variety of sources, including:

  • Overstocking and overcrowding – If you have too many goldfish and your tank is small, the fish will consume more oxygen than the gaseous exchange at the top can replenish.
  • Temperature – Because hot water cannot hold oxygen as effectively as cold water, a spike in the temperature may strip your tank of its oxygen, causing your goldfish to gasp for air.
  • Stagnation – Oxygen enters the tank through the surface. If the water is stagnant, oxygen won’t dissolve in the water in sufficient quantities. Even if it does, the lack of proper water movement will prevent the oxygen from circulating evenly throughout the aquarium. This will create oxygen deficiencies in individual sections of the tank.
  • Waste – When waste accumulates, it reduces the quantity of dissolved oxygen in the tank.
  • Plants – Plants consume carbon dioxide even as they produce oxygen. But that is only in the presence of light. In the dark, they will do the opposite, consuming oxygen and producing carbon dioxide. If you have too many plants and poor lighting, the plants will steal all the oxygen. This can also happen in tanks with a lot of algae.

A goldfish in an oxygen-deficient tank will manifest additional signs such as gasping at the surface, lethargy, and loss of appetite. It may also lie at the bottom. But in most cases, the fish will breathe rapidly and heavily.

5. Your Goldfish is Sick

If your tank is clean and properly maintained, and you have no reason to suspect an oxygen deficiency, your goldfish might be sick. Diseases and parasites like anchor worms and flukes can infect the gills, compromising your fish’s ability to breathe.[2]

You can introduce parasites and bacteria to your tank via new fish, plants, decorations, and gravel. Stress is a prominent factor in situations of this sort since it lowers the fish’s immune system, making it more susceptible to diseases.

6. Elevated Ammonia and Nitrites

Ammonia and nitrites are the most common toxins in fish tanks. Not only do they harm the gills, which affects the fish’s ability to breathe, but they can also prevent the oxygen in the blood from reaching the creature’s tissue and organs in sufficient amounts.[3] If you get your water from a tap, you should also test for chlorine and chloramine, not to mention components like lead.

How to Treat Goldfish That Breathe Fast & Heavily?

If your goldfish is breathing heavily, you don’t have much time. You must take steps to remedy its situation before it suffers lasting and potentially fatal damage, steps such as the following:

1. Adjusting the Goldfish’s Environment

Start by determining whether or not the conditions in the tank are appropriate:

  • Check the temperature and pH. The temperature should fall somewhere between 68 and 74 degrees F for fancy goldfish. The pH should range from 7.0 to 8.4.[4]

To measure the pH, nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia, I use the API Aquarium Test Kit (link to Amazon). This affordable bundle will let you know within minutes if any of the parameters are wrong. It also lasts for hundreds of measures, which is a huge advantage.

  • If the pH is wrong, take tangible steps to fix it. That includes using limestone and crushed coral to raise it, neutralizing the acid using an alkaline buffer, and adding an acid buffer to lower the pH.[5]
  • Even though they can survive without one, add a heater. Keep the aquarium away from direct sunlight and air conditioning systems. If the water is too hot, remove the lid (if the tank has one). Use a fan to blow across its surface. This will lower the temperature. If that doesn’t work, use ice cubes in zip-close bags.
  • Avoid small tanks. These creatures require a minimum of 20 gallons.[6]

2. Getting Rid of Toxins

Once you identify toxins in the water, you can use the following methods to relieve the discomfort experienced by your goldfish:

  • Water Changes – Carry out a water change. You are supposed to do this every week to prevent toxins from accumulating. Keep the water changes small, especially if your fish is still breathing heavily. The stress of a massive water change will make things worse. 

Add the new water slowly. It should have the same parameters as the old water. The goal is to protect the stressed fish from unnecessary shock. As was mentioned earlier, drastic changes can do more harm than good.

  • Conditioners – Conditioners produce faster results than a water change; sometimes, they work in minutes. You can also find conditioners that remove all the toxins or individual toxins. I personally use the API Stress Coat Water Conditioner (link to Amazon), which makes tap water safe for my fish.
  • Maintenance – Try to keep the tank clean. This means vacuuming the gravel, washing the walls, and scrubbing the decorations. You should also eliminate uneaten food and dead plants and animals. Don’t permit dead fish to linger in the water. 

I also suggest cleaning and unclogging the filter. However, try not to remove more than half the filter media. You should also avoid washing it with chlorinated water. Otherwise, you will eliminate the good bacteria that the goldfish need to survive.

  • Food – Don’t overfeed the goldfish. If you do, they will produce excessive amounts of waste. This will encourage ammonia to accumulate.

Goldfish are pretty messy.[7] That is why I recommend keeping their tank clean to prevent their physical and mental health from deteriorating. Otherwise, heavy breathing will be the least of your worries.

3. Improving Water Oxygenation

If your fish don’t have enough oxygen, you can respond with the following actions:

  • Water change – A water change increases water movement, raising the amount of oxygen entering the tank through the surface.
  • Powerheads/Filters/Airstones – If you have a powerful filter, it will generate enough agitation to improve the oxygen exchange at the top. Otherwise, you should consider adding airstones and pumps to increase the amount of oxygen dissolving into the water and improve its distribution.

For that purpose, I use the Hygger Aquarium Air Stone (link to Amazon). I suggest putting it in the middle of the tank. Then, let the device do its trick. One of the things that I love about this air stone is its quiet performance, which can be pretty rare in this category.

  • Height – Pour water into the tank from a great height. Not only will this agitate the water, but the droplets will absorb oxygen as they fall through the air, injecting it into the water.
  • Maintenace – Keep the tank clean. Do not permit waste to accumulate. The bacteria that break waste down use oxygen to perform their role.[8]
  • Algae – Don’t allow algae to grow uncontrollably. Remove it whenever you clean the tank. You should also watch the number of plants in the aquarium. Please don’t allow them to stay without light for long periods. You can install a timer that will switch your lights on during the day and off at night. 

Try not to respond to an oxygen deficiency by removing the plants. The goldfish use them as hiding places. Also, along with decorations, the plants’ presence allows goldfish to overcome stress and reproduce in peace.

4. Treating Sick Goldfish

Sick goldfish typically seem sluggish, and their colors begin to fade. Besides rapid and heavy breathing, they will also show a lack of appetite. If you suspect that your goldfish is sick, this is what you should do:

  • Quarantine – Unless you know for sure that the disease isn’t contagious, you should place the goldfish in a hospital tank, away from other aquatic creatures. Some goldfish need the peace that quarantine offers to recover. Others have aggressive tankmates that may take advantage of their weakened state to attack them. 

The water in the quarantine tank should have the same parameters as the goldfish’s old tank. You are also expected to acclimate the goldfish. Otherwise, the shock of moving to a new aquarium might cause shock and stress, ailments that could make things far worse.

  • Water Changes – A water change will create a clean and conducive environment for the fish’s recovery. It will also remove parasites and bacteria in the water responsible for the creature’s illness.
  • Symptoms – Study the fish. Look for apparent symptoms that will help you identify the illness at the heart of the creature’s condition. Once you identify the disease ailing the goldfish, you can apply the relevant commercial products. 

If you don’t have any confidence in your ability to treat your fish, take it to a vet. At the very least, you can trust them to identify the disease behind the labored breathing. They can also prescribe the appropriate treatments.

  • Salt – Infections respond positively to salt. Add a tablespoon for every five gallons. Some diseases require multiple salt baths. Personally, I had a good experience with the API Aquarium Salt (link to Amazon).
  • Temperature – You can enhance the goldfish’s recovery rate by slowly raising the temperature to 86 degrees F and keeping it at this point for ten days. Diseases like Ich respond positively to an elevation in temperature. Once your fish’s situation begins to improve, you can gradually lower the temperature. Sudden shifts in the temperature are discouraged.
  • Food – Sick goldfish will appreciate a healthy diet consisting of low protein foods and vegetables. Avoid overfeeding. If you have a busy schedule, install an automatic feeder.

How do You Tell if a Goldfish is Stressed?

These signs indicate that a goldfish is stressed:

  1. The goldfish will gasp for air at the surface.
  2. Stressed goldfish will either eat little or no food at all.
  3. The fish will spend a lot of time hiding, even in tanks that do not have violent or aggressive fish.
  4. Their behavior will become erratic. They may glass surf, lie still at the bottom, frequent the top, or swim frantically throughout the tank.
  5. The goldfish will become violent towards their smaller tankmates. They will either chase other fish around or attack them outrightly.
  6. The color of stressed goldfish will change, fading dramatically over the course of several days, weeks, and months.
  7. The fish will become lethargic, barely moving or not moving at all.

Goldfish do not appreciate stress. It causes their heart rate and blood pressure to rise. If they are forced to remain in this state, their health and reproduction capabilities will suffer. This is why you are encouraged to keep an eye out for signs of stress mentioned above.

Why do Goldfish Breathe Fast After a Water Change?

Goldfish tend to breathe fast after water changes due to the introduction of contaminants, such as lead and chloramine. Also, drastic water changes produce transformations in the water chemistry, especially in poorly maintained tanks. That shift may stress the goldfish and force labored breathing.

If you perform too many sizable water changes, you could eliminate the beneficial bacteria in the water, particularly if your water changes are accompanied by thorough vacuuming and cleaning.[9] In essence, your tank is no longer cycled. Goldfish can’t live in tanks that haven’t been cycled.

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If your goldfish is breathing fast and heavily, first check the water parameters. In most cases, there has been a drastic change that stressed your fish. Start by checking the ammonia, pH, and nitrates. You can do that by using a testing kit.

However, if the water parameters seem okay, it could be that your fish doesn’t get enough oxygen. In this case, I highly recommend installing an air stone and conduct more frequent water changes. These two actions will improve the tank’s state dramatically.