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Gas Bubble Disease in Aquatic Frogs, Newts and Salamanders

Clawed FrogHello, Frank Indiviglio here. I’m frequently contacted by amphibian keepers who find that their pets are floating about at the water’s surface and seem unable to submerge.  While gas produced by bacteria within the animal can cause this, the most frequent culprit is Gas Bubble Disease.  This term is sometimes used to refer to any of several related but different maladies, and commonly afflicts African Clawed Frogs (Xenopus laevis), Dwarf Clawed Frogs (Hymenochirus spp.) and Mexican Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum).

How it Occurs

Gas Bubble Disease usually arises when water becomes supersaturated with oxygen, carbon dioxide or other common gases.  The usual way for a supersaturated condition to occur in captivity is via air introduced through leaks around pumps, tubing or valves, or as a result of overly-powerful aeration.

Symptoms

In a supersaturated environment, bubbles (termed emboli) may form in the blood or tissues of an amphibian. These bubbles may sometimes be seen just below the skin, in the eye, or in the webbing between the toes.  They may also congregate in the abdomen, causing it to swell.  Death eventually results from the internal accumulation of gas. 

Also, capillaries usually rupture and the skin around the bubbles may break down, leaving the animal open to a bacterial (i.e. Aeromonas hydrophila) infection.  In fact, such infections, often termed red leg, are usually fatal even before the disease has run its course.

Removing Gases from Water

Gases may be removed from large systems by allowing water to enter the system via a spray, and then to trickle through 4-foot-high PVC pipe filled with small stones.  I found this to be very effective in large exhibits at the Bronx Zoo.  This set-up can also be used as a pretreatment for water to be used in smaller aquariums. 

Reducing the amount of air entering the aquarium by sealing leaks in hoses and cutting back on the filter’s outflow or the pump’s power is also useful.

If action is taken quickly, afflicted animals may recover.  However, even if the bubbles disappear and your pets seem fine, they should be seen by a veterinarian to rule out the presence of a bacterial or fungal infection.

Further Reading

The abstract to an interesting article on Gas Bubble Disease in frogs is posted here.

Please write in with your questions and comments. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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