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Sick Axolotl? Axolotl looking down in the gills? The doctors are in.

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Old 7th February 2017   #1
AnnabeleGrey
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Default Notes on columnaris infections + volumetric Holtfreter's

Hello All,

About two weeks ago, both of my adult axolotl came down with the bacterial disease columnaris, and I decided to share everything I've learned while fighting this fast-acting, potentially lethal disease. There's a lot of information out there for fighting columnaris in aquarium fish, but not so much information for axolotl owners. So this post is quite long, but hopefully very helpful!

Identifying Columnaris
The columnaris bacteria can resemble a fungal infection, and in fact, there can also be a secondary fungal infection present. How to tell the difference? Fungal infections look very fluffy, like a cotton ball, and commonly attack the gills. Columnaris is much less fluffy in appearance--more of a thick, stringy slime--and it almost always attacks the mouth and caudal fin. An internal infection of columnaris will cause red streaking all over the axolotl's body, but not open, red lesions. If your axie's lesions or sores are completely red instead of white, it's not columnaris.
Here's my leucistic axolotl showing symptoms of both an internal and external infection. She's not quite as streaky as she was on the first day, but still abnormally pink.
Click the image to open in full size.
Click the image to open in full size.

About Columnaris
Columnaris is a gram-negative, aerobic, freshwater bacteria that is capable of surviving for abut a month in clean, well-oxygenated aquariums. It is an opportunistic bacteria; it will not infect a perfectly healthy animal, but particularly young, old, or stressed axolotl are at risk. A drop in water quality that stresses your axolotl can give this bacteria the opportunity it needs. It is a particularly fast-acting disease, with the potential to cause fatalities in as little as 24 hours. If you see the symptoms, it is essential to begin treatment immediately.

Treatment
Upon noticing the symptoms, the first course of action should be to remove all axolotl from the affected aquarium, even if they are not displaying symptoms. If one axolotl is displaying symptoms, that means the bacteria is present in your entire aquarium, and you should carefully check water parameters and treat any visible colonies with hydrogen peroxide before reintroducing your axies. Some excellent information on treating your aquarium with hydrogen peroxide can be found here: Columnaris and what I have learned.

The second step is to fridge your affected axolotl. There are instructions for fridging in this forum. Columnaris typically does not survive in temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius). My less-affected axolotl rebounded in two days with a combination of fridging and salt baths.

The third step, which should begin as quickly as possible, is to begin a course of antibiotics and treatment baths.

Recommended treatment schedule:
First day:
First dose of Furan and KanaPlex
Bath of 100% Holtfreter's solution and methylene blue
Hydrogen peroxide bath
Scrub both main container and bath container with scrubbing paste

Day Two:
Second dose of Furan
Bath of 100% Holtfreter's solution and methylene blue
1% solution salt bath
Scrub both main container and bath container with scrubbing paste

Day Three:
Second dose of Kanaplex
Bath of 100% Holtfreter's solution and methylene blue
Hydrogen peroxide bath
Scrub both main container and bath container with scrubbing paste

...and so on, keeping that pattern. Feed your axolotl during this time if they'll accept it. Kanaplex is even more effective when ingested instead of dissolved.

Furan and Kanaplex
These two antibiotics are said to work symbiotically in the treatment of Columnaris. Kanamycin is used by the University of Kentucky when treating their axolotl colony; Kanaplex is the version available to the public. Please follow the instructions on the back of the packaging and do not substitute other antibiotics. Most antibiotics sold in big-name pet stores are meant to treat gram-positive and/or anaerobic bacteria; you MUST use antibiotics that target aerobic, gram-negative bacteria.

Because my axies were in the fridge, I mixed my Kanaplex and Furan in an empty ten-gallon aquarium, and scooped the medicated water out with a pitcher in order to refrigerate it. If your main aquarium's water parameters are back to normal, feel free to mix your antibiotics in that.

Hydrogen peroxide baths
I obtained my information on using hydrogen peroxide from this article: Use of Hydrogen Peroxide in Finfish Aquaculture. Since axies are more sensitive to chemicals than scaled fish, I used the lowest recommended dosage. Although I was worried about using an unknown and untested treatment, the combination of fridging and hydrogen peroxide were instrumental in helping my axie kick her internal infection.

How to mix the bath:
Ahead of time, refrigerate and dechlorinate 1500 mL (1.5 cups) of water. Before placing your axie in the bath, add 2.5 mL (1/2 tsp) of 3% hydrogen peroxide solution (commonly available from drugstores). This will create a 0.005% solution. Leave your axolotl in this solution for an hour (in the fridge), as often as every other day. When measuring with a 1/2 teaspoon, make sure the hydrogen peroxide doesn't form a meniscus (bubble) above the top of the spoon.

DO NOT mix the hydrogen peroxide solution ahead of time. In water, hydrogen peroxide quickly degrades into its constituent components, hydrogen and oxygen. If you mix your solution ahead of time, you'll just end up with...water.

Scrubbing paste
Scrubbing paste for cleaning aquaria is, per the University of Kentucky, a 2:1 mixture of baking soda and salt.

Holtfreter's solution and methylene blue
I obtained my recipe for Holtfreter's solution from axolotl.org. If you own a pocket scale, I highly recommend weighing your ingredients. It's much more accurate that way. If, like me, you can't currently afford a pocket scale, here's a formula for 100% Holtfreter's solution using regular measuring equipment:
Per 10 L of water (which can be mixed in a 2.5 gallon bucket):
NaCl = 16 mL (1 tbsp + 1/4 tsp)
KCl = 0.25 mL (1/16 tsp)
CaCl2 = 0.5 mL (1/8 tsp)
NaHCO3 = 1 mL (1/4 tsp)

For the methylene blue, since I wanted to do a 15-minute bath, I used an amount that was double the recommended prophylactic dose and far less than the recommended dosage for a 10-second dip. That ended up being 5 mL per 20 L, or 2.5 mL (1/2 tsp) per the 10L of Holtfreter's solution that you just made. This particular combination of methylene blue and Holtfreter's was inspired by this very helpful article.

1% salt bath
There are already instructions on this forum for performing a salt bath, so I won't add to them. A 1% solution is 2 tsp per L.

What Not to Do
I started out by using a syringe to drip 0.01% hydrogen peroxide directly onto the affected areas of my axolotl, but this didn't seem to have any benefits. Although the hydrogen peroxide bath helped with her internal infection, it doesn't have much of an impact on external lesions.

Resist the urge to attempt to remove the white patches with a q-tip. These white patches are actually decaying (necrotic) skin, and it is very painful for your axolotl if you attempt to remove them via blunt force.

Don't use treatments from the pet store if you don't have a full list of the ingredients. Many contain cuprous compounds, which are toxic to axolotl. Many others are simply ineffective against columnaris and a waste of precious treatment time.

End Notes
Although it took over two weeks of treatment, both of my axolotl rebounded from their infections. My leucistic is a bit lopsided from the lost tissue, but she's alive and eating again. That's what's important.
Click the image to open in full size.

edit: fixed broken picture links.



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Old 17th February 2017   #2
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Default Re: Notes on columnaris infections + volumetric Holtfreter's

Thank you so much for posting this information. I found it very interesting and very useful. It's very sad when these things happen to the pets that we love, I am so glad that yours pulled through



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Old 6th March 2017   #3
Elise
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Default Re: Notes on columnaris infections + volumetric Holtfreter's

Well done! I'm impressed you were able to clear this up in only two weeks. It's nice to see you had success with some of these methods, especially with hydrogen peroxide.

One thing I've noticed with this illness is if it's not treated completely, it will return and can kill the axolotl very quickly. Because of this I tend to fridge for an extended period of time.

The treatment I've used in the past took much longer. I used a Furan2 bath at half concentration for 2-3 weeks while fridging. Then when symptoms cleared up, I continued to fridge for an additional two weeks. I generally don't offer food while fridging as it doesn't seem to do much good.

I vaguely remember reading that salt treatments had little effect on columnaris but i could be wrong on that.

I've included a before and after picture of two rescues I've since rehomed. The top of the picture is of the axolotls after recovering from columnaris. Notice they were left with some disfigurement from the illness.
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Old 6th March 2017   #4
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Default Re: Notes on columnaris infections + volumetric Holtfreter's

I found another example of a rescue axolotl I've cared for in the past. The bottom is the day after treatment of columnaris finished and the top is when the axolotl was ready to be rehomed.
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Old 26th March 2017   #5
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Default Re: Notes on columnaris infections + volumetric Holtfreter's

@WalkingFish You're welcome! It was a very upsetting first week of treatment, to be sure.

@Elise Thank you! I'm glad you've had luck in treating your rescue animals.

I fridged and used the methylene blue/Holtfreter's solution for an additional week after the symptoms had cleared up. So for my leucistic axie, that meant two weeks of intense treatment and another week of fridging with daily "just in case" baths. I noticed that my wild type's slime coat looked a little damaged and flaky after that period of time, but it rebounded in a day or two after I stopped the baths. If I ever have to treat again in the future (I really hope not), I'll probably add some aloe vera to their fridging water to help with their slime coat.

I'm not sure how much the salt baths helped, but the axolotl.org segment on columnaris mentioned that some people have had success with them. Saline is also used extensively to clean open wounds in humans, so I figured, at the least, it wouldn't hurt.



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Old 2nd December 2017   #6
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Default Re: Notes on columnaris infections + volumetric Holtfreter's

When treating with Furan-2 and Kanamycin, do you use the regular dosage listed on the bottles?



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Old 6th December 2017   #7
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Default Re: Notes on columnaris infections + volumetric Holtfreter's

Great article!

Can anyone fix the link for the pics?



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