Caring for shrimp can be a complex task, and shrimp that seem unwell can quickly become a source of stress for new shrimp owners.
Shrimp usually lay on their sides as a sign of distress or as a symptom of illness. Sometimes, there is a problem with your tank that can be the cause of these effects.
Read on to learn more about different health and tank water conditions that may cause your shrimp to lay on its side.
Reason 1: Your shrimp may be molting.
Stuck in molt
As shrimp grow, they tend to become too large for their old shells and need to grow new ones. New exoskeletons develop underneath the old one, and once the new shell is ready, the old one needs to be shed through a process called molting.
Many shrimps get stuck in the molting process and end up swimming sideways or laying on their sides.
Shrimp that gets stuck in molt may have an old shell too thickened to remove or a new exoskeleton that is too weak to protect them from their environment. In both cases, getting stuck in molt tends to be lethal.
It is not always obvious that a shrimp is stuck in molt. Depending on the color and opacity of your shrimp’s exoskeletons, you may or may not be able to see a new shell forming or the areas where the old exoskeleton is starting to come loose.
The most common symptom of being stuck in molt is irregular swimming patterns, including laying on their sides. Some more transparent shrimp species may also appear to have cloudy shells close to molting time.
Many first-time shrimp keepers are eager to help their shrimp molt when they recognize this problem. Unfortunately, it is not advisable to try to help your shrimp shed its shell manually, as these attempts almost always lead to death.
Inadequate water and nutrient conditions
Molting and developing a new shell are natural processes in the life cycle of a shrimp, but in tank environments, extra care must be taken to make sure shrimp have adequate conditions to molt properly.
In order to develop a new, strong exoskeleton, your shrimp need a reliable source of calcium in their diet. Most shrimp pellets have this already, but if your shrimp are feeding on leftover fish food, they may be nutritionally deficient.
Your water must also have the proper total hardness (GH) for your shrimp to molt. Water that lacks dissolved solids leads to the weak development of new shells, while high levels of total hardness can cause the old shell to become too stiff to molt properly.
If your tank does not have the ideal conditions for your shrimp to complete its molting process, there will be an increased risk of them getting stuck in their molt.
Reason 2: Your shrimp could be sick.
Ammonia and nitrite poisoning
Ammonia and nitrite are toxins produced by all fish, shrimp, and snail waste. These toxins are deadly even in small amounts, so it is crucial to complete a proper nitrogen cycle before adding shrimp to your tank.
Establishing the nitrogen cycle allows for the formation of beneficial bacteria in your tank that convert ammonia and nitrites produced by waste into a way-less harmful chemical called nitrates. Nitrates can also cause problems for your shrimp but are only considered toxic in much higher amounts.
Over-feeding and other dead plants or animals left in your tank can also cause ammonia and nitrite levels to rise, even if your tank has been properly cycled.
Always remove any leftover food after your shrimp have finished eating, and avoid using types of food that crumble up, causing pollution to the water column.
Shrimp exposed to prolonged or drastically elevated amounts of ammonia and nitrate are unlikely to survive and may lay on their sides as a sign of distress.
Water changes can be performed when ammonia and nitrite are detected, with clean water added gradually. This can help lower amounts of ammonia and nitrite in your tank’s water, but it is only a temporary fix.
Tanks that have not been cycled cannot keep shrimp alive through the cycling process, and many aquarists consider it cruel to cycle your tank with animals present.
Consider moving your shrimp to a cycled tank or returning them to the pet store until you have time to learn about the importance of the nitrogen cycle for aquarium life.
Copper is commonly contained in aquarium products sold for use as algaecides. Algaecides effectively remove algae infestations from your aquarium and may be safe for your fish.
Unfortunately, these products are deadly in shrimp tanks.
Copper is naturally toxic to many invertebrates, especially aquarium shrimp. Even trace amounts of copper in a tank that cannot be detected with testing products can be enough to make your tank uninhabitable for shrimp.
Some shrimp keepers have even reported that tanks that have previously received copper-based treatments can be unsuitable for shrimp life. If you received your tank second-hand, there’s a chance a copper-based product was used in it.
Even when tanks are emptied completely and the glass cleaned, there can be enough copper remaining to threaten new shrimp. Because of this, tanks that have been exposed to copper are considered uninhabitable for shrimp.
Parasites and disease
Another cause of shrimp laying on their sides is parasitic infestations and disease. Parasites and diseases are often introduced to your shrimp from other aquariums, such as from the pet store, and many shrimps may be infected upon purchase.
Parasitic infections and diseases can lead to strange shrimp behavior and swimming patterns. Shrimp may swim aggressively toward the top of the tank and may avoid food when it is presented to them.
Lethargy, confusion, and loss of control of limbs are all common signs of disease and parasitic infections, especially in the late stages. This could be the cause of your shrimp laying on its side.
Certain types of shrimp parasites and diseases are treatable, but shrimp laying on their side are likely, unfortunately, too sick to be healed. Laying on sides is usually a sign of organ or limb failure, which they are unlikely to recover from.
Some common shrimp tank parasites include Vorticella, which appears as a white-toned fuzz on the outside of your shrimp.
Various types of worms are another common shrimp parasite, which may be visible through the shell of your shrimp, or may protrude through the shell of your shrimp as the infestation progresses.
How to help my shrimp? (3 steps)
#1 Diagnose your shrimp
In order to care for your shrimp, it is necessary to diagnose the problem. We recommend doing chemistry checks on your tank water that test for total hardness, pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels to rule out the likelihood of chemical toxicity being the problem.
Shrimp stuck in molt is not always easy to diagnose, and if shrimp were purchased from the pet store recently, it might not be the fault of your tank.
Ensure your shrimp receive enough calcium in their diet to reduce the risks associated with the molting process.
Many symptoms of disease or toxicity can present similar signs. If you are unsure what condition your shrimp is inflicted with, it is beneficial to get a second opinion from someone with more experience.
While chemical toxicity and parasitic infections are usually fatal for shrimp, some conditions, such as fungal infections, can be treated if diagnosed quickly enough.
#2 Quarantine and treat
You should place any shrimp showing signs of disease or parasitic infection into quarantine by using an in-tank container intended for this purpose.
The quarantine can protect your sick shrimp from environmental dangers and keep other tank inhabitants safe.
It is crucial that there is no water flower between the quarantine box and the tank, as this would increase the likelihood of infecting other shrimp. Old water should be discarded once quarantine has ended or if quarantine water needs to be refreshed.
If your shrimp has a fungal or treatable bacterial infection, investigate the proper medicines for their condition and administer treatments.
While your shrimp is quarantined, it will need much smaller amounts of food than usual. Only feed your sick shrimp as much as they can eat to avoid polluting their water, which will only make them sicker.
#3 Remove dead shrimp
Unfortunately, not all shrimp can be saved. Many conditions that are lethal for shrimp require early detection or prevention and do not respond well to attempts at intervention once the damage has occurred.
Some shrimp may have diseases or parasites at the time of purchase. While it can be sad to lose some of your new shrimp, know that this may not have been your fault.
Dead shrimp in your tank is a health hazard to other shrimp, as they begin to decompose and release toxic levels of ammonia into the water.
Their bodies can also harbor parasites or other bacteria. For these reasons, it is important to promptly remove dead shrimp from your tank.