What is a healthy fish?

Brew12

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As responsible hobbyists we should all want to purchase and keep healthy fish and yet fish health can be a very contentious topic. If we all want the same thing, why do we argue about this topic so much? I feel it is because there is no easy answer to the question of when to consider a fish “healthy”.
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Healthy, according to Merriam-Webster, has the following definitions:

1a: free from disease
1b: not displaying clinical signs of disease or infection
2: beneficial to ones physical, mental, or emotional state : conducive to or associated with good health
or reduced risk of disease
3: showing physical, mental, or emotional well-being : evincing good health

There, now I can rest easy because we all know what a healthy fish is. Ok, maybe not. I do think we can all agree that the end goal is to have fish that meet the 3rd definition by showing physical well-being. The problems arise when we look at the first 2 definitions. To explore how these first 2 definitions cause conflict, I want to address it from the perspective of a fish and the common parasite Cryptocaryon Irritans (Marine Ich).

Can a fish with Cryptocaryon Irritans be “free from disease”? Cryptocaryon Irritans is a pathogen which means it can be the causative agent of a disease. A disease is defined as “the condition of the living animal or one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms”. A pathogen only becomes a disease when it reaches a density or level of damage that causes symptoms. We know fish can act as hosts of Cryptocaryon Irritans while not showing symptoms so yes, a fish with CI can be “free from disease”. Definition #1a and b can be met for fish with and without Cryptocaryon Irritans.

What about definition #2? Is carrying Cryptocaryon Irritans “beneficial to ones physical state” or “reduced risk of disease”? As an obligate parasite, Cryptocaryon Irritans will do at least minor damage to a fish even if its immune system prevents that damage from reaching the level of a disease. It is also true that a fish without Cryptocaryon Irritans has no chance of it becoming a disease. That is about as reduced a risk as it can get. Based on this, a fish without Cryptocaryon Irritans would be healthier than a fish that carried it. Or would it?
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To explore this further I am going to veer away from fish health and move into the world of human health. Is a person who has just received a measles vaccine healthier than a person without it? The Measles vaccine works by injecting a weakened strain of measles (pathogen) into our body so that our immune system can learn to fight it with a low risk of it reaching the level of a disease. Is a freshly vaccinated person who still has a weakened strain of Measles be considered healthier than a person with no Measles at all? At face value, no, they wouldn’t be, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. We vaccinate for a reason. It builds an immune response so that if a more virulent strain of Measles is encountered in the future the vaccinated person has a higher chance of not having disease symptoms than the person who is unvaccinated. From this perspective, exposure to a parasite does offer a condition that is “beneficial to ones physical state” and a “reduced risk of disease”.

Pathogen exposure in a fish does act much like a continuous vaccine. Instead of a lab weakened pathogen the immune system of the fish weakens the pathogen. This prevents the transition from a pathogen to a disease. The fish immune system is unlikely to completely eradicate the pathogen allowing for the continuous exposure needed to maintain the immune response. What is a healthy fish? Quite simply, a healthy fish is one that is not diseased, which means it is not showing symptoms of a pathogen. Fish with or without certain parasites and pathogens can both meet this definition. If we were to ask which is healthier, a fish with or without pathogens, the answer is less clear. I would argue that the fish that is free of pathogens is healthier in every aspect except future risk.
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So why does a pathogen become a disease? This circular diagram does an excellent job showing the relationship that is likely to cause a pathogen to transition into a disease. One factor is how virulent the pathogen is. This gives consideration to how fast the pathogen reproduces and how much damage it can do. Gram negative bacteria tend to be more virulent than gram positive bacteria. Amyloodinium Ocellatum (Marine Velvet) is more virulent than Cryptocaryon Irritans. Another aspect is how susceptible the host is to each particular pathogen. Clownfish are more susceptible to Brooklynella than Angelfish are. Wrasses are more resistant to Cryptocaryon Irritans than Acanthurus Tangs are. The health of the fish also comes into play. Is it injured or suffering from malnutrition? Does it have genetic issues that reduce its immune system response? And then there are the environmental conditions or stressors. How is the water quality? Is the system temperature stable? Does it have aggressive or incompatible tank mates? Is the tank over or under stocked? These all come into play for a diseased fish.

I think it is important to emphasize the definition of a disease - the condition of the living animal or one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms. As the circular graph shows, a fish can have symptoms of a disease without a pathogen being present. Stress alone, in a fish that is susceptible to stress, can impair normal functioning behaviors of that fish. A wrasse may not be considered susceptible to Cryptocaryon Irritans but with enough stress and a high enough number of parasites in the system a wrasse can show disease from the parasite. An extremely virulent pathogen combined with a susceptible host can lead to disease even in a stress free environment. And finally, if you have a susceptible host, highly virulent pathogen and adverse stressors, your fish is almost guaranteed to have those pathogens become a disease.

How do we reduce how virulent a pathogen is? The average hobbyist isn’t going to genetically modify that pathogen to make it less virulent as is done for vaccines so we can cross that one off the table. One option we do have is to eradicate as many known pathogens as possible. A pathogen that isn’t present offers no risk to the host. Copper and Chloroquine Phosphate can eradicate Cryptocaryon Irritans and Amyloodinium Ocellatum. Praziquantel can eradicate flukes, Turbellarians, and some internal parasites. Metronidazole can eradicate Brooklynella, Uronema Marinum, and other internal parasites. For this to be effective it is important to quarantine everything and prophylactically treat every fish that goes into your system. Remember, just because a fish isn’t showing symptoms does not mean it isn’t a carrier. Just like all things in life, prophylactic treatment does have its down sides. It requires a separate hospital tank to treat fish. It requires medications which are not available in many parts of the world without a veterinarian’s prescription. It requires quarantining everything wet, not just fish, as fish pathogens can be introduced via inverts and corals. If your bio-security fails then you have to remove and retreat every fish along with a fallow period to re-eradicate the pathogens. Chemical treatments are stressful on fish and weaken their immune system so while we can reduce the threat from the target pathogen we are increasing their vulnerability to other pathogens.

1570818817631.png

We do have other options to reduce the virulence of pathogens other than just eradication. We can reduce the number of free swimming parasites by installing UV filters. They must be properly sized and have the correct flow rate for the application. Ozone systems can be used to kill parasites and bacteria that pass through the filtration system. Diatom filters will mechanically remove free swimming parasites to help reduce the amount that can re-infect fish in the system. Free swimming parasites can be consumed by corals if they are captured. Peppermint shrimp have been proven to eat the eggs of some flat worm related fish parasites. Our closed systems have some disadvantages compared to the open ocean but we should do our best along these lines.

What can we do to reduce environmental stresses? Maintaining good water quality is important. This doesn’t mean we have to do large water changes although that is one option. We want to make sure our biological filter is well established prior to adding fish to prevent toxic ammonia from building up. A properly set up skimmer will help keep water clean. Activated carbon and/or hydrogen peroxide help break down and remove organics from the water column. We can use redundant heaters on controllers to help minimize the chance of a temperature spike. We should have a plan on how to keep our systems stable during a prolonged power outage. We should ensure we have spares of our critical components to keep the fish alive and healthy if we experience an equipment failure.

We also need to consider how we stock our tanks. With some exceptions I feel we should stock our tanks from smallest to biggest and from most peaceful to most aggressive. The size of our systems should dictate which fish are and are not appropriate. Even a Dwarf Angelfish will not do well in a 2.5g nano. We should consider fish compatibility. It may not work to stock peaceful fish with highly aggressive fish. Some species of fish will not tolerate others and some fish are intolerant of conspecifics (same species).

What can we do to reduce the susceptibility of the fish to act as a host to pathogens? The impact of gut microbiota on the fish immune system cannot be overstated. Ideally, we would all feed fresh, never frozen seafood straight from the ocean. This isn’t realistic for most of us. Regular feedings of high quality frozen food can boost fish health. If you don’t feed live foods, it is worth considering using foods with probiotics added to them. Probiotics are now available in some frozen and pellet foods. Not every feeding needs to use them, but consider using them at least on occasion. A variety of probiotics would be even better as they each may have a different way of impacting the fishes immune system.

Visual observation can also play a part. You may be able to determine if a fish is showing signs of a disease if you can monitor it prior to purchase. If you order from an on-line supplier a QT can provide a chance to do an observation after receipt. It also allows a potentially weakened fish the chance to feed and build health before having to compete with tankmates for food and space.
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My desire would be that everyone in the hobby would take a holistic approach to fish health. We would all design redundant systems designed around good filtration and steady parameters. We would never experience those challenges in life that cause our husbandry to slip. We would stock fish appropriately and not put an Annularis Angelfish in a 75 gallon system or put 3 Acanthurus Tangs in a 150g system. We would all stop by the ocean on our way home from work to collect food for our tanks each day. Obviously, this isn’t going to happen. Instead, I’ll ask this. Keep these ideals in the back of your mind as you build and stock your systems. Be honest with yourself and how you will maintain and feed your system. Think about the circular diagram and how susceptible your tank will be to disease based on your plans. Ideally, we will be as far from the center of that chart as possible. If we succeed in that, we will likely never have a fish disease issue.

*All pictures used in this article are mine and used with my permission.
 
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Brew12

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Have I accomplished what was previously thought to be impossible? Absolutely no comments on an article about fish health? ;Wideyed ;Wacky
 

Auquanut

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Don't know how this thread got past me! I read your article, and really liked it. One aspect that I had not considered. I've always debated the value of quarantine. I read where a lot of fish die in quarantine. It seemed that subjecting fish to the stresses of a less than ideal environment and chemicals might do more harm than good to otherwise healthy fish. Your diagram really hit home. I had not considered the idea that diseases or parasites might be introduced to the display that could manifest much later when the right conditions present themselves.
 

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I don't think there is much disagreement about what "healthy" is, it seems that the differences of opinion all circle around how best to achieve the goal of providing a healthy environment.

One of the most basic differences of opinion involve QT. And in that example, it seems to me that some of the debate is driven by a lack of definitions and understanding. I quarantine everything, but I begin with observation-only, and do not medicate unless an issue becomes apparent. To me, that is what "quarantine" means. To others, a QT tank is where you run a course of preventative treatment, regardless of whether there are any known issues present. To me, that is "treatment".

The only issues I have ever had with quarantined fish (not treated!) were either in cases where the fish came in with an issue (requiring treatment), or the fish was otherwise healthy but was one of those species which are very selective in their feeding habits and, shame on me, I was not prepared to help it adjust. I would consider those cases to be included in your circle diagram under "adverse environmental conditions" - I couldn't supply them with their natural food preference.

Back to my point - wouldn't it help clarify some of the debate if we could agree on different terms for QT? Observation Tank (OT) for people like me that are simply keeping the new additions from the general population until we are confident that they do not pose a risk. QT (or Treatment Tank) for those who choose to prophylactically treat every new addition?
 
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I don't think there is much disagreement about what "healthy" is, it seems that the differences of opinion all circle around how best to achieve the goal of providing a healthy environment.
It sounds like you have a very good handle on what "healthy" is. I do see where people say that if a fish has Ich it cannot be healthy even if it is asymptomatic. That was the main emphasis for me writing the article.

One of the most basic differences of opinion involve QT. And in that example, it seems to me that some of the debate is driven by a lack of definitions and understanding. I quarantine everything, but I begin with observation-only, and do not medicate unless an issue becomes apparent. To me, that is what "quarantine" means. To others, a QT tank is where you run a course of preventative treatment, regardless of whether there are any known issues present. To me, that is "treatment".
I do agree with this. Even though I have stopped doing chemoprophylactic treatment in QT I still use a QT system. My LFS and online distributors seem to all keep fish in a SG of 1.016 and I don't want to immediately expose that fish to my 1.026 water. Unfortunately, and likely because chemoprophylactic is such a long word, some people use QT to mean chemical treatment on new fish where others don't. I like the idea of slightly different terms. Maybe QOT and QTT for observation and treatment?
 
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foxt

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My LFS and online distributors seem to all keep fish in a SG of 1.016 and I don't want to immediately expose that fish to my 1.026 water.
Too true. Plus some of these fish have been kept in systems with low levels of copper on their way to me, and since I don't do that, the observation tank provides an acclimation period as well as observation.

So in context of your original question, if a fish has been conditioned to live at 1.016 and low levels of copper, are we helping or hurting it to change those conditions on it? Do I have to follow along with what others in the chain did, or can I try to return it to more natural conditions? Which is "healthy"?
 
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So in context of your original question, if a fish has been conditioned to live at 1.016 and low levels of copper, are we helping or hurting it to change those conditions on it? Do I have to follow along with what others in the chain did, or can I try to return it to more natural conditions? Which is "healthy"?
If our end goal is a reef tank then 1.016 isn't a reasonable goal although could be just fine for a fowlr. Otherwise raising salinity is almost a must. I don't know if fish necessarily adapt to lower salinity anyway. Their osmotic regulation works better for rapid decreases in salinity than increases but once stable I've seen nothing to think it impacts their health.
As for copper, that should be removed. Bioaccumulation of copper will cause levels to build up in fish if exposed making keeping fish in copper long term a bad idea.
 

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Brew, This is the best written article I have read in my very long life. I wish I could write as well.
Thank you, I totally enjoyed it. :cool:
 
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@Brew12 You just do observational QT and treat as needed, then?
Yes, and I am now doing as minimal an observation as possible. I want them to eat during the few days it takes to gradually raise salinity. If I don't see anything wrong by then they go into an acclimation box in my DT for at least a day or two.
 
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Brew, This is the best written article I have read in my very long life. I wish I could write as well.
Thank you, I totally enjoyed it. :cool:
Paul, I own your book, I know you write much better than I do! But glad you liked it!
 

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Thanks, But I had a ghost writer. I think his name was Casper. :)
 

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I also liked your article! It was well thought out and your points well argued. While I do treat prophylactically and don't apologize for that, I still enjoy reading about alternate procedures and processes for keeping fish healthy. I think if the industry as a whole were more concerned about selling to the public 'clean' fish, I would embrace the practice of quarantining again, though that would mean I would have to trust the big wholesalers and sellers of fish more, believing they would do a better job of quarantining and/or treating fish before selling to the general public. Until then, I will continue as I am and rejoice when I see how things could be different within the right hands of marine experts like yourself who maintain successful, long established, healthy systems.

I'd love to see more or hear more about studies on how long-established systems such as yours or @Paul B s might contain the right balance of beneficial bacteria to keep unwanted pathogens at bay, eating the little would-be assassins of our fish before they can multiply in mass quantities in our tanks and do any real damage to our fish. I think this is a fascinating topic and presents an interesting theory about why many of us are not successful with just quarantine as a preventative practice.

Could it be I have not created an environment within my tank that turns my system into a super cell or what amounts to (for lack of better terminology) a protective embryonic sack or biological immune system for my fish? Sorry if I'm way off base in my pondering here. I'm sure it's my lack of scientific training in the interplay between bacteria and pathogens, a somewhat mysterious realm of fish keeping (at least to me), which leads me to indulge in the aforementioned fanciful world of possibilities in my mind.

In any event, congratulations @Brew12 and @Paul B . I am truly excited for your successes keeping healthy, thriving fish tanks as you do and look forward to the day when prophylactic treatment is not my preferred practice.

For clarification purposes, I use the term quarantine to refer to observation tanks where no medications are used and sick tanks to refer to tanks treated with chemicals.
 

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As many have stressed - there needs to be some order how we use the word quarantine. For me - as for many - it stand for observation only and treat if needed. I have no problem with that - even if I do not quarantine by myself. I do acclimate them in my refugium for a week but it has the same water as my DT - I consider that´s no quarantine.

The other way of "quarantine" is for me a prophylactic treatment - you treat - just in case. That type of introducing fish is problematic for me and I will never, ever advocate to do so.

Brew, This is the best written article I have read in my very long life. I wish I could write as well.
Thank you, I totally enjoyed it. :cool:
And this was the best written post I have seen ;) Spot on in three lines.

Sincerely Lasse
 

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I just read the article again and I like it even better.
(NO, Brew, you are a much more eloquent writer than I ever was. I use a lot of words like Duh and Um) o_O

I especially liked this paragraph and I think it is so much under rated which is why we have so many disease discussions:

Quote:
What can we do to reduce the susceptibility of the fish to act as a host to pathogens? The impact of gut microbiota on the fish immune system cannot be overstated. Ideally, we would all feed fresh, never frozen seafood straight from the ocean. This isn’t realistic for most of us. Regular feedings of high quality frozen food can boost fish health. If you don’t feed live foods, it is worth considering using foods with probiotics added to them. Probiotics are now available in some frozen and pellet foods. Not every feeding needs to use them, but consider using them at least on occasion. A variety of probiotics would be even better as they each may have a different way of impacting the fishes immune system.
End Quote

I love it.

And this was the best written post I have seen ;) Spot on in three lines.
I had my Daughter edit that line for me. :)
 
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I also liked your article! It was well thought out and your points well argued.
Thank you and glad you liked it!
While I do treat prophylactically and don't apologize for that, I still enjoy reading about alternate procedures and processes for keeping fish healthy.
I fell into this camp until very recently. Up until a few months ago I treated absolutely everything with at least copper or CP prior to going into my tank. In fact, I've only added fish once without going full chemo QT. The fish I added were from a system suspected of having both ich and velvet so the decision was not made lightly. It also wasn't without some negatives. I'm almost positive my Starry Blenny died from velvet. My other loss was the Convict Tang in my profile. I know it was killed by aggression with my much larger Hippo Tang but I don't know if a disease triggered the fighting. I was at MACNA when it happened and came home to the Convict being dead and the Hippo looking like it had been through a war. The Hippo recovered nicely and all the other fish have done great.

So what made me change? In the last 2 years I've connected with quite a few very experienced reefers in my area. Out of the 15 or so who meet regularly, only 3 of us did any sort of QT. My survival rate was about average in the group but the other 2 people practicing prophylactic QT had far and away the highest loses. It just didn't seem right that we were getting livestock from the same places and yet people QT'ing "the right way" had the most deaths. I now attribute my better survival rates to being an early adapter of 8 days copper with transfer to a new tank along with very limited use of Metroplex/Kanaplex. The two with the highest loses both used Metroplex in medicated feed on every fish and were constantly fighting bacterial infections or mysterious deaths. I think these mysterious deaths are virus related, but that is pure speculation.

On top of that I found some information about the Seattle Aquarium and some fish health issues they had. Starting in 2012 they no longer used prophylactic treatments. By 2015 they had cut their fish mortality rate by over 80%. It seemed counter intuitive to think that by not treating prophylactically that they would lose less fish but that is exactly what happened. I haven't seen newer information so that may have changed but it got me digging deeper.

The final motivation for me was the number of people who I knew tried their best at chemotherapuetic QT and yet still had tank wipes. If your tank doesn't have a parasite, that parasite can't wipe your tank. However, if you mess up, your fish are much more vulnerable than if you hadn't treated them. Thanks to some recent information from Humblefish many of these wipes were probably caused by rapid breakdown of CP. The 10 days in copper that I typically use weren't likely to cause a long term health problem but I'm convinced that heavy use a Metro is a huge problem. When high doses of metronidazole are used in people the doctors have to replace the gut microbiota that is destroyed or it can be fatal. This link has some great information on the importance of gut microbiota in a fishes immune system.
And there are plenty of other studies along these lines. Probiotics and prebiotics are on the cutting edge of fish farming research. Specific probiotics have been discovered that are proven to reduce vibrio infections.

I could go on for days but I've probably written more than you wanted! ;Sorry Anyway, that is how I got from where you are to where I am today.
I will say just add that if you want a system that is loaded with tangs, angelfish, or other fish that may not be tolerant of conspecifics you will have no choice but prophylactic treatment. Even though we can mitigate aggression there will still be enough stress in the system to make relying on the fishes immune system a huge risk.
 

Paul B

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On top of that I found some information about the Seattle Aquarium and some fish health issues they had. Starting in 2012 they no longer used prophylactic treatments. By 2015 they had cut their fish mortality rate by over 80%. It seemed counter intuitive to think that by not treating prophylactically that they would lose less fish but that is exactly what happened. I haven't seen newer information so that may have changed but it got me digging deeper.
I think we don't speculate about this often enough. If we could treat the fish with something that will just kill the organisms we want to kill, that may be fine. But just about anything we can treat a fish with, will kill or severely disrupt the gut bacteria that fish need to keep up their Immunity.

Here are two quotes from the link you posted:


Quote:

Thus, this approach enables a significant shift away from chemotherapeutic and antibiotic treatments. In addition, the development of new feeds or diet strategies to ensure that both fish and the final product are of the highest quality (114) and replacement of fishmeal and fish oils with vegetable products is now being partially

Quote:
Therefore, as in mammals, it is tempting to believe in the possibility of achieving a beneficial relationship between microbiota and host health through the manipulation of existing microbial communities by exogenous administration of live microorganisms or non-digestible substrates (probiotics and prebiotics, respectively, or the mix of both called synbiotics) to improve the health status of the host, and to prevent or even cure some preexisting pathologies (Figure

As your link alludes to, I believe we need to focus much more on gut bacteria than pathogen removal. If we can coerce the bacteria in the fishes gut to stay alive, healthy and varied I think we will have no more need for disease threads.
If we can have easier access to living marine foods, this hobby will be far easier for many people.
 
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As your link alludes to, I believe we need to focus much more on gut bacteria than pathogen removal. If we can coerce the bacteria in the fishes gut to stay alive, healthy and varied I think we will have no more need for disease threads.
If we can have easier access to living marine foods, this hobby will be far easier for many people.
I know you have been preaching it for years, but the benefits of fish eating the gut microbiota from fresh fish is huge. I also think there is a large benefit from the fact that fish eat each others poo. When a fish is shipped the stress often causes them to shed their intestinal lining, creating that familiar white stringy poo. That sloughed lining will be loaded with parasites and bacteria that are necessary for good fish health. I think it helps diversify our fishes gut health every time we add a new untreated addition.
 

Paul B

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I know you have been preaching it for years, but the benefits of fish eating the gut microbiota from fresh fish is huge. I also think there is a large benefit from the fact that fish eat each others poo. When a fish is shipped the stress often causes them to shed their intestinal lining, creating that familiar white stringy poo. That sloughed lining will be loaded with parasites and bacteria that are necessary for good fish health. I think it helps diversify our fishes gut health every time we add a new untreated addition.
I have been "Preaching" it for more years than I care to remember, and I have been laughed off of forums for it.
It doesn't seem like that hard a concept but for some reason many people either don't believe it or can't understand it which I am so glad you wrote this article. Maybe more people will know about it.

I also think that if someone feels they need to or want to use some type of medication it may be a good idea to feed live foods such as worms or clams at the same time to replace living bacteria.

My wife has MS and we are trying to get a gut bacteria replacement for her. I don't think they do it in NY so we may go to Chicago for a test.
 
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