So, you’re gazing adoringly at your beautiful fish tank one day, and then, you suddenly spot something.
Is that a snail? Where did that little guy come from?
Fast forward 3 months, and you’re overrun with a horde of snails that you could swear were sent to torment you for the sins of your past lives.
Don’t feel bad, sooner or later, this happens to every aquarist in the hobby.
Have no fear, there are 5 proven methods on how to get rid of aquarium snails and control future outbreaks.
Where do pest snails come from?
Snails and snail eggs most commonly hitchhike into the aquarium on the stems and leaves of live plants. No matter how diligent a greenhouse is, the forces of Mother Nature will invade their tanks with lifeforms like algae, snails and damselfly larvae.
These pesky freeloaders get into the water at commercial aquaculture facilities and then ride along into individual aquariums when plants are brought home.
Sometimes, snail eggs can ride in with fish from the pet store, especially if any little pieces of substrate or plant got scooped up as well.
Only tissue culture plants can be guaranteed to be snail, algae and insect free. Using only tissue culture plants will limit your choice of species, but it will help keep your tank from being invaded.
What causes snail population explosions?
When you get a sudden overpopulation of snails, it’s a sign that the aquarium is not in balance. In order for snails to breed so prolifically, they need a food source.
The two primary sources of food for pest snails are algae and uneaten fish food. Chances are, if you have a build up of nutrients in your aquarium, some sort of organism will come along and take advantage of it.
How to Get Rid of Snails in an Aquarium
It can be VERY difficult to get your tank back to 100% snail free. But, there are a lot of ways to cut the population back and keep it under control.
I’ve learned to embrace having at least some snails in most of my tanks. They’re another layer of cleanup crew and algae control. But, I can wholeheartedly understand why someone wouldn’t want an army of them.
So, here are some methods to cut back their numbers. You may need to combine a few of these strategies to get rid of the snails you have and keep them from coming back.
1. Stop Overfeeding
Overfeeding is one of the leading causes of aquarium problems, including pest snails. Uneaten food, or even just excessive wastes from overfeeding, provides the perfect food source for pest snails to devour.
Make sure that you give your fish portions that they can eat within 30-60 seconds. You can give slow eaters, like Bettas, a little more time. Just make sure all the food gets eaten. A fish’s stomach is only about the size of their eye, so they really don’t need that much per meal.
Don’t just dump food in and walk away. Stop and watch the fish eat. Make sure there is no leftover food.
If food is sinking past the fish too quickly, it will build up in the substrate and rot, putting off deadly ammonia and providing a food source for unwanted critters, like snails and detritus worms.
You may need to feed your fish more slowly, so they have time to get to the food before it sinks, or just feed less food overall.
Promptly remove uneaten food from the tank.
Combating overfeeding is a long term strategy that will slowly get rid of snails over time, but will also really help keep them from coming back later.
2. Control Algae
Algae is another major food source for pest snails. It’s even possible that you really don’t realize how much of an algae problem you have because the snails are eating it every day.
Cutting back on algae can be another struggle for aquarists. I know I’ve had to fight my fair share of it.
There are lots of strategies out there for how to deal with algae, and most of them have merit. But, the single biggest thing that you have to do to control algae is to control the light.
Doing more water changes and other forms of removing excess nutrients from the water are definitely helpful, but the number one thing that fuels algae is light.
If you put bright light over water with almost no nutrients in it, some form of algae will still grow. But, put nutrient filled water under dim light, and algae won’t grow at all. The light makes all the difference.
I highly recommend putting your lights on a timer so you can better control how many hours of the day they’re on.
You may also need to add a dimmer to your light so they’re not so intense.
Algae control is another long term strategy that will slowly get rid of snails and help keep them from coming back.
3. Add Snail Eating Livestock
Before you bring home any species of fish or invertebrate, please, be sure to do lots of research. Make sure that species will do well in your tank long term.
Adding livestock that eat snails is both a short term and long term solution since they’ll eat up the current snails and pick off any future ones that hatch out.
My number one choice would be zebra loaches (Botia striata). As adults, they’re only about 4 inches long (10 centimeters) and are an absolutely gorgeous fish. They will voraciously eat up snails. It’s amazing.
You’ll see lots of people recommend the zebra loach’s larger cousin, the clown loach, to get rid of snails. But clown loaches eventually grow to be 12 inches (30 centimeters) long and need a 150 gallon (568 liter) tank.
By comparison, zebras only need a 30 gallon (113 liter).
Zebra loaches need to live in a group of five or more. They are extremely social and will spend all their time together. They’re a joy to watch.
Just be aware that they will eat ANY snail, even big mystery or nerite snails you might have put in the tank on purpose.
Pufferfish are great for eating snails. However, they need to be the only species of fish kept in the tank. They will take chunks out of the fins of other fish, causing serious wounds over time.
Assassin snails are also a good choice. Two or three assassin snails can easily wipe out an infestation in a 40 gallon (151 liter) tank.
But keep in mind, you’ll need to feed the assassin snails once they’ve eaten up all the pest snails. They’ll need meaty foods like bloodworms or sinking shrimp pellets.
4. Trap Snails
Trapping snails is a short term strategy that can help remove some of the bulk from the snail population.
This won’t help the problems that are causing your snail infestation, but reducing the population while you address the underlying issues, can be helpful.
It’s really easy to make a rudimentary snail trap with a 20 ounce water bottle.
Or, if you prefer, there are several readymade snail traps available for sale. Just be sure to add some sort of bait to attract the snails. I recommend blanched zucchini as bait. Snails love it but a lot of fish will ignore it.
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5. Add Chemical Treatments
I do not recommend this method. Yes, it can get rid of a snail infestation pretty quickly, it has a lot of drawbacks.
Chemical treatments that kill snails will also kill all other invertebrates in the tank. So, if you have shrimp in the tank, they would die as well.
The copper found in snail killers is also deadly to aquarium plants.
Copper also has a nasty habit of lingering in a tank, even after repeated cleanings, making it unlivable for copper-sensitive organisms for weeks if not months.
Also, if all the snails are killed at once, you then have an army of dead, rotting snails in your tank that need to be cleaned up as soon as possible. As the snails rot, they will put off ammonia that can kill your fish.
And this is a short term solution only. All the problems that caused the snail infestation to begin with, such as overfeeding or poor algae control, will still be there once the snails are gone.
Final Thoughts on Aquarium Snail Control
Dealing with a snail outbreak in your aquarium can be pretty frustrating. Many species of pest snail can reproduce without a mate. So it only takes one tiny snail to hitchhike into the tank, and BOOM! You’ve got 8 million of them.
The snail population can’t explode without some sort of food source, usually a combination of algae and uneaten fish food. So, addressing the underlying causes is the best way to start beating back the population and making sure that they stay gone.
Combining a long term plan with a short term one will help clear the tank of snails faster. I recommend trapping or adding livestock over chemical treatments. I’m hesitant to add toxins to my aquariums. They can have unforeseen consequences.
I hope you find this article helpful.
I wish you and your fish the very best!