Home News For aquatic veterinarians, it’s more than just a fish

For aquatic veterinarians, it’s more than just a fish

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This article is our Pet Area Scientists are increasingly interested in our animal companions.


Many students enter veterinary school with career aspirations that date back to childhood, when they fell in love with the idea of ​​caring for dogs, cats, horses or exotic animals at the zoo. Jessie Sanders entered veterinary school with a more specific passion. “I was a weird fish kid,” she says.

The interest came as a surprise even to her. While in college, Dr. Sanders began volunteering at an aquarium in hopes of working with whales. She was assigned to the fish team — and fell deeply in love with the finned creatures she cared for.

“I just love fish,” she said. “I love their anatomy. I love how they interact with their environment. And there’s still so much we don’t understand about their inner workings.”

Today, Dr. Sanders Aquatic veterinary servicesher patients have included carnival goldfish, pet store bettas and prize koi worth tens of thousands of dollars. Last year, she became one of the first 10 veterinarians to receive board certification in fish practice, a new certification.

Dr. Sanders spoke with The New York Times about life as a fish veterinarian. Her story is based on two conversations, and her responses have been edited and condensed.

For ten years I have kept only pet fish, which has been amazing and challenging. I love the challenge of keeping everything in an underwater environment. Fish have a wide variety of personalities – they have lots of little quirks. Some are very calm and friendly, others are downright scary.

We had been operating the hospital for about three years. Unfortunately, a 24-hour gym moved in and shared a wall with us, and they liked to play music all night long. Fish have an organ called the lateral line that senses vibrations; that’s how they can sense predators and swim together in schools. Apparently, playing rock music all night long can be very stressful for you. Within the first month of their opening, we lost everything associated with that wall.

We have a mobile clinic now. We serve the greater San Francisco Bay Area. I drive three to eight hours a day. When I get there, it’s just like you would take your cat or dog to the vet. We talk about: What happened? Did they eat? Is there anything special that I should double-check?

The most common “disease” we see in fish is actually poor water quality. Just like the air we breathe, the water that fish swim in is vital to their overall health. If you only breathe in pollution, you’re more likely to get sick. So we check the water chemistry; if the water quality is poor, the fish are already stressed. I don’t want to get hands-on because that would make the situation worse.

Then you have to catch the fish. I have lots of different fish nets. The lovely square fish nets for tank fish – I usually use one on each side of the fish and squeeze them together. In larger ponds I use seine nets. They have floats on the top and weights on the bottom. My pond is pretty big so I have to use two fish nets and go in with waders on. It’s one of those things you have to practice. No one is very good at it when they start but I’m really good at it now.

After I catch the fish, I transfer them to an examination bucket. I usually have a bucket of water from my fish tank or pond with some tranquilizer added to it. For most medical examinations, I prefer to lightly anesthetize the fish. This reduces their stress; trying to control a slippery torpedo does neither of us any good. We just need to keep them manageable. So they may wiggle their fins at me, but once they are anesthetized, I can get a good look at their whole body.

Typically we do a skin mucus and gill biopsy. The skin mucus biopsy is primarily to look for parasites, which can irritate the fish and make them lethargic. The gill biopsy is more important because it gives us an idea of ​​what their respiratory system is doing. It gives us a great diagnostic tool without having to stick a tube down their throat.

If we need to do more diagnostics, ultrasounds or radiographs, we can do them while the fish is asleep. One client had a pool of goldfish, and one of the goldfish hadn’t gotten up to swim with the group; it was kind of stuck at the bottom. We were going to take an X-ray.

A buoyancy obstacle is when a fish that would normally be able to swim in the middle of the water column either sinks to the bottom or floats to the surface. For fish with buoyancy problems, it’s important to assess their internal anatomy—particularly their swim bladder, a small air sac that helps them float.

It could also be diet related. This is common in goldfish ponds where the fish will float up after eating. If there is a lot of competition at feeding time and food is limited, it can be crazy. They just eat, eat, eat; they take in too much air.

This can be corrected by spreading out the feedings a bit or feeding food that sinks. Many fish are fed food that floats because it gives the owner a chance to assess them at the surface and it’s obviously more interactive. Koi and goldfish are naturally bottom dwellers. But we’ve taught them – because they’re golden retrievers and they’ll do anything for food – to come to the surface at feeding time.

There are many different levels of surgery for fish. I’ve done a lot of enucleations, which is the removal of the eye. With fish, it’s easy; they don’t have eyelids and don’t need any eyeballs to look normal. I did surgery on a little goldfish once that had an abscess in its eye. The fish was just miserable. We took the abscess out, and the next day the owner said, “She’s a completely different fish. She eats and she’s swimming around.” They heal beautifully every time.

Ovarian cancer is common in koi. If we can catch it early, we can do surgery to remove it. We use a higher dose of sedatives. We have a special tank that the fish can sit upright in. They sit over a small reservoir of anesthetic water. There is an aquarium pump that pumps the anesthetic water through a tube into the fish’s mouth, over the gills, down the side of the body, and back into the reservoir.

The biggest challenge is that the public doesn’t even know that fish vets exist. Even within our own profession, we’re laughed at. Fish, in general, aren’t considered pets. Like, “Why are you wasting your time? It’s just a fish.” To a lot of people, it’s more than just a fish. It’s a real, living animal that needs to be cared for and respected. A lot of fish are taken home as practice pets and end up getting seriously hurt.

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