Q & A with a Fish Veterinarian
We had a chance to sit down with Dr. Jessie Sanders, chief veterinarian at Aquatic Veterinary Services of Northern California, to ask her a little about her job and career.
Q: Why did you want to be a fish veterinarian?
JS: I have always had a deep love of water and animals. I knew from when I was very young that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I did my undergraduate degree in Marine Biology and was fascinated with the animals that lived underwater. During my college years, I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer for Mystic Aquarium’s fish and invertebrate department. I had so much fun helping take care of the animals in their collection and always wanted to learn more. I followed their veterinary team closely and always wanted to be more involved in advanced animal care. From those volunteer hours, I figured out that I wanted to be an aquatic veterinarian.
Q: Where did you learn how to be a fish veterinarian?
JS: I attended Tufts University for my veterinary degree. Their exotic program was limited and they only had 2 lecture hours on fish medicine, so I was forced to create my own curriculum. I attended AQUAVET, a summer program for veterinary students on aquatic medicine offered through the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and MARVET, another summer program offered through St. Matthew’s on Grand Cayman. During my senior year of veterinary school, students are encouraged to take externships off campus with other veterinary organizations. I had the privilege of working with the veterinary staff at SeaWorld Orlando, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA, back at Mystic Aquarium and with Aquatic Veterinary Services of Western New York.
Q: How did you get your job?
JS: After veterinary school, I moved from Massachusetts out to California. I looked around for a “normal” veterinary job in a small or large animal general practice and came up empty after 6 months of searching. Seeing that there was a very large aquatic community in the central California coast area, I started my own mobile practice.
Q: How did you start your practice?
JS: With the mobile practice, it did not take much to get up and running. My mentor, Dr. Helen Sweeney, of Aquatic Veterinary Services of Western New York, gave me a detailed list of all the equipment I would need and a great database of fish medicine resources. Once I collected my equipment and filed for a business license, I was up and running in March of 2013.
Q: What type of fish do you treat?
JS: I treat everything that swims, including frogs and turtles! My main client base are koi and goldfish owners. Koi and goldfish are very hardy species and a very common pet in this area.
Q: How do you treat fish?
JS: We treat fish just as you would a cat or a dog, but with a few differences. Most of our exams start with catching the fish out of the tank or pond and putting them in a separate tub with some sedation. I am an excellent fish catcher thanks to years of practice. With the sedation, it is much less stressful for the fish to be handled since they are not used to it like a cat or dog. Once they are relaxed and sleepy, I can examine their outsides for any signs of disease and take samples of their skin and gills. These samples go under a microscope that I bring on the road with me.
Q: What about advanced treatment, like surgery?
JS: Fish can undergo surgery like any other animal. We mix the anesthetic into the water instead of aerosolizing it. My surgical assistant holds a tube in the fish’s mouth that pumps the water over its gills, keeping it asleep while I do the surgery. From a simple bump removal to invasive abdominal surgery, we’re equipped to handle it all.
Q: Why would you need to open a fish’s abdomen?
JS: My main species, koi, are prone to large tumors in their abdomens (coeloms). The only way to get them out is surgical removal. These tumors can be quite large, sometimes half the weight of the entire fish!
Q: What is a typical appointment like for a home visit?
JS: Like any other veterinary appointment, we start with getting a history on the current issue. Sometimes, it is just a simple health screening, where there are no current issues, but the owner wants to prevent them down the line. Other times, I will get called in to look at a particular fish or a few. We go over how the fish has been behaving, the duration, any past health issues, diet and water quality. I will commonly do water quality screenings during every visit, to make sure that whatever is going on with the fish is not augmented by poor water quality. Then, I will catch the affected fish and put them in the sedation tub for their exam. Small fish, such as bettas and goldfish, I can hold in one hand, so they usually do not require anesthesia. Affected fish will receive a full physical and any immediate treatment they require. Sometimes, we will take an unaffected fish out of the pond to compare to the sick fish. After the exams, we discuss the course of treatment with the owner and any improvements to their system that need to be made.