The Biggest Challenge for Fish Veterinary Medicine

It’s no secret that our veterinary medicine niche, fish veterinary medicine, is minuscule. A rough estimate, gathered from AVMA, AAFV, WAVMA and IAAAM memberships, taking into consideration that two of those groups are international, puts aquatic veterinarians around 0.2% of the total veterinarians in the USA. I am proud to be one of them and one of two veterinarians in the US with a private all-aquatic pet practice. (My amazing unicorn colleague is Dr. Sharon Tiberio of My Fish Vet). There are many more veterinarians who practice aquatic medicine as part of a small animal/exotics practice, like my mentor Dr. Helen Sweeney and countless colleagues. And you, our faithful reader, know about us since you are reading this blog, maybe for the 1,000th time or the first. But the biggest hurdle for fish veterinary medicine comes down to one simple fact:

No one knows we exist.

Let’s face it; veterinarians are not good at marketing. I was not very good until I started my company. I took one marketing class in college and did not find it particularly inspiring. It takes a lot of time to build a skill. Thankfully, I had a great family member helping me and countless marketing books to devour. Marketing is a learnable skill, but the general public KNOWS what a “veterinarian” does. Even if you ask small children, they will know that a veterinarian takes sick animals and makes them better.

But what about a “fish veterinarian?”

Never has one statement gotten so many confused looks. And trust me, I’ve said it A LOT. It’s a great elevator pitch because people will feel obligated to ask follow up questions. But a lot of those questions cannot be completed by the human brain video files. Conceptualizing what a “fish veterinarian” does is exceedingly difficult for a naive pet fish owner. (And to be honest, if you’ve ever sat next to me on a plane, I will have lied and said I’m a CPA. Nothing stresses me out more than a confined confrontation of my job without an internet connection to show our website/videos/etc.) So, how do we fix this? We produced some videos, like this one about our favorite lemon fish, Lemon, and a on location pond checkup, where you can watch my amazing fish catching skills .

If you want more AMAZING FISH VIDEOS, check out my Australian colleague, Dr. Richmond Loh’s video channel. I wish mine was so well stocked!

These videos, along with countless others on our channel, are great at illustrating what the hell a “fish veterinarian” does. So, that certainly helps get things moving, but if you have a sick fish, who do you go to for help? (This is a favorite question of one of my colleagues, Dr. David Scarfe.)

Top 3 answers on the board!

  1. Flush it.
  2. Dr. Google.
  3. Pet Store.

And that’s it. No veterinarian. And it’s because pet fish are considered “disposable” pets. To be honest, back in the day, cats and dogs were not valued or deemed worthy of veterinary care because they didn’t do any significant work. Exotics, reptiles and other pocket pets only recently crossed the threshold to being worthy of veterinary care. When I was a kid, if your hamster was sick, you just got another one. I am very happy to see this change take place.

However, fish are a tricky group to bring into the light. Pet fish, without a doubt, are easy to see as deserving of veterinary care. For our clients, their pet fish are part of their family and deserve to be treated as such. You might not consider your fish as valuable as your other pets, and we can understand that. But fish are also seated within aquaculture, an industry that is not well understood by the public. Most of the general public has exceedingly negative views of aquaculture, based solely upon what national media has portrayed. Give yourself some extra time to do your research and understand how aquaculture and fisheries work and why we need veterinarians involved. These fish will not be your pets, but they too, deserve veterinary care.

So, what do we do to promote fish veterinary medicine?

For me, I will continue to be as loud as humanly possible. I will continue to post helpful content and see as many patients as possible. We’re hoping to do another video series with more “on the road calls.” I’m in the middle of another book series which I hope to have finished by our 7th birthday. In 2020, I will lead the American Association of Fish Veterinarians as their President and hope to give back to the organization that has supported me so greatly along my career path. AAFV will be joining the national AVMA conference for the first time to bring awareness of aquatic veterinary medicine to a larger contingency of veterinarians.

What I ask of you is simple: after reading this, go tell one person that fish veterinarians exist to help your fish. Be they pets, raised for stocking in a fishery or part of the aquaculture industry, it is time for fish to be recognized and deserving of veterinary care.

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6 thoughts on “The Biggest Challenge for Fish Veterinary Medicine”

  1. and get a ton of traffic especially in spring. My office gets a phone call every day on fish health. I don’t want them. Let me put them on to you!
    Doc Johnson

  2. There are a lot of vet students and vet graduates in less developed countries who are passionate about aquatic Veterinary Medicine and would go lengths and heights to acquire more knowledge and clinical skills( hands-on experiences) in this field but are hindered by inadequate facilities and opportunities to further their education along this field.
    This this begs the question; are there internship or externship opportunities available to foreign vet students and recent vet graduates that you can recommend?
    I believe having these skills set and expanding the knowledge base of Veterinarians from less developed countries in the field of aquatic Veterinary Medicine would further raise the recognition of this field in general.
    Thank you

    1. Dr. Jessie Sanders

      For international aquatic veterinary medicine, we recommend the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association. They have a list for members with internship and externship opportunities.

  3. Haley MacKenzie

    I’m an avid fish lover and keeper, but the struggle I’m finding is that even though I know fish vets theoretically exist, they are impossible to find. I have done extensive Google searches, called every exotic vet in my county (and outside of it) and no no one practices aquatic medicine! I have a very sick fish that I’m willing to pay for care for, but no one within 60 miles that will treat him 🙁 how do we find aquatic vets in our area? Is there some secret society or underground search terms I need to use to find you

  4. Valicia Lynn Vanhoose

    So glad that fish vets exist. I need one and can’t find one anywhere! My first question when I noticed something wrong with my Heflin tetra is ” do I take them to a vet. I am treating the aquarium with bacterial and parasite drops for three days. I bought more of their kind to distress them and had my water tested for ammonia. Hopefully they will get better! Hope you have great success as I would definitely take my fish to a vet if I had one available!!!

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