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New Location, Same Services

Over the last few weeks, our staff has been undergoing the major task of relocating our hospital and sister store, The Fish Vet Store. This includes ALL of our veterinary equipment, tanks and, of course, fish! We are very excited to make the move to our new facility at 440 Airport Blvd in Watsonville, CA. Our new location has a great space for our hospital and holding tanks. Rather than scattering multiple tanks over 3 floors, we have everything in one room with easy access to all our new systems.

Even with our move, our services and store stock has not changed. The Fish Vet Store will still offer a wide variety of products for both tanks and ponds. If you can’t make it to our new location, we continue to offer FREE delivery within all of Santa Cruz County. Our veterinary services will continue to serve both California & Nevada.

Please help us in celebrating our new facility. We will be holding an open house event later this summer.

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The “Dropsy” Myth

A very common word in the fish hobby is the term “dropsy.” What does this term mean?

Well, to start off, “dropsy” is NOT a disease. “Dropsy” describes a condition where a fish’s body balloons outward and their scales start to stick out, looking like a pinecone. This syndrome is caused by excess water in the body cavity or coelom. Excess water collects in the skin between the scales and around the internal organs causing the traditional “dropsy” appearance.

This presentation is merely a sign of poor kidney function. Freshwater fish live in an environment that is less dense than their bodies. Through passive diffusion, water is constantly trying to even out the fish’s density by pulling water into the body tissues, mainly the skin and gills. A freshwater fish’s kidney works very hard to remove excess water and pass it back out into the environment with other waste. If the kidneys are not functioning correctly, water is not removed effectively and the fish starts taking on water.

Many different disease processes can cause this syndrome, including stress from poor water quality, inadequate diet, tankmate aggression, tumors, parasites, viruses and bacteria. “Dropsy,” or more clinically edema, is simply a sign that there is something wrong affecting the kidneys and not a specific disease process.

When your fish takes on this appearance, don’t assume it will be corrected by dumping in antibiotics. Not only is this harmful to your fish, but it gives owners unnecessary exposure to the drugs as well. Not to mention that all OTC fish meds are not controlled or evaluated in ANY way. Start by checking your water parameters, evaluating your fish’s diet and making sure no on is picking on them. If you do not find a clear cause, contact your local fish veterinarian.

Troubleshooting Fish Systems

Many of the fish issues we see at Aquatic Veterinary Service condense down to one thing: ineffective husbandry. Most of the time, it is not the owners fault and they receive false information from many conflicting sources. Well, we’re here to set the record straight and make it easy to take care of your fish. The better care your fish receive, the better their overall health and fewer calls to the veterinarian!

Fish Troubleshoot #1: Test your water.

For those of your loyal followers, you know how important water quality is to fish health. Most of the issue we see would have been avoided completely if the water parameters had been maintained. Test kits are available for cheap and are very easy to run. At the first sign of distress: CHECK YOUR WATER!

Fish Troubleshoot #2: Water changes.

All fish systems need regular water changes. I don’t care what that internet forum told you. If you imagine the wild fish populations, their water is never stagnant or contained. It is constantly flowing in, out, up and around. Fish kept in ponds and tanks are in artificial systems. They require new water every once in awhile to flush out not only nitrogen products, but hormones and other waste that is impossible to see with the naked eye. Never done one before? Well, we’ve created a helpful guide to show you the way.

Fish Troubleshoot #3: Clean your damn tank.

Are fish low maintenance? Well, you don’t need to walk them or potty train them, but they do require regular care and maintenance. If you do a little bit weekly, it will make the whole process easier. A cleaning protocol should include: scrubbing walls, removing waste and excess food, rinsing filter media and cleaning decor. We have handy checklists for both ponds and tanks that you can tweak to create your perfect protocol.

Fish Troubleshoot #4: Temperature.

Fish are ectotherms. This means that unlike your fluffy mammalian pets, they cannot regulate their internal body temperature. Their body temperature, with the exception of larger ocean-dwelling fish, will be the same as the water temperature. Different species of fish have specific tolerances for temperature. Goldfish and koi, can survive in just above freezing temperatures all the way up to 90F! However, some tropical fish can only do 77-83F. Know your species temperature tolerance and make sure you have a good thermometer in the tank at all times. And stick on ones do not count!

Fish Troubleshoot #5: Diet.

Not all fish eat the same things! Commercial diets might seem all-inclusive, but these can be misleading. Some fish can be very picky eaters while others would eat your tires if given the opportunity. Research the diets of your fish and if you can’t find any conclusive information, try to offer variations including pellets, vegetables, fruit, bugs and frozen diets. Flakes are great for small fish, but graduate them to pellets as soon as possible. Pellets have less surface to mass ratio, meaning that all the nutrients won’t be leached out as soon as they hit the water! Many food packages are labeled with an expiration date, but this applies only if you don’t open the bag. As soon as a bag or jar is opened, you must toss the remainder after 6 months. After 6 months, a lot of the vitamin content has broken down, so you’re essentially feeding cardboard.

Fish Troubleshoot #6: Personality clashes.

Just like people, cats and dogs, not all fish will get along with each other. Usually, this comes down to species territoriality, but we see it result in fighting over food, space and mates, often resulting in injury and death. When setting up a tank, always make sure the fish you’d like to home together will get along or have enough room to feel safe. If aggression develops over time, you will need to rehome the bullied or the bullier. Unfortunately, there is no effective behavioral therapy for fish… yet.

Stick to these key points and your fish will be happy and healthy for years to come!

Best Fish for Beginners

Interested in getting started in the fish hobby? GREAT! Don’t know what to start with? Do we have ideas for you!

Goldfish

The very traditional goldfish is traditional for a reason. These cyprinids are hardy species that can tolerate a lot of beginner mistakes. It is recommended to start with the comet variety of goldfish. Fancy goldfish are very pretty, but they usually have other health issues that come partnered with their pure-bred status. They are better for intermediate fish parents.

Betta

These beautiful fish are commonly won at conventions and parties. We see many that have a lot of secondary issues due to poor water quality. Bettas are not meant to be kept in stagnant bowls for long periods of time. They require a tank and filter like any other fish. For more information on bettas, see our betta page.

Tetras

The wide variety and small size of tetras make them great community fish. They come in lots of colors to match any decor. It is fun to have lots of fish that all school together and will not overload your filters. They also have a wide range of water quality tolerance for those of you not on top of your maintenance just yet.

Guppies/Mollies

Very similar to tetras in size and color variations, guppies and mollies are live bearers and will likely overpopulate your tank if you’re not careful. These brightly colored varieties also stay very small and like to be in groups. Learn how to differentiate boys from girls to keep your populations from overrunning your tank.

How to Be a Fish Vet

One of the most common questions I get as an aquatic veterinarian is, “how did you end up in this field?” Well, I got my start very early. I was one of those annoying kids who always knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. (For more info on my background, check out our “Why a Fish Vet” post). To be a veterinarian, you have a very stringent list of events that must occur.

One of our very first patients

  1. You MUST get good grades in undergrad.
  2. You MUST go to veterinary school.
  3. You MUST find a job as a vet.

And that’s it. That’s how you become a veterinarian.

But what about an aquatic veterinarian? Is there a protocol for that? Well, if you want to be an aquarium veterinarian or work with mammals, there are a few extra steps.

4. Intern for 1 year in small or large animal medicine and surgery.

5. Intern for 1 year in an aquarium or zoo.

6. Receive one of the rare residencies in aquarium/zoo medicine and spend 3 years working.

7. Sit for and PASS the board certification in zoological veterinary medicine.

Again, a very straight forward process, but you MUST stand out among numerous applicants. If not, you’ll miss a step and then be out of luck.

At our first official office

And then there’s my little niche: private practice. Any veterinarian can go into private practice the day after they graduate veterinary school. This is very different from medical school where all students must specialize in some field. My sister went from medical school to a general surgery residency and is almost to her 5th and final year. But veterinarians can go straight to seeing patients without any additional training. Most students will do at least a one year internship to build up their confidence, and a majority of my veterinary class did just that. I, however, did not. I moved to California to get a taste of something other than New England living and started looking for a “normal” veterinary job. I figured I could build up someone else’s practice by adding my fish services to their own. Well, 6 months later after a few interviews and one very sad job offer, I started considering what to do next. I knew there was a lot of fish in the area and I had potentially unlimited clients since NO ONE saw fish unless you drove them to Davis. So, I found a bank, lawyer, accountant, applied for the proper licenses and started figuring out what to do. In doing basically what no other veterinarian had successfully done before, I am hopefully making it significantly easier for the next person to follow my lead. Learn from my mistakes!! I’ve made many in the last 5 years and will continue to do so. I know that in following a career path with no blueprint, I will stumble, I will fail spectacularly, and I will learn what not to do.

So here are the steps to becoming a fish vet:

  1. Get good grades in undergrad. Maybe try a major other than veterinary science or biology. (I had a B.S. in Marine Biology and minors in Computer Science and General Business. A GPA of

    Dr. Sanders working on her senior honors thesis at URI. Fun with vats of sea monkeys.

  2. 3.59 and graduated with honors magna cum laude.)
  3. Go to veterinary school. (I still think the only reason I got into Tufts is because I was the one weird fish kid. Diversity is your friend! Don’t be afraid to be weird!)
  4. Learn something about fish before you graduate. (A lot of veterinary programs do not teach much about fish. Tufts had two afternoon lectures, the second of which I skipped because I was so BORED!! You can get more fish learning in summer programs like AQUAVET and MARVET. Or just go to a school with an awesome fish program.)
  5. Start working with animals. (When you interview, tell your potential employer that you can bring in more clients by adding fish! It only takes a few extra supplies.)
  6. If no one wants to hire you, go to work anyway. (Don’t let your education go to waste! There are lots of fishy positions open in education, regulatory and government agencies. Be creative! Start your own private veterinary practice like I did. It is scary but worth it.)
  7. DON’T EVER GIVE UP.

My bright orange fish car, that has yet to cause an accident, and my AQUAVET mug.

Mycobacteria in Fish

Over the last few months, our office has seen several cases of mycobacteria. Never heard of it before? Well, here’s everything you need to know:

Mycobacteria in Fish

Depending on your fish experience, you may have heard a lot or very little about the potential dangers of mycobacterial infections. This disease can be very hard to diagnose without proper pathology processing and can persist in seemingly healthy systems for years. Clinical signs are very vague and can be augmented by other problems with your tank. Of all the diseases fish can potentially contract, this one can be passed onto HUMANS. Due to the severity of this disease, we’re here to set the record straight and make sure all fish owners know the ins and outs of this disease.

What is mycobacteria?

Mycobacteria is most commonly associated with tuberculous. It persists in almost all aquatic environments as a non-harmful environmental contaminant. Some species, however, can infect fish, including M. marinum, M. fortuitum and M. chelonae. M. marinum can be found in both freshwater and marine environments. It is spread through direct contact and release from the internal organs post-death.

What are the clinical signs of infection with mycobacteria?

Unfortunately, the clinical signs of a mycobacteria infection are very vague. It is most commonly associated with wasting, loss of body condition, lethargy and anorexia. Other signs include scale loss, skin ulcers, a dropsy-like appearance, reproductive problems and a host of secondary infections.

How is a mycobacterial infection diagnosed?

Mycobacteria is diagnosed in fish through a biopsy of internal organs sent to an aquatic pathologist. There are no tests that can confirm mycobacteria in live fish at this time. The presence of mycobacteria is confirmed using an acid-fast stain.

What treatments are available for mycobacteria?

The saddest part of this infection is that no treatments are available for a mycobacteria infection. Fish can persist with this bacteria in low stress environments with good water quality, but will eventually succumb to the disease. It is recommended the entire system be decontaminated with a carefully selected disinfectant that will penetrate the mycobacteria. Not all disinfectants will work with mycobacteria. Prevention is key through proper quarantine and possibly sacrificing some individuals for histopathology screening.

Is mycobacteria dangerous to humans?

Yes. This is one of the fish diseases that can be passed onto humans. Although the disease is rarely life-threatening, the bacteria can easily enter any open cuts or sores that are placed in tank water. Take proper precautions and avoid contact with tank water and do not allow other pets to drink the water.

What do I do if I think my fish may be infected?

It is extremely important that mycobacterial infections be diagnosed as early as possible. Contact your local aquatic veterinarian or aquatic pathologist to get your fish tested. (https://aquavetmed.info or https://fishvets.org) Remember, there is no testing available for live fish, so you may need to sacrifice a sick individual to confirm.

References

Francis-Floyd, R. 2011. Mycobacterial Infections of Fish. Southern Regional Aquaculture Center.

Francis-Floyd, R & R Yanong. 1999. Mycobacteriosis in Fish. University of Florida IFAS Extension.

Barley Straw in Koi Ponds – What’s it all about?

If you have any experience with keeping koi in large outdoor ponds, you’ve had some experience with algae. Controlling it is not always an easy task. Throughout your struggles, you’ve probably heard something about barley straw and extract. How does this work and what’s it all about?

The Science Behind Barley Straw

The exact mechanism of how barley straw works is still unknown. As the barely straw breaks down, it releases compounds that keeps algae from growing, especially string-type algae. Although it will stop the growth of algae, it will NOT kill it. Killing algae will need an additional UV filter or chemical additives.

Is it safe for fish?

Barley straw is the safest algae deterrent available for koi ponds. Adding barley with a UV light will take care of the bulk of your algae problems.

What is the difference in the formulations?

Most products involving barley come in three forms: hay bales, pellets or liquid. The hay bales should be kept in a mesh bag to keep the individual straws from floating into your filtration. Pellets are usually compressed hay in shorter lengths. Both the full bales and pellets will take 3-5 weeks to start being effective. The barely straw needs to be broken down in order to start stopping algae. Liquid extracts bypass this step by doing the breakdown in advance.

When should I add this to my pond?

The best time of year to add barley is before your warmer months and throughout the summer. By starting to use the barley straw prior to the biggest algae growth season, you can stop growth before it starts. Read the instructions carefully on any product before you start to use it.

Five Years of Fish Fun

Five years to the day, something that has never been done before got started. The FIRST veterinarian to pursue an all-aquatic veterinary practice, not on the side or part of a previously established veterinary practice, opened her clinic doors. No one had ever heard of this specialty before. Not in California or many other states. And not only a veterinarian, but a traveling one that could show up and take care of things pond or tank-side. We didn’t have a single client for over 2 months. Our first year, we had 53 appointments for 29 clients. We now have over 350 clients and almost 50 appointments in our first two months, even with our chief vet being out for 3 weeks. Our range started with Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. We now cover 22 counties and have traveled as far north as Roseville and south as Torrance. That’s 420 miles of 800 miles total for California! We never mind the far drives. We know how important our services are to fish owners everywhere!

Our staff has grown from a one-person operation to a two business hospital/store with 5 total employees. Expertly trained by our veterinary leader, this staff is a wealth of fish knowledge and can solve most common husbandry problems without veterinary intervention. Our hospital manager, Sara, is started on her vet tech degree, and can triage most callers issues before the vet even knows about them. Our answering service is an amazing addition to our team. They talk to our callers and can send us a detailed summary of all the calls coming into the hospital. It allows us to filter these through and decide which calls get priority. When we started, we got a call or two per week. Now, there are days when our phones don’t stop ringing. We just can’t get to everyone at once, so the answering service helps us out immeasurably.

And don’t forget our publications! Our children’s book series, Boo & Bubbles, was started to make sure that families had all the correct information regarding adopting a pet fish. We see countless instances where some prior knowledge or general help with basic husbandry issues could have solved problems swiftly. Our first book, Boo & Bubbles, addresses tank setup, bringing your fish home from the store and acclimation. The second, Boo & Bubbles: A Visit from the Fish Vet, covers maintenance and what to do when your fish gets sick. It is the first appearance of a fish veterinarian in literature. The third, to be available this coming April, will cover quarantine and adding fish to the same system. This is a very accessible children’s series that needs to be a part of any new fish family’s library. Our koi book, Healthy Koi Made Easy, just came out with its second publication, updated with new pictures and chapters. This highly accessible koi manual covers all topics new and seasoned fish owners should know, including water quality, signs of disease and quarantine. It is available in softcover, PDF and on Kindle.

It has been a very challenging five years since our inception. We are attempting a business model with no plans or blueprint. Other veterinarians have tried aquatic medicine and settled on making it a side profession. We are modifying that plan and paving the way for future veterinarians to bring aquatic practice into their hospitals in any way possible. All fish deserve high quality veterinary care, and we will make sure it happens. In the last five years, our company his made a lasting impact on the veterinary profession, and we will continue to do so for the next 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 years and on.

Thank you for your support.

Dr. Sanders at the 2014 ZNA NorCal koi show meeting all the wonderful fellow koi enthusiasts

How Do Fish Undergo Surgery?

One of the most common questions we get asked is how do fish undergo surgery? Yes, even surgical treatment is available to fish. It can be a simple lump removal all the way through to a full open abdomen procedure. It is simply amazing how well a fish improve from a simple corrective surgery.

Are they awake for the procedure?

Absolutely not! Just like people, cats and dogs are sedated for surgery, so are fish. Rather than using an aerosolized anesthetic, fish are sedated using a water-based anesthetic. Our office uses a compound called MS-222 or Tricaine-S (tricaine methanesulfonate). Other fish vets may use eugenol or clove oil. These compounds produce a safe plane of anesthesia to operate with the fish happily in dreamland. Recovery using clean water usually occurs within 10-30 minutes.

Surgery on the stomach of a shovelnose catfish

Are the fish underwater when you operate?

No again. For simple external procedures, the fish will lie on one side with the surgical site up in the air. Usually we have an assistant or net hold the fish partially submerged. For open abdomen procedures, we have a specially crafted, acrylic V-shape that fits over a 10-gallon aquarium. An aquarium pump moves water from the reservoir below, through a tube to the fish’s mouth, which then flows over their gills and back down. It is a very simple closed circulation system that works extremely well. (Modified through the amazing work of Drs. Harms & Lewbart). There is one person assigned to this job for the entire surgery and monitors the fish’s anesthetic depth through gill movement and heart rate.

Our specialized surgical rig

What is the craziest surgery you have ever done?

Well, we do a lot of procedures that are very odd for the general veterinary practitioner. Given the specialty of our service, we see nothing but “odd” cases. Some of our favorites include our fish friends Rocky, Lemon and Sparky. Read all about their cases here.

Watch some of our procedures on our YouTube site: Eyeball Removal, Abdominal Tumor Removal

Have more questions? Check out our Fish Surgery FAQ

Fish X-Rays

A few months ago, we first met Huxley and Darwin. They are both moor goldfish with big, bulging eyes and short, stubby bodies. Huxley is red and Darwin is black. When they first presented, Darwin had a growth on his dorsal fin and Huxley was on his belly at the bottom of the tank. A quick water test reveled that their water had a low pH, high ammonia and very low kH (alkalinity). This is commonly referred to as Old Tank Syndrome. Usually caused by a lack of maintenance, this case was compounded by the source water with a low kH as well. Darwin had the mass along his fin removed and changes to the maintenance procedure were made.

A few months later, Huxley (red moor) presented for lying on his side, a change from his belly-sitting behavior previously. Knowing the issues fancy goldfish can suffer with their anatomy, Huxley’s owner brought him to Westside Animal Hospital in Santa Cruz, CA who we partner with to perform radiographs, also known as x-rays. To perform radiographs on fish, they are sedated using a water-soluble drug, then picked up out of the water and positioned on a plastic sheet on the radiograph table. We use plastic bags and bubble wrap to make little slings to keep them straight up and down. They are only out of the water for approximately 20-30 seconds and then returned to the sedation water while the radiographs process. Here is what we found for little Huxley…

 

Huxley – Right lateral

Huxley – Dorsoventral

There’s a lot going on in these radiographs, and can be very confusing for those of us who have never seen an animal radiograph before, let alone one of a fish. Here are some more fancy goldfish for reference…

You’ve heard Rusty’s story before, but here are his radiographs

You’ve also met Lemon before

And here’s a comet goldfish for comparison…

This fish presented with a pebble stuck in its mouth. Can you find it?

All fancy varieties of goldfish originally descended from the standard comet goldfish. Can you see how their anatomy has changed to suit their external appearance? Most notable is the swim bladder. Fish have internal air balloons called a swim bladder that helps them maintain neutral buoyancy. Most carp species, including koi and goldfish, have a cranial and caudal air sac. You may note in the fancy radiographs, they only have one or in Rusty’s case, one almost on top of the other. It is completely normal for fancy goldfish to only have one air bladder, and it may even appear over-inflated. This over-inflation is an adaptation to limited tail movement. These goldfish have been bred for beautiful external features, not room for normal internal anatomy and swimming behavior.

What is most apparent on Huxley’s radiographs is the shape of his spine. Not only does it take an odd “W”-shape appearance, but two vertebrae have luxated (red arrow) or possibly fractured.

Before presenting, although negatively buoyant, Huxley was able to maintain an upright position by using his tail as a kickstand. However, following these radiographs and a neurological exam, Huxley has lost function of his tail and therefore is resigned to stay on his side. His owner is very diligent and has switched his substrate for smooth glass beads that do not irritate Huxley’s skin or grow bacteria. Huxley still has a ravenous appetite and likes hanging out with Darwin.

These cases are always hard for our staff and clients. Huxley will never swim like a normal fish. He will be on his side at the bottom of his tank for the rest of his life. His owner is aware of this and understands his limitations. The decisions concerning these cases are ultimately the owner’s paired with veterinary recommendations.

Fancy goldfish may be very beautiful, but their internal anatomy often causes secondary issues with buoyancy and visual disorders. Many of these bubble eye varieties will scar down from tiny tears. Internal anatomy limitations from external body features can cause swim bladder issues and affect buoyancy. When considering your next fish to adopt, remember that these fancy fish may be hiding a secret inside that may affect their livelihood as they grow bigger.

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