Pet Expo – April 26-28

Need something fishy to do this weekend? Join us at America’s Family Pet Expo at the Orange County Fairgrounds this weekend! Fun for all the family, including pets of all types!

We’ll be showcasing all of our surgery videos and readings from our children’s series, Boo & Bubbles.

Hope to see you there!

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Day 2,190 – Reflecting Upon 6 Years

Tomorrow, March 13th, 2019 will mark Aquatic Veterinary Service’s 6 year anniversary. It has been quite a year for us, moving out of a bad location into a new facility and getting ready for some new changes and challenges. We’ll be sharing those new updates with you later this week.

In a business where there is no framework, no forecast, no front runner to look at and play off of, you make a lot of mistakes. I have no regrets from any of the mistakes I made along the last 6 years. I only hope I can pass on what I have learned to the next generation of aquatic veterinarians.

In the veterinary community, veterinarians who are able to practice on fish are exceedingly rare. In most veterinary schools, aquatic topics are barely covered, if at all. When I went to Tufts, we had 2 lecture hours on fish. We had 4 on marine mammals for comparison. But most veterinarians out practicing may have no exposure to fish. Of all the veterinarians who see fish, most are involved in mixed private practice, aquarium/zoo work or aquaculture. Those private practices seeing only fish – 2. Myself and a colleague in Texas are the only two veterinarians in the country dedicated to solely helping pet fish.

As our yearly reflection goes, I will answer the most common questions I have been answering on a regular basis.

Question #1: Do you make any money doing this?

Our first few years? Not really. Our last few years as we continue to grow and word gets out. Absolutely, yes. If this job path didn’t show at least minimal feasibility after the first few years, I wouldn’t be here today. In growing a business that has NEVER been attempted before, one has to be aware that it will take considerable more time. We’re in the business of changing how people think about veterinary care, which is a slow process. The general population knows to take a sick cat, dog, horse, bunny or snake to the vet. It is still not common knowledge to take your fish to the vet.

In conclusion, I am making money. It’s not comparable to a small animal vet at this point, but if our trends continue as they have over the next few years, we will surpass them. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Question #2: Why are you doing this?

I got into aquatics when I was in undergraduate school at URI. I had time to complete >1,500 volunteer hours at Mystic Aquarium, where I learned all about the fascinating world of fish. I always wanted to learn more about their care and keeping. I entered veterinary school figuring I’d end up at an aquarium, but I was hesitant to be a part of a bureaucratic system. In private practice, one of the best parts is I get to call the shots. From what I have seen over the last 6 years, there is a great need for fish veterinarians. The biggest hurdle is linking sick fish with veterinary care, not the internet. For more on my background, read our famous article, “Why A Fish Vet?”

Question #3: What is the biggest challenge in your field of veterinary medicine?

Dr. Google has never received a medical degree of any kind. Still, owners trust the internet more than a veterinarian’s perspective. Why? Because it costs real money. Sorry, but you get what you pay for. Free advice without any education or expertise ends up in a lot of dead fish. New fish owners are the worst offenders and will often drop out of the hobby entirely after the first big disaster. Now, many of these people simply don’t know that fish veterinarians exist. We have tried to build up our website to catch these people before they fall down the internet rabbit hole, and after 6 years and 200 fish articles, it’s starting to gain speed. For those of you regular readers, we rely on you to share your knowledge of fish veterinarians with your friends, family and neighbors. Our specialty will continue to struggle because no one knows we exist.

Question #4: What is the best thing fish owners can do to keep their fish healthy?

“Maintain your water quality” will likely be my catchphrase for life. Maintaining your aquatic environment for your fish is the most significant contribution to your fishes’ overall health. It comes down to keeping up with your regular maintenance. Most problems occur when people get lazy and skip a cleaning, or two, or all of them. We recommend you put it on the calendar and make it a priority. For everything you’d ever want to know about water quality, check out this free webinar.

So as we cross into our 7th year of service, we thank all of you for your continued interest. We strive to help all fish owners, no matter what the species or where you are. If you have any topics you would like discussed, please let us know. We thank you for your dedication to fish health.

Sincerely, Jessie Sanders, DVM, CertAqV

Interested to see how veterinary and human medicine education measure up? Watch Dr. Jessie Sanders and her sister, human surgeon, Dr. Bailey Sanders, compare their experiences.

Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make – #1

The #1 Mistake – Not Asking for Help

We’ve made it all the way to our #1 mistake new fish owners make: not asking for help when you’re over your head. A new hobby can be very challenging and there’s no shame in getting assistance if you’re overwhelmed.

But, as we covered with mistake #3, not all sources of help should be treated equally. Just because somebody wrote it on the internet, does NOT make it true. Cause and effect can be misinterpreted and hobbyists are known for corroborating evidence that is not connected. Here is a common example:

Owner A buys medication from store B, which claims it can cure their fish of disease C. The medication, be it anti-parasitic, anti-bacterial or anti-fungal, requires multiple doses with multiple water changes in between. Owner A uses medication as prescribed and the fish gets better. Since 90% of our clinical cases are secondary to poor water quality, it is more likely the increased water changes cured the fish, NOT THE “MEDICATION.”

But, you see this on the internet and think it must work for your fish with the same issue. But your water might be different with a different species of fish and a different pathogen (bacterial, parasite, fungus). All that you can see is how your fish is behaving, which sounds similar to Owner A.

Too many owners reach straight for the treatment without a diagnosis. You just want to make your fish healthy – NOW. Your water looks fine, so it can’t be the water. And this is where many fish owners fall out of the hobby. They try X number of medications, read all they can on the internet, but without a diagnosis, the fish will eventually perish.

What about calling your aquatic veterinarian?

We understand it is a foreign concept for many. One of our colleagues starts many of his professional talks by asking the following question:

If you walk up to 100 random people on the street and ask them, “my fish is sick. What do I do?” What are the top 3 responses?


A. David Scarfe PhD, DVM, MRSSAf, CertAqV
  1. Dr. Google
  2. The pet store
  3. Flush it

No where in that list is “call your veterinarian.” Well, it’s time to not only add it to the list, but make it the ONLY response. If you need help with your fish, CALL AN AQUATIC VETERINARIAN. (Click link for a vet near you.) If you have a veterinarian for your cat/dog/horse/etc, see if they are interested in helping. They can directly consult with an out-of-state aquatic veterinarian to help your fish. Have them call us! If you are in California or Nevada, CALL US and we will help you! If you want to pay for our veterinarian’s license in a state we do not cover, CALL US. If you are not in your state and need help, CALL US. We cannot guarantee we’ll be able to give you more than basic husbandry help, but WE WILL HELP YOU AS BEST WE CAN.

Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make – #2

The #2 Mistake – Not Doing Your Regular Maintenance

Fish are not maintenance free pets. Many owners think this when they first start, but some fish systems require the same care and cleaning as any other pet. Especially when you are first starting out, it is important to keep up with your regular scheduled cleaning. Maintaining a regular maintenance schedule for your aquarium will be of the most benefit to your fish by keeping your water quality within appropriate parameters.

Our best advice: add your regular maintenance to your TO DO list and make it a priority. Get the whole family involved and take the time to give your fish a happy, healthy home. Here is a helpful checklist for everything you need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.

If you follow the above checklist, get the family involved and make fish care a priority, your fish will have a long, happy life. If you’re confused or unsure the best way to clean your tank, watch our Best Tank Cleaning Practices video.

Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make – #7

The #7 Mistake – Feeding Your Fish Too Much

One of the more common “healthy” pet issues we see in all of veterinary medicine is obesity, and fish are no exception. They may have better control than your golden retriever, but overfeeding your fish can have more severe consequences than just rounder fish.

Unfortunately, there is no absolute calculation to tell you how much to feed your fish. It depends on their species, temperature, water quality, other stressors, the type of food, formulation and current disease processes. For cats and dogs, it all depends on body size and life stage. If you take any bag of cat or dog food and look at the back, it will tell you what life stage the food is intended for and what amount to feed for body weight. (This assumes that your pet is the correct weight for the body type and structure.) But when was the last time you weighed your pet fish? Fish should be fed based on body size, but we know this is an impossible task for most owners. Thankfully, fish are pretty good at determining when they are full. A bigger problem is what happens when there is too much food in the tank.

So what should I do to ensure my fish are not overfed? We recommend using the 5-Minute Method. It is very simple:

  1. Sprinkle a little bit of food into your tank. We recommend mixing it close to the filter return so all fish can get a fair share.
  2. When all the food is eaten, sprinkle a little bit more. If the food is not completely consumed, WAIT.
  3. Continue for 5 minutes or until the fish stop eating.

NOTE: Some species, like betta fish, are not great at regulating their intake. Keep in mind that their stomachs are about the same size as their eyeballs. Only a few pellets once or twice a day is adequate!

Why does this method work?

The biggest problem with overfeeding a fish tank is not just fat fish, but increased stress on your biological filtration. The breakdown of fish food, since it contains a lot of protein, causes an increase in the ammonia levels in your tank. Using this method makes sure that the food ends up in the fish, not the bottom of their tank. If you’re unfamiliar with ammonia and the nitrogen cycle, read this explanation.

For more information on fish food in general, watch our webinar.

Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make #9

The #9 Mistake – Adding Fish Too Early

You have a plan, you got your tank and all the additional items, so it’s time to add the fish! But how many fish do you add? In what order do you add them? In the beginning, your biggest hurdle will be establishing your nitrogen cycle. This cycle is made up of commensal bacteria living in your substrate and biological filtration media (sponges, matting, bio balls, ceramic cubes etc). These helpful bacteria convert the primary fish waste of ammonia into nitrite and from there into nitrate. Ammonia and nitrite are highly toxic to fish, and can cause lethargy, loss of appetite and death.

When a tank is brand new, the bacteria have not been colonized. There are many commercial starters promising to “instantly start” your tank, but they are the aquatic equivalent to snake oil. Our office tested over half a dozen of these products with no decrease in time to conversion. You do NOT need to add these products to your tank, they will come with the fish; they just take time to become established. It will take 4-6 weeks for your tank to go through all the necessary steps to become established. If you follow your tank’s progression with your water quality testing kit, you will yield a graph like this:

You will see spikes in ammonia, nitrite and then nitrate. When you see this DO NOT PANIC. It is a normal occurrence in EVERY new fish tank. It is called “New Tank Syndrome” and there is no way around it unless you have another established tank with similar water parameter requirements that you can steal some filter media from.

The best way to combat New Tank Syndrome and avoid crashing your tank with a major ammonia spike is by starting with just a few fish in your new tank. Start with one or two goldfish or 3-4 tropicals, like zebrafish or tetras, before your tank is established. Slowly increase your fish levels from there and you will never have an issue.

Be patient! It is extra work, but I guarantee by following these steps, you will not lose a fish from New Tank Syndrome. Buy a test kit, know how to use it and don’t panic when those spikes hit. By having fewer fish in a larger volume of water, you will produce a smaller, more tolerable spike, keeping your fish alive.

Don’t Flush That Fish!

Don’t Flush That Fish!

It’s almost that time of year again, where many families will be bringing new pet fish into their homes as holiday presents. Unfortunately, many of these new endeavors tend to end disastrously. But this doesn’t have to be the case for YOU! With our helpful guide, your fish can live a long a happy life.

  1. Plan ahead. We all know the thrill of walking into the pet store and loading up on everything a fish could possibly want. You can still get that rush, but go in with a plan. Read this checklist to make sure you have everything you need to keep your fish happy for those first few critical weeks of life. Here’s how to set everything up once you’ve worked through your checklist.
  2. Understand how tank cycling works. New tank syndrome is the downfall of many holiday fish systems. By starting with a low bioload for the first few weeks, you will save yourself the hassle of having to start over. Buy a reliable test kit and watch your parameters closely.
  3. Plan out your maintenance schedule. We’ve generated a handy checklist, but be sure to put it on YOUR calendar. Here’s a step-by-step cleaning guide in case you need some help.
  4. Start with a beginner-friendly species, such as a betta or comet goldfish. Don’t go for the super picky, super specific species right off. Assume that any new fish might be carrying some bug from the pet store. Since they don’t stay there that long, disease signs may not occur until you get the fish home.
  5. Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed, and this does NOT mean scrolling through the internet! There is a TON of misinformation on the internet. Call your local fish professional and have their number ready, just in case. Our office fields calls from all over the country on a daily basis for people needing help with the next step. Call us if you need help –> (831) 728-7000.

By working through these 5 simple steps, you have ensured your holiday fish will be a member of the family through the next holiday season. Need more? Be sure to read through our Top 10 Mistakes All New Fish Owners Make.

And flushing dead fish is NOT a sanitary method of disposal. After you have made sure they are dead, through prolonged drug exposure or cervical spine separation, place dead fish in the trash or bury them at least 12″ in the yard. Putting almost dead fish in the freezer is not humane.

How To Setup A New Fish Tank

How To Setup A New Fish Tank

Ready to get started? Join along with our Boo & Bubbles characters to see how to setup your new fish tank! Read through our check list to make sure you have everything you need to start!

Be sure to place you tank on a sturdy table, away from direct sunlight. A waterproof tablecloth can be used to protect any porous surfaces.
Setup your filter and add water to your tank. Try to pre-heat your water if you are adding tropical fish! Turn on your heater and use a thermometer to make sure it is working properly.
Add dechlorinator that treats chlorine AND chloramine to make tap water safe for fish. You DO NOT need to add any other water conditioners or bacterial starter.
Rinse ALL substrate decor thoroughly before adding it to your tank. If your water is cloudy after adding the substrate and decor, perform a >75% water change to remove the particulates. 
Allow your fish to float in their bag for 10-15 minutes, until the temperature in the bag and the surrounding water has equalized. If your fish has been in the bag for more than 2 hours, you will need to add a little tank water to the bag to help slowly adjust the pH. Add 1/4 cup of water every 5 minutes until the water volume in the bag has doubled.
Catch your fish out of their bag with a soft net. Transfer them to the tank and pull out the bag of water and throw it away. Do NOT dump it into the tank.
Watch your fish carefully for 10-15 minutes. Hiding is a normal behavior. Your fish may not be interested in eating their first day in a new tank. Offer a small amount and watch to see if they are interested. If your fish stops moving, test your water chemistry ASAP.

Now that your tank is all set up, you need to take good care of it! Check out our cleaning checklist here and read the step by step cleaning guide. You can also watch our How To Clean a Fish Tank video!

New Tank Checklist

New Tank Checklist

Thinking about adding a new tank to your home or business? Make sure you have everything you need before you get started. Print this list and bring it with you to the store to make sure you don’t forget anything.

BEFORE YOU GET STARTED: What kind of tank do you want? How big of a tank can you comfortably fit? What kind of fish do you want to have? How many fish of that type can your newly described tank hold? Sorry, but the 1″ of fish per gallon rule does NOT work. Research your species and understand what environment works best for them BEFORE you buy ANYTHING!

Check List for New Tank

  • _____ Fish tank of _______ gallons
  • _____ Table that can hold ______ gallons fish tank (1 gallon of water = 3.78 kg or 8.34 lbs)
  • _____ Lid for tank with light
  • _____ Filter capable of volume 1.5x ______ gallons (canister or hang-on)
  • _____ If tank is >30 gallons, consider adding aerator or powerhead to improve water flow
  • ______ Substrate (gravel, rocks, sand, etc.)
  • ______ Gravel vacuum
  • ______ Decor items (must be FISH SAFE) – for bettas, stick with items that will not snag fins
  • ______ Live plants, if you like. Read this guide before you start with live plants. We do NOT recommend them for beginners.
  • ______ Dechlorinator to treat tap water for chlorine AND chloramine
  • ______ Bucket that can hold at least ~40% of your total water volume (or multiple buckets if necessary)
  • ______ Scrub brush for decor
  • ______ Algae scraper for acrylic or glass tank (they are DIFFERENT)
  • ______ Heater – if your fish need it; did you do your research? Hint: goldfish do NOT, bettas absolutely DO
  • ______ Thermometer – to make sure your heater is working properly
  • ______ Water quality test kit – this is NOT optional
  • ______ Fish food (enough for 6 months), you may want to try a variety to start to see what they like
  • ______ Fish, obviously

Notice that we did NOT have bacterial starter, water conditioner other than dechlorinator or additional filter media. YOU DO NOT NEED IT!

Taking the leap into saltwater? Then you need to read our 10 Questions to Ask Yourself BEFORE Getting a Saltwater Tank.

Once you have everything you need, check out our setup demo. And once it’s time to clean, make sure you have our handy How To Clean a Fish Tank and check list ready!

Fish Immune Function

Fish Immune Function

When you live in a toilet, like fish do, it’s critical to have a well-functioning immune system. Being ectotherms, fish rely on the temperature of their surrounding environment to dictate their metabolism and immune function. Cold water = limited activity. Warm water = more activity. Hot water = poached. All things considered, a fish’s immune system may be more complex that you give them credit for.

In addition to basic phagocytosis, fish produce B and T lymphocytes. These cells are responsible for antibody production and are the reason why we are able to make vaccines for fish. Vaccines can be given orally, topically, by immersion, or through injection, like your flu shot. Most vaccines are available for aquaculture production and are not used on pet fish. For more information on vaccines in fish, read here.

Mammals produce their white blood cells in their bone marrow. Fish do not have bone marrow and rely on their kidney and spleen to produce blood cells. These cell lines have similar functions to mammalian white blood cells.

A fish’s response to stress has a direct effect on their immune system. When a fish is stressed due to lack of nutrition, bullying, poor water quality, sound irritation or multiple other causes, they release hormones into their bloodstream, specifically cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones initiate an animal’s “fight or flight” reflex, causing secondary changes in blood glucose, lactate, liver and muscle glycogen and osmolality. Over time, these chemical changes cause tertiary changes to behavior and performance, including digestion, reproduction, and immune function.

Acute stress is beneficial where it helps a fish get out of a stressful situation. Chronic stress, however, leads to long-term immune suppression and increased vulnerability to disease.

In order to maintain good immune function, use these key prevention and management strategies: