How do you know if a fish is sick?

We’ve already established that fish get sick, so how can you recognize when something is wrong? Signs of illness can be broken down into two categories: physical and behavioral.

Physical

These indicators of illness can be very easy to spot. Physical signs of disease include:

  • Changes in coloration
  • Bumps/lumps
  • Asymmetrical body shape
  • Misshapen fins
  • Wounds
  • Ulcers
  • Etc, etc etc

Most of the times, these changes are fairly obvious, but especially in the case of coelomic tumors, subtle changes can be very hard to spot. Here are some examples of physical signs of disease:

Behavioral

Behavioral signs of disease are harder to spot. If you don’t check your fish out every day, these signs can be very difficult to spot. A 5-minute fish viewing session twice a day is recommended at bare minimum. Behavioral signs of disease include:

  • Incorrect body position
  • Negative/positive buoyancy
  • Avoiding areas of tank/pond
  • Hiding/unsocial (species-specific)
  • Swimming behavior
  • Flashing
  • Non-seasonal change in appetite/feeding behavior
  • Etc

In order to recognize “normal” behavior, you may need to look outside your home pond/tank. What may be “normal” in your pond may be very obviously not normal if you watch other fish of the same species in a different environment. Call up the neighbors and arrange a pond/tank social hour at a different home each week/month!

If you have a behavior that you cannot identify as normal or abnormal, CALL A PROFESSIONAL. Our office number is (831) 278-1081. It is better to be certain than let a unknown behavior slide for too long.

For more information on spotting sick fish, including some behavioral indicators, watch our webinar:

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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 5 Most Common Problems with Koi Ponds

Koi make up the majority of our veterinary practice, and in seeing so many cases, some common themes occur. Don’t make the same mistakes with your fish!

  1. Not Checking Your Fish Daily – We know in the winter, when metabolisms are quiet, your fish are not very entertaining. However, even in the slower, winter months, small problems can start to grow very quickly, especially when the weather starts to warm. Even though you may not be feeding your fish daily, it is critical to check on all the fish DAILY to make sure they are doing okay.
  2. Not Testing Your Water Quality – This rule does not apply to fish tanks alone. Koi ponds can suffer the same New Pond and Old Pond syndromes and a whole host of other issues. Water quality is the #1 important factor in fish health and is the leading cause of secondary disease. Buy a test kit, learn how to use it, and keep track of how your pond changes with the seasons. Learn more about water quality here.
  3. Adding New Fish without Quarantine – This year will have a significant increase in Koi Herpes Virus cases. Protect your fish by quarantining ALL NEW FISH for at least 4-6 weeks. DO NOT expect your dealer/vendor to do this for you. Most parasite outbreaks come from new fish being added to a pond without quarantining first. Watch our Koi Herpes Virus webinar here.
  4. Feeding an Appropriate Diet – There are many, many, many different koi foods available and they are NOT all created equal. Read through the ingredient list carefully and understand what all the different nutrition labels mean. Watch our helpful webinar so you can make the best choice for your fish. Maintenance, Growth, Color-Enhancing, etc do NOT mean the same thing throughout the different brands. And “nucleotides” is a completely idiotic label. Do you know what nucleotides are?
  5. Keeping Up with Your Maintenance – In winter, we know things slow down and maintenance routines can relax. However, this is not an excuse to completely ignore your pond! You should at MINIMUM keep up with your backwashes to keep your pressurized bead filters functioning properly and keep your skimmer and matting free of debris. Click here for a complete checklist of pond tasks.

If you have ANY concerns about your koi at ANY time, contact your local aquatic veterinarian. If you are in California or Nevada, call us at (831) 278-1081. We will have our Spring Pond Package ready to roll as soon as spring hits. Schedule your visit today!!

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 – #3

The #3 Mistake – Relying Too Much on Internet Searches

The internet is a wonderful, magical place. Because if it’s published on the internet, it must be true, right? Sorry to tell you, but Dr. Google does not have any sort of medical degree. Have you read all about the magic of tiny green peas and the dreaded dropsy disease? Sorry to tell you, but these are just internet fabrications. The veterinary community is partly at fault, having ignored the plight of fish owners for far too long.

Enter Aquatic Veterinary Services! **Wearing a cape, if a business could.** Our mission is to give you the straight, well-researched facts about all things fishy. Does it cost you anything? NOPE! We have over 200 articles on different fish species, diseases, physiology, water quality, surgery and beyond in our Fish Health 101 section. We have a YouTube channel dedicated to more in-depth information and monthly free webinars open to all. Need to waste 10-20 minutes and want to learn something about fish? Pick out a topic here.

There is some good help on the internet, but always consider the source. What worked for one fish under certain conditions does not work for every fish. Disease does not progress the same in every situation. Over the counter medications are not always what they say they are. There are NO regulators checking up on fish medications on pet store shelves.

If you need more help than our website can provide, call your local fish veterinarian. NEVER attempt treating or performing surgery on your fish or your friends/family pet fish. Visit the American Association of Fish Veterinarians to find a vet near you. If you are in California or Nevada, we’re here to help you directly. Call us at (831) 728-7000.

Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make – #4

The #4 Mistake – Not Testing Your Water

Ponder the following situation: you have two glasses before you. One is tap water and the other is hydrochloric acid.

How do you know which one is safe to drink by looking at them? Which one would you put your fish into?

It is impossible to tell if water is safe for fish by the look of it.

Water that is safe for fish and dangerous for fish will look EXACTLY THE SAME. This is why we always test the water at all of our appointments and why all fish owners should do the same. Fish health is directly tied to certain water quality parameters. If you’re a regular reader, please, list them along with us:

You don’t have to test all of these parameters all the time, but regular tests of AT LEAST ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, kH and temperature are essential.

Test your water AT LEAST once a month. You will need the following tools:

All of these tools are easily purchased at your local pet fish store or online.

Safe levels for fish will vary on the species. For koi, goldfish and most tropical, including bettas, you want your water within the following parameters (please keep in mind that this chart was made using the API kit parameters and are general guidelines):

ParameterKoiGoldfishTropicals
Ammonia<0.25 mg/L<0.25 mg/L <0.25 mg/L
Nitrite0 mg/L 0 mg/L 0 mg/L
Nitrate<40 mg/L <40 mg/L varies
pH6.5-9.06.5-9.0varies
kH>100 mg/L >100 mg/L >100 mg/L
Temperature33-85F (1-29C) 33-85F (1-29C) 74-84F (23-28C)

As your fish systems progress, record your weekly/monthly readings and watch for any trends. How does your regular maintenance change your readings? By keeping a close eye on your parameters, you can significantly improve the overall health of your fish. 

Good water = happy, healthy fish.