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.

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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 – #6

The #6 Mistake – Not Storing Fish Food Properly

What is the best way to store any pet food? Rather than roll up the bag and toss it in the corner, all pet food should be kept in an airtight, opaque storage container in cooler temperatures of a pantry or closet. And fish food is no exception.

Also keep in mind that fish food starts to lose water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C, as soon as you open it. Within a few months, there is barely any available vitamin C left. (Sources here, here and here.) Vitamin loss can be prevented by properly storing your fish food. All fish food should be kept in an airtight container, in a cool place out of the sun.

Fish Flakes

Due to their high surface to mass ratio, fish flakes lose vitamin C faster than any other fish food. If your fish can handle a pellet, switch them over. These days they come in very tiny sizes!

Fish Pellets

Most of these products now come in light-proof, re-sealing pouches, which is great! Keep them in a cool place out of direct sunlight to keep them in good condition.

Koi Food

Even though your koi live outside, your food should not! If it is not in a re-sealing bag, keep all food in an airtight container in a cool place, out of the sun.

Since the temperature of a koi pond can vary widely, make sure you are feeding a temperature-appropriate diet. Higher protein foods are fed with warmer water.

For more on fish nutrition, check out our Fish Food Nutrition webinar:

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.