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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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 – #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.

Preventing Disease in Fish Tanks and Ponds

Preventing Disease in Fish Tanks and Ponds

Everyone always wants to know how to keep their fish system from becoming infested with some horrible disease that puts all their fish at risk. Well, it’s a lot simpler than you think!

  1. Quarantine. Quarantine. Quarantine. This includes plants and ALL NEW FISH. The stress of handling and transport is enough to make even the healthiest of fish turn on your tanks inhabitants. Fish cannot be sterilized and always have pathogens on them, including parasites, bacteria and fungi. Most problems occur when new fish, invertebrates or plants are added to an established system. Set up a separate hospital tank and have it at the ready whenever new fish are on their way in. 4-6 weeks is the MINIMUM requirement for all new additions. For more information, be sure to watch our Quarantine Practices webinar!
  2. Maintain your water quality through consistent maintenance, proper feeding and adequate filtration. Water quality is the #1 thing owners can do to keep their fish healthy. Get a test kit, know how to use it and what normal parameters look like. Not all fish systems will be identical! Keep up with your maintenance. If everything is a bit discombobulated, use these handy checklists for tanks and ponds.
  3. Feed your fish a good quality diet that is species appropriate. Look for a food with appropriate levels of protein, fat and carbohydrates. We are happy to give consults on diet for FREE. If you want to learn more about fish diets, watch our webinar.
  4. Note any signs of disease early and take precautionary measures. You set up that hospital tank, right? Learn the physical and behavioral signs of disease in fish through our free webinar.
  5. If you think something is wrong, ASK NOW! Don’t wait until a small problem becomes big and hard to manage. Our job is to help you take care of your fish, plain and simple. We can work within your budget to make sure your fish get the care they need. Call us at (831) 346-6151 or email hospital@cafishvet.com.

Follow those rules and your fish will thank you! Being healthy and disease free is the way to be, no matter what your species!

How to Treat Disease in Fish

How to Treat Disease in Fish

If you’ve ever read our other posts or watched our webinars, you may have noticed that we never tell you how to treat certain diseases. Although it’s one of the most common questions our staff is asked, treating disease is never as straightforward as a fish owner may think. As one of my colleagues put it recently, “I no longer treat disease; I treat systems.” When your fish gets sick, do you think of treating the fish or the environment in which it lives?

When comparing disease in a fish vs. a dog, your veterinarian will rarely ever ask, “what is the air quality in your house?” For fluffy pets, it is always assumed that they have suitable air to breathe. Veterinarians will rarely ever question this parameter unless you are talking about a fish. The watery environment in which a fish lives has a significantly increased impact than the air we breathe. (You’ve watched our water quality webinar, yes?) The increased density of water and the physiology of fish gill-water interaction can directly influence fish health. Fish live in a toilet, and there’s no avoiding that. Keeping your fish’s watery home within appropriate water quality parameters is the #1 thing you can do as a pet fish owner to keep your fish healthy.

And a big part of your fishes’ environment are the commensal bacteria living in your filtration. These magic beings don’t need any instructions or directions to do their part in keeping your fish healthy. By converting ammonia into its less toxic nitrate, they turn a watery death trap into a fish-safe home. However, any treatment you add to your tank, be it prescribed or over-the-counter, can affect those contributing bacteria. This is part of why treating disease in fish is very tricky. If you dump in a bunch of treatments that may or may not help your fish, you can wipe out all of the bacteria working in your favor. A lot of the over-the-counter medications are not validated by any third parties, and can do more harm than good.

Overall, treating diseases in any species is sometimes a straightforward process, provided that you can make the right diagnosis. Veterinarians train for years to make correct diagnoses and corresponding treatments. We are taught to be detectives and make sure to get the whole story rather than make assumptions based on simple physical appearances. Since aquatic medicine is an emerging field, many fish owners do not know that there are veterinarians who can help them. Asking Dr. Google a simple fish question can take owners down a rabbit hole of possibilities that very often lead them astray. Going to ask your local pet store can result in a bag full of home remedies that treat symptoms, not disease. Although there are many great fish stores and websites with loads of helpful information, knowing what is legitimate and woefully misleading can be hard to negotiate. By asking a veterinarian to assist you, you have a great guide to lead you to the right information and correct diagnosis, leading to treating your fish correctly the first time.

Find a fish veterinarian to assist you:

American Association of Fish Veterinarians

World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association

The “Dropsy” Myth

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.

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.

How to Help A Sick Fish

How to Help A Sick Fish

“Help! I have a sick fish. What do I do?” is the most common question we get asked. Regardless of the issue, there are some things you should always do:

  1. Check your water chemistry. Low cost, reliable, at home test kits should be included in every new aquarium and pond setup. Make sure you use yours regularly and know how to properly read all the results. In a pinch, many pet fish stores offer free or low cost testing. Many issues that cause sick fish can be related to water quality. At the first sign of illness, test your water quality!
  2. Look at your fishes’ diet. Just like the food we eat affects our overall health, so does your fishes’ food. Most fish foods will start to lose their vitamin content after only 90 days! Flake foods will lose their vitamins faster due to increased surface to mass ratio. If you have some questions about what diet is best for your fish, ask your local fish veterinarian or pet fish store for recommendations.
  3. Check your other fish for signs of disease. There may be one susceptible fish in your tank or several. The number of fish affected will help indicate what illness you are dealing with.
  4. When was the last time you added new fish? Adding a new fish that was under considerable stress from transport and then dropped in an alien environment can bring lots of fun parasites and diseases into an established tank. Just like you bring home lots of new germs from the airplane ride with complete strangers, so does your new fish addition.
  5. Call a professional for assistance. Do not waste time falling into an internet black hole. Many seasoned fish hobbyists can help with general husbandry and diet issues. For disease diagnosis and treatment, you will need to contact your local fish veterinarian. We realize that there are currently many over-the-counter medications available, but keep in mind that these are not regulated products. No one is checking the contents of those little foil packets before you dump it in your tank/pond. Treating a fish that does not need medication can breed resistant strains of bacteria that can affect your fishes’ future health. For a list of veterinarians who see fish, check out the American Association of Fish Veterinarians and the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association.

Fancy Goldfish Float Backpack

Fancy Goldfish Float Backpack

Some fancy goldfish can lead long, healthy, normal lives. Others, like their over-bred cat and dog compatriots, can develop genetic disorders that have no ideal treatment. Meet our little buddy, Rusty (top):

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Back when he was little, he had no issues. Swimming and eating normally, being a happy little fish with his tankmates, Cupcake (bottom right) and Zhen Zhen (bottom left). However, a few months ago, we noted that Rusty was having trouble getting to the top of his tank. This progressed to where he started to lie on his side on the bottom for long periods of time. He was able to swim up to the top for meals, and eventually graduated to hand feeding.

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In order to better see what was going on inside Rusty, we set up an appointment for x-rays. What we found was that his swim bladder had shifted to one side of his body, and due to his increasing size and girth, made it impossible for the swim bladder to inflate enough.

petaba9113f-8d6c-4744-86fa-267391720869rusty-whole-body

So, for a long-term solution, we needed to figure out a way to help Rusty swim. We have rigged temporary suspension systems for goldfish before, but never as a potential long-term treatment. The little guy pictured below had undergone neurologic damage secondary to a severe ammonia spike. A couple of weeks on the float, and he was able to recover.

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This guy was rigged up using a block of styrofoam and a length of suture through his back. However, this was only a temporary setup. Rusty’s would have to be more long-term. So, our vet team sprung into action!

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A small strip of plastic was threaded through Rusty’s dorsal fin and tied behind his pectoral fins. Several attempts had to be made in order to find a place where the strap would stay on and not interfere with his swimming. Then, a small sytrofoam peanut, donated by UPS Store #6455 in the same plaza as Aquatic Veterinary Services, was tied onto the strap.

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Obviously, one peanut is much to buoyant for this tiny fish, so the peanut was gradually trimmed down.

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For right now, he is still a little too positively buoyant, but our vet staff wanted to give him some time to get used to his new apparatus before learning to swim again. You can come meet Rusty at our Scales & Tails event this Saturday from 5p-9p. For more information, please see our Event Page.

We will keep you updated on his progress!

 

Over-Medicating Fish

We have had several instances over the last month of fish being over treated with a wide array of over the counter fish medications. Please read this if you are unfamiliar with how to treat sick fish or do not have much experience.

Overuse of medication in fish can lead to decimation of your biological filter and loss of the protective slime coat on a fish’s skin. This leads to “burns” that can be pink splotches anywhere on a fish’s body. Usually, you will see secondary fungal growth in spots that can no longer fight off the invasion.

The aquatic veterinary industry is different from the small animal pet industry wherein many treatments are available over the counter at your local pet store. If one treatment doesn’t produce the expected results, owners can grab multiple medications, running them in sequence, or even worse, in combination.

If you have a fish that is sick, it is vital to that fish’s survival that you correctly diagnose the disease the first time. You wouldn’t want your doctor reaching for everything in his medicine box just because your nose itches, would you? If you are a new or inexperienced fish keeper, there are many resources available to help correctly treat your pet. This does not mean consult Dr. Google. There are many fish health experts that work in fish-specific online forums. You can also try your local pet store, provided that they have a well seasoned staff and good turnover of their fish and fish-related products.

Once the problem has been diagnosed, make sure that you know how to use your product correctly. Most fish treatments are water-based, meaning that they are mixed in with the tank water. Never, ever apply medication directly to your fish. You will see the same “burns” from over-medication, except now it is a direct chemical burn. Your fish needs to grow a new layer of skin before they will be able to heal the initial reason you treated in the first place. Again, imagine yourself in their place.

No matter where you are located, you can always contact an aquatic veterinarian for guidance. Even though we are located in California, we are happy to discuss fish issues all over the world. To find a local fish professional you can talk to, visit aquavetmed.info or fishvets.org