How to Be a Fish Vet

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.
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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.