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:

Top Surgery Cases

Read along with us as we share our exceptional surgery cases!

Lemon

Lemon is a ranchu goldfish who was adopted with a slight oral deformity. Once day, when going after a large pellet, one side of her mouth luxated and obstructed her oral cavity. Dr. Sanders was able to correct the injury with a few well-placed sutures and Lemon was able to recover. Read more about her story here.

Rocky

We don’t know why he did it, but Rocky, a shovelnose catfish, decided that the rocks at the bottom of his tank looked particularly tasty. He ended up eating almost a pound of them and they got stuck in his stomach. Dr. Sanders performed surgery to open the stomach and remove the rocks. Read more about Rocky here.

Sparky

Our buddy Sparky presented with a HUGE tumor on his eye. Rather than trying to cut the tumor away from the delicate cornea, Dr. Sanders elected to remove the eye. Sparky healed up great and you can never even tell an eye was there to begin with. Read his full story here.

Want to watch some fun surgery videos? Check out our YouTube channel.

This koi had a coelomic tumor that required invasive surgery to remove.

Fish Surgery Diagnostics

How do fish veterinarians decide when it’s time for a fish to go under the knife? Surgery can be very beneficial for fish when it is warranted.

Water Quality Testing

Prior to any surgery, a veterinarian MUST test the water quality. If the water quality is off in any way, recovery after surgery will be hindered. Corrections to water quality must be made prior to any procedure.

Radiographs

In dealing with structures including and next to bones and the swim bladder, radiographs, commonly called “x-rays,” provide great diagnostic info. These are very handy to see if there is any air where it shouldn’t be and if any structures are not in the correct place. For soft tissue, we need…

Ultrasound

This tool is one of the most beneficial to evaluate internal structures in fish. For koi, it is how we are able to see gonadal sarcomas and how extensive they are. A small tumor is much easier to operate on that a large one.

Bloodwork

Unlike many other pet species, bloodwork is not very useful in many species of pet fish. Reference ranges have been established, but some are too wide, and vary based on water quality and genetics. For surgical procedures, a PCV (packed cell volume) is helpful to understand how much blood a fish loses during a procedure.

Fish Bowl Syndrome

A common problem we see, especially in betta fish, is known as Fish Bowl Syndrome. Essentially, it can be broken down into one main issue:

Your fish is in a bowl.

Problem #1: Your fish has no filtration for processing of dangerous ammonia waste. Without a place for bacteria to grow and filter the water, your nitrogen cycle can never be established. Some may argue that betta fish get pushed around by filters, but if you chose the right one and slow the flow, it is perfectly suited to bettas.

Problem #2: You fish has no oxygen circulation. Fish tank filters are great at adding in oxygen, even in slow-flow mode. In a stagnant bowl, your fish is limited to what air diffuses from the surface. Yes, betta fish have a specialized labyrinth organ used to squeeze oxygen from the air. This is a short-term adaptation mechanism used to survive in drought conditions. It is NOT a long-term survival technique.

Problem #3: Your fish has no temperature stability. We’ll pick on betta fish again. Bettas are tropical and need heat. The small volume of a bowl causes temperatures to fluctuate dramatically. Watch the difference in ambient room temperatures on a 1-gallon fish bowl and a 10-gallon fish tank. It’s the same as you stepping out into freezing temperatures wearing a t-shirt or a coat.

Problem #4: When doing bowl water changes, most often, you will take your fish out of the bowl and put them in a tiny container while you empty all the water out of the bowl and scrub it clean. Since you have no filtration or oxygenation, you can swing the water chemistry parameters, including pH and temperature, very rapidly, causing your fish to stress and possibly die.

Fish bowls are ancient technology invented before there was electricity. With all the modern updates to fish-keeping, isn’t it time to let the fish bowls go? Unless, perhaps, you use them for this purpose:

#BANTHEBOWL

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 – #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 – #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.

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.

Top 10 Mistakes New Fish Owners Make – #10

Happy New Year to all you fish lovers! We hope you all had a safe and happy holiday season with your family, friends and fish. To start off our new year, we want to take a closer look at our Top 10 Mistakes. You may have read the shortlist, but there’s a lot more to learn! Read along with us as we count down from #10 to #1.

The #10 Mistake – Lack of Planning

Unlike purchasing a cat or a dog, usually adding a fish tank is a spur of the moment decision. Your kids have been begging you for a puppy or a kitten and you go with a smart compromise – A FISH! Well, I’m very sorry to tell you that fish can be just as much trouble as a cat or dog. Yes, they don’t need regular walks and won’t leave “surprises” in your bed, but they require regular care just like any other pet. BEFORE you go out and buy the new tank, make a plan.

#1: How big of a tank do you think you can manage? The size of the tank you plan on will determine what species of fish you can have. If you can go big – GO BIG! The more water you have and the fewer fish, the less stressful the first few months will be. Once you know how big a tank you want, does the item of furniture you are planning on setting it support the weight of the tank? (Remember: 1 gallon of water = 8.34 lbs or 3.78 kg) This is not the time to show off that antique table. Fish tanks are wet and any item a tank sits on WILL GET WET. Wood is probably not a good idea unless its sealed.

Got your tank size and a place to put it? GREAT! Here’s the rest of the checklist to include on your shopping list:

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 likeRead 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!

Planning your tank in advance takes 90% of the stress out of fish keeping. You are WAY ahead of most novice fish keepers if you make a plan and stick to it. And a lot of stores allow you to shop online and swing by to pick it up!

Stay tuned for Mistake #2 – Adding Fish Too Early