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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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.

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 – #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

Don’t Flush That Fish!

Don’t Flush That Fish!

It’s almost that time of year again, where many families will be bringing new pet fish into their homes as holiday presents. Unfortunately, many of these new endeavors tend to end disastrously. But this doesn’t have to be the case for YOU! With our helpful guide, your fish can live a long a happy life.

  1. Plan ahead. We all know the thrill of walking into the pet store and loading up on everything a fish could possibly want. You can still get that rush, but go in with a plan. Read this checklist to make sure you have everything you need to keep your fish happy for those first few critical weeks of life. Here’s how to set everything up once you’ve worked through your checklist.
  2. Understand how tank cycling works. New tank syndrome is the downfall of many holiday fish systems. By starting with a low bioload for the first few weeks, you will save yourself the hassle of having to start over. Buy a reliable test kit and watch your parameters closely.
  3. Plan out your maintenance schedule. We’ve generated a handy checklist, but be sure to put it on YOUR calendar. Here’s a step-by-step cleaning guide in case you need some help.
  4. Start with a beginner-friendly species, such as a betta or comet goldfish. Don’t go for the super picky, super specific species right off. Assume that any new fish might be carrying some bug from the pet store. Since they don’t stay there that long, disease signs may not occur until you get the fish home.
  5. Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed, and this does NOT mean scrolling through the internet! There is a TON of misinformation on the internet. Call your local fish professional and have their number ready, just in case. Our office fields calls from all over the country on a daily basis for people needing help with the next step. Call us if you need help –> (831) 728-7000.

By working through these 5 simple steps, you have ensured your holiday fish will be a member of the family through the next holiday season. Need more? Be sure to read through our Top 10 Mistakes All New Fish Owners Make.

And flushing dead fish is NOT a sanitary method of disposal. After you have made sure they are dead, through prolonged drug exposure or cervical spine separation, place dead fish in the trash or bury them at least 12″ in the yard. Putting almost dead fish in the freezer is not humane.

Fish Immune Function

Fish Immune Function

When you live in a toilet, like fish do, it’s critical to have a well-functioning immune system. Being ectotherms, fish rely on the temperature of their surrounding environment to dictate their metabolism and immune function. Cold water = limited activity. Warm water = more activity. Hot water = poached. All things considered, a fish’s immune system may be more complex that you give them credit for.

In addition to basic phagocytosis, fish produce B and T lymphocytes. These cells are responsible for antibody production and are the reason why we are able to make vaccines for fish. Vaccines can be given orally, topically, by immersion, or through injection, like your flu shot. Most vaccines are available for aquaculture production and are not used on pet fish. For more information on vaccines in fish, read here.

Mammals produce their white blood cells in their bone marrow. Fish do not have bone marrow and rely on their kidney and spleen to produce blood cells. These cell lines have similar functions to mammalian white blood cells.

A fish’s response to stress has a direct effect on their immune system. When a fish is stressed due to lack of nutrition, bullying, poor water quality, sound irritation or multiple other causes, they release hormones into their bloodstream, specifically cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones initiate an animal’s “fight or flight” reflex, causing secondary changes in blood glucose, lactate, liver and muscle glycogen and osmolality. Over time, these chemical changes cause tertiary changes to behavior and performance, including digestion, reproduction, and immune function.

Acute stress is beneficial where it helps a fish get out of a stressful situation. Chronic stress, however, leads to long-term immune suppression and increased vulnerability to disease.

In order to maintain good immune function, use these key prevention and management strategies:

Rotting Eggs & Fish Don’t Mix

Rotting Eggs & Fish Don’t Mix

Have you ever been cleaning your pond, maybe pulling out dead plants, and smelled rotting eggs? This unfortunate smell is hydrogen sulfide, the product of anaerobic bacteria buried deep in the mud. Hydrogen sulfide is highly toxic to fish and can can death very quickly. Fish who are exposed suffer an increase in secondary infections from bacteria, parasites and fungi.

It is essential to remove your fish from the pond before undertaking any serious deep cleaning, especially into boggy areas with overgrown plants. Set aside a whole day to tackle your cleaning project and put your fish in a temporary tub with an airstone for the day. They will be fine for a few hours without filtration, but no more. Bring in extra help to make sure the project can be completed quickly. If you use a professional company to perform your cleanings, make sure they are aware of hydrogen sulfide and can provide the proper accommodations for your fish. Once all the plant material is removed, the pond must be drained to remove all hydrogen sulfide.