I know a lot of you out there are interested in seeing fish patients, but don’t know where to start. Getting training can be a little daunting, but check out our Aquatic Education Resources page. Once you have the skills, it’s super easy to start seeing clients. Aside from some drugs, nets and buckets, you have everything else you need already! Here’s the secret to increasing your fish clients:
Put a fish tank in your waiting room.
Yes, that is it. I suggest you keep it simple. A basic 10 gallon tank with a few tropical fish or 1-2 goldfish and some decor is all you need. Since most pet fish are kept in multi-pet households with dogs and cats, you already know who your clients are. When anyone asks about the tank, have your staff tell them you see pet fish.
Don’t think fish are worth your time? Well, let’s look at the numbers:
Horse 7.6 Freshwater Fish 139.3 Saltwater Fish 18.8
Small Animal 14.0
Although only 12.5 million households own fish compared to 94 and 90 million households for cats and dogs, respectively, the total number of potential fish patients is significantly more than any other pet. And most pet fish are IN households with cats and dogs!
One of the most common questions our veterinary gets asked is, “what does the typical day of the aquatic veterinarian look like?” Even in the traditional small animal practice, cases and patients vary daily, but for a traveling all-fish veterinarian, the variety increases exponentially. Our chief veterinarian’s day varies widely, taking into account different species, setups, cases, driving and the tasks involved. Since we know professional help for fish is so scattered with questionable quality, our staff strives to help as many fish owners as we can. Let’s take an example of two days our veterinarian had a few weeks ago.
Starting at 7am, our vet drove from our home office to a property in Carmel to administer parasite medication to two 5,000 gallon koi ponds. The veterinarian had been at the property a few days before for their annual spring check up and found a severe Trichodina infestation. The owners were away, however, and the fish needed immediate treatment since there had already been some deaths. A third pond on the property was not infected and therefore did not require mediation. When the owners returned in a few days, they would start flushing the medication out of their system. (Total miles: 42)
After a quick stop over at the office to check in with our hospital manager, the vet was off to Moraga in order to check a pond of koi in a 6,000 gallon pond. This pond has a tricky layout and requires the use of a seine net to catch any fish. Unfortunately, this pond has had a rough bout of disease over the past year and a half. A few fish have developed thick, ulcerated growths around their mouths and many have died. The newest fish showing signs was cleaned and medicated. And although a few parasites were noted, the owner elected to have the fish not be treated at this time. When ponds are coming through the spring, the fishes’s immune system can lag behind the fast-reproducing parasites and bacteria. As the weather warms, their immune system usually can catch up, but only if parasite loads are not too high. With this particular pond, the vet felt comfortable leaving the fish to be medicated at the discretion of the owner. (Total miles: 127)
From there, and through early afternoon Bay Bridge traffic, the vet continued on to Montara to deliver medication for a saltwater tank she had seen the previous day. After diagnosing marine Ich (Cryptocaryon) and working with the owner to craft a treatment protocol, it was necessary to move the fish out of their tank, away from the corals and invertebrates, and treat them separately. In addition to dropping off the medication, the vet was responsible for catching the fish and moving them to their new hospital tank. The clownfish from the previous day was the easiest to catch and probably the most heavily infested. Over 2 hours, the wrasse, tang, foxface, damsel and cardinal fish joined their friend in the new hospital tank. However, the hawkfish was able to elude the vet with assistance from both owners. Rather than stress this fish out more, and considering the parasite was already affecting his gill function, the owners decided to lure the fish out and catch him later that evening. 6 out of 7 fish with two large coral inserts would be the best the vet could do. Unfortunately, not everything goes to plan some times. Ending the day, the vet headed home to type up notes and prep for the next day. (Total miles: 97)
The vet’s day starts in Santa Cruz with a Spring Pond Health Check. This is a typical appointment where the pond or tank is given a regular check up, including water quality testing and a few fish physicals under sedation. With this pond, two of the koi were sporting unique bulges. One grey koi had a large bulge over her middle, while another white koi had one on his underside just cranial to his anus. With the rest of the pond checking out healthy, our vet employed an ultrasound to check out the inner workings of the two koi. It was discovered
that the grey koi had a large pocket of air right next to his skin, causing the bulge. Unfortunately, ultrasound does not work well on air, so a radiograph or x-ray was discussed. The owner declined. The white koi ended up with a pocket of irregular tissue and fluid indicating a tumor. Tumors of this nature are common in koi. The owner elected not to do surgery. As long as the fish is swimming, eating and acting like a normal fish, we can leave them in the pond to enjoy the most of their life. (Total miles: 5)
From there, the vet journeyed over route 17 to San Jose to see a fancy goldfish with a BIG anchor worm infestation. (Did you know we travel over 17 almost every day?) While bent over the family dinner table, the vet removed over 60 worms from the fish’s body and oral cavity. A plan was made with the owner to clean out his tank to get all the juveniles with medication to be sent later. Unfortunately, for this little fish, he passed away a few days later. Anchor worms, especially those big enough to see, reproduce extremely quickly and this fish had been fighting them since he arrived at the home 3 months prior. We are very sad to hear about his passing. (Total miles: 33)
On the way back to the office, the vet stopped off at a home in Ben Lomond to see a tank of 19-year-old goldfish. About 2 years prior, one of the fish developed neurologic issues due to severe ammonia levels. His spine was bent and he was unable to swim. Through lots of careful care, this fish recovered fully and has been able to swim about his tank like a normal fish. He has some neurologic issues remaining, but he is a remarkable little fish. Now, it’s his friend that is sick. His tankmate, who showed no signs secondary to the ammonia event, has developed skin edema, commonly called dropsy. As discussed in previous posts, dropsy is a physical manifestation of kidney disease. Finding nothing wrong with the water, the fish was started on antimicrobial therapy. We found that the owner had been feeding a can of flakes that were very old. As fish flakes are exposed to air, they lose their water-soluble vitamins, including vitamin C. Without adequate vitamin support, fish can get sick much easier, which is probably what happened in this case. A week later, the fish completed the antimicrobial therapy and is looking forward to a new diet. (Total miles: 35)
In between our first and second appointments, we were contacted by one of our clients that he had found a fish dead in his pond that morning. Worried about the safety of the rest of the fish in his pond, he saved the body and was able to get it to our hospital. On the way to the hospital to check out the dead fish, the vet stopped off at his pond to check the rest of the fish. After the water and all fish checked out okay, the vet made it back to the office for the necropsy. The poor, dead koi had suffered from a severe infection in his swim bladder. The swim bladder itself had ruptured and leaked pus all throughout the coelomic cavity. This bacteria the attacked the other organs and the fish passed away. Although sad for the loss of the fish, it does not suggest that this fish passed his disease on to any other fish in the pond. There were likely no clinical signs other than possibly a slight negative buoyancy. Since the pond is only 3 feet deep at the center, the owner may to have noticed anything amiss. (Total miles: 26)
And so concludes two days on the road with our veterinarian. In a total of 365 miles, our vet had the variety of fish issues and therapies. Working in the veterinary field is a variety in itself, but adding fish creates a whole new dimension. We will continue to work hard to serve all fish owners and enthusiasts anywhere we can.
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.
You MUST get good grades in undergrad.
You MUST go to veterinary school.
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.
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:
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
3.59 and graduated with honors magna cum laude.)
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!)
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.)
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.)
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.)
Five years to the day, something that has never been done before got started. The FIRST veterinarian to pursue an all-aquatic veterinary practice, not on the side or part of a previously established veterinary practice, opened her clinic doors. No one had ever heard of this specialty before. Not in California or many other states. And not only a veterinarian, but a traveling one that could show up and take care of things pond or tank-side. We didn’t have a single client for over 2 months. Our first year, we had 53 appointments for 29 clients. We now have over 350 clients and almost 50 appointments in our first two months, even with our chief vet being out for 3 weeks. Our range started with Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. We now cover 22 counties and have traveled as far north as Roseville and south as Torrance. That’s 420 miles of 800 miles total for California! We never mind the far drives. We know how important our services are to fish owners everywhere!
Our staff has grown from a one-person operation to a two business hospital/store with 5 total employees. Expertly trained by our veterinary leader, this staff is a wealth of fish knowledge and can solve most common husbandry problems without veterinary intervention. Our hospital manager, Sara, is started on her vet tech degree, and can triage most callers issues before the vet even knows about them. Our answering service is an amazing addition to our team. They talk to our callers and can send us a detailed summary of all the calls coming into the hospital. It allows us to filter these through and decide which calls get priority. When we started, we got a call or two per week. Now, there are days when our phones don’t stop ringing. We just can’t get to everyone at once, so the answering service helps us out immeasurably.
And don’t forget our publications! Our children’s book series, Boo & Bubbles, was started to make sure that families had all the correct information regarding adopting a pet fish. We see countless instances where some prior knowledge or general help with basic husbandry issues could have solved problems swiftly. Our first book, Boo & Bubbles, addresses tank setup, bringing your fish home from the store and acclimation. The second, Boo & Bubbles: A Visit from the Fish Vet, covers maintenance and what to do when your fish gets sick. It is the first appearance of a fish veterinarian in literature. The third, to be available this coming April, will cover quarantine and adding fish to the same system. This is a very accessible children’s series that needs to be a part of any new fish family’s library. Our koi book, Healthy Koi Made Easy, just came out with its second publication, updated with new pictures and chapters. This highly accessible koi manual covers all topics new and seasoned fish owners should know, including water quality, signs of disease and quarantine. It is available in softcover, PDF and on Kindle.
It has been a very challenging five years since our inception. We are attempting a business model with no plans or blueprint. Other veterinarians have tried aquatic medicine and settled on making it a side profession. We are modifying that plan and paving the way for future veterinarians to bring aquatic practice into their hospitals in any way possible. All fish deserve high quality veterinary care, and we will make sure it happens. In the last five years, our company his made a lasting impact on the veterinary profession, and we will continue to do so for the next 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 years and on.
It’s that time of year when everything in a koi pond is awake and active. Parasites bloom, tumors grow, fish create waste and filters need to handle it. For those of you who do not get an inside look at our hospital, here’s what you need to know about busy season:
Please remember, we have only one veterinarian. We will be making plans to change this as soon as possible. This is not a specialty that many veterinarians can handle even at a basic level at this point.
Our one veterinarian is hardly ever in the office. She’s out seeing ponds and tanks every single day. We have put in place a great staff to handle small questions and appointment scheduling, but they are not veterinarians.
Our one veterinarian cannot take calls from the road. Taking calls means writing things down. Her memory is not that good to remember every thing you said. This cannot be accomplished without getting in a horrible car crash. We like our veterinarian and would like to keep her around a long time. So, no calls while on the road is a hard rule.
If you want help fast, call our office and do not email us. Our phone number is (831) 346-6151. Our answering service will sometimes answer. This is because we are on the phone with someone else. Please answer the questions they ask. If you refuse to answer their questions and just demand a call back, we are not as enthusiastic to respond. Our veterinarian’s email gets checked twice a day, if you’re lucky. Any emails regarding questions or appointments is forwarded to our hospital staff.
We are very sorry we cannot give out free advice. We understand that we are a uniquely specialized veterinary hospital, and we have cheap phone and email consultation options in place. These cannot take the place of a face-to-face visit and we have limited options with these interactions. However, if you are trying to get around the fees of our hospital or another fish veterinarian, we will pass you along to another service. In our area, the next closest fish veterinarian is in Davis, CA or San Diego, CA. That’s pretty much it for all of California and we are the only ones who will come to you. We advise you do not make our jobs any harder. Berating or yelling profanity at our staff will result in immediate cessation of all future services.
Our staff cannot perform magic. We can get you many more answers than your regular veterinarian, but we do not have God-like powers. As much as we wish we did, not all problems can be solved with a simple shot. Sometimes, illnesses and injuries take time and money to make right. If you have questions about a prognosis or procedure, please ask! If you ask the same question again and again, we will not change our answer.
A simple ‘thank you’ and common courtesy go a long way. This applies to all walks of life, but we sure notice when a client is friendly. It makes our days better when we are running about returning calls, following up on lab results and trying to fit in all the pet fish between Santa Rosa and Fresno (234 miles).
We appreciate all of our clients and ask that you please be patient with us! Busy season will not last forever (at least that’s what we tell ourselves daily). Here’s to happy, healthy fish!