To an Aquatic Veterinarian, It’s Never ‘Just a Fish’

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This article is part of our special Pets section, about scientists’ growing interest in our companion animals.


Many students enter veterinary school with career aspirations that date back to childhood, when they fell in love with the idea of ​​serving cats and dogs, or horses, or the exotic animals at the zoo. Jessie Sanders came to vet school with a more singular passion. “I was the only weird fish kid,” she said.

It was an interest that had surprised even her. In college, Dr. Sanders started volunteering at an aquarium, hoping to work with the whales. Instead, she was assigned to the fishing team – and fell hard for her fin attacks.

“I just love fish,” she said. “I like the way they are built. I like the way they interact with the environment. And there’s still so much we just don’t know about all the little internal workings.”

Today, Dr. Sanders Aquatic Veterinary Services, whose patients include Carnival goldfish, pet store bettas and award-winning koi worth tens of thousands of dollars. Last year, she became one of the first ten veterinarians to receive board certification in fish practice, a brand new accreditation.

Dr. Sanders spoke to The New York Times about life as a fish veterinarian. Her story was based on two conversations, and her answers were edited and condensed.

I’ve done nothing but pet fishing for ten years, and it’s been wonderful and challenging. I love the challenge of putting everything in an underwater environment. And the amount of personalities you find in fish – they have so many little quirks. Some of them are super chill and nice, and some of them are complete terrors.

We had a hospital for about three years. Unfortunately, a 24-hour gym came up that shared the adjacent wall, and they happily played all night long. Fish have an organ known as a lateral line that picks up vibrations; This way they can detect predators and swim together in a school. Obviously having rock music played in front of you all night is very stressful. We lost everything related to that wall within the first month they opened.

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We now only have a mobile practice. We serve the greater San Francisco Bay Area. I drive three to eight hours a day. When I get there, it’s the same as taking your cat or dog to the vet. We discuss: what’s going on? Have they eaten? Is there anything in particular that you would like me to look very closely at?

The most common “disease” we see in fish is actually poor water chemistry. Just like the air we breathe, the water a fish swims in is critical to its overall health. If you just breathe in pollution, you will be susceptible to more diseases. So we check the water chemistry; if it’s terrible, the fish are already stressed. I don’t want to get my hands on them because that could make things worse.

Then you have to catch the fish. I have a lot of different nets. The cute little square aquarium nets for aquarium fish – I usually use one on each side of the fish and press them together. In larger ponds I use seine nets. They have floats on the top and weights on the bottom. I have ponds so big that I have to use two nets and go in there with my waders. It’s one of those things you have to practice. No one is good when they start, but I’m really good at it now.

After I catch them, they are transferred to the research pool. I usually have a container of their aquarium or their pond water ready to go, with some sedatives. For most of my physical examinations I prefer to have the fish lightly anesthetized. It’s less stress for them; trying to stop a wet, slippery torpedo won’t really be to our advantage. We just need them to be manageable. They may wiggle their fin at me, but once they’re sedated, I can get a really good look at their entire body.

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We usually do skin mucus and gill biopsies. Skin mucus biopsy usually only looks for parasites, which can irritate fish and make them lethargic. The gill biopsies are more important because they can show us what their respiratory system is doing. It gives us a great diagnostic tool without having to put a tube down our throat.

If we need to do any more diagnostics, ultrasound or x-rays, we can do it while the fish is sleeping. One customer has a pond with goldfish, and there is one goldfish that just hasn’t been able to get up and swim with everyone; she’s a bit stuck at the bottom. We’re going to take x-rays.

A buoyancy disorder occurs when a fish that should be able to swim in the middle of the water column sinks to the bottom or floats to the surface. It is very important for fish with buoyancy disorders that we can evaluate their internal anatomy – especially their swim bladder, a small air sac that helps them float.

It may also have to do with nutrition. This is common in goldfish ponds, where fish float after feeding. If there is a lot of competition and limited food at feeding time, it is madness. They eat, eat, eat; they suck in a little too much air.

There are many different levels to fishing operations. I do a lot of enucleations, which are eyeball removals. In fish these are so simple; they have no eyelids and do not require a bulb to appear normal. I made one for a little goldfish who had an abscess in her eye. The fish was just completely miserable. We were able to get that out, and the next day the owner says, ‘She’s a completely different fish. She’s eating, she’s strolling around.” They heal beautifully every time.

We see ovarian cancer very often in koi. If we catch it early enough, we can perform surgery to remove it. We use a higher dose of the sedative. We have a special trough where the fish sit upright. They sit above a small reservoir of anesthetized water. There is an aquarium pump that pumps it through a tube up into the fish’s mouth, it goes over their gills, down the side of their body and then back to the reservoir.

The biggest challenge is that the public doesn’t even know that fish veterinarians exist. Even within our own profession we are ridiculed. Fish are generally not respected as pets. Like, ‘Why are you wasting your time? It’s just a fish.” For many people it is not just a fish. It is a real living and breathing animal that needs care and respect. Many fish are brought into the home as training pets and then end up with the short end of the stick.

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