For an aquatic veterinarian it’s never ‘just a fish’

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 ​​caring for cats and dogs, or horses, or the exotic animals at the zoo. Jessie Sanders came to veterinary school with a more specific passion. “I was the only weird fish kid,” she said.

It was an interest that had surprised even her. In college, Dr. Sanders had volunteered at an aquarium, hoping to work with the whales. Instead, she was assigned to the fish team—and suffered greatly for her fin attacks.

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

Today, Dr. runs Sanders Aquatic veterinary serviceswith patients including carnival goldfish, pet store bettas and tens of thousands of dollars worth of prized koi. Last year, she became one of the first 10 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 have been 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 along and shared the adjacent wall, and they liked to play their music all night long. Fish have an organ called a lateral line that picks up vibrations; that’s how they can detect predators, swim together in a school. It’s obviously very stressful to have rock music coming at you all night long. We lost everything that had to do with that wall within the first month of being open.

We’re now a mobile practice only. We serve the entire San Francisco Bay Area. I drive three to eight hours a day. When I get there, it’s like taking your cat or dog to the vet. We have a conversation: What’s going on? Have they eaten? Is there anything specific I need to look 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 a bit. In larger ponds I use seine nets. They have floats at the top and weights at the bottom. I have ponds so big that I have to use two nets and go into them with my waders. It’s one of those things you have to practice. No one is good at first, but I’m really good at it now.

After I catch them, they are transferred to the research tank. I usually have a tub of their aquarium or their pond water ready with some sedatives. For most of my physical examinations I prefer the fish to be lightly anesthetized. That is less stressful for them; trying to control a wet, slippery torpedo is not really to our advantage. We just want them to be manageable. So they might waggle a fin at me, but once they’re sedated, I can get a good look at their entire body.

Most commonly, we do skin mucus and gill biopsies. Skin mucus biopsy is primarily 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 stick a tube down their throat.

If we need to do any more diagnostics, ultrasound, or x-rays, we can do that while the fish is asleep. One client has a pond with goldfish, and there is one goldfish that just hasn’t been able to get up and swim with everybody else; she’s kind of stuck on the bottom. We’re going to do 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 – particularly their swim bladder, a small air sac that helps them float.

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

This can be corrected by spreading out the feedings or feeding a sinking diet. Many fish diets float because it allows owners to evaluate them at the surface, and it is obviously much more interactive. Koi and goldfish are naturally bottom-feeding fish. But we have trained them — because they are golden retrievers, they will do anything for food — to come to the surface during feeding.

There are many different levels of surgery for fish. I do a lot of enucleations, which is removing the eyeball. With fish, they are very easy; they don’t need eyelids or any kind of eyeball to look normal. I did one on a little goldfish that actually had an abscess in her eye. The fish was just miserable. We were able to get it out and the next day the owner said, “She’s a completely different fish. She’s eating, she’s running around.” They heal beautifully every time.

We see ovarian cancer very often in koi. If we catch it early enough, we can remove it surgically. We use a higher dose of the sedative. We have a special tank in which the fish sits upright. They sit above a small reservoir of anesthetized water. There is an aquarium pump that pumps the water up through a tube into the fish’s mouth, it goes over their gills, runs 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.” To many people, it’s not just a fish. It’s a real living, breathing animal that needs care and respect. Many fish are taken in as practice animals and end up losing out.

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