Flush It or Fix It? Ask Fish Vets

Five year old Monty had cancerous tumours behind his left eye. Testing revealed that cancerous cells had metastasized to Monty’s back. The forty-five minute surgery to save Monty’s life was nail-bitingly tense, but Monty made it through. In fact, he recovered swimmingly and it doesn’t get better than that for a pet goldfish. Or for Monty’s human family who loved him so much they were willing to pay £200 to the fish vets who saved him.

How Fish Vets Came to Be

Veterinarians used to treat livestock almost exclusively. Then in the 1950’s, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin started the world’s love affair with dogs and, by the 1970’s, it was possible to get first-rate medical care for your pooch. Cats got attention around the same time as dogs. Then, in the 1980’s, birds got their due.goldfish and black fish in aquarium with pink pebbles

The economic theory behind the development of veterinary medicine is really quite simple. Where there’s a need, someone’s going to fill it. A review of the numbers would therefore suggest that fish vets should be commonplace and far from Wow Note worthy. There are 151 million pet fish in the United States and 8.35 million in Canada. In the United Kingdom, 8% of the pet-owning population own indoor fish and 5% own pond fish. And some of those fish are expensive! A single award-winning Koi fish can start at $30,000 and live for fifty years.

In addition to owners of pet fish, there are others who need help such as fish farmers (of ornamental fish or food fish), wholesalers and retailers, and staff of public aquariums.

So why haven’t fish vets hit the mainstream yet? My theory is that the human-fish bond isn’t as strong as our bond with just about any other creature, although members of this Betta fish center chat room would disagree. (I’m not sure how to take the comment of one person who said that bath time was an especially important bonding opportunity.)

Others, like the American Association of Fish Veterinarians, believe it is just a matter of time.

How to Tell if Your Fish is Sick

I am ashamed to admit that I have a history of flushed fish on my conscience. So, in an effort to make amends, I offer this comprehensive list of signs that your fish might be sick.

No one can feel as helpless as the owner of a sick goldfish.

Kim Hubbard

Rapid breathing–gill covers moving really fast Abnormal swimming–upside down or on its side
Loss of appetite Stays by itself; won’t swim with its fish buddies
Hanging just below the water surface Skin lesions such as white spots or cotton wool growths
Clamped fins Colour changes–darkened or pale
Flashing–rapidly turning to side so flash of scales shows Scratching–rubbing against rocks

When You Need a Tank Call

goldfish in bowl with home for sale sign
Fish get sick for three reasons:

  1. Bad Environment–You might have the incorrect pH level or the wrong water temperature for your particular species of fish. Although many fish vets will allow you to bring your fish into a clinic, there’s a fish vet in Australia who brings his mobile fish hospital to your home because he believes that environment plays such a big role in fish health and wellbeing.
  2. Infectious Diseases–bacterial, viral, or parasitic. The most common source of an infectious disease outbreak is the introduction of a new fish to the tank. New fish should always be kept in a separate tank for the first month.
  3. Physical Ailments–This category includes congenital abnormalities, injuries, and even constipation. (Honestly, I had no idea!) Stressed fish, like stressed people, are more prone to disease.

Treatment for Sick Fish

Apparently, veterinarians are legally prohibited from making a diagnosis without seeing the patient. Again, like people, dogs and cats, symptoms are usually not specific to one disease.

If you decide to take your fish to a vet, they will use a combination of clinical examination, water analysis, and microscopy to determine the source of your pet’s problem.

Next steps can then be anything from home remedies to surgery. For example, when fish are floating upside down, it’s because of an infection or obstruction in their swim bladder. The surgical solution is to insert a tiny stone in the fish’s abdomen to weigh it down. The home remedy is to feed it a single green pea (canned or cooked, lightly crushed) once a day.

If you go the surgical route for anything fish-related you might wonder, as I did, how a fish stays alive out of water. The answer is that oxygenated water, with anaesthetic, is flushed continuously through their gills and eyes.

Between home remedies and surgery, there’s a range of treatment options available. Here’s a 1 and a half minute video of a Koi fish getting an ultrasound.

Well, what do you think? Would you take your fish to a vet?

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  1. Hi, Karen – Again, this is another thing that I knew absolutely nothing about. This post seems to serve as a strong Western contrast to your Wabi-Sabi piece that you also shared today. Quite thought-provoking!

  2. WOW, indeed. I had no idea that there were vets for fish. Given the price of a single Koi fish and how long they can live I can sort of see why you would want to do everything you could to protect and heal that kind of investment. Goldfish, though? Seriously? I have flushed much fish in my past too. We used to have two very large tanks with fish such as tangs, angel fish, neons, betas and the like. Your article is correct, at least for me it was, the human-pet bond is not as strong as it is with say a cat or dog. I was a little sad at having to flush the fish I did but when my cats passed away or had to be euthanized I grieved much as I would for a human. Goldfish and the types of fish I had in those tanks were not that expensive and I would not be able to justify spending money on vet care for them. It is fascinating how they keep the fish alive during surgery and I thank you for posting this Wow Note. As I have said before, I never leave this site without learning something new or being able to share my thoughts on various subjects. 😀

    1. Thank you, Susan. I agree with you completely. While I would NEVER contemplate spending $30,000 plus on a fish, Koi or otherwise, I too can see why doing so would make you want to have a fish vet on speed dial. But Monty the goldfish? Nope, I just can’t imagine spending the equivalent of $400 or even $40 to keep him going.
      Speaking of Koi, one of the articles I read while doing research for this post said that a guy had been offered $200,000 for his prize Koi fish after a fish show and he turned it down. Geesh!

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