December 15, 2002

 

 Veterinarians test the waters of fish medicine

 

Posted Dec. 1, 2002 

Will Goldie soon be joining Tabby and Fido in your waiting room?

Fish pets are making a splash in the practices of a handful of innovative veterinarians who are expanding their practices to accommodate the growing number of koi pond and aquarium enthusiasts.

The AVMA 2002 Household Pet Survey estimates that there were 49.3 million pet fish in 2001, compared with 10.1 million birds and 61.6 million dogs in the same year. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, of the 63 million U.S. households that included a pet in 2000, more than 12 million included fish—that's about 4.7 million more fish-owning households than in 1990. Sales of ornamental fish raised in the United States alone totaled $68.9 million in 1998, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The fish that have garnered the most attention from veterinarians are koi, decorative and hardy relatives of the carp that can live up to 60 years and range in price from $50 to more than $100,000. According to the USDA's most recent census of aquaculture, there were 115 koi-producing farms in the United States with sales totaling $3.9 million in 1998.

Koi often have great emotional value to their owners as well because they are easily distinguishable as individuals, can be fed by hand, and make eye contact, according to experts.

"Koi is really the money fish," said Dr. Julius Tepper, the owner of the Long Island Fish Hospital and a small animal practitioner. "They're remarkably domestic. It makes them conducive to forming a bond with the owner."

They also have decorative value, providing vivid color and unique patterns to backyard ponds. Some are shown competitively.

"They are like a living art form," said Dr. Greg Lewbart, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, who has been practicing fish medicine for 15 years.

Additionally, owners of koi make substantial investments in their backyard ponds, with serious pond enthusiasts spending between $5,000 and $10,000 for a pond setup, Dr. Tepper said.

Uncharted waters
Veterinarians in the field estimate that there are fewer than 100 veterinarians working with pet fish in the United States, though many veterinarians in the field expect their ranks to grow as pet owners become accustomed to the idea of veterinarians treating fish. There are more than 1,800 AVMA members who practice aquatic animal medicine; however, that number includes individuals who work with food fish operations, marine mammals, or in other sectors of aquatic animal medicine.

The University of Florida's aquatic animal health program hopes to help advance the field of fish medicine by educating fish owners, providing low-cost services, and testing various practice models. Dr. Allen Riggs, a veterinarian participating in the College of Veterinary Medicine program, works full time making house calls, doing phone consultations, and treating fish at the college's animal hospital.

"We're looking at all different options to make this practice viable," Dr. Riggs said.

Though there are a handful of university- and aquarium-affiliated veterinarians who work exclusively with fish, most veterinarians in the field practice fish medicine part time.

Dr. Tepper considers his work with fish a hobby pet practice. He rents space for his fish hospital in a greenhouse, where he treats some fish on-site and makes pond visits on the weekends and days off from his small animal practice.

For Dr. Tepper it's working in a groundbreaking field that's got him hooked.

"It's really a thrill," he said. "It's uncharted water financially and professionally."

Already, aquatic medicine is developing into a sophisticated medical practice. According to Dr. Sandra Yosha, a nationally known koi expert and a small animal clinic relief veterinarian, fish veterinarians provide a full range of veterinary services, from preventive medicine to diagnosis to blood work and even surgery.

Dr. Riggs said working with fish is similar to working in a large animal ambulatory practice because fish veterinarians make house calls and often deal with the health of the entire population of fish in a pond.

"It's like herd health or population health that swims," he said.

While population health is important to fish enthusiasts, most consider their fish as pets and may go to great lengths to save a single fish.

Dr. Yosha, who also works as a consultant teaching koi enthusiasts basic husbandry, said fish owners are actively seeking out medical care, even for less valuable fish. She noted one woman who brought in her beloved beta for treatment.

"There is an emotional attachment that sometimes supercedes monetary value," Dr. Yosha said.

Despite the promise of the fish medicine, there are still many challenges facing veterinarians in this field.

One of the greatest challenges is the availability of a wide range of over-the-counter drugs at pet stores.

Dr. Riggs explained that many pet owners treat their pond or aquarium with an array of products before any diagnostics are performed, making an accurate diagnosis difficult.

Dr. Lewbart agreed, "I think that's the biggest problem in the field, the indiscriminate use of chemotherapeutics."

Some owners turn to pet store personnel for advice on treatments, and often, these personnel make diagnoses and suggest treatments without veterinary advice, Dr. Lewbart said.

Veterinarians in this field are working with pet stores to educate staff and encourage the stores to refer customers to veterinarians for diagnoses.

"(Pet stores) no longer see me as competition," Dr. Tepper said, explaining that stores don't profit from consulting, only from selling products.

There are also financial challenges facing fish veterinarians.

Most veterinarians working with fish agree that the field is not yet lucrative enough to support a practice that caters exclusively to fish. Many believe, however, that fish—particularly koi—will one day become another exotic species commonly treated at small animal and large animal practices.

"When I got out of school, avian medicine was where fish medicine is now," Dr. Tepper said. "Now avian medicine is thriving and it's a sophisticated medical practice. I think we'll see the same evolution with fish."