Finned animals increasingly seen as patients

Veterinarians in pet care, industry, education say interest and need expanding
Published on July 18, 2010
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In late April, one of Dr. Helen Roberts' clients drove seven hours from a home near the Catskill Mountains to the veterinarian's clinic in western New York. Another endured a 7½-hour drive from Saratoga.

Both clients came to Dr. Roberts seeking care for their goldfish. Fish owners, Dr. Roberts said, are increasingly aware that veterinarians can not only help their pets but also provide better care than pet store employees can.

Tubing delivers an anesthetic solution to the gills of a koi prepared for exploratory surgery for treatment of a suspected gonadal mass.

Dr. Greg Lewbart, a professor of aquatic, wildlife, and zoologic medicine in the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said veterinary care of farmed salmon, trout, catfish, and oysters is also expanding, particularly as producers work to improve bio-security procedures and surveillance for pathogens and parasites.

"That alone is bringing more DVMs into the fold, because there is a need for it," Dr. Lewbart said.

Aquatic veterinary medicine has grown exponentially in the 22 years since Dr. Lewbart entered the field, he said. Dr. David Scarfe, assistant director of the AVMA Scientific Activities Division, estimated that about 2,500 U.S. veterinarians are currently involved in aquatic veterinary medicine.

"Client demands, emerging regulations, and increasing awareness of continuing education programs to help veterinarians refine their veterinary toolbox for aquatics have been strong driving forces," Dr. Scarfe said.

Ponds and plastic castles

Dr. Jena F. Questen, a veterinarian in Centennial, Colo., who runs a business focusing on the care of koi, said that her income has increased in each of the five years the business has been in operation.

"We're trying to spread the word to the consumer that there is help out there—there are veterinarians trained in fish medicine," Dr. Questen said.

Although only about 2 percent of fish owners reported paying for veterinary expenses for their fish in 2006, that is an increase from 0.6 percent in 2001 and 0.4 percent in 1996, according to the AVMA's 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook. By comparison, about 83 percent of dog owners had at least one veterinary visit in 2006.

The 2009-2010 American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey indicates the number of homes that own freshwater fish dropped from about 14.2 million in 2006 to about 13.3 million in 2008. The number of households with saltwater fish declined from about 800,000 to about 700,000 in the same period.

The number of homes with freshwater fish was, in 2006, at the highest point since at least 1990. The number of homes with saltwater fish was at its highest in 2004 and 2006.

Dr. Roberts said many pet owners seem more willing than in previous years to seek medical care for aquatic and other nontraditional pets. Most clients seek her help for individual fish, but care often extends to groups because of problems such as parasitic infections.

Fish owners have brought in their pets not just to prolong or increase the quality of their pets' lives, but also for euthanasia, Dr. Roberts said. Veterinarians have opportunities in fish medicine, despite the challenges of entering a small field of veterinary medicine, she said.

"If veterinarians are looking to add fish medicine to their practice, I think it can be easily done," Dr. Roberts said.

Dr. Questen became interested in fish medicine after her husband, who builds koi ponds, told her that, when fish developed wounds, the owners typically bought new fish rather than seeking treatment.

Koi owners can pay up to $50,000 for a single fish and may even travel to Japan to select their fish, Dr. Questen said. It's no wonder, therefore, that such owners are willing to seek out veterinary care when their fish develop tumors, infections, or wounds.

Dr. Helen Roberts performs surgery to remove a mass on the side of a bristlenose plecostomus. Histologic examination revealed that the mass was a myxoma.

"The people that are really committed to koi fish have the disposable income, and they're remaining committed to their fish," Dr. Questen said. "They may be making fewer trips to Japan to acquire fish than they were a few years ago, but otherwise, they are just as committed to the ones they've got as they ever were."

Owners of goldfish and common aquarium fish also seek Dr. Questen's help for care beyond what pet stores can deliver.

"I would encourage all veterinarians to at least consider seeing (pet fish) or discussing any problems that their clients may be having with their fish and to not be terribly intimidated," Dr. Questen said.

Net pens and natural waters

The Department of Agriculture's 2005 Census of Aquaculture indicates 4,309 commercial farms reported selling about $1.1 billion in aquaculture products including food fish, ornamental fish, bait fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and reptiles. Of those farms, 1,847 raised animals for food and accounted for $672 million in sales.

State and federal fish hatcheries have been used to replenish public fisheries since at least the 1870s, and both commercial and public aquaculture enterprises have been severely affected by disease outbreaks, Dr. Scarfe said. National emergency declarations for aquatic disease outbreaks have led to state and federal regulations, which, he said, demonstrate the need for more aquatic veterinarians.

Andrew E. Goodwin, PhD, a professor of fish health at the University of Arkansas and the nonveterinarian aquaculture industry representative on the AVMA Aquatic Veterinary Medicine Committee, said state and federal regulations—particularly recent rules related to movement of fish susceptible to viral hemorrhagic septicemia—have increased recognition of veterinarians' roles in ensuring aquatic animal health, assisting farms with health inspections, and providing certifications for fish movement.

"Regulations for movement of fish interstate get more complicated every day, and more and more states recognize that a veterinarian is the appropriate person to help fish farmers with inspections and biosecurity on farms," Dr. Goodwin said.

For example, bait and ornamental fish producers in Dr. Goodwin's home state of Arkansas designed a certification program that requires disease testing modeled after World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) requirements and oversight by the state agriculture department. Compliance with the voluntary program involves veterinarian oversight of diagnostic sample collection.

Other state governments are similarly recognizing the benefit of veterinarian involvement in aquatic livestock health, he said.

"With more requirements, there's a greater need for veterinarians to help the farmers with fish collections, certifications—to work through the whole morass," Dr. Goodwin said.

Aquaculture industry members increasingly recognize that veterinarians can help them, Dr. Goodwin said.

"The greatest need right now for the industry is help with regulatory issues for interstate movement," Dr. Goodwin said. "For veterinarians who are interested in working in commercial aquaculture, that is the foot in the door to developing relationships with farmers that will lead to helping them with diagnostic work, biosecurity concerns, and fish disease treatment."  

Improving future care

Dr. Ruth Francis-Floyd, a professor and the program director for the Aquatic Animal Health program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, said five veterinary students graduating the last weekend of May made up the first class from the college to take part in a specialty program leading to certification in aquatic veterinary medicine. Each of the current veterinary student classes includes between five and eight students who are participating in the program.

While opportunities in aquatic medicine have increased in the past 15 years, Dr. Lewbart said the competition has increased as well. He thinks a few veterinary students in every veterinary class at North Carolina State University are interested in aquatic medicine.

None of the Florida program's graduates have had difficulty finding jobs, Dr. Francis-Floyd said, but it otherwise can be difficult for veterinarians to match their skills with an employer's aquatic care needs. In many cases, she expects veterinarians will create their own jobs by educating prospective employers.

"An employer has to understand that hiring someone with the level of education that a veterinarian brings to the table is a good investment," Dr. Francis-Floyd said.

Many of the UF college's students interested in aquatic medicine seek jobs in zoos or similar facilities, Dr. Francis-Floyd said. But she hopes some will find jobs in aquaculture as positions become available.

And each month, a few people call the college hoping to find a veterinarian who can help their pet fish, Dr. Francis-Floyd said.

"We get calls all the time from people who want to take their fish to see a veterinarian, and most veterinarians aren't able or aren't willing to see fish," Dr. Francis-Floyd said. "And again, there's an issue with expertise: It's not helpful if somebody sees the fish but doesn't have reasonable expertise to offer the client."

The AVMA helps veterinarians, clients, and government agencies locate aquatic veterinarians and diagnostic laboratories through a directory at