Do Fish Need to See a Vet?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

do fish need to see a vet

Story at-a-glance -

  • Proper care for a pet fish requires not only careful attention to water quality, temperature and environmental enrichment, but also visits to the veterinarian, especially if your fish seems sick or “off”
  • Signs of illness in fish include changes in eating habits or buoyancy, lesions or discoloration on the skin or an asymmetrical body shape
  • Poor water quality is a leading culprit, as it can dampen your pet’s immune system, making it more susceptible to illness and disease
  • Infectious diseases are also common in fish and may be introduced if you add a new fish to the tank
  • Depending on the problem, fish may receive fecal testing, gill biopsies, x-rays, skin scraping, medications and even surgery
  • The American Association of Fish Veterinarians maintains a “Find a Fish Vet” locator to help you locate a provider near you

Fish are, sadly, sometimes regarded as “throwaway” pets, despite the fact that they are quite intelligent and capable of feeling pain. It’s also often assumed that fish don’t live very long, but while some fish live only a few years, others, like goldfish and koi, can live to be 20 or 40 years, provided they receive proper care.

Proper care for a pet fish requires not only careful attention to water quality, temperature and environmental enrichment, but also visits to the veterinarian, especially if your fish seems sick or “off.”

When Should Your Fish See a Vet?

Like most animals, fish can be stoic and hide signs of illness until they’re very sick. It’s important to watch for signs of sickness, including changes in eating habits or buoyancy, lesions or discoloration on the skin or an enlarged belly, and seek professional care as needed. Signs that your fish may require veterinary care include:

Loss of appetite

Rapid gill movements

Changes in buoyancy (swimming position in the water column)

Hiding (for a normally social fish) or avoiding tank areas

Clamping fins against the body

Flashing (rubbing against objects)

CA Fish Vet, which specializes in aquatic veterinary services, adds that an asymmetrical body shape, lumps and bumps or misshapen fins can also signal a problem. “Most of the time, these changes are fairly obvious, but especially in the case of coelomic tumors, subtle changes can be very hard to spot,” they note.1

How do fish get sick? Poor water quality is a leading culprit, as it can dampen your pet’s immune system, making it more susceptible to illness and disease.2 For this reason, if you take your fish to the vet, bring a sample of his tank water along with you. Improper temperature, pH or salt levels, or dirty, polluted water can make your fish sick. Infectious diseases are also common in fish and may be introduced if you add a new fish to the tank. Fish can suffer from viral, bacterial, fungal or parasitic infections.

What Types of Services Do Fish Vets Provide?

The News-Gazette featured the story of a University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine student who noticed a black discoloration on the fin of her betta fish. She took him in to see a fish vet, who conducted a full examination.3

A full exam on a fish includes gaining information on the fish’s environment and food sources, as well as observing the fish while he’s swimming. The fish may also be anesthetized, via a powder that’s added to his tank, so the veterinarian can more closely check his eyes, gills and mouth. The fish may be kept out of water for brief periods while this takes place.

In the betta fish’s case, a mucus scrape, clip of the gill and scraping of the lesion were performed, which revealed no abnormal cells. A biopsy of the abnormal fin was then taken, which revealed a deep bacterial infection, which was treated by adding a low concentration of antibiotic to his tank water. If medication is needed, they may be administered via medicated feed, injection or the water in their tank.4

Depending on the problem, fish may also receive fecal testing, biopsies, x-rays or skin scraping. They can even undergo surgery, surrounded by moist sponges so they don’t dry out. In one case handled by CA Fish Vet, a shovelnose catfish named Rocky had to have surgery to remove over 1 pound of rocky substrate that he’d consumed. In another case, a fancy ranchu goldfish named Lemon had surgery to fix a jaw deformity.5

Where Can You Find a Veterinarian for Your Fish?

The American Association of Fish Veterinarians maintains a “Find a Fish Vet” locator to help you locate a provider near you.6 Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find veterinarians who specialize in aquatic species like fish, so some travelling may be required. In some cases, however, you may be able to find a fish veterinarian who will come to you, which puts far less stress on the fish.

While it may initially seem strange to seek veterinary care for a fish, these pets require care just like their furry and feathered counterparts, and their bonds with their owners can be just as strong. Dr. Krista Keller, a specialist in zoological medicine who treated the betta fish, told The News-Gazette:7

“It doesn’t matter how much a fish may have cost, as the bond between a fish and their human family members can be quite strong … Taking an animal to the veterinarian can be scary, whether the animal is furry, finned, feathered or otherwise. Call ahead to the veterinary practice to make sure they include fish among the patients they treat. Then you can feel more comfortable that the experience will be a positive one.”

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