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Need to fix a broken fin? Call the fish doctor

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By Christie Nicholson
Article published in The Chicago Tribune, The Oakland Tribune, The Berkshire Eagle, The Tri-Valley Herald, and other papers in the U.S.

People used to flush sick fish down the toilet, but these days an increasing number of pet owners are taking their goldfish to a veterinarian. Pet fish are now receiving medical care for broken fins, swimming disorders and cancerous tumors.

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Dr. Gregory Lewbart found his latest patient to be a puzzling case. He arrived in Lewbart’s office with a swollen eye and bloated stomach. Lewbart took X-rays, but saw nothing unusual. To be thorough he decided to do an ultrasound.

Lewbart put the patient in a clear plastic bag with some water and held the ultrasound wand up to the bag.

Lewbart’s patient was a Siamese fighting fish named Rusty with flowing red fins, and little more than the size of two nickels.

The vast majority of fish treated by veterinarians used to be the fancy tropical varieties, but vets are now treating the $1 goldfish brought home from a child’s birthday party or won at the county fair. When a pet fish gets sick, concerned pet owners are discovering that top-notch help is available.

“The whole area has grown exponentially in the last 10 years,” said Lewbart, also a professor of aquatic medicine at North Carolina State University. “Used to be people had to mail their sick fish to me. Now we have about 200 fish vets across the U.S. who see about two fish per week on average.”

And fish, by the way, “are very amenable to ultrasound,” said Dr. Craig Harms, assistant professor of aquatic animal medicine at North Carolina State. “The probe can record through the water, and we get good, clear images.”

In 1992 North Carolina State began the country’s first residency program for fish medicine. Since then, the University of Florida has started its own residency program and there are medical fellowships focused solely on fish care.

There are veterinarians who remove tumors, use pins to repair broken fins, give CAT scans, implant glass eyes and even embed cork into the backs of fish to solve swimming problems. Costs for surgery can range from $75 to $1,000. X-rays cost $85, a CAT scan is about $300 and an MRI can cost up to $1,200.

In 2003 the first laser surgery on a pet fish was performed on a 4-ounce goldfish named Granny. Granny had an inch-long cancerous tumor on her skin. To prep her for surgery, the vets at North Carolina State put her in a tub of water mixed with anesthetic until she stopped moving. Then they placed her on a shallow tray and prodded her to ensure that she was sedated. During surgery they pumped water and anesthetic over her gills through a narrow rubber tube that fit inside her mouth.

Granny, who is now 5 years old, recovered well, and the cancer never returned. But recently she developed a swimming disorder that left her floating upside down at the bottom of her tank. Like putting water wings on a 2-year-old, Lewbart attached a cork to Granny’s dorsal fin. The cork keeps her afloat and right side up.

Buoyancy problems are common and can cause fish to float in alarming ways. Three years ago Joann Mead found her daughter’s goldfish, Raven, floating on the surface of the water, but still alive. Fearing her daughter would be upset to find Raven in such a condition, she contacted Dr. Helen Roberts, a fish veterinarian in Orchard Park, N.Y., and made the six-hour drive to her clinic. Roberts inserted a quartz stone inside Raven’s swim bladder, weighing Raven down so she wouldn’t float up to the surface. The X-rays and surgery cost well over $200.

Mead said her friends told her she was crazy for spending so much time and money on a fish. But Mead feels she has a responsibility as a pet owner.

“Fin, feather or fur, there is a moral obligation to take care of that pet no matter what,” she explained.

Others take serious care of their fish not because they are pets, but because they enter the fish in fish shows, an increasingly popular pastime. Some spend up to $10,000 for prize-winning koi fish, and are eager to keep their fish in top shape, said Dr. Galen Hansen of San Diego, who is one of the country’s top judges of koi and an editor at Koi magazine.

For many, keeping exotic fish is a personal hobby. Michael Schinas of Tonawanda, N.Y., is spending $30,000 to build a 3,100-gallon indoor pond with an eight-foot waterfall to house his two Amazonian catfish as well as eels, baby swordtails and cichlids.

Of course, there are fish owners like Jacob Braude of Maplewood, N.J., who would never spend money taking a fish to the vet. “There is no sign of affection from a fish,” he said. “They come from a cold and wet world that is completely foreign. I can’t touch them; their brain is small; and there’s no real connection.”

But many owners say that despite the water barrier, they form strong bonds with their fish, and their pets become members of the family, each with a distinct personality.

Schinas said his red-tailed, 10-pound catfish, Gracie, swims over to him as soon as he walks in the door. “She’ll wag her tail and move her whiskers, and you get the impression she’s happy,” Schinas said. The fish has also forced the 40-pound cover off her tank, letting Schinas know he was late with her dinner.

For Schinas, Gracie is more than just a hobby. When bacteria stripped her of her scales and made her look as though she had been filleted, he paid Roberts to make several house calls to inject Gracie with antibiotics. The treatment cost $1,500, but Gracie is cured and Schinas is relieved.

Granny’s owner is similarly attached to her fish. “She can see me if I wave from across the room,” said Amanda Willis of Greensboro, N.C. “I kiss her through the glass, and I get a real sense we are communicating.”

Kelly McDaniel from Myrtle Beach, S.C., who owned Rusty the Siamese fighting fish, grew up around dogs and never understood people who kept fish as pets.

“I always thought fish were for weird people,” she said. “Why would anyone want a fish?”

But last Christmas, a co-worker bought her a little betta called Buffy, and in a matter of weeks she was hooked. She bought more bettas, including Rusty, and was surprised at how much personality each fish displayed.

“As soon as I’d come within five feet of Rusty’s tank, he’d start dancing,” she said. “He’d whip up to the top of the tank for me to pet him.”

So when his stomach puffed out as if he had swallowed two marbles, she packed him up and made the three-hour drive to Lewbart’s offices at North Carolina State.

“If someone told me I’d be getting an ultrasound done on a pet fish, I’d have thought they were loony tunes,” McDaniel said.

The doctors tried everything to save Rusty. They ruled out tumors, tried countless antibiotic dips and constipation relief. McDaniel even used Epsom salts in an attempt to draw fluid from his stomach. Nothing worked.

That week Rusty hunkered low in a corner of his tank. Knowing he was getting worse, McDaniel stayed up all night to console him. But at 4 a.m. when she went to check on him, she saw that he had died.

“I told him I loved him and that I had tried everything to take care of him,” she said. “But he was suffering and wasn’t himself. As much as I didn’t want him to go, I didn’t want him to linger; I didn’t want him suffer any longer.”

This entry was written by Christie, posted on February 20, 2007 at 12:13 pm, filed under Home, Print. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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