Fish in aquarium

Listen to the podcast:

Discuss episodes with the Facebook group

Are you interested in adding pet fish to your home? Dive into this fun-filled episode with Dr. Ashley Emanuele, certified aquatic veterinarian, and you’ll be up to the gills with information on how to care for these finned friends. Learn how bacteria are necessary to keep your fish swimming along, what’s wrong with Elmo’s fish tank, and how giving a fish a pea will not fix everything. This is a fascinating episode that will have you hooked, even if fish don’t float your boat.

Welcome, Dr. Asheley Emanuele!

Dr. Emanuele holding a giant rabbit

[00:01:04] Dr. Lancellotti: Welcome, everyone, to Your Vet Wants To Know. I have really exciting episode today with Dr. Ashley Emanuele, who is an aquatic veterinarian. She is going to be talking to us about pet fish, and how to care for them, so that you can get the most out of your enjoyable finned friends. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Emanuele. 

[00:01:27] Dr. Emanuele: Thank you so much. I’m really excited. 

[00:01:30] Dr. Lancellotti: Absolutely. So tell me a little bit about how you got into pet fish or aquatic animal medicine. 

[00:01:39] Dr. Emanuele: Sure. I started my career, in caring for the more slimy animals among us, with some early days in New Jersey at the Jersey Shore. I used to flip rocks and be off wandering the more dangerous parts of the beach, trying to find friends (of the animal variety not the people variety). Then, I would just drag my parents to every aquarium. No matter where we vacationed, we would have to find the nearest aquarium. 

[00:02:03] Dr. Lancellotti: You said the Jersey shore. Did you ever go to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine? 

[00:02:08] Dr. Emanuele: Yes. Ugh! Amazing! And I was in college, up in New England, on the Mystic Aquariums Marine Mammal Stranding team. I never got called, but I was like READY. I was so ready! 

[00:02:18] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s so cool. Yeah, I volunteered there one summer and I just loved it. I think it’s a great facility, so I was wondering if you had spent some time there. 

[00:02:27] Dr. Emanuele: Oh, what a small world. Yeah. The people who are into this kind of thing- we all kind of know each other. There aren’t too many of us.

[00:02:36] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, absolutely. So tell me a little bit about what you did once you started to grow up and really get into this as a career. 

[00:02:43] Dr. Emanuele: I decided to go and get my undergraduate degree in marine biology from Roger Williams University, which was right on the Mount Hope Bay. So, I went right back to flipping rocks, but I was getting graded on how I flipped rocks- which was awesome. I spent every free moment working in their research wet lab because I was doing a research project on the common cuttlefish. I just love cephalopods. They’re just the most amazing creatures. Actually, my first date with my (now) husband, I made him come to the lab and help me feed the cuttles after he took me out to breakfast. They didn’t immediately try to ink him or anything, so I said “yes” to a second date. So he owes them a debt of gratitude, just as much as I do. And then, we moved down from Rhode Island to North Carolina (where I am now), and I started working at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in their living collections department. So, it was mostly putting on waders and scrubbing out fish tanks, but I was a technician with the aquatic exhibits. And then, I went to vet school at NC State (University). After graduation, I joined (right away) into an exotics-exclusive clinic, where we’re really busy. It’s super fast-paced work. And I just kept interest in those slimy guys, so I became North Carolina’s first certified aquatic vet through the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association– which was pretty exciting. It was lots of studying, but it’s the highest boards that private practitioner vets who are interested in fish have right now. There’s a zoo board offshoot, but for the people who are doing clinical medicine, it’s about as high as we can go. Right now, I’m doing all-species end-of-life care, and building up an aquatics mobile practice because I just can’t get enough.

Dr. Emanuele holding a small owl

World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association

[00:04:24] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. I’m curious about this. With the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association, do you know approximately how many specialty veterinarians that are in this association right now? 

[00:04:36] Dr. Emanuele: When I got certified, there were about 80. The majority of them are in the United States, but as of right now, I believe we’re cruising right at 100 in the whole world. 

[00:04:44] Dr. Lancellotti: Wow. That’s amazing. A very elite group of specialists that you are a part of… 

[00:04:49] Dr. Emanuele: A very elite group of nerds- but yes.

Can a fish be a good pet?

[00:04:53] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. It’s a real treat to have you on here today, to offer some unique perspective and to give our pet owners some information about how to care for their pet fish. I would love to hear a little bit about your experience, as far as caring for fish that are family members. 

[00:05:12] Dr. Emanuele: Of course. So one of the most common questions I get, and it does “sting” me a little bit every time I get it (I’m full of fish puns. I’m going to try to really keep it to a minimum, but that was number one!) is, “Why in the world would anybody pay for their fish to see a veterinarian?” You know, I’ve had people come into my clinic and say, “I can’t believe I’m here. This fish cost me a nickel.” But I’m kind of like, “Hey, you’re here. Let’s do what we can do.” My response to those people is usually to tell them about Blue, the beta fish. When I was working in practice, I worked with this super adorable family and they had this beta named Blue. He lived in this gigantic tank and had a very sweet little boy who took care of him. They did such a good job. Their husbandry was beautiful. But when I met Blue for the first time, the dad (or I guess Blue’s grandpa), told me that Blue’s little boy had really severe allergies. And so he said, “This is our Golden Retriever. So you do whatever you need to do.” And that’s why I do what I do. You know? That’s why veterinarians do what they do. But for me, I’m kind of the fringe. It’s because there are people out there who see the value in this little life, and for some of them, it is their family pet. So Blue ended up having a lesion on his fin, which we actually diagnosed as melanoma (cancer of the pigment cells). We were evaluating him, sedated him, and did biopsies and histopathology on his growth, which is where we send it off to a pathologist to look at under a microscope. We took x-rays- which is really adorable in fish. It’s usually in a little Ziploc bag. They’re awake and you’re kind of just like, “Okay, stay still,” and shoot your x-ray. But Blue did really well after a really serious fin resection. He went home and got to be his pet to his person. Fish can recognize their owners. They can be trained. They can be really personable and joyful pets. They might be inexpensive, but they still really deserve skilled veterinary care and people who care about them. 

Blue the betta just before radical fin resection. You can see that the black mass extends up into the caudal peduncle (the base of the tail fin) - we got as much as we couldsafely, and he was able to live longer with his little family!
Blue the beta fish with the black mass (melanoma) on his fin before surgery.
Blue demonstrating how I take lateral radiographs of my very small patients - ziploc bags!
Blue getting an x-ray while lying on his side in a Ziplock bag.
Blue the Betta’s tail mass cytology - lots of angry melanocytes. Ended up confirming melanoma with path evaluation.
Cytology of Blue's mass under the microscope. The black cells are cancerous melanocytes.

What is the average lifespan of a pet fish?

[00:07:19] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s wonderful. And Blue just sounds like a really beloved pet. I was talking with my husband, in preparation for this discussion, and he was like, “Well, what’s the average lifespan of a pet fish? How long can pet owners expect to have the responsibility of caring for these animals in their family?”

[00:07:38] Dr. Emanuele: That’s a fabulous question. The answer is that there is no set answer, but it’s always much longer than you think. People get into buying a goldfish and thinking, “Oh, I’ve had these before and they lived 6 months, and we’ll just get a new one.” But the Cyprinid family, which is where koi and goldfish hang out, they can live 20+ years. Some of these really amazing show koi that are out there are over 20 years old- sometimes 30. They’re amazing. So just like a reptile, this isn’t as casual a pet as people think they are. Certainly, some of our smaller aquatic animals don’t have nearly as long of a lifespan. My cuttlefish and some really amazing octopus species have a lifespan of about 8 months. But this podcast probably won’t have a ton of people listening who own an octopus. And if they do, please call me! I’ll be your vet! 

[00:08:32] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s very cute. So, it’s definitely something that you want to be prepared for, if you’re going to have a family member that will be with you for 20-30 years. 

[00:08:40] Dr. Emanuele: Absolutely. And it’s not to say that somebody who has had a goldfish that doesn’t live for 20 years has failed, because there are a lot of other things going on- the same things that we see in dogs and cats (genetic issues, illness, resistance to certain bacteria, etc). There’s a lot that goes in, but going into it with the thought that, “Hey, this pet could be with me for a long time,” regardless of the pet, is always a good idea. 

Another example of a tumor removal in a large koi.
Dr. Emanuele performing a mass removal on a koi fish.

How to prepare to bring home a pet fish

[00:09:06] Dr. Lancellotti: When a pet owner is thinking, “I want to get a fish,” what is the first thing that they need to do in order to prepare for bringing that fish home? 

[00:09:15] Dr. Emanuele: One of the biggest and earliest pitfalls that can cause this massive cascade of issues is actually getting the fish before the tank is ready. It’s so hard because we’re so excited. So, I always try to talk to owners about understanding your actual water quality and understanding what your tank needs to go through before you can add anything in. I don’t want to get too sciency, but science is awesome, so I like to talk about the nitrogen cycle. Fish kidneys produce ammonia, not urine or urea, which is what we’re used to with a lot of things. Ammonia can build up really quickly and be incredibly toxic in a fish tank, if the system isn’t stable enough. And when I say it’s not stable enough, that means that it doesn’t have enough nitrifying bacteria in it. People hear bacteria and they get kind of freaked out about that, especially later, when we talk about illnesses in fish. But these are the really friendly guys that are growing in the filter and on the gravel, and they convert that ammonia into nitrites, and then into nitrates. Nitrates are harmless and they can get removed by water changes, or if you have live plants in your tank, they can take care of that. When we set up a tank too early, we don’t allow the bacteria enough time to grow and build up a population large enough to control that ammonia production. I like to tell my clients that fish basically live in their own toilet bowl, and I know it’s totally gross, but it’s the truth. Water isn’t sterile and your tank shouldn’t be sterile. But by setting up a tank too early, we don’t allow the bacteria enough time to grow, so that they can control everything. The best bet is to set up a tank, and if you can, use some old gravel or filter material from a friend’s tank- the super gross stuff. That’s good. That’s got some good friends on there. If you want to run it empty, you run it for at least 3-4 weeks. Then, (to be a good fish owner) you want to have a water quality monitoring kit. Some people do a ‘fish-in cycle,’ which is where you have really small fish (like tetras, for example), just one or two in a big tank, just to help promote more ammonia buildup. But that always makes me nervous because what if those little fish don’t make it? They didn’t ask to be sacrificed, you know? So, I tend to advocate for an empty tank cycle instead. You know that you’re ready when your ammonia is holding steady at zero for a few days, and then you can slowly start adding fish (a few at a time). And there’s no hard and fast rule about stocking a tank. I get asked that a lot too. Some people say 10 gallons per inch of fish. But for me, it depends on the fish, what size they are, and what you’re feeding them. But the most important thing is- once you have it set up, don’t throw out your filter material. People don’t really like that because I know it looks gross. But the best bet is to pull out some tank water when you’re doing a routine water change and then swish your filter material in that. You’re keeping all of your good bacteria happy, and you’re still using dechlorinated, treated water (which they’re used to), to get some of the bigger, nastier stuff off. That way, we’re not starting at ‘ground zero’ every time we clean out our filter. You want to keep an eye on your water quality and get in a really good habit of doing 15 or 25% water changes every other week, just to maintain it.

[00:12:34] Dr. Lancellotti: It sounds like those microbes are really important for making sure that the water is just right for the fish, so that they are able to get rid of their ammonia and waste, but not be swimming in it all the time. 

[00:12:47] Dr. Emanuele: Absolutely. We want to keep the toilet bowl clean, but it is still a toilet bowl.

taking x-rays of a puffer fish that ended up having a broken back
Dr. Emanuele takes x-rays of taking x-rays of a puffer fish that ended up having a broken back.

Should I set up a hospital tank for my pet fish?

[00:12:51] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. So with that 3-4 week lead time, the fish aren’t exactly an impulse purchase, are they? 

[00:12:57] Dr. Emanuele: They are not. I’m totally a killjoy about the subject, but unfortunately they’re not. You can get into some big trouble. 

[00:13:05] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. So, the family will have lots of time to get excited for their new pets, but what happens when the pet owners finally get a chance to bring the fish home? Does this aquarium palace that’s been built finally get some new occupants? 

[00:13:19] Dr. Emanuele: “Yes,” she says hesitatingly. There’s something else that you have to do when you bring your fish home. I encourage all my pet owners to have a hospital tank. This is incredibly important, especially if you already have fish in your tank. If we’re jumping ahead to the story where you’ve already cycled your tank, you have some in, and you’re getting ready to add some new ones, a hospital tank is a safe place that you can totally break down and clean (when needed) where you’re going to quarantine any new or ill fish from the rest of your community. And this is the only time where I’m advocating ‘scorched earth’ cleaning on a fish tank. But the idea is that this is a tiny little one that you can scrub out. So if you have a sick fish in there, you can make sure that they don’t transmit anything to your other fish after they’ve (hopefully) gotten all better and are back with their friends. When you’re picking your fish out at the store, you’re going to look for alert and active fish, with no obvious redness or torn fins, and no growths or fuzziness on them. It’s still really strongly recommended that you keep your new fish in the hospital tank for at least 30 days. In saltwater fish, my recommendation is 6-8 weeks, due to the life cycles in parasites. And I know that’s not fun. 

[00:14:34] Dr. Lancellotti: It’s a long time. 

[00:14:36] Dr. Emanuele: It is. And it’s so hard, but doing this is going to help make sure that your existing population isn’t infected with anything when your new fish come home. Besides this ‘new tank syndrome’ (when your fish tank wasn’t cycled and it crashes because you add fish right away), seeing an outbreak of disease right after you add new fish is probably the second most common thing that I have to help my pet owners deal with. It’s really important, especially in saltwater reef tanks or if you have invertebrates in your tank, because some of the treatments, for fish parasites particularly, can actually kill your corals, crabs and other invertebrates. So, this is the first of many instances in taking care of a fish tank where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of sorrowfully dragging yourself into your vet’s office to talk about “ick.” 

[00:15:24] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. So do you recommend setting up the hospital tank when you’re setting up the main tank- when you have your fish, at the beginning?

[00:15:33] Dr. Emanuele: It’s not a bad idea. Certainly, have an idea of where you’re going to have it and mentally prepare yourself for doing more frequent water changes on your hospital tank. You’re not going to have an established happy filter in your hospital tank because we’re going to be completely draining it and disinfecting it in between inhabitants. There are other types of filtration, like little sponge filters, that work really well in this situation, but you still want to be ready to take it down. It’s not a bad idea to have it up and ready to go, but just don’t let your heart get broken when you have to rip it down and clean it out. And the hospital tank shouldn’t have gravel or stuff that can’t be disinfected in it. I actually really like PVC pipe for hospital tanks because it’s really easy to disinfect, in between. Whereas some of these super cute little castles and stuff, you can’t get all the nooks and crannies where parasites may be hiding, which could reinfect the next inhabit.

[00:16:25] Dr. Lancellotti: Oh, that’s a great idea and a great suggestion. Thanks. 

[00:16:28] Dr. Emanuele: Sure. 

Radiograph of a koi that got a rock stuck in his mouth!
Radiograph of a koi that got a rock stuck in his mouth!
rock removed from koi mouth
The rock removed from the koi in the image above.

How can I tell if my pet fish is sick?

[00:16:29] Dr. Lancellotti: You mentioned some things to look for when selecting a fish (full of energy, nice full fins, etc). If these are some signs of really strong, healthy fish, what can pet owners watch out for that might indicate to them that the fish might be sick?

[00:16:45] Dr. Emanuele: The signs of illness in fish can be really varied, not just by the fish species itself, but by what disease they actually have. It’s also really important to remember that most fish will hide signs of illness as best they can. That extends to a lot of these pets that we have that are actually traditionally seen as prey animals, like rabbits and small birds. We often don’t know that they’re as sick as they are until it’s too late, and that definitely extends to fish as well. My general rules to look for are hiding, getting picked on by the other fish, a lack of appetite, and really unusual behavior. Some of these unusual behaviors have really goofy names like “piping” and “flashing,” but they make sense. Piping is gulping at the surface, in fish who don’t breathe air. And yes, there are some fish who breathe air, so we don’t want to over-interpret that. But hopefully, if you’re the kind of keeper that has something like a lungfish, a bowfin, or a gar, you know that it’s okay for them to take a breath of air at the surface. Betas can actually breathe from the surface too. So, that’s not as concerning in some species. Flashing is quick bursts of energy that usually end up in the fish rubbing on the gravel or on the tank furnishings. Usually, that’s a sign that there’s parasites on the skin or the fins. You want to look for the same things that you checked the fish for in the store, once they’re in your tank- growths, fuzziness, redness, tattered fins, looking like they’re not swimming as normally, and quick opercular movements. The operculum is that plate covering the gills. If the fish are moving that really quickly, it’s the equivalent of a fish gasping. It means that they aren’t getting enough oxygen because of parasites or infections in their gills. In some cases, it can actually be a situation with your water quality. If you’re worried that your fish are acting weird, the first thing to do is to check your water quality. 

[00:18:36] Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. That flashing behavior that you described, with the fish rubbing on the gravel or the tank decorations, definitely reminds me (from my perspective, as a veterinary dermatologist working with small animals) of an itchy dog rubbing itself on the side of the sofa, trying to get some relief.

[00:18:52] Dr. Emanuele: And that’s exactly what it is. They’re itchy. 

example of a goldfish with a neuroendocrine tumor on an early surgical table! The anesthesia is in the water, which is being pumped through the red rubber catheter across the gills.
Goldfish with a neuroendocrine tumor on an early surgical table! The anesthesia is in the water, which is being pumped through the red rubber catheter across the gills.

Pet store pitfalls.

[00:18:55] Dr. Lancellotti: So, do you also see a lot of pet owners turning to the pet store when something is a little bit off with their pet? 

[00:19:02] Dr. Emanuele: I really do. And I like to say that pet stores have come a long way in training their employees, but it’s really important to have a veterinarian that’s comfortable with fish, especially if you’re getting really into these reef tanks. They can be really expensive and the investment is pretty serious. But my biggest pet peeve is when I meet a pet owner and they dump a huge bag of over-the-counter medications onto the exam table. Do you see that a lot with itchy dogs in dermatology? 

[00:19:30] Dr. Lancellotti: Oh yeah. 

[00:19:31] Dr. Emanuele: I mean, I get it. There are so many over the counter things available and owners may be worried about costs, but just like with what you do, it’s really important to get an expert opinion. And by the time an owner visits me, their water quality and their filtration may be totally damaged by all of these remedies. So now, we may be dealing with water quality and a filtration crash issue, just because these things don’t work that well. The over-the-counter antibiotics have been seriously cut back in strength because people had actually started buying them for themselves to treat UTIs. But I think when I started vet school is when things really started to get hammered down on over-the-counter fish medication, because we use things like erythromycin, and people were buying the packets and treating themselves with it. 

[00:20:20] Dr. Lancellotti: Oh my gosh. 

[00:20:22] Dr. Emanuele: Ugh. I know. There are definitely still some over-the-counter recommendations that I make, just because of availability of certain drugs. We’re using some other things like formalin, which can be not safe in certain formulations to send out to an owner. There are over-the-counter medications that work as well, but that’s on a case-by-case basis, after knowing exactly what’s going on. There are other tons and tons of additives on the shelves that just aren’t as beneficial as doing a water change. People will buy things like ammonia controllers, which have a place when you’re having a really acute and severe situation and you’re just trying to stabilize your fish, but they’re not going to provide long-term ammonia control. You’re going to have to put in the sweat equity and start doing water changes. And unfortunately, we’re seeing a ton of antibiotic resistance and actually a parasite resistance in aquatic organisms because of improperly dosed and overly prescribed medications- particularly, antibiotics. It’s something that all vets learn about antibiotics- we need to be careful stewards of them. Antibiotic resistance is a really big deal, and I think we’re starting to see some serious ramifications of that in aquatic animals. 

[00:21:33] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, absolutely. I can totally sympathize with that. We do our best to try and minimize antibiotics in veterinary dermatology for skin and ear infections, but there are a lot of other things that we can do to help minimize the amount of antibiotics that we use. 

[00:21:48] Dr. Emanuele: Absolutely. And it’s easy to fall into other traps (in the pet store) in the aquatic department, too. People like to sell beneficial bacteria. I’m a big fan of probiotics. My dog is on probiotics and I think they’re fabulous, and it would make sense that you’d want to add a bacterial culture to speed your tank cycling along, but that is so much more successfully achieved by just letting things build up. I know I’m asking for so much patience, especially when you have a four-year-old who just wants their own Dorothy (like Elmo). But sometimes, you just have to wait. Adding bacteria too quickly can lead to a bacterial die-off, and then another spike of ammonia that we’re trying to avoid. I can’t believe I forgot that I did this. When my oldest son was really little, he was really into Sesame Street. We were watching an episode (and I was talking about Dorothy and Elmo just now), and Dorothy (his fish) lives in a fishbowl, with no filter, and it makes me so sad. And I actually wrote to PBS and was like, “Listen, we need to talk about Dorothy’s bowl. If you ever want to talk- just please.” I’m a little mortified that I’m sharing that I did that. They never got back to me, but maybe one day we’ll tune into Sesame street and Dorothy will actually have a filter.

[00:22:56] Dr. Lancellotti: I applaud you for being an expert consultant and for trying to share your wisdom and expertise, to make things a little bit more scientifically accurate. 

[00:23:05] Dr. Emanuele: Sesame street, I’m available for consultation. Hit me up! 

[00:23:11] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. Yeah. Dorothy needs a specialist to help with her husbandry and her habitat.

[00:23:16] Dr. Emanuele: I’ll even write the script to go on and read. You know? That’s fine. Let’s just get Dorothy a filter. 

[00:23:20] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great.

How do I choose a fish food for my pet fish?

[00:23:21] Dr. Emanuele: But even choosing fish food can be really overwhelming. You go there and there’s just this rack of flake and pellets and frozen and dried. What you really want to do is consider how your fish normally eat and any special requirements that they might have. Not all fish are created equal and not all fish even eat in the same spot. For example, with fancy goldfish- like those ones that have the really beautiful growths on their heads and these really long trailing fins- feeding them just flake food can lead to buoyancy disorders (floating upside down because they have guts full of gas). Fish can burp and fart. My four and a half year-old will gladly tell you all about that. But we still want to avoid getting ourselves stuck in something like that. 

[00:24:06] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. I think it’s tough for pet owners of any type of pet when trying to figure out nutrition. So talking to a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about the different types of fish that you have (or want to have), and asking them what the best food is for that particular species, is going to be really helpful in keeping that animal as healthy as possible for its entire life.

[00:24:28] Dr. Emanuele: Absolutely. It’s the same rule that applies to any other pet. And I think we’re all starting to get a little bit better at realizing that fish follow those rules too. We’re getting there! I always like to tell my owners, too, that there are millions of different kinds of fish out there, and I can’t pretend to know all of them. So, when an owner comes to me and says, “This is a very fancy sichlid from a certain location in Lake Tanganyika in Africa.” You know more about that than me? I am okay with that! But I can help you figure out how to make that work for you. You know? I love an owner who’s done their research on what their fish normally does. That makes me a better advocate for your pet and it makes you a better advocate for them too.

Should I give my fish a pea?

[00:25:08] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s awesome. So, what about this thing with peas? I’ve heard something about feeding a pea to a fish if they’re having a problem swimming? 

[00:25:18] Dr. Emanuele: Peas are the hill that I’m going to die on. So, it’s often recommended it. It’s this knee jerk, shotgun recommendation to feed a pea to a fish that’s having any sort of swimming issue. Not all swimming difficulties are created equal and only one can be treated effectively with a pea- when a goldfish that has a bubble stuck in his intestines that he can’t burp or fart out just yet. Force-feeding a fish is something that a veterinarian can do. We can tube feed a fish to help them feel better, but doing it at home can cause a lot of stress. In the best case scenario, it won’t happen at all. In the worst case scenario, your fish might die from the stress alone. So I know I’ve mentioned it already, but fish are amazing. They can control the air that they have in their bodies with this shiny balloon called a swim bladder. And in some cases, in some groups of fish, they can control it by gulping air at the surface and burping it back out. Other fish use a method of passive diffusion, which is really similar to the same way that they get oxygen out of the water. When you think about it, it’s actually the same mechanism for how things leave our capillaries all the way out at the ends of our blood vessels, or the same way that oxygen diffuses into our blood in our lungs, and the same way that fish can control air in their swim bladder and that they get oxygen out of water. It’s pretty awesome. So feeding a pea is only going to work if they have a burp that they can’t get out. Fish that are experiencing that are usually floating at the top, either with their tails or their sides up, because that bubble is what’s causing them to pull up to the top. So, trying to feed a pea in any other situation isn’t appropriate. Fish that are laying on the bottom may have an underinflated swim bladder, which can be caused by an infection or an enlarged organ pressing on it- or even a mass. I have diagnosed fish with broken backs, that owners were like, “Oh, I just gave him a pea because he couldn’t swim. He had gas in him.” And I’m like, “He’s got a fractured spine.” We can do CT, we can do x-rays, and often the vast majority of the time, it’s a lot more than just something a pea can take care of.

[00:27:22] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, it sounds like feeding a pea isn’t the magic wand for all fish. Huh? 

[00:27:27] Dr. Emanuele: I wish it was. Just like every other veterinarian, I wish I had a magic wand and a crystal ball, but they’re just not issuing those in school yet. 

[00:27:34] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. So, the best bet might be to have a relationship established with a veterinarian who’s knowledgeable about fish and aquarium care, so that if something’s going on, pet owners can make sure that they’re getting the safest recommendations. 

[00:27:46] Dr. Emanuele: Absolutely. And establishing yourself with a small local fish store is really great too, because the employees that are in there tend to get a lot more training than some of these big-box stores. I think that they have a lot of knowledge as well, but maybe leave the medical recommendations to your veterinarian.

What is important to know when getting a pet fish?

[00:28:02] Dr. Lancellotti: Absolutely. For people who are interested in getting some pet fish, or maybe have pet fish that they want a little bit more information on, what are some of the big takeaway points that you want them to remember? 

[00:28:13] Dr. Emanuele: I want them to remember, first of all, that there are veterinarians out there who love fish and would love to help you, and would willingly spend our time doing CE on weird fish diseases. The other thing is that it’s all about prevention. It’s the same thing that your veterinarian’s going to tell you about any other pet. My job is cures, so I shouldn’t be as interested in prevention, but prevention is the name of the game. And I would rather not see you for a year because your fish are healthy, than see you every two weeks because we can’t keep your fish alive. Taking the time to read up on the kind of tank and the kind of fish that you want, going through the careful process of cycling and quarantining, and getting in the habit of monitoring and maintaining your tanks really well is going to ultimately cut down on frustration down the road. And it’s going to keep the love of this hobby alive. So like Blue, that beta that we were talking about at the beginning, fish can be a really valuable member of the family, and they still require the preparation and care that a dog or cat would. Don’t believe everything on the internet is probably the last thing. And reach out to a vet, if you need advice, because we’re out there and we would love to help.

[00:29:24] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s wonderful. This is all really invaluable advice and I am so grateful for you coming on to discuss this with interested pet owners today. If those pet owners are interested in more information about caring for their pet fish, where would you recommend that they look? 

[00:29:40] Dr. Emanuele: I highly recommended checking out the Find A Fish Vet tool on the American Association of Fish Veterinarians website. I’m a member of that group and they are phenomenal. You have to be kind of a next level goober to be in there. You have to really love fish, so it’s best to be prepared. You can log on to and they have a little tool that you can find the closest vet who’s willing to say, “Yeah, I see fish.” For veterinarians that are interested in brushing up on their aquatics expertise, I really like AAFV and WAVMA, where I got my certification. They provide really excellent CE, and there are just a lot of people who are really excited to be talking about slimy, weird, wet little aliens.

[00:30:25] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s awesome. So the link to find a veterinarian in the American Association of Fish Veterinarians near you will be posted on the website, if you would like to consult with a specialist and have that established relationship. I would encourage pet owners who are listening today to join the Facebook group and tell us about your experience with your pet fish. I would love to see the Facebook group blow up with lots and lots of pictures of different people’s aquariums, and telling us stories about the personality of their pet fish and the invertebrates that are in there. That would be really exciting for me. 

[00:31:04] Dr. Emanuele: Me too. I’ll definitely make sure that I’m there. Just like any other veterinarian, we can’t make medical recommendations without establishing an appointment with your fish, but I would love to see your fish pets and I’d be happy to help point you in the right direction, if you’re looking for somebody to help. 

[00:31:18] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. Thank you so much, Dr. Emanuele. 

[00:31:21] Dr. Emanuele: Thank you so much for having me. This is a blast. 

Scratching the Itch

[00:31:24] Dr. Lancellotti: We finish every episode with a segment called Scratching The Itch. This is a segment that’s designed to highlight something- either a human interest story, a product, a website- basically, whatever you’d like that either provides relief or just makes you feel good. Hence, scratching the itch. Dr. Emanuele, do you have a ‘scratching the itch’ for our listeners today? 

[00:31:44] Dr. Emanuele: I absolutely do. And I hope it’s not weird to mention another podcast on this podcast, but… 

[00:31:50] Dr. Lancellotti: Of course not! 

[00:31:51] Dr. Emanuele: Once you are completely caught up on Your Vet Wants You To Know, another one that I really strongly recommend is called Ologies. It’s just the most fun and distracting hour. I spend a lot of time driving these days and I have loved catching up and getting new episodes as they come out. Most veterinarians are lifelong learners. We kind of have to be, literally, to keep our licenses. But most of us are just big nerds at heart, and I love getting to learn something new every week. This host, Alie Ward, is a science communicator and the topics are everything from butterflies (and I learned that they love to eat poop- it’s their favorite thing) to reading the entire constitution in one episode. Some of her recent ones were on socioeconomics. And even the topics that I thought I’d end up not being interested in, have just become the most fascinating thing to me. I just love getting to learn something new, especially while I’m doing something mindless like driving. The one that really hooked me was actually Corvid Thanatology, which is the study of crow funerals. 

[00:33:04] Dr. Lancellotti: Wow. 

[00:33:05] Dr. Emanuele: Super weird. And I never thought that I would be so interested in it. The guest spends more time than just talking about crows (and I really want to befriend all the crows in my neighborhood after listening to that episode). They end up touching on racial and economic disparity in science, just how different crows recognize people, and how to make a crow be your best friend. So, I’m slowly working on the murder in my neighborhood, but they don’t really want to be my friend yet. 

[00:33:34] Dr. Lancellotti: Give it time! 

[00:33:36] Dr. Emanuele: I’ve just got to be persistent, right? Corvid thanatology, lepidopterology (butterflies) and teuthology (squid). They do also have an ichthyology episode about fish, if you just can’t get enough.

[00:33:48] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s really cool. I’ll definitely have to check that out. I love finding new podcasts and learning different things, so that sounds really fascinating. Thank you so much. 

[00:33:56] Dr. Emanuele: You’re welcome. I hope everybody likes it. And thank you for just letting me talk about slimy things. They’re the best.

[00:34:05] Dr. Lancellotti: This was great. I think pet owners are going to get a lot of really good information about everything you jam-packed in here. Hopefully, it helps some fish have a nice aquarium set up, be taken care of, and have very happy, healthy, long lives with their families. Thank you again, Dr. Emanuele. I really appreciate it. 

[00:34:22] Dr. Emanuele: Thank you so much. 

[00:34:24] Dr. Lancellotti: And for everyone listening, I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know.

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

More To Explore