Want to Take Care of Nemo? Consider Becoming a Fish Doctor

fish veterinarian
amassard under Creative Commons

This post is part of our series on Weird Jobs. Check out the other articles to learn about more weird jobs you could try!

Here’s the scenario: a customer arrives and tells you his Barracuda is going too slow and his Stingray is pulling to the left. What do you do?

You tell him to put them in the treatment tank and you get your surgical gloves… if you’re a fish doctor, that is.

Not many veterinarians treat fish. Some pet store employees probably know more about the medical problems of fish than most vets! But that’s changing. The American Association of Fish Veterinarians (AAFV) just had its first annual meeting, where they got together to trade ideas.

The specialty makes sense, given that there are almost as many pet fish as there are pet dogs and cats. In fact, there are almost 58 million pet fish in the United States, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. That spells big profit potential for vets who focus on fish.

Treating Pet Fish

Most fish doctors don’t get into the field on purpose. For example, Jena Questen, profiled in a Denver Post article, graduated from Colorado State University as a regular veterinarian. Then, after seeing ornamental fish dying needlessly, she trained herself to treat them.

Today, she runs Colorado’s first fish hospital in Denver. Her work includes the following procedures:

  • Exams
  • Vaccinations
  • X-rays
  • Ultrasounds
  • Surgeries

The fee for working on a koi is normally between $175 and $250, depending on its condition. And rates like that may not be as outrageous as they seem. Some of these pets are expensive investments. Queston, who is also known by the nickname “Dr. Koi,” worked on one ornamental fish that was worth $26,000!

But most fish owners aren’t aware of the medical help available, and sometimes they just don’t care for fish as much as they do about cats and dogs, according to Dr. Erik Johnson. He offers free fish surgery in the Atlanta, Georgia area to help boost awareness, but says, “Still, surgeries are comparatively rare because people are reluctant to actually go to the trouble.”

In other words, if you focus just on pet fish, your veterinary business might flounder, which brings us to…

Other Fish Doctoring Opportunities

A Huffington Post profile of veterinarian Colin McDermott makes it clear that there are other places fish doctors can land jobs. McDermott works at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He’s responsible for 17,000 fish, as well as dolphins, sharks, turtles, other marine animals and reptiles, bats, sloths and birds.

This isn’t easy work. It takes a four-person surgical team to work on one fish. While McDermott goes to work with the scalpel, a team member has to irrigate the left gills with a syringe full of water, and another has to focus on the right gills. A fourth person has to keep the syringes full. But McDermott isn’t complaining about his work. He says it’s “the best job at the aquarium.”

How to Become a Fish Doctor

Becoming a fish doctor is expensive. First, you need to attend college, and you’ll probably be left drowning in student loan debt — over $160,000 for the average veterinary student graduate, according to IWantToBeAVeterinarian.org.

Then, you’ll have to consider whether to train yourself or attend classes on aquatic veterinary medicine. The World Aquatic Veterinary Medicine Association (WAVMA) has a certification program available, and getting certified is probably a good idea.

Once you’re educated and ready, you’ll have to invest in all of the necessary equipment. Consider Dr. Brian Palmeiro, who runs a fish hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In addition to the usual veterinary instruments and facilities he has “spacious hospital systems that range up to 2,000 gallons with individualized state of the art filtration.”

That sounds expensive. Apparently it’s not easy to start a “small-scale” fish doctor practice.

Your Turn: Would you like to add to these awful fish puns? Let minnow in the comments below — don’t be koi (and yes, Gillman is really my last name).