Pet Fish Industry in the U.S. and Careers in Aquatic Veterinary Medicine
IAAAM 2016
Nicholas Saint-Erne
PetSmart, Inc., Phoenix, AZ, USA


Aquarium fish keeping is a popular hobby, with more aquarium fish kept as pets than either cats or dogs in the United States. (Estimated numbers kept in 2015 were: 95.5 Million fish, 85.8 M cats, 77.8 M dogs, according to the American Pet Products Association;; slightly higher than the pet ownership reported in the AVMA study released in 2012: 57.8 M fish, 74.1 M cats, 70.0 M dogs;

Yet, many veterinarians are missing this opportunity for providing veterinary care to pet fish. There are several ways veterinarians can become involved in the health care of ornamental fish beyond the pet owner bringing in a fish to the private clinical practice. Understanding how tropical fish get from a fish breeder's farm to a pet store will help veterinarians improve the care of the fish throughout this process.

The tropical fish sold in pet stores often have a history of significant travel and handling. In most cases, the fish are raised on commercial fish farms in Florida or in Asian countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, China, or Japan. (The total tropical fish export market in 2009 was $326,667,000 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], reported at (VIN editor: Link could not be accessed as of 4-5-16.) Some fish, though not as many today as in the past, are still collected from the wild in Africa, Asia, or South America. From these locations, the fish are shipped through an exporter or trans-shipper to a wholesaler in the United States. The fish may be held in the facility for a period of time to be examined and treated, or may go out within a few hours or days to the next location - a distributor or retailer.

Every time a fish changes location, it goes through the stressful process of being netted, put into a plastic bag, and then jostled around during the airplane or truck transportation to the next location, where it will be unpacked to wait until the next step in the process. Ultimately, an aquarist will purchase the fish at a local fish store or pet shop, and the fish will finally reach its permanent home after three or more previous stops. By assessing the health of the fish during its course from farm pond to home aquarium, veterinarians can be valuable partners with the pet fish industry in reducing losses and providing the aquarist with healthier pet fish.

Veterinarians can contact the wholesale facilities or retail pet stores and offer their service for diagnosing fish diseases. Also, if in clinical veterinary practice, having an aquarium in the lobby or information about fish hanging on the clinic wall can inform clients that fish are treated at the hospital. The American Veterinary Medical Association has an Aquatic Veterinary Medicine Committee (AqVMC) that advises it on developments in the food and ornamental fish industries, and also reviews proposed governmental regulations. The AqVMC has developed materials to promote veterinary care to fish owners and breeders.

The AVMA has online brochures available for you to give to your clients on how to select pet fish (;

Here are some other sources for veterinarians to contact to find potential clients for their aquatic veterinary services.

 Fish farmers

 Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association

 Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory
Dept. of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences
University of Florida

 Fish distributors and retailers (annual listing of wholesalers and dealers)

 American Pet Products Association (APPA)

 Marine Aquarium Council (VIN editor: Original link was modified as of 4-5-16.)

 Pet Product News International

 Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC)

 Fish and koi clubs (listings of local clubs found in back pages of magazines)

 Associated Koi Clubs of America

 Koi USA magazine

 Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

In many ornamental fish facilities, fish are treated with available medications indiscriminately, without ever making a proper diagnosis of the disease etiology. An aquatic veterinarian can perform diagnostic tests (skin, fin, and gill biopsies, fecal examination, bacterial and viral cultures, blood tests, radiographs, ultrasound, necropsy, and histopathology) to determine the cause of fish losses and then prescribe or recommend appropriate treatments. Without a definitive diagnosis, many diseases look similar and the appropriate therapeutic agent might not be used in treatments.

Water quality is also important to maintaining the health of tropical fish, and the water should be tested whenever a disease is encountered. Many pet stores offer water testing services, but may not understand how to interpret the results, and customers are often overwhelmed by the water chemistry information. A veterinarian experienced in aquatic veterinary medicine understands the relationships between water parameters and can help explain it to a client and guide them to proper water quality corrective actions. Most fish keepers seek help from pet stores and buy over-the-counter medications without proper diagnosis. Few stores offer parasitic exams or have the knowledge of what the proper treatments are for different problems. A veterinarian can examine a live moribund fish when possible, or a freshly dead specimen to make a diagnosis of the problem.

Treating aquarium fish in a clinical practice, or on-site in a pet store, fish wholesale distribution center or breeding facility, will help to build a veterinary practice and provide a valuable service to an important pet industry. The better success people have with keeping fish, the longer they will stay in the aquarium hobby.


Speaker Information
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Nicholas Saint-Erne
PetSmart, Inc.
Phoenix, AZ, USA

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