If your pet fish has a deep, infected cut, an aquaculture veterinarian may suggest a topical treatment in conjunction with antibiotics, followed by stitches. Fish doctor Roy P.E. Yanong offers nutrition recommendations, diagnoses diseases, and performs “physicals” as he examines the overall health of his patients. Mostly Yanong works with ornamental fish farms that produce fish primarily for aquarium stores and hobbyists, but he also helps pet owners, teaches students, and participates in a range of nonprofit, state, and federal studies. Work for Yanong is one big aquarium, and he cannot imagine doing anything else.
Describe your work.
I am a diagnostician and extension veterinarian for the University of Florida (UF). A typical day can vary. Because I run a fish disease diagnostic laboratory, I am always working with fish producers who have disease problems in their facilities or who seek advice on protocols to prevent disease. The main focus of producers is “herd” health. While an aquarium hobbyist considers the well-being of their pet, a farmer of pet fish is caring for hundreds to thousands of fish so practicality and cost play a large part in treatment. For instance, I probably will not topically treat and stitch up 10,000 or 100,000 fish!
If a producer has a sick group of fish, I visit their facility to gather background information, which includes checking protocols, systems, water quality, nutrition, and the present state of the fish. Often, a disease problem stems from husbandry or water quality. Fish are brought back to the laboratory for more complete assessments, including necropsies, microbiology, and preparation for histology. Once I determine the cause(s) of disease, I work with the producer to remedy the situation and prevent similar problems in the future. I also offer fish health management programs, which include lectures and laboratories.
Part of my day is spent as an extension specialist answering questions regarding fish health. I help state agencies with fish health management, examine fish used in stock enhancement programs (e.g., redfish) for overall health prior to release, and write articles for producers and the general public. Although the primary mission of my facility is working with producers, I often help hobbyists with sick fish find local veterinarians.
In addition, I oversee research projects that can range from vaccine development work, to clinical drug trials against different parasites, to studies on specific disease-causing organisms. I also mentor veterinary students interested in fish medicine by teaching courses related to fish health, acting as an advisor on specific research projects, and offering work opportunities in my laboratory.
What science is needed?
Aquatic veterinarians (aquatic vets) must be familiar with the basic biology of fish—anatomy, physiology, reproduction (what is normal and what is abnormal), and optimal husbandry requirements—and be able to distinguish between normals for different species and families of fish. We must understand the pathogenesis of infectious and noninfectious diseases, in short, how fish become sick. Specifically, this means knowing the interactions between the health of the fish and its homeostasis and immune system, the environment, and different pathogens (disease-causing agents). Being familiar with disease-causing agents requires understanding the epidemiology of disease, the pathology (gross and histological) and pathophysiology of disease, microbiology, and immunology (including vaccines).
We must have pharmacology knowledge, such as how different chemical treatments enter and work within the fish to help fight or target a specific disease or disease-causing organism (i.e., bacteria, parasite, fungus, or virus), how these treatments are metabolized by fish, and drug interactions. It is also necessary to understand how different parameters of water chemistry affect the health of fish. Finally, we must be aware of nutritional requirements and other issues related to fish health.
How did you choose this field?
I grew up in a family of medical doctors, which strongly influenced my interest in medicine and my passion to become a veterinarian. As an undergraduate, instead of working with the usual domestic animals such as dogs and cats, I was interested in working with agriculture, zoo, wildlife, aquarium, or aquaculture species.
After college I participated in a summer program, Aquavet, where I learned the basics of aquatic animal medicine, which included invertebrates, fish, sea turtles, aquatic birds, and marine mammals. I went on to study aquatic medicine in vet school with the understanding that job opportunities for aquatic vets were limited. To broaden my experience, I formed an aquatic vet club with classmates and reached out to aquatic vet mentors. One such mentor, Dr. Greg Lewbart, directed me to a large fish farm in Florida that produced and imported tropical fish. I started working there after vet school as a staff veterinarian and was immediately immersed in the ornamental industry. I assisted with fish health management and diagnostics and had to learn my fish species very quickly. Four and a half years later I took my present job with UF to learn more about other aspects of the industry.
Advice for students?
Students should make contact with the numerous vet schools that have fish or aquatic animal health programs. During college, courses in animal science and general biology are important, while other courses are required by vet schools for admission. Additionally, fish and aquatic animal health organizations want to foster interest in their fields and have student members (see “Bonus Points”).
B.S., Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Yale University
V.M.D., University of Pennsylvania (most veterinary schools give the equivalent D.V.M.)
On the web:
International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine (www.iaaam.org)
American Fisheries Society, Fish Health Section (www.fisheries.org/fhs)
Commercial fisherman, underwater filmmaker, aquarium curator, environmental economist, baykeeper, aquaculture technician
A veterinary medical degree is required to learn the holistic approach and comparative aspects of health and disease. Prior to admission, most if not all vet schools require a certain number of volunteer or paid hours with a domestic animal vet, which is a great opportunity for an interested high school student to determine if vet school is a suitable path. While attending an accredited vet school, students are required to learn about all of the “traditional” species (e.g., cats, dogs, and cows) before focusing on “nontraditional” species (e.g., aquatic).
To focus on aquatic medicine, a student must have both vet and aquatic animal experience. Aquatic experience includes keeping fish aquariums and understanding water quality, filtration, and husbandry, as well as working at a nearby public aquarium or aquaculture facility with a staff aquatic vet. Some high schools also have integrated aquariums or aquaculture into their curricula; other districts have a magnet aquaculture school.
Good people skills, intuition, and excellent problem-solving abilities are essential to instill confidence in clients. Often, solutions are only found by asking the right questions and receiving honest answers—in vet lingo, we call this “getting the history.”
—By Megan Sullivan