Rocky: The Rock-Eating Catfish

Meet Rocky…

As you can plainly see, Rocky has been a naughty little catfish and decided to eat something he wasn’t supposed to. In this case, the rocky substrate on the bottom of his tank. The only way to get them out? Open our shovelnose catfish friend up and take them out surgically.

Here we have the whole team working together to get the rocks out of Rocky. Sara (at top) was in charge on monitoring Rocky’s anesthetic level. We learned during this surgery that catfish go much deeper than koi or goldfish with our usual anesthetic levels. After a few adjustments with fresh water, Rocky was good for the rest of surgery.

Here, Dr. Sanders sutures closed Rocky’s stomach after all the rocks are removed. A few actually fell out of his mouth while we were manipulating the stomach.

Here’s a small portion of the rocks we removed. Look familiar to you fish tank owners?

And here Rocky is, post-surgery, in his recovery tank. He floats a lot better now! In total we took out 2/3 lbs of rocks. Rocky’s sutures will be in for 10-14 days and then they will be removed.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, Rocky’s home recovery did not go well. His tank mates thought that his sutures looked like tasty treats and tried to nibble his incision open! Rocky returned to our hospital for a re-suturing and will complete his recovery away from his obnoxious tankmates.

Behind the Story: Boo & Bubbles

What does every kid want? A pet! Warm and fluffy or wet and scaly, a childhood pet is an essential tool for developing compassion and personal growth. Not to mention tons of fun! Who among us does not have fond memories of their favorite pet? Personally, I grew up with cats, dogs and fish and it turned into my career! Learning how to properly welcome a new kitten into the family started a spark that grew into a veterinary education. I had a friend for life, even though we had to say good-bye. No matter the pet, children can greatly benefit from being the main caregiver of a dependent animal.

A young Dr. Sanders reading to her best kitty friend, Frisco

A young Dr. Sanders reading to her best kitty friend, Frisco

Here enters Boo & Bubbles. Not all families can accept a fuzzy pet into their homes, so what about a fish? Fish are very smart and personable companions, even if they can never leave their underwater homes. My specialty in the veterinary community is treating pet fish. Owners can be as connected to their underwater pets as those that sleep in their beds next to them. It is my responsibility to my clients to understand this relationship and provide them with the best veterinary care and education available. Very few veterinarians are willing to even examine a fish, so I have tried to make myself as widespread as possible. In writing this book, I hope to inspire children and families to accept a fish into their home like any other pet, with proper planning and consideration.

Dr. Sanders performing surgery on a koi

Dr. Sanders performing surgery on a koi

The first installment of the Boo & Bubbles series touches on how to properly set up a fish tank for the first time. The main character, Boo, loves playing underwater and wants a friend to enjoy the water with her. Her pet cat, George, does not appreciate getting wet, so Boo asks her Mom to help her adopt a pet goldfish. We follow the story of picking her new fish, Bubbles, up from the pet store, transport home and all the assembly of Bubbles’ new home. Following books in this series are already in the works. Book two, planned for production in February 2017, will illustrate how a fish can get sick and what goes into properly caring for a wet pet. Books three and four will educate on how to add another fish to the system and transporting an entire ecosystem to a new, larger tank. This complete series will be a great asset to the entire fish-keeping community and inspire a new generation to appreciate the underwater world. This book is a great gift idea for any child who is a fan of the Finding Nemo & Dory series.


For more information about the Boo & Bubbles book series, please see our website.

Books can be purchased through our sister company, Santa Cruz Koi. Come on down to our store at (4061B Soquel Dr, Soquel, CA 95073) or order online.

Fancy Goldfish Float Backpack

Some fancy goldfish can lead long, healthy, normal lives. Others, like their over-bred cat and dog compatriots, can develop genetic disorders that have no ideal treatment. Meet our little buddy, Rusty (top):


Back when he was little, he had no issues. Swimming and eating normally, being a happy little fish with his tankmates, Cupcake (bottom right) and Zhen Zhen (bottom left). However, a few months ago, we noted that Rusty was having trouble getting to the top of his tank. This progressed to where he started to lie on his side on the bottom for long periods of time. He was able to swim up to the top for meals, and eventually graduated to hand feeding.


In order to better see what was going on inside Rusty, we set up an appointment for x-rays. What we found was that his swim bladder had shifted to one side of his body, and due to his increasing size and girth, made it impossible for the swim bladder to inflate enough.


So, for a long-term solution, we needed to figure out a way to help Rusty swim. We have rigged temporary suspension systems for goldfish before, but never as a potential long-term treatment. The little guy pictured below had undergone neurologic damage secondary to a severe ammonia spike. A couple of weeks on the float, and he was able to recover.


This guy was rigged up using a block of styrofoam and a length of suture through his back. However, this was only a temporary setup. Rusty’s would have to be more long-term. So, our vet team sprung into action!


A small strip of plastic was threaded through Rusty’s dorsal fin and tied behind his pectoral fins. Several attempts had to be made in order to find a place where the strap would stay on and not interfere with his swimming. Then, a small sytrofoam peanut, donated by UPS Store #6455 in the same plaza as Aquatic Veterinary Services, was tied onto the strap.


Obviously, one peanut is much to buoyant for this tiny fish, so the peanut was gradually trimmed down.


For right now, he is still a little too positively buoyant, but our vet staff wanted to give him some time to get used to his new apparatus before learning to swim again. You can come meet Rusty at our Scales & Tails event this Saturday from 5p-9p. For more information, please see our Event Page.

We will keep you updated on his progress!


Scales & Tails: Saturday, December 10th 5pm-9pm



Over-Medicating Fish

We have had several instances over the last month of fish being over treated with a wide array of over the counter fish medications. Please read this if you are unfamiliar with how to treat sick fish or do not have much experience.

Overuse of medication in fish can lead to decimation of your biological filter and loss of the protective slime coat on a fish’s skin. This leads to “burns” that can be pink splotches anywhere on a fish’s body. Usually, you will see secondary fungal growth in spots that can no longer fight off the invasion.

The aquatic veterinary industry is different from the small animal pet industry wherein many treatments are available over the counter at your local pet store. If one treatment doesn’t produce the expected results, owners can grab multiple medications, running them in sequence, or even worse, in combination.

If you have a fish that is sick, it is vital to that fish’s survival that you correctly diagnose the disease the first time. You wouldn’t want your doctor reaching for everything in his medicine box just because your nose itches, would you? If you are a new or inexperienced fish keeper, there are many resources available to help correctly treat your pet. This does not mean consult Dr. Google. There are many fish health experts that work in fish-specific online forums. You can also try your local pet store, provided that they have a well seasoned staff and good turnover of their fish and fish-related products.

Once the problem has been diagnosed, make sure that you know how to use your product correctly. Most fish treatments are water-based, meaning that they are mixed in with the tank water. Never, ever apply medication directly to your fish. You will see the same “burns” from over-medication, except now it is a direct chemical burn. Your fish needs to grow a new layer of skin before they will be able to heal the initial reason you treated in the first place. Again, imagine yourself in their place.

No matter where you are located, you can always contact an aquatic veterinarian for guidance. Even though we are located in California, we are happy to discuss fish issues all over the world. To find a local fish professional you can talk to, visit or

Goldfish Oral Reconstructive Surgery UPDATE

For those of you who missed our post this weekend, our little goldfish friend, Lemon, who underwent oral surgery two weeks ago to fish a semi-prolapsed mouth, got her stitches out this Saturday. Here she is:


Congratulations to Lemon, her family and the veterinary staff at Aquatic Veterinary Services!

Goldfish Oral Reconstructive Surgery

For those of you who have seen pictures of our little buddy, Lemon, here is some more about his story:

Lemon was rescued by his current owners from a poorly maintained system that was overcrowded with fancy goldfish. He has always had a slight malformation of his mouth.


Lemon prior to surgery

Since he has grown bigger, his mouth has become quite problematic, ultimately resulting in a collapse of his mouth on the right side:


In order to correct this problem, so Lemon could eat normally, surgical intervention was required. Lemon was brought into Aquatic Veterinary Services for surgery to correct his collapsed lips.

Lemon on the surgery table.

Lemon on the surgery table.

Dr. Sanders operating while hospital manager, Sara, administers anesthesia via a syringe.

Dr. Sanders operating while hospital manager, Sara, administers anesthesia via a syringe.

Dr. Sanders was able to correct the mouth deformity by placing two tiny sutures in the corner of his mouth.


Lemon stayed in the hospital for 4 days in order to monitor his recovery. By the end of his stay, he was eating very well and able to close his mouth for the first time in a very long time.


His sutures will stay in for two weeks and then be removed. We hope to give you an update when they he is all set!

Get well soon, Lemon!

Old Pond/Tank Syndrome

Old Tank/Pond Syndrome

What is it?

This occurs in fish tanks and ponds with the following water quality parameters:

pH: <6.0

Alkalinity (kH): <50 mg/L, usually 0 mg/L

Ammonia: >1.5 mg/L

Nitrite: >0 mg/L

Nitrate: >40 mg/L

The loss of buffers (alkalinity) can lead to pH swings and a pH crash. The low pH actually protects your fish from the high nitrogen levels. This syndrome usually leads to intermittent deaths or wide-spread death and disease.

How does this happen?

This syndrome occurs in established systems with little to no proper maintenance. Perhaps it has gone for too long without a water change or the filtration is clogged up and inoperable. As the nitrate levels rise, the bacteria responsible for the conversion of nitrite to nitrate get backed up, leading to a rise in nitrite levels. These processes can back up even further and cause the ammonia to skyrocket.

Meanwhile, the buffers in your water are slowly used up, and then the pH starts to sink. This can occur very slowly or very rapidly, depending on how large your system is and how many fish are in it. Once your kH reaches close to 0, your pH can swing up and down with your fishes’ biological functions. pH crashes are very commonly tied to Old Tank/Pond Syndrome.

In the end, you end up with a very low pH, no buffers, high ammonia, nitrite and nitrate.

How do I know if this is occurring in my pond/tank?

The physical signs of Old Tank/Pond Syndrome are very minimal and vague. You may see increased parasitism and other disease. You may get a few intermittent deaths or all your fish may die. You may have no signs whatsoever that this is occurring in your system. There are no concrete physical signs that point to this syndrome.

The only way to tell if this is happening in your system is to test your water quality parameters. Bring a sample to your local fish store, buy a test kit, or have your fish veterinarian or pond professional check your pond out to determine what your levels are at. It is a very straightforward diagnosis.

I have diagnosed Old Pond/Tank Syndrome in my system. What do I do?

You may feel like a full water change will be the best, but DON’T DO IT! Slow and steady return to normal water quality is the main target of therapy for this syndrome.

Start with very small (10-15%) water changes daily for 1 week. The second week, stretch it out to every other day. Make sure your filtration is functioning properly! If you are not sure, get the opinion of an aquarium or pond professional. Don’t attempt any major filtration changes if you are inexperienced.

Weeks 3 and 4, do larger water changes (20-25%) twice a week. At the end of 4 weeks, check your water quality and see what has changed from day 0. You may need to upgrade your filtration system or start cleaning more routinely to bring your water change amount and/or frequency back down.

I have additional questions. Who should I contact?

We recommend that you contact your local aquarium or pond professional, fish veterinarian or pet fish store for help with this syndrome. Having a fish veterinarian for emergencies is never a bad idea. Find one in your area using either of the following databases:

World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association (international):

American Association of Fish Veterinarians (US only):

We at Aquatic Veterinary Services can always help over the phone or email. Our phone is (831) 346-6151 and we have email contact forms available online at

Top 5 Mistakes Fish Owners Make – COMPLETE!

Our seminar on the Top 5 Mistakes Fish Owners Make is complete! Catch up on everything you missed:

Watch the Recorded Seminar

Read Our Articles

  1. Too Many Fish
  2. Disorganized Cleaning
  3. Poor Nutrition
  4. Limited Education
  5. Not Recognizing Problems

If you have any additional questions or concerns, please contact our office at (831) 346-6151

Top 5 Fish Mistakes – #5: Not Recognizing Problems

Do fish get sick? You bet they do! Fish illness can present itself in many ways. Most problems can be divided into two categories: physical and behavioral. Physical problems are the easiest to diagnose and involve physical changes in a fish’s appearance. This category can include open wounds, ulcers, lumps and bumps, color changes and changes in body shape, such as with dropsy or egg-laying females. Behavioral issues are changes in a fish’s everyday routine. This can include loss or decrease in appetite, odd swimming posture, changes in buoyancy or lethargy. Some of these subtler changes can only be noted with daily observations.

Fish owners are very attuned to their fish’s day to day routine, usually observed at feeding times. They note who is first to the food, who lingers behind or waits their turn and how all the fish swim around their tank or pond. If a fish is starting to become ill, an owner may notice a change in their physical appearance, or perhaps the fish that used to eat everything all the time has started to hang out at the bottom during feeding times, noting a behavioral change. Usually, a one-day slump is normal for a fish to have every once in a while. Just like people, fish can have off days where they return to normal the following day.

If a fish’s behavior has been altered for three or more days, it’s time to do some problem solving. We recommend checking your water quality to start and usually doing a water change regardless of the values. Most issues with fish that we encounter in our veterinary practice are actually secondary to poor water quality. Investing in a drop-based water test kit and testing weekly is a great tool for any fish owner. If the water checks out okay and the fish is not improved, it’s time for a deeper look. There are reference books available for those looking to educate themselves on fish health.

Here are some good reads, all written by fish veterinarians!

Fish veterinarians are a growing veterinary specialty and are happy to help educate fish owners on best practices and help out when there is a fish in distress. To find a fish veterinarian near you, check out the following two databases:

American Association of Fish Veterinarians

World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association

We here at Aquatic Veterinary Services are happy to help with any fish questions even if you do not live in our immediate area. We are happy to help answer any fish questions that any fish owners need assistance with. We would much rather you turn to us than try to scour the internet and lose yourself off in a dark corner. Come to us and get the right answers the first time! 

Click Here to Get Help Now

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