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Fish Surgery

By: Dr. Craig Harms

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Can surgery be performed on your fish? Of course, it can. Fish are hardy animals and, with the proper modifications for their aquatic life-style, surgery can be readily performed on them. In fact, they do very well following the procedure. More and more veterinarians are expanding their services to include species not traditionally served by the veterinary profession, including fish. And surgery is one of the services a pet fish sometimes requires.

The reasons veterinarians perform surgery on fish are similar to the reasons they perform surgery on other species, plus some that are unique to fish. A few of these include:

  • Removal of external and internal masses
  • Repair of skin lacerations (cuts)
  • Enucleation, which is the removal of a severely damaged eye
  • Swim bladder repair for buoyancy problems

    All it takes is a condition that can be repaired surgically, an owner who cares enough about his pet to allow surgery and a veterinarian willing and equipped to perform surgery on these very interesting patients.

    The decision to proceed with surgery may be motivated by economic value of the patient, rarity of the species involved or the owner's emotional attachment to the fish. Fish are certainly not exempt from the human-animal bond phenomenon; some are real characters that interact with their owners in their own fish sort of way.

    Initially, the fish is anesthetized to eliminate pain and to keep it still during the procedure. The anesthetic is delivered to the fish in the water, and then the fish is removed from the water for surgery. Performing surgery with the fish in the water is difficult and can result in contamination of the surgical site. For longer surgery that lasts over two hours, water containing anesthetic must be pumped over the gills to keep the fish oxygenated and anesthetized and the skin moist. However, for brief surgery like abscess care that lasts less than five minutes, pumping water over the gills is not necessary. Once the necessary life-support system is in place, general surgery techniques are very similar to surgery in mammals, birds and reptiles.

    One difference is the skin. Fish skin is very sensitive and contains a protective layer of mucus; many species have scales. Small scales like those on trout have little effect on the incision. Thick, heavy scales, however, must be removed along the incision line or the scalpel blade will not make a smooth cut, or may not cut at all.

    The mucus layer should be disrupted as little as possible, because it protects the fish's skin from infections. Therefore, a full surgical scrub preparation of the incision site, as is performed in other species, cannot be performed on fish. Surgical incisions of fish are closed with suture. External sutures should be removed from the skin once it is healed.

    Depending on the water temperature, fish skin may heal more slowly than mammal skin, and sutures may be removed by your veterinarian from 10 to 30 days following surgery, depending on the rate of healing. If the fish cannot be retrieved for suture removal, for example, those living in some ponds, an absorbable suture may be used, but these are more likely to be expelled as foreign bodies after inciting an inflammatory reaction than to be actually absorbed.

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