Fish of the One Percent? An Interview with Trailblazing Vet Dr. Greg Lewbart

How much would you spend to cure your pet fish? (Photo from PBS.org.)

No, this blog is not ordinarily about fish, but this conversation with a pioneering vet was just too good to pass up! A must-read for anyone who loves their aquarium fish a little bit more than they’d like to admit.

Dr. Greg Lewbart, a North Carolina State University professor of aquatic, wildlife, and zoologic medicine,  is a South Jersey Native, alumnus of the University of  Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, author, and faculty advisor of the NCSU-CVM Turtle Rescue Team. As you can see in this short NOVA video, Dr. Lewbart has helped to invent the science of surgery on pet fish. I caught up with this James Herriot of the seas by phone in August, just after he’d returned from catching 115 pounds of halibut fillets on an Alaskan fishing vacation. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Dr. Greg Lewbart (courtesy of Greglewbart.com)

Alaina Mabaso: The first question is: do you see the irony of being a veterinarian for fish, and then going on a fishing trip for your vacation?

Dr. Lewbart: Exactly! I know, interesting, huh? Here’s the way I paint the picture. If you bring me your goldfish and it has a lump on it, our standard protocol would be to anesthetize the fish, probably apply a local anesthetic like Lidocaine, then take the biopsy, and then depending on our assessment of how much trauma was involved, we’d probably give the fish a post-operative [painkiller]. And then we’d send the fish home and have the owner monitor it.

The fish I’m catching, they’re not getting any pain medication…[and] there’s no doubt in my mind that these hooks are inflicting discomfort on the animal, despite some fishermen’s self-serving opinion that fish don’t feel pain. That’s crazy. And it’s ignorant. I’m a fisherman, and I’d love it if someone told me, not only does the fish not feel pain, but the hook [causes] some kind of an endorphin release. I don’t believe it…If I put a needle into a fish to take a blood sample, it flops…So whether it’s pain like when we stub our toe or burn our finger, I don’t know. But it’s certainly a noxious stimulus. It’s something they don’t like.

AM: How did you get into your career? Have you always been interested in aquatic animals?

Dr. L: I wanted to be a vet since I was a little boy. I grew up in South Jersey, went to college at Gettysburg College of Pennsylvania, and I struggled a bit…especially with the sciences. But I survived, and senior year I had this wonderful course called Invertebrate Zoology, and it really kind of changed my life. I loved the subject matter (a lot of it was marine-biology related), and I found myself doing really well for the first time in my college career. We went to Bermuda for a marine biology class my senior year, and that sealed it for me that, wow, I still wanted to be a vet, but could I be a vet for these animals that live in the ocean?

I applied to a graduate program at Northeastern University in Boston and did a Master’s in Biology, with an emphasis in marine biology.

I finally did get into vet school…and 98% of what you learn in vet school is dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens…So I took a job in a pet store in West Philly when I was a second-year vet student, so I could learn about fish, because I saw fish as being aquatic animals that I could get my hands on. I could go the pet store and get a sick guppy and bring it back to the vet school, and look at it under the microscope. You couldn’t do that with Shamu or Flipper.

And then the wholesaler of tropical fish that supplied the pet store found out there was vet student that was interested in diagnostics. He offered me a job my senior year of vet school…I was in the trenches, cutting up fish and looking through books. And when North Carolina State was looking for a fish clinician twenty years ago, I got the offer for the position, and I’ve been there ever since.

AM: So talk about some of the advances you’ve developed in those 20 years.

Dr. L: I think what I’ve done more than anything is to be a facilitator. I work with a lot of really talented, smart people…Like in the Nova video: there we are, we’ve got a fish under anesthesia, and I’ve got a colleague, who’s a [horse] surgeon, doing laser surgery on a fish. If I wasn’t there to introduce him to fish and get him involved, he probably wouldn’t have done fish surgery. What he can do is bring expertise and techniques to animals that I’m familiar with.

At North Carolina State, we really did pioneer surgery for pet fish. We published [what is probably] the first abdominal [pet fish] surgery: we opened up a fish, took something out of it, closed it up, and it lived. We’ve done a lot of work studying what sutures work for fish, anesthetic protocols, and pain management in fish. We’re not the only people doing it – people around the world are doing it – but I think we’re recognized as a leader in that area.

AM: Especially to lay people, the thing that’s so fascinating is looking at the video and seeing the contraption that has the tube going into the fish’s mouth that has the water and the anesthetic that keeps it alive and asleep. Talk a bit about developing that.

Dr. L: It’s a pump that pumps water and re-circulates it. I’m looking out my back window at a birdbath, and it’s the same system. So how did we apply something like that to a fish? Well, I gave a talk in February of 1993 to an aquarium society in Raleigh, just general fish medicine. And I had done some anesthesia with fish, but not a re-circulating system: maybe a turkey baster or a syringe, just to keep that anesthetic over the gills. So this [fish] owner came to me and said, “I have this fish, I’m really attached to him, and it’s got a buoyancy problem. Can you help?”

So we worked it up, and it looked like it had a swim bladder that was too big, and needed to be operated on. We needed a machine to do that, so I concocted this thing with the help of people at the vet school, with a pump and a couple tanks and a platform. It was cumbersome, but it worked, and the fish lived.

My students then devised a much more sophisticated machine with bells and whistles and knobs and valves and all that. [After a few more generations and collaborations to make the device more affordable, compact and portable], we called it the FAD: the fish anesthesia delivery system.

AM: I heard that your burgeoning specialty is cancer in fish.

Dr. L: We actually have an oncologist who gave chemo to a goldfish many years ago. I’m board-certified in zoo medicine with an emphasis in aquatics. But a lot of the surgery we do is cancer-related.

AM: So cancer is a common thing for fish?

Dr. L: I would say it’s fairly common for older fish, especially goldfish and koi. They live long enough and they seem to get tumors – some of them are malignant and some of them aren’t. A lot of fish, to step away from pet fish, are exposed to pollution and other environmental contaminants, and end up with tumors. That’s well-established in the literature.

AM: So does diagnosing and treating cancer in fish have the possibility of new knowledge that could be applied to other species or even us?

Dr. L: Absolutely…There’s a lot of work being done in tumors and cancer of fish that could be applicable to humans, and other animals too. Oncology in veterinary medicine is a big field.

AM: What’s the attitude toward your specialty from the veterinary field at large? Do they see what you’re doing as the inevitable way of the future, or are most people confused by that specialization with aquatic animals and fish?

Dr. L: I think it’s a mixed bag. I think that there was a time where we were sort of looked at as quirky: oh wow, a fish vet? And colleagues and friends still say, why do surgery on a fish? But that’s trickling away now, and aquatic general medicine is an accepted and respected discipline in veterinary medicine.

[Veterinary medicine] has changed in interesting ways over hundreds of years. It started out as an equine profession to support military horses in the 1700s and 1800s, and that morphed over to food animal work in the early part of the 20th century, when the automobiles took over.

One hundred years ago, it was hard to learn about dogs in vet school. Now it’s a profession that’s about 70% small animals, 20% large animals, and 10% everything else.

AM: So in these days of the rabid 99% in America, I can hear what some people might say about this: for God’s sake why would you pay for surgery on a fish when you could just buy a new one for fifty cents?

Fish of the One Percent.

Dr. L: I would say that many people’s cats and dogs, they got for free. I found my dog in the median about nine years ago. He was a wreck: he weighed 44 pounds (now he weighs 65), he had a dislocated hip, a fractured hip, heartworms, and ground-down teeth. I don’t know what happened to him. Even veterinarians still have to pay veterinary bills: he had surgery to fix his hip, he had heartworm treatment, he had a root canal, and over the years we’ve spent thousands of dollars on him. [We got him for] free – while someone spends a dollar on a goldfish.

I’m not trying to compare a goldfish to a dog, although I have clients that are really, sincerely, passionately, emotionally attached to their fish. Especially goldfish! And they will spend hundreds of dollars or whatever it takes. So here’s my answer. I don’t judge my clients by the species or the origin of the animal. If they say, “my pet is sick,” I say, “let’s see how we can help.” That’s people’s prerogative. If they want to spend money on their pet, whatever pet it is, then they should be able to.

AM: I read a statistic once about aquarium keeping in the US, and it said that 90% of all fish destined for home aquariums end up dying – not a natural death, but that they get ill and die.

Dr. L: I would say yes, that’s true, [though] it’s a really hard thing to study. I heard an estimate once that only 25% of fish live [past] 30 days in a home aquarium. People ask, “how long does a koi live?” And I say, [if you average the lives of all the koi that are purchased], “about six months.”

Picture from Koiacres.com

I know of some thirty-five-year-old koi. I’ve treated fish in their 20s, [but] it’s rare. Bad stuff happens to good fish…Even when professionals take care of an aquarium, stuff happens and they’re very vulnerable. Unlike air-breathing animals, [fish] have nowhere to go. In twenty years in North Carolina, I’ve seen three hurricanes, a tornado, ice storms and power outages [which can prove fatal to aquarium fish]…It’s horrible, but something like that is going to happen.

We know some fish species in the wild can live a hundred years: rockfish, sturgeon. I saw a tarpon at the Shedd Aquarium that was seventy. So they can live that long, it’s just that they’re very susceptible to environmental changes that are out of [aquarium keepers’] control.

AM: I’ve had my goldfish for seven or eight years, and people are like, what? I didn’t know goldfish could live that long.

Dr. L: Well, they can live 30 or 40 years.

AM: So it’s quite a commitment, if you care for them properly. It seems like maybe you’re doing something important in that you’re helping us view all animals as worthy of our care and attention, even if they’re not the animals that we most easily relate to.

Dr. L: I agree!

AM: So is there anything that writers never ask you, but that you think is really important for people to know?

Dr. L: The number-one problem I see is that people go to the pet store, they see a fish they like, they buy it, it looks healthy, they put it in their aquarium, and then their other fish get sick. The best thing you can do is isolate new fish, observe them for a month, and make sure they’re not bringing anything home from the pet store.

Number two would be don’t release any exotic animal into the wild. And don’t impulsively buy or obtain animals that you might not be able to care for down the line.

There may not be a fish vet in your town or county, but one thing we do is help find fish veterinarians for people all over the country, so they’re out there. Most states have them. And we’ll consult with veterinarians who aren’t as fish-experienced, so we can work together on a project. Veterinary medicine is here to support all animals. It goes beyond dogs and cats.

AM: Thanks so much for taking all this time to talk with us.

Dr. L: No problem! It’s been great talking to you.

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4 Comments

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  1. Very interesting interview – if someone wants to spend money to save their fish – now they can.

  2. Kiya Krier - Runs With Blisters September 19, 2012 — 12:54 pm

    The contraption that allows him to operate on the fish out of water is crazy cool!

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