Episode 91

Fishful Thinking: Navigating the Currents of Aquatic Veterinary Medicine

with Nora Hickey & Myron Kebus

2024 MVC Preview Series See All Episodes »

Pet ownership has been on the rise over the past few years, and that extends beyond traditional furry friends. According to recent surveys, some 12 percent of pet-owning households globally have pet fish. Furthermore, about half of fish consumption comes from the aquaculture industry, which produces more than 80 million tons of fish annually to meet that demand. 

But despite this growing trend, fish medicine remains a very niche area within the broader veterinary profession. This shortage in veterinarians and technicians able to treat fish stems in part from a lack of education… which brings us to today’s episode, as we continue our 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference Preview Series.

Episode Guests

Nora Hickey


Dr. Hickey is the aquatic health laboratory manager at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory and is the immediate past president of the American Association of Fish Veterinarians. | Learn More »

Myron Kebus


A pioneer of fish medicine, Dr. Kebus started the Wisconsin Aquatic Veterinary Service, the first fish-only private veterinary practice in the Midwest. He is a co-founder and past president of the American Association of Fish Veterinarians. | Learn More »

Featuring 325+ hours of live and on-demand CE in 25 tracks, 100+ expert speakers, and nearly 200 exhibitors, the 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference is packed full of opportunities to learn and engage. Registration is now open!


Krysten Bennett: Pet ownership has been on the rise over the past few years, and that extends beyond traditional furry friends. According to recent surveys, some 12 percent of pet-owning households globally have pet fish. Furthermore, about 50 percent of fish consumption comes from the aquaculture industry, which produces more than 80 million tons of fish annually to meet that demand. 

But despite this growing trend, fish medicine remains a very niche area within the broader veterinary profession. This shortage in veterinarians and technicians able to treat fish stems in part from a lack of education… which brings us to today’s episode, as we continue our 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference Preview Series.

Mia Cunningham: We are excited to welcome Dr. Nora Hickey and Dr. Myron Kebus to the show. Our guests are slated to speak at the conference, and they’re here to give us a sneak peek into their sessions and lab in the aquaculture track of programming. Welcome to the show.

Myron Kebus: Thank you. 

Nora Hickey: Yeah, I’m happy to be here. 

MC: Absolutely. So we want to learn a little bit more about your backgrounds before we dig into your session content. So, Dr. Hickey, if you wouldn’t mind starting us off, just giving us a little bit of background about yourself. 

NH: Well, what’s funny is, is that, part of the reason I’m in fish medicine to begin with is because Dr. Kebus was my mentor during vet school. And so when I was a little vet student, I was interested in doing fish medicine. And I connected with him actually through a family friend, and he provided me with Excellent mentorship and guidance throughout my career, but I went to vet school at Madison and, graduated and moved out to Washington where I worked for six years with treaty tribes on Pacific salmon enhancement hatcheries for restoring endangered or threatened stocks of Pacific salmon. And then in the last year I moved positions and now I’m at Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab and working as the aquatic health lab manager here. 

MC: Now, Dr. Hickey, we also understand that you received the 2022 Outstanding Veterinary Service Award for improving tribal aquaculture in the state of Washington, among other things. But can you tell us how you got involved in that project and what kind of initiatives you also undertook? 

NH: Yeah, gosh, you guys, you’ve Googled. I got a nice little see-through award that’s sitting in my office, but I can’t read it because it’s clear glass. But yeah, that was very cool and what’s interesting is I was nominated by another one of Myron and I’s colleagues, Dr. (Katherine) Onofryton, who is also a fish veterinarian who had been working with me at my old job, but it was a really unique and interesting position because we worked with, Indian tribes who in Washington co manage their hatcheries and their fisheries of Pacific salmon with the state of Washington. Fish are kind of already an underserved veterinary population and perhaps, tribes, have less access to veterinary services or just not the same access as everyone else. And so it was definitely a unique job and it was very rewarding to do. 

KB: Dr. Kebus, would you like to go next and share a little bit of background?

MK: I graduated from the same veterinary college as Dr. Hickey in 1992. I did a year of mixed animal practice, doing dairy in the morning and small animal in the afternoon. And then I took the leap in 1993 to be the first veterinarian to provide private practice veterinary services to fish farms in the Midwest, focusing in on, Wisconsin, but working with farms all the way from Ohio, out West. 

So in that, I worked with fish farms, just like large animal practitioners do with dairy, swine, poultry. And, in 1999, selected to lead the new fish health program in the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. And in that program, I was asked to put together the health requirements and the, import requirements and the requirements for health standards within the state, but also provide the support to fish farmers for veterinary services. 

I decided to do something that hadn’t been done before, and that was to work with all the private practitioners in the state of Wisconsin. Sent out a letter to close to 3000 veterinarians, inviting them to a series of seminars that I conducted to explain to them what aquaculture was, what fish farming was, what the fish farmers were looking for, what kind of services they might need. 

We had 70 veterinarians at that time that were interested and the response was, we’d be interested, but, based on our professional integrity and how we practice, we want to know what we’re doing and be competent before we go. So we need training. So with that, I began a training effort, which began with in person training, then taking farmers directly to fish farms and showing them some of the techniques. That evolved into developing a online course that has been available and continues to be available through the American Association of Fish Veterinarians.
Then the fish farmers were interested in a similar program. And then with colleagues, I developed a training for fish farmers on how to use veterinarians. for a number of years, I worked in that area and in November of, 2022, I was hired at Michigan State in a new position that they created as an aquaculture outreach veterinarian, and I’m working with fish farms all over the north central region. These are 12 states going from Ohio and Michigan all the way up to the Dakotas, Missouri and states in between. And in that effort, working directly with fish farmers, but also with veterinarians. One of the efforts I’ve done is to create a network of veterinarians, identified 14 private practitioners in the 12 states that are, providing services to fish farms and I am to support in an outreach, position, their needs in terms of continuing education and, expanding, the things they can do to help fish farmers. 

NH: It’s obvious that Myron is a long storied history and experience in fish medicine. He’s one of the earliest that’s doing fish stuff in the U.S. 

KB: Well, in our Googling, we also learned that he’s been called a pioneer in fish medicine.

NH: He is, he is, he is.

MK: But that wouldn’t really mean a lot. Because if it weren’t for, and I’m not trying to be just cute about it, but if it weren’t for veterinarians like Dr. Hickey, who are carrying on and, expanding on the efforts that were Initiated. She has expanded and she has collaborated and worked with many of us, including me, to really, reach out to veterinarians all over the country and strengthen the American Association of Fish Veterinarians. She has taken the online course that I developed with Dr Michael Collins from University of Wisconsin and improved it and, extended its reach. And, she and I have, collaborated and worked together on workshops and we’re looking forward to doing the same in Columbus, Ohio, next February. 

MC: Well, we’re very excited to have you guys. So, Dr. Hickey, we’re going to transition so we can learn a little bit more about the sessions that you’ll be presenting at the Midwest Veterinary Conference. Can you just give us a summary of your presentations? 

NH: Yeah, so the idea is that if you if you go to these three morning lectures, you’re going to get a basic idea of everything you would need to know to be able to work up a fish case. Because, you know, anyone that has gone through vet school is going to have the problem solving and the clinical skills to see a fish case. But a lot of the times they need species-specific information, right? Because fish have gills, not lungs or, you know, things like that.

And so we did it up as three parts. We have just an introduction so that people can just understand what vets should know about fish as an animal. And then, diagnostic techniques for fish. So like I mentioned, gills. You know, other animals, you don’t have to examine their gills. And so going into certain things that you would do with fish that you probably wouldn’t have experienced doing with other species. And then the last part is about health inspections and certification testing. And the goal of that is that that’s a really nice point of entry for a lot of veterinarians.

When I was in vet school, I did a project with Dr. Kebus and we looked at how the number one thing, and this is changing, but the number one thing that clients call veterinarians, asking for services for is, health inspections and certification testing. And so if you know how to do that, you will have a point of entry for working with fish farmer clients and then hopefully expanding to additional services.  

But this isn’t focused on just aquaculture or just pet fish. It’s pretty applicable. You know, anything about fish that interested someone, they would be able to go to the session , and either go see pet fish or go do some certification stuff, and it would really set them up with the knowledge to be able to do that. 

KB: Well, and you make an interesting point, it seems obvious that if you’re treating a fish, you’re looking at something completely anatomically different from, you know, a cat or a dog. But what I found interesting about one of your sessions, in your description, you say that some of diagnostic techniques used in traditional veterinary species can also be used in fish. Which is kind of hard for me to visualize, you know, giving a fish an X-ray or drawing blood. So, I’m curious, what—without going into too much detail, because we don’t want to step on the toes of your presentation—but what are some of the common tests that can be applied to fish? 

NH: Yeah, surprises people. But you can do blood work on a fish, like cytology and tissue imprints, you can do that on a fish, then, yeah, you can do radiographs, you can do ultrasounds, and actually , we had the American Association of Fish Vets conference earlier this month, and we had a whole wet lab that was just about imaging. And it was like ultrasound, radiograph, and endoscopy, because you can look at the gills for parasites with an what am I missing? Am I missing anything, Myron? I mean, there’s loads. 

MK: Yeah, it includes, like you say, cytology, light microscopy for examinations of skin scrapes, just like we would in dermatology, in traditional veterinary medicine, and then fecal exams also done. So, all of those.  

KB: That’s so fascinating, and that’s something that you’re going to describe in this lecture is how to translate that into fish species? 

NH: Yep. That’s the idea. You know, it’ll kind of be a taster of like, here’s all the things you have in your clinic or your practice that you could use for fish and then kind of helping people get set up to know. Because I think one of the things in all fields of veterinary medicine is like, you learn a little bit and then you have to kind of go and learn more yourself. So we’re going to try to give some really good examples to people and some basic information. And then, you know, from there, I think that they really should be able to take off, because there’s a surprising amount of information available about this that people probably don’t even realize. 

MC: So, Dr. Hickey, who’s going to be the target audience for these presentations? 

NH: The target audience is, I would argue, any veterinarian. It probably actually is any veterinarian that’s interested in fish, whether they are a large animal vet that wants to, like, do some certification testing for Like a, uh, dairy client that happens to have like a fish pond on the side. It could be a small animal vet that people call them about goldfish and they want to be able to see goldfish but don’t know how to do that But I think even if someone is like never had any interest in fish, I always want our colleagues in small animal or large animal or whatever else… I mean, they’re lucky if they got one lecture about fish in vet school. And so I just think it would also be a cool opportunity to learn about all of the interesting things that veterinarians working in fish medicine are doing. And so even if they don’t actually want to see fish, I have a feeling that they would still find it academically interesting. 

MC: What about technicians? Do you think they’d be interested in participating?  

NH: Yeah, absolutely. I actually can think of a number of veterinarians who, have their technicians come with them when they do, certification testing, because they help with the sampling. And then I’m actually just thinking of a friend who had a case with a beta fish the other day, and her technician was helping her with the anesthesia for that. There’s a vet down in California who is a primary fish practitioner. She has a veterinary technician. So there’s actually a lot of opportunity for technicians in fish medicine. I visited a farm Monday and Tuesday, and the guy there that was running the fish health program was talking about how he really wished he could hire more vet techs to help with their fish health program and sampling. So I think technicians would also find it very interesting.  

KB: Yeah, I think, everybody’s looking for veterinary technicians at this point.  

NH: Ha ha! 

KB: Okay, so we want to shift gears now to talk about your lab. We’re really excited to learn more about this lab because we’ve never offered anything like it at the MVC, and it might actually be our first literal wet lab. So can the two of you give our listeners a summary of what you’ll be teaching participants? 

MK: What the participants are going to get is, experience that you can’t find it many places and it’s not generally in veterinary school. We’ve conducted this lab at other veterinary conferences, and it has been a success because we’ve focused in on what those who are going to be working on fish are looking for in terms of getting hands on exposure to some of the basic techniques of conducting a necropsy, sample collection, submission to diagnostic labs for diagnostic cases, and issuance of fish health certificates. 

Fish health certificates are one of them main reasons that fish farmers ask veterinarians to help them in order to move fish, between states, and in some cases within a state, a farm needs a fish health certificate. Most typically, that’s an annual health certificate. And that health certificate, in many states, is issued by a veterinarian. So they’re looking for a veterinarian who can come in, collect the samples, and then, based on the laboratory results, issue a fish health certificate that provides legal permission for the farms to move. So that’s an entry point for a lot of the farms. Once that occurs, oftentimes then the farms engage the veterinarians in other issues, what we would call production medicine and other aspects of veterinary medicine, you know, reducing mortalities, improving growth and so forth.    

NH: So, we’ll have fish of, I think we figured out what species they are. And that’s always the exciting part is you can do a hundred fish necropsy wet labs because there’s a hundred different species of fish and they all have something different. And I think this is, we’ve never done it with this species of fish before, right, Myron? 

MK: Yeah, so we’re going to be using yellow perch, and all of the participants are going to be able to do necropsies and sample collections . Yellow perch is a major species in Ohio, Wisconsin and many of the Midwestern states.

KB: At the risk of sounding a little morbid, are you having a fish fry afterwards? 

NH: I mean, they’re so tasty.  

KB: Now, you did mention the necropsy thing and I did want to touch on that. Are we to assume these are live fish?

MK: They’re dead. They died due to natural causes or otherwise. So no, they’ll be frozen and then we’ll thaw them. So we won’t go through the euthanasia technique, but we will discuss that at some point because it’s an important aspect that the veterinarian needs to know when they’re presented with live fish and how to do that in a humane manner. 

KB: So, folks who are listening, no fish will be hurt in the production of this lab. 

NH: No. But we do talk about how you do that because, like, a lot of the times when you’re doing these inspections, you’re doing 60 to 150 fish. And one of the questions that comes up is, well, how do you even, you know, euthanize fish for inspection in the first place? So we talk about that. We’ll go through all of the anatomy, external and internal. Then we’ll go through, sample collection; there’s some really commonly taken samples for, like, virology testing, bacteriology, parasitology. And then at the end, we kind of freeform it a little bit, and we do things that are mentioned in the morning lectures, like skin scrapes, gill clips, and we’ll do some that, in addition. 

People really like it. It’s been kind of a hit in the past. And yeah, we’re excited. It’s always really interesting to meet the people who participate in the lab and hear about why they’re taking it. Because it’s a smorgasbord of veterinarians that end up being attracted to it. 

MK: I want to add I’ve that I’ve been surveying fish farmers in Ohio and in other states in the Midwest about what are their fish health needs, what are their veterinary needs, how they work with veterinarians, do they have a veterinarian. And what we’re finding from this is some fish farms have veterinarians and others don’t, and others are looking for veterinarians who are properly and well trained to help them with their needs. There are also veterinarians that we’ve encountered that are wanting to work with fish farmers in their practice range. They may be large animal practitioners, but also small animal practitioners or mixed animal practitioners in an effort to expand their efforts. They would like to provide service to these fish farms, but they need training that we’re going to be providing at the conference. The hands-on training, as we all know as veterinarians, that’s when we really learn how to do the things we’re going to do in the field. 

MC: Well, thank you for sharing that. So we were also curious, are there any prerequisites required for participating in the lab? Do they have to attend the lecture before they can come to the lab? 

NH: Yeah, it will enhance what happens in the lab if they attend the lecture ahead of time. But I know that there’s probably a lot of lectures going on, and you know, when you’re at these conferences, I know I always have the hardest time picking what to go to and then the three I want to go to will all be at once. And so, we would encourage them to go to the lectures ahead of time, but they can participate in the lab without that.

KB: Since we’re talking about doing necropsies and that sort of thing, are there any parts of the lab that technicians cannot participate in?

NH: No, the technicians could do the whole lab. Vets and vet techs are equally welcome for the whole thing. 

MC: Well, I think the last thing we have for you guys, we just wanted to know if attendees would like to reach out to you via email or your social media, in what ways can you all be contacted?

NH: I’m laughing, because I bet Myron doesn’t have social media.

MK: You know what? I never went on Facebook and I don’t think I missed a damn thing! They can email me or they can call me. Pick up a phone. Send me an email. 

NH: You know, up until about one year ago, Myron only had a flip phone. 

MK: I miss it.

MC: I mean, if it ain’t broke…

NH: So yeah, they can call Myron on his flip phone. But, no, they should, they should feel very welcome to, to email us ahead of time. I’m also anti-Facebook.

KB: That’s interesting, because I would think that your position would lend itself really well to Instagram or TikTok. I think it would be like really fascinating to see that. So, you know, if you ever have any spare time, just start up a TikTok page for us.

NH: Well, actually we should say, the president of the fish vets this year, she has a TikTok. It’s like Oak City Mobile Aquatics or something like that. And she’s been doing like videos, you know, from her fish patients she’s seen and I think she had a frog or something like that the other day. So the fish vets are on TikTok, but Myron and I are kind of holdouts.

MC: Was there anything else that you all like to add before we let you go?

NH: No, we’re just excited to do it. These labs are always super fun. We always have a very good time when we do it, and I always think it’s so interesting. It’s just really a good experience and we’re looking forward to doing it with people.

MK: The fish veterinary community is very welcoming. We welcome all veterinarians if they know a little bit or nothing at all. We are very supportive in helping them get up to speed and be able to be well trained and competent and provide excellent service to fish farms.

And the other thing probably we should emphasize, you know, I’m kind of focused in on fish farms now. Nora does a lot of work with fish farms and fish hatcheries, but I think it’s important to emphasize everything we’re going to go over would be also used by a small animal veterinarian pursue diagnostics with a goldfish that’s presented to them or a home aquarium or, if they’re asked to provide service to a small local public aquarium… All of what they will learn in this, is applicable to all those other situations too. So, even if they don’t think they’re going to be working with fish farms, if they have an interest in working with fish in any way, this will be a valuable opportunity for veterinarians.

MC: Awesome. So I know February is going to be here before we know it. It seems to go by quickly once we get through the holidays. But thank you both for joining us. And we’ll let you know when it’ll be released on our social media platforms.

NH: Myron has finally made it onto social media. This is incredible.

KB: We’re modernizing you. 

MK: You’ll have to tell me, you know, what I look like on social media, because I won’t see it.

NH: I’ll give you a review, Myron!

MK: Thank you.

KB: Thank you both so much. Have a great evening!

Drs. Hickey and Kebus will be speaking in the Aquaculture track on Friday, Feb. 23. To learn more and register for the MVC, please go to mvcinfo.org/attendees.

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