Veterinary specialty spotlight: Aquatic Veterinarian

William Woods Undergraduate

National Zoo and Aquarium Month

June is National Zoo and Aquarium Month, and in celebration, we thought we’d take a look into what it takes to be an aquatic veterinarian.

In an interview on Slate’s Working podcast, Leigh Clayton, director of animal health and welfare at Baltimore’s National Aquarium shares about her experience working in aquatic veterinary medicine and some of the rewards and challenges that come along with the profession.

Clayton and her team are responsible for the care of approximately 800 distinct species — nearly 15,000 animals in all. They must work closely with aquarists and zoo keepers to monitor the animals and look for changes in behavior and appearance. Signs of illness in a fish could look like falling behind the others in a school of holding its fins clenched to its sides. Just as we become pale or flushed when we are sick, a change in color can also be a sign of sickness in a fish that vets must look for.

In order to monitor for illness and irregularity however, you must become familiar with the animals and what “normal” looks like for them.

“For a lot of us who work in zoos and aquariums, and even vets working with pets, your exam really starts the minute you see the animal,” explains Clayton. “You’re evaluating and sort of looking at that picture compared to a mental image of what that animal should be looking like. Then we’ll often do a hands-on exam. And then we’ll often do diagnostics.”

The most challenging animals Clayton works with are those in the larger aquariums. Her team is able to train some of these animals to come to them so they can get them out of the structure for an exam or procedure, but for others it is a challenge getting them to come. “That can be our limiting factor is we just can’t get our hands on them readily.”

Fast swimming, schooling fish are, in Clayton’s opinion, the hardest to work on because they are designed to evade capture.

To hear more of Clayton’s stories from the field and thoughts on aquatic veterinary medicine, check out the rest of the interview here.

To become an aquatic veterinarian, you must graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree from an accredited program and then go on to pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE) to become a licensed, practicing vet.

If working as an aquatic vet or veterinarian in general is something you are passionate about, there are programs like William Woods University Pre-Vet program for biology majors. With a high percentage of our graduates accepted into vet schools around the country, this program will get you started off on the right foot toward your career in veterinary medicine.

In our next blog we will continue celebrating National Zoo and Aquarium Month by taking a closer look into the career of a zoo veterinarian.

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