Love For Our Pets Not Limited to Dogs and Cats

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Article from Chapel Hill News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

BY DEBORAH MEYER, Correspondent

CARRBORO – Seventeen years ago Zandra Talbert’s son Patrick got some goldfish. Three years later he added some more.

Patrick is now a vet tech at Carrboro Plaza Veterinary Clinic, and one fish, a comet named Frank, is still swimming in his 55-gallon tank in Talbert’s Chapel Hill home.

“He is cute and has big googly eyes. He comes up and says hi if you come to look at him, and he knows when suppertime is,” said Zandra, who also has a dog, two very old cockatiels and three cats along with a husband, Richard.

In September Zandra noticed a dime-sized bump on Frank’s left side.

She contacted veterinarian Erik Dorsch of The Animal Hospital of Carrboro who had advised her in the past on how to transfer Frank into new tanks.

Dorsch is a lifelong fish hobbyist.

“I’ve always had an aquarium and when I went to Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine, I entered with the intention of becoming an aquatic veterinarian,” he said.

He spent his fourth year shadowing aquatic veterinarians at Baltimore’s National Aquarium and other places. Along the way he also learned from N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine Professor Greg Lewbart, who specializes in aquatic, wildlife and zoologic medicine.

Dorsch told Zandra that Frank’s growth could eventually affect his swimming and quality of life.

“When she asked what we could do about it I told her we could try and take it off,” said Dorsch, who had never operated on fish but learned in his internships how to anesthetize them.

Surgery was scheduled for Oct. 15.

Dorsch called N.C. State and Shane Christian, the aquatic animal medicine technician, sent him an article on anesthetizing fish. He and Lewbart donated the anesthesia for the procedure, a powder put it in the water containing the fish. The fish falls to the bottom as the anesthesia takes effect.

“It is trial and error since different species have different sensitivities,” Dorsch explained. “There are a lot of factors. But once the fish is on the bottom and its respiration rate slows, you have to feel how anesthetized it is.”

Per Dorsch’s instructions, Zandra carried Frank the day of the surgery in a 5 gallon bucket lined with a plastic bag partially filled with his aquarium water. Dorsch sprinkled the powder in a bit at a time until he knew Frank would not flop or wiggle on the operating table.

Before cats and dogs go into surgery, blood tests ascertain whether they will have problems with anesthesia. This was impossible with Frank.

“My greatest fear going into the surgery was that Frank wouldn’t wake up,” Dorsch said. “I didn’t have any worries about the surgery as it was very straightforward.”

Once Frank was sedated and safely removed from the water, Dorsch used a carbon dioxide laser, which has a beam of invisible light, to remove the tumor. It cuts tissue like a scalpel.

“But it cauterizes as it goes so there is less bleeding and it cauterizes nerve endings so it doesn’t hurt as much as a scalpel,” he said.

Dorsch cut the tumor off at scale level, flush with Frank’s body. He didn’t want to cut into the fish’s body cavity because he wouldn’t be able to stitch him up afterward.

Technician Taylor Kennedy helped Frank breathe by squirting water from his travel bucket into his mouth.

“Frank was out for two minutes at the most,”‘ Dorsch said.

The three-quarter inch tumor turned out to be a fibrosarcoma, which is a malignant tumor in people, dogs and cats. Dorsch asked Lewbart about Frank’s prognosis. There is little data, but Lewbart said some fibrosarcomas are superficial and fish do well for a long, with only a recurrence on the outer surface.

When Zandra’s friends heard of the impending surgery, they were amazed fish could be operated on. Some teased her about the expense, even though in the end it cost just $260.

“I said if all you are thinking about is the money, you get far more bang for your buck with a fish that lives longer than most dogs, she said. “I’m fond of him even though I can’t pick him up and hug him. People behave as if when animals get smaller they are less important. That seems wrong, doesn’t it?”

Before the surgery, Zandra had a speech prepared for the operating room, in case Frank didn’t make it. “I knew I must not cry. I must be brave.”

Dorsch checked to see how long goldfish usually live and found the oldest one on record was 42.

Frank now has a chance to break that record. 


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