There was something odd going on in Joseph Friscia's home aquarium in May. So he found a doctor who makes tank calls: Julius Tepper, a Manorville veterinarian who runs the Long Island Fish Hospital.
Tepper, who operates the practice out of his car and calls himself "Doc," is a veterinarian who has been caring for domestic and exotic pets since 1976 and for fish only since 1998.
But he didn't train in the United States; instead, Tepper learned to care for animals at the University of Liège, in Belgium.
"I had to learn French to take classes," he said. "The school in Belgium had a very well-developed avian clinic to help service the sport of pigeon racing, centered in Belgium. That got me interested in treating birds, and on my return to the U.S., I began seeing first birds, then reptiles, ferrets, small mammals and finally fish, along with dogs and cats."
Other vets may include fish as part of their general practice, but Tepper said he is now the only one in the New York metro area who treats pet fish more or less exclusively. (During the winter, when the pond fish practice is slow, he provides relief vet services to several vet hospitals for dogs, cats and exotics.)
Tepper's interest in fish goes back to his upbringing. His grandfather, father and uncle were all avid fishermen, and as a boy, Tepper would accompany them on fresh- and saltwater fishing trips.
But once he began treating fish as pets, he said, it became much more difficult to enjoy the sport.
"I guess when you spend so much time trying to heal fish and make their existence as comfortable as possible, you can't enjoy harassing them in any sense," he said.
To cure what ails fish, Tepper, 64, has to make on-site visits, because when a fish is sick, he needs to examine its entire living environment. He charges $100 per hour, and the fee includes on-site work and travel time. Visits range from $320 to $820, he said.
"Going to a pond is going out to look at a complete ecosystem that's been established, and many problems are related to the system they are in -- the pond, the equipment, the functioning of the pond," Tepper said. "That's one of the reasons why it needs to be a house call practice."
He said the same applies to home aquariums.
Friscia, 32, who recently moved from Westbury to Astoria, said he found Tepper after two days of researching vets who specialize in fish. Unlike run-of-the-mill goldfish, Friscia's pets are of a fancy variety -- imported ranchu goldfish, developed and bred in Japan and considered by the Japanese as the "king of goldfish." They have egg-shaped bodies and distinctive faces.
"They're really cute," Friscia said. And really pricey, costing as much as $150 per fish. Friscia had more than a dozen of them in a custom-built acrylic tank and stand, which he said cost a couple thousand dollars. A special light ran him another $1,400.
"It's an expensive hobby," he admits, so when he bought a new fish and it seemed to infect the tank, he understood that the entire aquarium needed to be examined, not just its inhabitants.
According to Tepper, "Many issues are related to the quality of the water, chemically, biologically."
Once on-site, if Tepper determines that the fish needs to be examined, the next step is finding out whether it is healthy enough for sedation. If it is, he sedates it and does a thorough physical exam, taking cultures and drawing blood just like doctors who treat humans.
"Some diagnostic procedures that are often done at the pond would be taking blood for a screen or a specific viral test, sampling the fins, skin and/or gills for a microscopic parasite check and taking cultures for bacterial typing and antibiotic sensitivity screening," Tepper said.
If necessary, minor surgery on skin tumors and/or biopsies can be also performed, he added.
Tepper noted that experienced vets will be well-versed in understanding the nonverbal communication that all animals exhibit. But whether the pet is sick or not may not be obvious to the owner, who may not recognize signs of distress early enough.
That was the case with Babylon resident Micheline Cummings' Siamese fighting fish (also known as Betta).
"They're really pretty fish," said Cummings, 40. "They have beautiful flowing fins, and they come in beautiful colors and shapes."
But three months after she purchased one for her tank, his skin began looking dull, not quite as shiny and luminescent as it was originally.
After a period of time, Cummings recalled, "I ran to the pet store, and they said he had fin rot."
The fish's fin was literally disintegrating. Often that occurs due to poor water quality in the tank. But it was too late to save her Dick Cheney.
"He ended up dying an hour later," Cummings said.
Typically, multiple factors are involved in a problem, Tepper explained. And as with any patient, veterinary or human, fish sometimes just get sick. They could have parasitic, bacterial or viral infections, even tumors.
"I get calls at a lot of different points in the process of a problem," he said, but "unfortunately, people call me when fish are dying, and that becomes difficult."
Such was the case recently with client Loren Skeist, 66, who has five ponds on his Bridgehampton property, two for goldfish, three for koi. He estimates he may have as many as 300 koi.
"When one became ill we looked for advice and found Dr. Tepper, who diagnosed ovarian cancer," Skeist said. "When several other fish died of the same illness, he helped us review known risk factors and to identify aspects in the design of our ponds that created stress for the koi. This led to significant modifications in the ponds and better monitoring of water quality."
Friscia's fish problem was also water-related. Fortunately, he called Tepper before all of his fish became ill.
"I spoke to him on a Tuesday, and he came out that Thursday," Friscia said. "He brought in two cases with him -- equipment -- he tested the water, brought a microscope with him, did a scale sample from each fish and checked it under the microscope. He was looking for parasites or bacteria."
Of the original 14 goldfish, four died and two were sick when Tepper was called in, Friscia said.
"The full work-up and detailed study of the history of this case pointed to the problem that the dissolved mineral level in the tank water had been used up," Tepper said. "The result of this condition was that the water pH became erratic, shooting up in the daytime and plummeting at night.
This situation is highly disturbing to the fishes' internal metabolism. Some die outright, others become sick and develop secondary problems."
The tank is now back to normal. As for the fish -- they're doing swimmingly.