There was never any doubt Dr. Jena Questen (D.V.M., ’01) was going to become a veterinarian. A born “horse nerd” who pored over equine anatomy as a young child, she fully expected to be treating horses after earning her doctorate from Colorado State University. 

But two years after graduation she suffered a horrific horse injury that almost cost her a leg. Stuck on crutches, she switched from treating large animals to small ones. It was then that she was introduced to the world of “fish medicine.” 

“I was spending time with a landscaper, and we would go to these homes where people had $80,000 ponds filled with $14,000 worth of fish,” Questen explains from her practice, Aspen Park Vet Hospital in Conifer, Colorado. “I wondered what these people do when their fish get sick. The answer was not much. I found that fascinating and sad and quickly picked up every continuing education class I could find to become an aquatic veterinarian.” 

Now, she is the only veterinarian in the state of Colorado certified by the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association.

Where are the fish doctors?

Despite the popularity of pet fish, there are surprisingly few aquatic veterinarians – about 150 worldwide, according to WAVMA – and that number gets even smaller when you begin looking for a fish doctor who treats pets. 

In addition to a general shortage of vets, Questen says most ichthyophiles tend to pursue a career in aquatic biology focusing on habitat restoration and symbiosis. Other fish-minded physicians opt for jobs at large-scale companies or in university research. 

Then there’s the practice itself that can be intimidating. Treating nonvocal animals can be tough enough, but getting an underwater critter to open its gills and say “ahh” is a daunting challenge.  

“I still meet vets who say, ‘you do what?!’ I was showing a surgeon, who’s been a surgeon for 40 years, an X-ray of a fish and he told me he had no idea what he was looking at,” Questen says with a laugh. “There are 55,000 different species of fish. You really have to research your fish patients to understand food, preferred environment, and what [medications] they can take, because what you give one fish can kill another.”

Fish owners are special

But once you get past all that, Questen says, it’s just a matter of treating the ailment. Sometimes that’s a physical issue like a bum fin, parasite, virus, or buoyancy issue, and other times it’s an environmental one like pond or tank water chemistry. Even though only about one in 20 animals she sees in a day is a fish – mostly goldfish, koi, or betta fish – Questen holds a special place in her heart for those patients and their owners. 

“If you have people willing to get X-rays on a $5 fish, they’re going to be wonderful people,” she says. “Whether it’s a college kid away from home whose only friend is their betta, or the young child attached to their goldfish, it’s a wonderful subset of animals and deeply rewarding knowing I’m the only person within hundreds of miles who can save that animal’s life.”