Being a Fish Vet with Dr. Emanuele

Meet Dr. Ashley Emanuele, who is a superhuman fish vet and an end-of-life care vet. Learn why Dr. Emanuele’s calling is with slimy and cold-blooded patients.

Can you take your fish to the vet? Yes! Learn all about what it’s like to be a fish vet with Dr. Emanuele.

Dr. Ashley Emanuele owns two mobile veterinary practices! If you’re about to make a big decision and want to open a veterinary practice, this interview is going to be right up your alley!

Many veterinary hospitals will not allow the flexibility you may need; therefore many veterinarians turn to open a vet practice. So far, we haven’t featured any that opened two like Dr. Emanuele, the fish/amphibian vet, and hospice care vet.

The end-of-life care practice is called Rewilding and the mobile fish vet is Oak City Aquatics, you find out how to contact Dr. Emanuele towards the end of the interview.

After reading this interview, you will come away feeling inspired by Dr. Emanuele’s passion for two fields of vet med that we often overlook.

Learn how Dr. Emanuele says that opening her practice was the best decision she ever made. Sure, there will be moments of sheer terror and many sleepless nights, but if you are thinking about opening a mobile veterinary practice, read on! You will learn about some of this Doctors

reasons for becoming a veterinarian.

Dr Emanuele a fish vet working in a veterinary clinic with a sick fish

Name, veterinary school attended, and year that you started. 

Ashley Emanuele.  DVM from NC State College of Veterinary Medicine started in 2011.

Is fish veterinary medicine a growing field?

It is!  It’s very exciting to be a part of it.  More and more vets are joining our professional group and seeing the value in providing excellent veterinary care to aquatic animals.

Who are the animals that you currently share your life with? 

Maple the purebred brown dog, my first ever spay during Junior Surgery!  Ruth Bader Ginspurrg the DSH.  Lucy the bearded dragon.  Pixel the betta fish.  Alie Dadward Von Podcast the axolotl.  And three human children who are basically feral creatures (as well as a husband).

Did you have any pets living with you during vet school? If so how did you balance caring for them with school? 

I had an English bulldog who passed away during my second year of veterinary school, and then adopted Maple a few weeks later.  We’ve usually had a small fish tank, a tarantula, a hamster, or some other small pet as well.  I always found that taking care of them was soothing and reminded me of why I was on this path.  Having a partner/spouse that could pick up some slack when I had my nose in the books helped too!

Are there any textbooks that you still regularly reference for your fish vet practice or end-of-life care? 

Fossum for surgery!  Otherwise nope.  The textbooks I got after school and constantly reference are Quesenberry’s Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents, Mader’s Reptile/Amphibian Medicine, and the Carpenter Exotic Animal Formulary. 

Mader's Reptile and Amphibian Medicine and Surgery
  • Hardcover Book
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 1537 Pages - 02/12/2019 (Publication Date) - Elsevier Inc (Publisher)

Do you call yourself an aquatic veterinarian or a fish vet?

Depends on who I’m talking to!  I use both interchangeably.  “Fish Vet” is a little more approachable, but some people may think that means that I only see fish.

Do you ever encounter people that are surprised to learn that you can take a fish to the vet?

ALL THE TIME!  The aquarium hobby has a lot of DIY involved in it, and that translates to diagnosis and treatment of illnesses as well.  You can even find videos of people doing minor surgery on their goldfish at home, which makes me a little nauseous.  It’s definitely an uphill battle to convince people of my value as an aquatic veterinarian.  I faced similar circumstances doing exotics work – people are surprised when they hear that others may bring their hamster or parakeet to the vet too.  My usual response to that is that I became a vet to help the people who see the value of their pet’s life, regardless of what they pay for it.

Tell me a little bit about what it is like to own your own business. (fish vet business and end-of-life care)  Was it hard to get clients at first? 

Since one of your specialties is handling end-of-life care – how does this affect your well-being and mental health?  

I was absolutely terrified to open my own practice.  Actually, I swore forever that I’d never be a practice owner.  The big decision point came when I had twins – the demands on my time were so mind-bending.  Even though I loved it, I was missing so much of my kids’ lives doing traditional brick-and-mortar practice,   I needed flexibility, and honestly, I really missed the sunshine too!  I liked the idea of setting my own appointment schedule, practicing medicine my own way, and only reporting to myself.  I worked in a very unique practice, so it was a difficult decision to leave.  

Growing a business is an interesting process.  A lot of what I’m doing is self-taught…I fell asleep the other night reading some very dry NC tax code legislation trying to make sure I was doing the right thing.  Having a good network of support is critical.  I’m in a few Facebook groups for DVM Moms/Practice Owners, Housecall Vets, Fish Vets, etc.  It’s nice to have a wealth of knowledge and experience to tap into.  The practice is growing slowly and steadily, which is fine!  Mostly it’s word of mouth at this point.  Dropping off donuts at local clinics helps an awful lot too ☺

Dr. Emanuele owns 2 veterinary practices and is her own boss

I’m a bit of an odd bird, in that I own two mobile practices now.  One does end-of-life care for small animals and exotics, and one is fish and amphibian medicine.  I love them both, but one day I hope to pare it down to just the fish vet practice.  

I love the EOL practice, honestly.  The Veterinarian’s Oath says that we will relieve suffering, and for me this job is a very pure expression of that.  I get to spend time and hold space for people that desperately need help and care, and it’s very fulfilling work for me.  I get asked “how can you do this?” by my clients very frequently. 

My usual response is what I said above, plus something my therapist told me – “the world needs people to stand in the gaps.” 

If there’s a need and you can meet that in a way that works for you, you should!  It’s definitely not for everyone!  When I was in brick and mortar practice, I got a reputation as the “touchy-feely” one, and often had emotional clients and sad cases punted to me.  I decided to just lean into that, and I haven’t regretted it.   (And yes, I have a therapist and she’s wonderful.  Clinicians need to take care of themselves, particularly vets, and we shouldn’t feel weird about talking about our mental health!)

Note from the editor: we feature 2 other interviews with vets focusing on the end of life care

Since you are the owner of 2 veterinary businesses, what are the top 3 things you would recommend to a new veterinary graduate wanting to start their own business?

1. Be prepared to not make a profit for a while!  Starting with EOL care meant that I had very little overhead, so I worked in that field for a while as I built up capital to start the fish vet practice.  Continuing to do EOL means that I can keep a salary while allowing my dream practice to grow.

2. Find a support system and ask for help!  No (wo)man is an island, and you don’t have to do this alone.

3. Start small and allow yourself to build up.  I wouldn’t be shooting to buy a huge 6 doctor practice as a brand new potential owner, but that’s just me!  Maybe think about buying in as a partial owner before fully purchasing an existing practice, or start as mobile and work up to opening a brick-and-mortar.

Although your Fish and Amphibian practice is new, do you have any inkling as to which will be more popular the fish vet side or the amphibians?

So far it’s definitely fish.  Fish tend to hold more monetary value to their owners – there’s more investment.  Overall I also think they’re a more popular pet.  

How far do you travel each day for the mobile business?  How did you get into exotic animal medicine?  

The distance varies by how busy I am!  I’ll travel up to an hour away from home for end-of-life care, and for the fish business, I cover the whole state!

I went into vet school thinking I wanted to do zoo medicine and quickly realized I just didn’t want to compete that hard for something I wasn’t sure I loved as passionately as my classmates.  It was then that I learned how doing private practice exotic animal medicine was an option in my first year, and a lightbulb went off.  I marched up to our speaker, who would ultimately become my boss after graduation, and introduced myself.  From there I took absolutely every opportunity I could to hang out at the practice and learn.  I was very lucky to get a job with them right out of school, and I think a big part of that was showing up, being kind and helpful, and learning as much as I could.

Did you use the same business model for your fish veterinarian business as you did for end-of-life care? 

Not quite.  The EOL practice is very simple, which is what I needed when I was starting out.  My charges are flat fees based on aftercare choices.  I still use paper records because that helps keep things simple as well.  The fish practice is more sophisticated, with a more traditional veterinary practice model.  I’m completely paperless for the fish practice.

How did you get into being a fish vet?

How did you know that there was a need for this in your area? 

I’ve always loved aquatic animals – my undergraduate degree is in Marine Biology, and I raised cuttlefish for an undergraduate thesis.  I learned in undergrad that I wasn’t cut out for research, but I loved the animal husbandry part.  That sparked the idea to go to vet school.  After graduation and working for a year, I had my son and decided on maternity leave that I needed a new project.  I went through the WAVMA Certified Aquatic Veterinarian Program, and became NC’s first CertAqV in 2017.  I just love fish – they’re like working on aliens.  They couldn’t be any more foreign from the mammals we’re used to working on.

In clinical practice, I saw a small number of fish cases.  It had always been a dream to do fish-only, and I have an amazing mentor in California who encouraged me.  This is a good climate for ponds, we have a busy tropical fish/reef-keeping hobby, and while my previous clinic and the vet school do housecalls, there was no one doing fish vet medicine exclusively.  I open in June, and my first week is completely booked already!

What are some of the main reasons why a client might bring their fish to the vet?

Most of the time it’s illness-based, and unfortunately, they’ve usually tried one or more home remedies.  Much of what I do can be traced back to improper quarantine procedures or rocky water quality.  For fish, there is also often a very obvious sign of illness, like a big tumor.

Do you see yourself ever branching out into marine mammal veterinary care? 

I don’t think so!  I really love working with client-owned animals, and it’s pretty darn illegal to have a pet dolphin or manatee.  There are some really incredible aquarium vets out there, but I think my calling is with the slimy and cold-blooded patients.

Do you use an aquatic vet tech for your fish veterinary practice?

Not yet, but I’m hoping in a year or two I’ll be busy enough to consider it.  Right now my practice isn’t even paying me a salary yet, so I want to make sure I can offer a fair wage and benefits to anyone I’d hire.  Like I mentioned before, I think that in this industry it’s really important that we all take care of each other.  Plus I’m not ready to relinquish control of the music while I’m on the road just yet 😉

What is your favorite stethoscope for taking vitals on fish? Is this the same one you use in your mobile end of life care practice? 

I use a Doppler for the fish ☺  For exotics, I love the Littman Cardiology Pediatric.  For my euthanasia business, I use the Littman Cardiology with the double-sided bell – that animal stethoscope was with me through vet school and is still holding strong.

3M Littmann Classic III Monitoring Stethoscope, 5870, More Than 2X as Loud*, Weighs Less**, Stainless Steel Rainbow-Finish Chestpiece, 27" Black Tube, Stem and Headset
  • Monitor and assess a wide range of patients and detect normal and abnormal sounds and rhythms
  • Useful in non-critical care environments such as a medical office, general ward, OB/GYN, ambulatory clinic or urgent care
  • More than twice as loud* as the next leading stethoscope. *Based on tests against globally-available comparable stethoscopes in an equivalent class using recorded heart sounds with diaphragm.
  • Allows you to more reliably and consistently hear heart sounds at lower frequencies (below 120Hz*) like Korotkoff sounds, Mitral Stenosis and S3 and S4 Gallops when compared to other leading stethoscopes. *Based on tests against globally-available comparable stethoscopes in an equivalent class using recorded heart sounds with diaphragm.
  • Weighs less** than other stethoscopes. ** Based on published weights of globally-available comparable stethoscopes in an equivalent class.

Where did you attend undergrad and what was your major?  Did you attend grad school?  

I went to Roger Williams University and got a BS in Marine Biology.  No, I didn’t attend grad school.  I applied for the first time during undergrad and got unceremoniously rejected from everywhere, so I decided to work for a few years and try again.

At what age did you first apply to vet school?  

In undergrad, so…22ish?

How many schools/application cycles did you apply to before being accepted?

Were you waitlisted at any schools?  

I applied once in undergrad, and once a few years after.  However I was waitlisted at NCSU, and got pulled off the waitlist a month after they mailed admissions letters.  I remember getting the waitlist letter and I couldn’t stop crying – I lost all hope.  I’ll never forget that I was working at the Natural Sciences Museum in downtown Raleigh when I got the call from the admissions office.  I can still point out exactly which stairwell I was in.  There was only one other waitlister who got accepted into my class, and I still have no idea who it was!

How many schools invited you for an interview? How many of those  gave you an acceptance letter? 

None, and none!

If you were accepted to more than one school, what were some reasons for your choice of school? 

I moved to NC after undergrad knowing that this was the program I really wanted.  Then I declared residency and applied as in-state.  I only applied to NCSU, because I wasn’t going to apply again if I didn’t get in.

What was your GPA (in undergraduate)?  

3.4 I think?

What was your GRE score? 

Oh man, I have no idea.  I know I did really well on verbal/written and did terribly on math.  I remember being pretty average on the overall score.

How many extracurricular activities did you list on your application? 

I had a few leadership positions, and I think the research project was the big one.  I tried to do well at a few things, instead of dabbling in everything.

Did you have exotic, large, and small animal experience prior to applying to veterinary school? 

The second (successful) attempt, I had small animal and aquatic animal experience as well as some volunteering at the zoo in Rhode Island.  The first time I had zero experience, so it’s not shocking that I didn’t get in.

Dr. Emanuele who is a vet practice owner is holding an owl.

What types of paying jobs did you have before going to veterinary school? Did you volunteer? If so, where?

How many people read your personal statement before submitting it? 

I was a small animal technician assistant, the technician for the aquatics department at our local Natural Sciences Museum, and did some tutoring, camp counseling, and other random jobs in undergrad.  On top of that I volunteered in the veterinary hospital at our local zoo in undergrad as well.

I had very few people read my personal statement.  However I tried to keep it genuine and honest and didn’t want a ton of external input diluting my voice.

When did you decide to become a vet? 

I decided when I was a kid and was talked out of it by a discouraging family member.  So I thought I’d teach, or do research, or do something else.  But I found my way back!

Were you a member of any clubs at your undergraduate school? If so, which ones? 

Student mentoring, biology honors society, intramural field hockey, the women’s center, and I did a few plays.

Did you join student clubs/orgs in your DVM program? If so, which ones? Were they helpful? 

I was in WAAZM and our invertebrate medicine club.  I also joined our Speaker’s Bureau. It was mostly for fun and to hang out with like-minded weirdos.

Did you find the application process stressful? Why or why not? 

Of course!  It’s just A LOT to do.  And I think it generates self-doubt as you put in all these hours and wonder how many the next person will have.  It was both tedious and mentally stressful.

Are you happy that you chose this career? What makes you most happy about your career as a veterinary practice owner?

I am happy.  Practicing medicine still feels like a little bit of magic to me – I have all this knowledge either stored in my brain or easily accessible online, and I can somehow translate that into a patient in front of me and potentially heal them.  I love that.  It never gets old.  

That being said, there are parts to this career that I don’t think I was adequately prepared for.  It wasn’t anyone’s responsibility to warn me, but the debt incurred from school is pretty astronomical.  The emotional toll of it, and the punishing aspect of veterinary school was hard.  It pushes you to your very limits in terms of mental health for a lot of people, and then historically there hasn’t been a lot of support once you’re there.  Clients are brutal and can be so hateful sometimes.

Any study tips? What was your favorite method for studying? 

This is so personal!  What ultimately worked for me was hand-writing study guides from my class notes.  That was finally the key to get stuff into my head.  I used my handy whiteboard a lot too.

What was the most challenging class, in your DVM program? 

I swore up and down that I’d never ever touch a pig once I graduated…and then I saw tons of pet potbelly pigs in practice.  But the classes that were most difficult for me personally were immunology and pharmacology.  The conceptual part of them made no sense for a long time.  I also was, and still kind of am, terrible at interpreting chest radiographs.

As a student, did you have to take out loans for your education? If so, are you concerned about the amount of debt or how to pay it  back? 

I did take out loans.  I tried to be very conservative with them, and opened a bank account to deposit all my disbursement into.  Once school fees were paid, I took the remainder and set up a recurring transfer into my main account.  This helped me make sure the disbursement lasted as long as I needed to.  I definitely recommend this method.

Was there anything in particular about your DVM program or the school itself that you liked? 

The professors at North Carolina State University are amazing and passionate and inspiring.  I also think NCSU does a great job at building a class.  During orientation, they told us they wanted us to be a family, and I’m sure we all rolled our eyes.  But by graduation, that’s what we felt like.  They worked hard to not foster competition among us, so I still look at my classmates as amazing resources and friends.  I met some of my best friends in the world in my class – we still talk every day.  

As a fish vet and end-of-life care Doctor, have there been any cases that stand out as a favorite?  

So many!  My favorites tend to be a combination of weird medicine and weird people.  The reticulated puffer with a broken spine, whose owner held him in his hand underwater as we put him to sleep and then paid to have him cremated.  The family with the betta fish and a kid with severe allergies, who told me “this fish is our golden retriever – do everything.”  The constipated Pacman frog who finally pooped when we soaked him in some tea to stimulate his GI tract.  The sheepdog who farted right as he was passing away at an end-of-life appointment – his owners just laughed and cried and said that was exactly how he’d want to go out.

Do you have any advice for students wanting to get into exotic animal medicine?  

Be prepared for a lot of death.  Your patients are delicate and already very very sick by the time they get to you, so there are more losses than in small animal medicine.  Have a sense of humor, because you’re probably going to find a guinea pig poop in your pocket at least once and at least one patient will get away from you and fly to the top of the cabinet.  Be flexible and ingenious and don’t be afraid to try something new!

Was there anyone else in your class that branched out into exotic animal care or aquatic veterinary care?

There were quite a few of us, which is awesome.  One is the veterinarian for Gulf World in Panama City, FL.  Another is a pathologist with IDEXX and he did specialty residency work in aquatic animals.  Many others will see both small animals and exotics – my friend in Alaska is fast becoming the reptile expert in her area, and my other friend in Florida just did acupuncture on a ferret at her holistic/rehab practice.

How many different places have you worked for after vet school?

Was it difficult finding a job that was the right fit for you?  

I worked at my previous brick-and-mortar clinic and volunteered at our local museum to do some vet work.  Other than that, it’s just been my own business!  It wasn’t difficult, because I had shadowed so much at my previous clinic and knew the culture.  Deciding to go out on my own was very difficult and scary (and still is!)

Do you frequently have to research cases, on off hours? 

I feel like I am ALWAYS researching.  Not only because I love to learn and read, but because what I do is developing and changing so quickly.  I’m so lucky to be surrounded by smart people who are pushing the boundaries further to provide excellent veterinary care for fish and other aquatic animals.  In terms of the end-of-life practice, for me that’s much more personal.  I want to do everything I can to provide a peaceful and pain-free passing, so I’m constantly evaluating and tweaking my protocols.

Have you read or listened to anything worth sharing (doesn’t have to be Vet related)?

For the fish weirdos out there, a few of my favorite books are The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Highest Tide.  It’s a crime that I haven’t read The Soul of the Octopus yet, but it’s on my list.  

On the road I listen to a lot of podcasts – my absolute favorite is Ologies.  I love learning something new about a subject I may not have found interesting previously.  Corvid Thanatology is a good starter episode there, but they’re all magic.  I also love This Podcast Will Kill You, any of the horrible medical true crime ones like Dr. Death, and Sawbones.  I always make sure to mute my audio when I pull up to a house though – blasting a podcast about funeral makeup or eggs isn’t really a practice builder.  

Vet-related, you can’t go wrong with Lafeber for exotics content.  I’ll also plug the

American Association of Fish Vets – our fish vet conferences are pretty fun, and we have good CE on our website.  Membership is also cheap! 

There’s a pretty new podcast out as well called Your Vet Wants You To Know, and it’s an awesome tool to reference for clinicians.  I hear there will be a fish episode coming out with some big nerd soon.

Dr. Emanuele a fish vet and a colleague operating on a fish

As a veterinarian who owns two mobile vet practices, do you have any last words of wisdom?

In vet school, say yes and try everything!  Do your best to get blood from a screaming piglet, even if you know you’re going to be an exclusively small animal vet.  Take the fish diagnostics lab, because when else would you get to draw blood from a fish?  Sign up for the insane cockatoo case – you’ll at least get a good story out of it (and I definitely did.)  Show up, do your best (even if some days that means a C- on an exam), and take care of your classmates.

Be yourself, even if that means that you’re weird enough to end up doing both euthanasia and fish medicine.  Happiness comes from authenticity and not compromising yourself or your sanity.  It also comes from hilarious and equally weird veterinarian friends who see you for who you are – text them every day, and remind them you love them.  The road is amazing, but also rocky and tough, and you’ll need your people.

How can people find you? (Social media, website, or email) 

Oak City Aquatics Mobile Veterinary Service:

@OakCityAquatics on FB

Rewilding End of Life Care

@RewildingEndofLife on FB

Thanks for having me!