By Janet Tappin Coelho in Brazil
In an operation billed as ‘Saving Nemo’, a couple of Clownfish have had life-saving surgery to remove huge growths on their mouths that prevented them from eating.
The unusual procedure, performed at the Exotic Pets Clinic in Sao Paulo lasted a mere 15 minutes on each fish but cost around £350 ($465) for each patient.
It’s the first time vets in Brazil have carried out this type of treatment on Amphiprion Ocellaris clownfish which are bred locally in saltwater tanks, and are a popular addition to aquariums for those who can afford them.
Veterinarian surgeon, Alessandro Bijjeni, admitted that ‘handling his delicate subjects was tricky’ had ‘butterflies in his stomach’.
He explained: “These are rare fish that can cost around £700 ($980) each. The owner reported the animals had developed an unidentified mass in the mouth about a year ago which had been gradually growing.
“Initially, the pets fed well, but over time, they developed difficulty eating because of the obstruction. The female began consuming less and weighed approximately 10g (35oz) by the time she arrived at the clinic. She was affected in the upper portion of her jaw.
“The male, which is naturally smaller, weighed around 3.1g (11oz). He had stopped feeding for one week and the mutation affected the lower part of his mouth.”
Before the exotic creatures could be operated on, Bijjeni evaluated their well-being and decided it was too risky for the male because he was underweight.
To survive the procedure the little fellow needed to weigh around 4g (14oz). He was hand fed for five days then given the green light.
On the day of the surgery, the operating theatre was duly prepared with the pair swimming in the sterile tank until they were put asleep.
The female tipped the scales at 9.5g (33.5oz) and the male scrapped in at 3.9g (13.7oz).
Veterinarian anaesthetist, William Petroni Leal, explained: “We established a protocol which involved injecting a general anaesthetic into the gills and applying analgesic drugs intra-muscularly with a syringe.”
While they were under, the animals received a continuous flow of water fed through a tube in the mouth which passed out of the gills, keeping the little critters oxygenated and hydrated.
The couple’s vital signs were closely monitored during the process.
To tackle the abnormal formation, Bijjeni said: “It was necessary to remove a portion of what is called ‘the margin of safety’ which resulted in the loss of a piece of the lip from both fish. This did not harm or damage the creature’s ability to function in its environment.”
After the procedure the patients were placed in a small ‘tank hospital’ and kept under observation for two days in controlled water temperatures and post-operative clinical conditions.
They were then transferred to the hospital aquarium in the Exotic Pets Clinic which specialises in treating ‘unconventional animals’, which is essentially everything wild and exotic, except cats and dogs.
Bijjeni, who is a partner in the animal centre, said: “We kept our two internees with us for approximately 36 hours then they were discharged and taken home by their owner.
“During the first few days after surgery, the pair received medication directly into the water in their aquarium.”
He added that his work fulfils his passion for weird and wonderful animals because he gets to care for and save a large range of ‘amazing’ creatures, including snakes, monkeys, ferrets, parrots, hedgehogs, alligators and now fish.
The substance removed from the Clownfish has been sent to a lab for analysis and vets are waiting for the results.
Bijjeni predicted: “Our suspicion is that the growth is an Odontoma, a kind of tumour. It is a rare mutation in this country but not uncommon to the species.”
The pleased pet owner, Luciano Tadashi, admitted: “This is such a difficult and rare operation I found it hard to find a vet who was prepared to do this type of work.
“Thankfully these vets took on the challenge. The surgery was successful, and my fish don’t appear to have had any negative side effects.”
He reported his little ‘Nemos’ are now feeding really well, and looking almost as healthy as they used to when he first bought them.
The exotic fish owner added: “Some people will say spending this sort of money on these tiny creatures was exorbitant. I totally disagree because I firmly believe that when you have animals like this, it’s your responsibility to look after them so the surgery was worth every (penny).”
At the time of the release of Disney’s popular movie, Finding Nemo, in 2003, demand for Clownfish increased so much that experts warned the species was locally extinct in some regions of Southeast Asia and Thailand.
This procedure was performed at the end of last month on 20 January.