What to do if an eel gets ill
A moray eel can be vicious. It has two sets of teeth and no hesitation about using them on people if it feels threatened. So what if one of those 6-foot-long serpent-like creatures were in pain with what might be a slipped disc?
Not the ideal patient, in other words. This is where an aquarium veterinarian earns his stripes.
One of these eels, a thick snakelike fish, has been a fixture at the South Carolina Aquarium since its opening but recently started lolling in the display tank with his head leaning over to the left. The posture was strange, but not all that unusual for a rubbery eel. Staffers couldn't be sure at first whether it had quit eating, because an eel can go weeks between meals.
But they know their eel, and it just wasn't acting right.
Shane Boylan, the aquarium veterinarian, and Jason Cassell, the marine biologist who is the aquarium's designated eel handler, moved it to a "clinic" tank in a back room under huge plumbing pipes. Boylan drew blood for tests, but there's no established baseline of results to tell what's normal.
"They're not able to point where it hurts," he said with a wry grin.
Boylan and Cassell managed to ease the critter under an X-ray machine and sedate it so Boylan could get an image to diagnose. But the discs involved aren't much bigger than fingernails. The image suggested the vet was right about the slipped disc, but he couldn't be sure.
He started the standard treatment, anti-inflammatory drugs and "bed rest," placing the eel in a piece of plastic tubing in the tank.
"We try to get him to stay in the tube, but there's only so much you can tell a moray eel," Boylan said ruefully. When the eel didn't seem to be responding, as much as anyone could tell, the next step was a CT scan. We know what you're thinking -- a CT scan? For a 50-pound moray eel? Why not just put it out of its presumed misery? This eel, after all, is no spring chicken. It's 15 years or older, geriatric for the beasts.
A CT scan can cost anywhere from about $300 to several thousand dollars, depending whether the scan is full-body or a more exacting diagnostic scan, according comparecatscancost.com and other sources. Most veterinary scans are full-body, the least expensive sort.
But this eel is an original and an old familiar one. It was in the tank as a 3-footer when the aquarium opened in 2000. Sure it bites, but it's more like a nip without real effort, Boylan said. Cassell can stick his arms in the tank and work right next to the eel without it taking a nip at him.
"This is our eel. It's a good eel. We've had it a long time. This is what we like to do," Boylan said.
They lugged the eel to Charleston Veterinary Referral Center on a flatbed truck in a one-ton water tank with aeration pumps going. The scan was performed as a cooperative agreement between veterinarians, and the center had not determined its fee when asked earlier this week, the center's spokeswoman said.
The eel's scan confirmed the diagnosis: This old critter has a bad back. It might have simply smacked the wall wrong during a lunge for food, or might have just developed one of those cranky, old-age backs. The next step, though, would be a ticklish back surgery -- with no established protocol and no certain result. That's going too far for a geriatric eel.
The good news is earlier this week, when Boylan and Cassell carefully picked up the eel for its anti-inflammatory drug shot, it pulled its ugly head up straight and gave a few stabs at biting. Then it rocked its head to the right before settling back to the left.
"That's great. He's started to behave like a normal eel again," Boylan said. "If we can get him feeding on his own he can go back home." Home, of course, is the display tank.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.