Underwater veterinarian

Professional context

The veterinarian is the professional whose exclusive legal responsibility is the diagnosis and treatment of animal diseases, including aquatic organisms. He or she also has expertise in the assessment of animal welfare, food safety and public health, with particular emphasis on the prevention of diseases transmissible from animals to humans (zoonoses), as well as the use of sentinel animals for environmental and public health assessment, skills that are certainly transferable to aquatic organisms and ecosystems. It follows that the veterinary professional may have to interact directly with the aquatic environment, from the surface, or more effectively underwater, in order to acquire anamnestic, clinical, and behavioral information that would otherwise be difficult or undetectable. It follows further and consequently the need for the veterinary professional to acquire multidisciplinary skills extracurricular and proper to other disciplines and professions given the peculiarities of the aquatic environment both from an ecosystem point of view and as a working environment.

Veterinarian at work during a dive

Veterinarian at work during a dive

Educational paths

To practice as a veterinary surgeon, it is necessary to obtain a five-year, single-cycle master's degree in Veterinary Medicine (LM-42), take the state licensing exam for veterinary practice, and register in the relevant professional register maintained by each provincial bar association. Despite being formally licensed to diagnose and treat the diseases of any animal, in fact the veterinary doctor is primarily trained in "day one skills" toward a narrow selection of domestic animals. Nevertheless, curricular or student-choice credits directed also toward other organisms, including aquatic animals, are now included in the educational plan of almost all faculties/schools of veterinary medicine. In addition, there is also the opportunity to orient to aquatic species in postgraduate training with specific graduate schools (Hygiene and control of fishery and aquaculture products and Breeding, hygiene, pathology of aquatic species and control of derived products), with master's degrees and professional training courses also provided by other public training institutions, including the Istituti Zooprofilattici Sperimentali (IZS), recalling that, like the other health professions, veterinary medicine also falls under the CME (Continuing Medical Education) system, in deference to so-called "lifelong learning."Remaining with postgraduate academic training, PhDs are also to be considered, which can certainly provide specific research paths in the field of aquatic organisms as well as being able to represent temporary employment in themselves.

Post-graduate training opportunities also include the multi-year training courses provided by the European Board of Veterinary Specialisation (EBVS®), among which, relevant with respect to aquatic animals, is primarily the European College of Aquatic Animal Health (ECAAH).

From the foregoing, it emerges how the professionalism of the veterinary doctor in the field of aquatic animals is specifically related to the professional choice of the individual practitioner and depends mainly on postgraduate training and professional experience acquired. It also emerges, and in contrast to what may be the case, for example, for the professional figure of the biologist, how in no training phase is didactic, even theoretical, inherent in scientific diving specifically planned. On the other hand, veterinarians interested in the field of aquatic animals undoubtedly represent a minority compared to the total, and even fewer are those who require specific scientific diving training to carry out their activities. Certainly the most professionally involved are those who work with marine mammals for which, as a rule, clinical activity is carried out in confined waters and/or in any case, without the need for scuba diving. This does not detract from the fact that for special needs, mostly research, it is necessary to carry out scientific diving and therefore, in order to ensure adequate safety standards, targeted training courses in line with other scientific diving disciplines are necessary.

Employment opportunities

Restricting to the field of aquatic animals and specifically health-related contexts, the veterinary doctor can practice in the public and private sector, either as an employee or as a freelancer. In the public sphere, possession of a specialization allows one to compete for public notices at the veterinary services of local health units (AUSLs) in the following classes: Hygiene in the production, processing, marketing, preservation and transportation of food of animal origin and their derivatives (with a specialization in Hygiene and control of fishery and aquaculture products) and Hygiene of livestock and livestock production (with a specialization in Breeding, hygiene, pathology of aquatic species and control of derivative products). Possession of a specialization also allows one to compete for public advertisements at an experimental zooprophylactic institute (IZS), active in diagnostics, research and training, or at border inspection posts (BIPs) and veterinary offices for community compliance (UVACs). More employment prospects can be had in the university environment, starting with scholarships, PhDs, research grants, up to the role of fixed-term researcher, the first step to access the role of university lecturer, after acquiring the national scientific qualification in the relevant field. However, it should be emphasized that in none of the aforementioned cases is experience in scientific diving specifically required, which could possibly be a preferential curricular qualification, especially in IZSs and universities, in relation to specific research projects underway and/or specific vocations of individual locations.

With regard to the private sector, the veterinarian with aquatic animal expertise may work as an employee or consultant at fish farms, zoos, aquariums, aquatic parks, turtle and/or marine mammal recovery centers. Even in these cases, scientific underwater expertise is not specifically required, except as noted above, by way of example, regarding experienced marine mammal professionals. Of particular interest, in a prospective sense and especially in foreign countries that are our competitors in mariculture, may be employment at floating cage farms, where the ability to dive near the housing cages can certainly allow the ichthyopathology professional to acquire valuable information that otherwise cannot be appreciated directly from the surface.

Article from:

Manera M. (2020) Il veterinario subacqueo. Identikit professionali degli Operatori Scientifici Subacquei. La collana del faro, Il Pianeta Azzurro, 2/2020: 6-9.

The author:


Maurizio Manera

Associate Professor of General Pathology and Veterinary Pathological Anatomy in the Faculty of Biosciences and Agrifood and Environmental Technologies, University of Teramo. He is interested in toxicological, environmental pathology and biomarkers in environmental monitoring. He is a member of the scientific and technical committee of AIOSS.