Challenges in Integrating Fish Into a Rodent Facility

Adam Rapp, B.S, LATG

Vivarium Supervisor

Van Andel Institute

Grand Rapids, MI


Zebrafish are an amazing model with a great reproduction rate, relatively low maintenance, and a well-documented genome. They also live in water, which is where things are a pretty big change for our facility.

We brought in Zebrafish for a researcher who studies developmental stem cells, which you can SEE in the 72hr gestation of the clear embryos of Zebrafish. I had experience in mice, rats, chinchillas, hamsters, guinea pigs, ferrets, cats, dogs, sheep, cows, pigeons, chickens, primates, and pigs. Little fishes that are supposed to be low maintenance, NO PROBLEM! How hard could they be? Looking at all my previous species however, none of them live in water.


Converting rodent spaces to house aquatic species is a huge undertaking. All of the animal rooms we were looking at required full rebuilds. Floors had to be re-done, floor drains added, cabinets and spaces sealed, special dishwashers installed, RO and System Water lines ran. There are whole courses available on designing the spaces. Luckily, our equipment vendor helped us out with the design and room requirements. The company and our maintenance department worked closely with room designs, budget restrictions, equipment separation needs, line drawings, the whole design portion was a major project. The maintenance department, and the equipment vendor should communicate around facility design information, creation, implementation, and realistic timelines as soon as possible. Yes, the researcher wants 18 racks, 9 breeding ladders, and a separate quarantine space, which is great, but the physical space needs to have some expert eyes to determine the scope of what can be implemented. Is it $2,000,000 on a $75,000 budget? Let’s re-evaluate what is needed and the timeline of experiments.


Let’s go over equipment.

There are a number of great vendors but let’s talk about some of the items everyone is going to need.


  • Racks – the actual structures that your main fish tanks sit on. You will need a separate rack, on a separate water system, for your Quarantine set up. You will of course also need a full protocol for your quarantine procedures. The importance of the quarantine procedures cannot be stressed enough. This is to ensure incoming zebrafish are screened for any diseases, viruses, that might threaten the existing colony.
  • Breeding tanks or breeding drawers – a separate set of tanks and space, off the water flow, for breeding animals, or collecting eggs or embryos.
  • Pumps and filters – usually these are in a slightly separate space, this is where all the water chemistry is going to take place and is going to be one of your biggest challenges and consistent items that need attention.
  • Artemia or rotifer hatchers
  • A RO plant for generating enough RO water for 10% daily change outs.


What about nets for moving your fish between tanks? Rotifer and Artemia strainers? Funnels are needed for this. Ladders, light sources, extra lab tape because it is one of few things that sticks to cages without leaving goop, squeegees, squeeze bottles, an ice machine, buckets, and more!


One surprising item that you really don’t need much of is cleaner. Disinfectant, as hugely important as it is in a barrier rodent facility, is not heavily used with zebrafish. Most pathogens of interest are also aquatic and cannot survive dry, so drying out your equipment between uses covers a large portion of the pathogen protection plan. Most cleaners are also quite able to kill your fish or kill the bacteria that is in your bio-filter that is required to convert the ammonia and keep your system healthy. We have almost no chemical cleaning agents used, and the ones we do use are specific for aquatic fish set ups. Most cleaning is done with heat, RO water, and drying.


Now, with the last 6+ months done and the rooms ready, it is time to bring in your fish. Let’s keep this simple, you need to work with ZIRC (Zebrafish International Resource Center). I have not met anyone who doesn’t have a relationship with ZIRC. They are based out of the University of Oregon and maintain and provide zebrafish of thousands of genotypes to, well, everybody.


Just preparing to get Zebrafish, or any aquatic species, is a huge undertaking. Social Housing is the best form of enrichment we can offer so we always make sure they are socially housed.  They often have different enrichment and different behavioral management practices.    Staff need to be trained ensure these fish are exhibiting species appropriate behavior such as shoaling and schooling.


Reading the above could hopefully give you some idea about different things to be looking at, above and beyond just what the major vendors sell, for setting up a functional zebrafish or aquatics facility. The best thing you can do, once you have a basic plan or know your needs, is to start talking to the aquatics community. I have found that they are AMAZING, and really want to share what they know. I have had fish up and running for a year, and I checked in with other institutes, associations, and friends each step of the way. I cannot recommend the ZHA enough. They have bi-weekly video meetings over Friday lunch to go over community questions and topics. Danio Zoom Fridays it is called. I am still learning and clarifying a myriad of things for my own fish, the learning curve can be steep, so get some help. Below are some links to some amazing resources.


ZHA – Zebrafish Husbandry Association –


WAS – World Aquaculture Society –

Techniplast –

Aquaneering –

Iwaki Aquatic –

UAB short course –

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