Abstract Background The zebrafish has been suggested as a model system for studying human diseases that affect nervous system function and motor output. However, few of the ion channels that control neuronal activity in zebrafish have been characterized. Here, we have identified zebrafish orthologs of voltage-dependent Kv3 (KCNC) K+ channels. Kv3 channels have specialized gating properties that facilitate high-frequency, repetitive firing in fast-spiking neurons. Mutations in human Kv3.3 cause spinocerebellar ataxia type 13 (SCA13), an autosomal dominant genetic disease that exists in distinct neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative forms. To assess the potential usefulness of the zebrafish as a model system for SCA13, we have characterized the functional properties of zebrafish Kv3.3 channels with and without mutations analogous to those that cause SCA13. Results The zebrafish genome (release Zv8) contains six Kv3 family members including two Kv3.1 genes (kcnc1a and kcnc1b), one Kv3.2 gene (kcnc2), two Kv3.3 genes (kcnc3a and kcnc3b), and one Kv3.4 gene (kcnc4). Both Kv3.3 genes are expressed during early development. Zebrafish Kv3.3 channels exhibit strong functional and structural homology with mammalian Kv3.3 channels. Zebrafish Kv3.3 activates over a depolarized voltage range and deactivates rapidly. An amino-terminal extension mediates fast, N-type inactivation. The kcnc3a gene is alternatively spliced, generating variant carboxyl-terminal sequences. The R335H mutation in the S4 transmembrane segment, analogous to the SCA13 mutation R420H, eliminates functional expression. When co-expressed with wild type, R335H subunits suppress Kv3.3 activity by a dominant negative mechanism. The F363L mutation in the S5 transmembrane segment, analogous to the SCA13 mutation F448L, alters channel gating. F363L shifts the voltage range for activation in the hyperpolarized direction and dramatically slows deactivation. Conclusions The functional properties of zebrafish Kv3.3 channels are consistent with a role in facilitating fast, repetitive firing of action potentials in neurons. The functional effects of SCA13 mutations are well conserved between human and zebrafish Kv3.3 channels. The high degree of homology between human and zebrafish Kv3.3 channels suggests that the zebrafish will be a useful model system for studying pathogenic mechanisms in SCA13.