The popularity of fish spas in the UK has exploded over the past few years, with the treatment now offered in spas and beauty parlours all over the country. The primary purpose of the spas is to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema, but has been increasingly used to remove dead skin from the soles of feet. The practice, while popular, carries a number of health risks for both the fish and those undergoing the treatment, with a number of US states and Canadian provinces having banned fish spas, as cosmetology regulators believe the practice is unsanitary.
The fish used in these spas are called Garra Rufa and are a member of the carp and minnow (Cyprinidae) family. These are typically found in Eurasia in suptropical waters, as well as hot springs in Turkey. In the latter, natural food is scarce and Garra Rufa feed on the dead skin of bathers.
So, what are these dangers we talk about?
One of the primary dangers to the fish involved in this treatment is the restriction of food, which ensures the effective removal of customers’ dead skin. Another is the contamination of water from customers’ feet, with lotions, creams and flaking nail varnish all having the potential to compromise water quality and harm the Garra Rufa. There is also the danger that chemicals used to clean and disinfect the tank could be detrimental to their health, and should be non-toxic.
The staff giving this treatment in spas/beauty parlours should be adequately trained to handle Garra Rufa. However, this is not always the case, as there is a lack of scientific, expert-reviewed best practice guidelines for the use and care of these fish in beauty treatments. Premises using Dr Fish (another name given to Garra Rufa) do not need to be licensed under national animal welfare legislation or national health and safety legislation; there may be local bylaws in some areas that apply to beauty treatment premises, but conditions will be focussed on health and safety, and may not address animal welfare.
The RSPCA states that fish are covered under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), meaning that the person responsible has a duty of care to meet all their needs. This includes providing a suitable environment and adequate diet; inadequate water quality could lead an offence under Section 4 of the AWA and could also incur one under Section 9, if the environment is unsuitable.
The main danger to customers is the transfer of disease and infection, with this the primary reason for them being banned in a number of US states. In February 2011, the UK Health Protection Agency launched a 6-month investigation into the potential health risks of using a fish spa treatment. It found that health risks associated with the spas include the transmission of a range of infections from fish to person, water to person, or person to person.
World Animal Protection is opposed to the treatment and advises people never to use fish spas. It also encourages people who come across businesses that offer this service to write a polite letter to the business in question as well as the local authority, to voice your concerns.