RESPONSE: Why it's wrong to use Garra rufa fish in pedicures

pretty feet
The RSPCA's head of wildlife on why the growing trend for fish pedicures could be bad for fish welfare and human health

The RSPCA has serious concerns about the use of Garra rufa fish for pedicures, as the Ecologist recently covered. This is an emerging and growing trend in the UK with salons engaged in the practice ranging from ‘street traders’ at markets with storage boxes full of fish to more high-end salons using tanks fitted with biological and UV filtration systems.

Fish require a stable environment with the correct water quality and temperature range. Sudden changes in water temperature can seriously compromise the welfare of the fish, leading to suffering and may even kill the animals. Water quality is of paramount importance in maintaining healthy fish. Oxygen levels and chemicals such as ammonia and nitrite will affect the welfare of the fish.

Once feet are emerged in the water, toxic (to fish) chemicals such as from toiletries or nail-varnish may leach into the water. Chemicals used to clean or disinfect tanks or to clean clients feet prior to treatment may also be toxic to the fish.

The size and shape of the treatment tank are also important considerations. These factors have considerable impact on the stability of the water conditions, oxygenation of the water and subsequently, the number of fish that can be kept.

Overcrowding fish in a small volume of water will lead to increased concentrations of ammonia, which will affect the health of the fish. Fish should also be provided with adequate shade from bright light and shelter to escape aggression from other fish.

There is also the question of nutritional state of the fish. Under natural conditions in hot springs in Turkey, it is thought that Garra rufa feed on human skin because natural food sources are scarce. Questions have been raised as to whether well fed fish may show no interest in human skin, and may be unlikely to feed on skin if they had access to appropriate food sources when not being used in treatments. Cont’d/…

In addition, salon staff may not be properly trained to adequately ensure the welfare of the animals. We would like to remind practitioners that they have a responsibility for the welfare of the fish under the Animal Welfare Act (2006).

Failure to provide the appropriate needs of the fish either deliberately or by omission would be an offence. There is also the question of what happens to the fish once they have become too big to be used for pedicures and of the trade in wild caught fish being unsustainable. The RSPCA is not alone in having concerns about the use of Garra rufa fish in salons.

The Health Protection Agency is currently investigating the practice from a human health perspective and the practice has been banned in 14 states in the USA due to public health concerns. Finally, the article states that ‘an enzyme secreted in the saliva of the fish does a great job of treating common skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema’. In most vertebrates saliva does not contain enzymes, and in any case, salivary glands are rarely found in fish.

Dermatologists have suggested that the use of fish is inappropriate because it fails to treat the underlying cause of the skin condition. Whilst the use of fish in beauty salons may seem to be a benign eco-friendly alternative therapy there are clearly concerns from both an animal welfare and a human health perspective and it is surprising that a journal such as the Ecologist would not thoroughly research these before recommending the practice to its readers.

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