Forbidden fish pedicures make first splash in New England

Can flesh-nibbling fish breathe new life into nail salons?

THE WORKING STIFF – By Darren Garnick
The Boston Herald
November 5, 2008
Every day at Kim Ong’s nail salon is an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The diners are chin chins, native Chinese guppy-like fish with a voracious appetite for scaly skin. And they are revolutionizing the traditional spa pedicure, softening and smoothing out rough feet before the pumice stone gets a chance.

Kim’s Spa & Nails in Derry, NH, is the first salon in New England to offer the service, which sparked a media frenzy in Virginia this past summer. Chin chins, also called “doctor fish” or “massage fish” have nibbled for the cameras on Good Morning America, The Today Show, The View and The Tyra Banks Show.

“Just the thought of fish eating your feet was a little freaky to me at first,” admits Ong. “But once you try it, you’ll find it really relaxing.”

These fish are always hungry, they’re always happy and they can eat dead skin all day,” she adds.

At Kim’s Spa, groups of 100 toothless chin chins are shut off from their buffet after a 30-minute session. They are later fed a serving of regular goldfish flakes and don’t return to human flesh until the next day.

According to Scott Dowd, a senior freshwater biologist at the New England Aquarium, these fish are capable of non-stop snacking.

“They’re pretty much on an all-protein Atkins Diet,” he says. “Fish bellies can expand quite a bit. Their digestive systems process the best stuff first. If new food comes along, they poop out the partially digested food to make room for the new food.”

Based on that fish fact alone, Ong’s policy not to “overwork” the chin chins makes good business sense. She’s also zealous about making sure beauty salon patrons won’t find blood in the tanks either. Customers’ feet and legs are first checked for scrapes and small cuts that could be made larger by suckling fish.

Citing hygienic reasons, Texas state health authorities just banned fish pedicures last month.

Ong says some salons have had multiple customers share the same fish tank during the nibbling sessions. Her salon uses individual plexiglass tanks and does not use the same fish with two different customers on the same day.

Caring for chin chin fish requires constant vigilance. Ong says their water must be always be kept between 82 and 85 degrees. The PETA animal rights group has accused Yvonne’s Hair, Nails & Tanning Salon in Virginia of accidentally “cooking” up to 7,000 “doctor fish” to death, a charge that owner John Ho denies.

In an email to the Herald, Ho wrote that his salon had lost power for a few days and had to relocate those fish to his own home.  PETA case worker Kristin DeJournett said she called Yvonne’s at the time of the incident to inquire about a pedicure and was told by a staff member that the fish had died.

The Virginia controversy aside, the New England Aquarium’s Dowd maintains “there is nothing cruel or inhumane about using these fish in this way.”

“These fish are only limited by the amount of people willing to let themselves be grazed,” he says. “And it’s fair to say that if these fish are the lifeblood of a spa operation, then the owners will do everything they can to take care of them.”

Kim’s Spa has no business relationship with Yvonne’s, which has been franchising the “Doctor Fish” brand to existing spas for $25,000 to $30,000. Ong says her start-up costs for 500 chin chin fish was about $6,000, including equipment.

Remarkably, she’s offering to help competing salons set up their own fish pedicure stations as a goodwill gesture.

“The economy is really bad and business here is down about 40 percent from the same time last year,” she says. “I’d like to help out other small businesses.  I believe our customer service is what makes us thrive and I don’t see other salons as a threat.”

Darren Garnick’s “The Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the Boston Herald.

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