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Garra Rufa: The Exploitation of the Doctor Fish

Updated on May 1, 2012
The Garra Rufa fish.
The Garra Rufa fish.

About The Garra Rufa

Garra Rufa, also known as doctor fish, nibble fish, little dermatologists, kangal fish or reddish log sucker, have nibbled their way into modern medicine one dead skin cell at a time. Despite their diminutive size, they are usually approx. 10 cm (3.9 in); but, can grow to 14 cm (5.5 in), they have caused a huge splash in the world of medicine.

Garra Rufa are actually a toothless member of the carp family. A non-migratory freshwater fish found through much of Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Syria; the majority of them are found in small muddy streams, rivers and lakes. However, these fish have a number of luxury lovers among their numbers; and, these tiny little pleasure seekers have colonized the hot pools around which the Turkish spas have been built.  They live and breed by feeding off the dead, diseased or dying skin cells of the bathers; and, whatever other offerings the pool may have.

These fish are quite a group of hardy souls being able to tolerate a wide range of temperatures. In their natural habitat, temperatures range from 15º-28º C (59º-82.4º F); whereas, the hot pools hover around 37º C (98.6º F).

There are many stories surrounding the remarkable healing abilities of this fish. Most go something like this:

There was a shepherd who lived near a small stream containing these fish. He had a painful foot disease; and, would soak his feet daily in the cool stream in an effort to find relief from the pain and inflammation. He found the gently moving, cool water to be soothing to his feet.  He didn't pay any attention to the fish swarming around his feet tickling him. They didn't bite; and, he liked the feeling. After a few days of soaking his feet in this stream, he thought they were getting better.  Much to his amazement, after several weeks of soaking his feet daily, they were healed. He told all his friends of his miracle; and, the doctor fish were discovered.

Ms. Samantha Grayson spent up to six hours a day in waters of a Turkish spa filled with Garra Rufa.  She spent 3 weeks at the spa receiving treatment.
Ms. Samantha Grayson spent up to six hours a day in waters of a Turkish spa filled with Garra Rufa. She spent 3 weeks at the spa receiving treatment.

Turkish Spas Are The Real Deal

Turkish spas have been capitalizing on the Garra Rufa for over 400 years. They are a much valued therapy that has helped sufferers of skin diseases for over 4 centuries without pain; without drugs; without invasive treatment; and, without the use of lotions, potions and ointments that contain other harmful ingredients.

The spas are built around naturally-occurring hot pools where Garra Rufa are present. The actual spa is rather like a large, shallow hot tub with a ledge surrounding the outer sides. Bathers just walk into the community spa, sit down; and, let the flesh eaters do their jobs.

The toothless Garra Rufa gently chew away only dead, dying or diseased tissue leaving healthy tissue totally untouched. The removal of the dead flesh is accomplished with the help of a powerful enzyme, dithranol, in its saliva to help compensate for the lack of teeth. Some believe there is a curative power in the fishes' saliva.

It is believed by many that the enzymatic secretions and dithranol (a component of dermatological creams) are capable of helping skin regenerate faster; but, no scientific proof has been found to support this. On the other hand, there is nothing to prove that the enzymatic secretions and dithranol can not help regenerate skin...and, it's one heck of a selling point for the cosmetic companies.

Another unsung benefit of the spas is that they are filled with locally-occurring, selenium-rich water in an open-air venue. Selenium is a natural skin-healing mineral. Locals believe that the clients benefit from the time spent relaxing in the open, fresh air; the exposure of the skin to the selenium-rich water; and, the fish removing all unhealthy skin opening the skin below the lesions to allow the healing waters to penetrate to that skin as well.

The video selected shows a true Turkish spa in operation.

A side-by-side comparison of the change in Ms. Grayson's back after the 3 week treatment.  Looks amazing to me!
A side-by-side comparison of the change in Ms. Grayson's back after the 3 week treatment. Looks amazing to me!

Does This Therapy Really Work?

Among frequenters of these spas, 87.5% said they experienced great relief from pain, redness or lesions; but, note they must come back to the spas periodically to keep their skin disease in remission.

The waters of the spa in Kangal, Turkey; and, other Turkish spas are said to be beneficial in the alleviation of rheumatic diseases, neurological disorders (neuralgia, neuritis, paralysis), orthopedic and traumatological sequelae (fractures, joint trauma, and muscle disease), gynecological problems (by lavage), skin diseases, urolithiasis (by drinking), and psychosomatica disorders.  It must be remembered; however, that these spas have the benefits of the local warm, selenium-rich waters rich with natural nutrients.

The length time between visits is different for each person. Some must come back every few month; some can go 12-18 months between visits; or some need to just listen to their skin. However, there are a few, a few lucky ones, people who say their psoriasis or other skin disease has been completely cured by these tiny toothless doctors; and, of course, all sufferers hope they may be the next cure.

Ms. Samantha Grayson, from Kent, England went to a Turkish spa in an effort to alleviate her psoriasis. She found that the looks and whisperings surrounding her condition when she was out in public were causing her to miss the best parts of her life; so, she went to Turkey and took the plunge.

Fortunately she allowed the bbc news to go along with her. The above photo is a side-by-side comparison of her back - both before and after her treatment. I think the doctor fish have done a magnificent job. I give it two fins up!

Doctor fish in the middle of a pedicure.
Doctor fish in the middle of a pedicure.

The Cosmetics Industry Rushes To Exploit The Planet Again

Beauty treatment centres everywhere are adding "pedicure by carp" to their beauty regime.  Entire new businesses are being built to accommodate the demand for partial or total body defoliation by fish.  There is absolutely no doubt that the fish do a superb job; but, is removing these little flesh-eaters from the wild for purely cosmetic reasons acceptable; or, even pc, for that matter.

Hop onto the net and discover that these tiny little souls can be bought by anyone who is willing to pay the price.  You don't even have to explain if you keep making repeat orders.  Hhmmm...

For keeners of this treatment, it should be noted that while Garra Rufa can be kept in an aquarium at home; aquarium specimens are not well suited for home applications as the skin-feeding behavior fully manifests only under conditions where the food supply is somewhat scarce and unpredictable.

Animal rights groups, particularly English groups,  have also voiced alarm over the conditions in which the fish are kept. 

"We do have concerns about the welfare of any fish involved in this practice," a spokeswoman for the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals {England}) told the Observer.  "Fish are covered by the Animal Welfare Act. They need a stable environment, with the correct water quality and temperature range. Sudden changes in temperature should be avoided as they can severely compromise welfare and even kill the animals. Water quality is of paramount importance in maintaining healthy fish. Having people bathe in the water with the fish is likely to affect quality, particularly if they are wearing any lotions or other toiletries that could leach into the water. Similarly, chemicals used to disinfect tanks and to clean patients' feet beforehand would have to be non-toxic to the fish."

The Garra Rufas new home in the modern world.  A far cry from their natural homes in the Middle East (especially Turkey).
The Garra Rufas new home in the modern world. A far cry from their natural homes in the Middle East (especially Turkey).

Give Us Your Opinion. Vote in the Poll and Tell Us What You Think

Doctor Fish should be used only for medicinal purposes; and, not for cosmetic reasons such as a pedicure.

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      natalie ferraro 

      6 years ago

      i've only done research on this subject for a few hours, but I can tell you that poll was not well worded. It's true that some spas exploit the fish and don't take care of them. but instead of making fish spa treatments illegal, we should educate health inspectors who will make sure water is clean and conditions healthy. the right breed of Garra Rufa are being used and that customers are educated. if done properly this is a GREAT addition to spas and help a lot of people. i found a lot of information on this site.


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