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They are two inches long and toothless, and they're causing a big stir in Arizona. They are fish, fish that are used in a Phoenix area salon for a special kind of pedicure - that is, they were used until last year when the state pulled the plug on fish pedicures.

There'll be an explanation of what a fish pedicure is in a moment. But first, the salon owner is taking the state to court.

From member station KJZZ, Peter O'Dowd reports.

(Soundbite of laughter and conversation)

PETER O'DOWD: A group of women sit across the back wall of Cindy Vong's nail salon. In this 2008 promotional video, we can see their feet are plunged into a tank of water, and inside, little carp feast on callused flesh. As the sucker mouths latch on, the women roar with laughter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CINDY VONG (Salon Owner): It's a good business idea. Business was booming.

O'DOWD: Business is not booming anymore. Vong says it's been about a year since the state ordered her to stop fish pedicures. At that time, she was the only one in town offering the service. Vong now sells shoes along the back wall, and stilettos are not nearly as popular as the $30 pedicures were.

She's laid off four workers, and the traditional sound of nail files has replaced the laughter.

Ms. VONG: If I don't have anything new, I don't have the fish back, yes, my salon will be closing soon.

O'DOWD: In 2008, the fish pedicure business took off in the U.S. The idea was imported from Asia where the Garra rufa fish have smoothed calloused skin for years. Almost immediately, the practice raised eyebrows, and now at least two dozen states say fish pedicures are illegal because the practice is unsanitary.

Ms. DONNA AUNE (Executive Director, Arizona State Board of Cosmetology): We consider the fish being a tool.

O'DOWD: Donna Aune runs Arizona's cosmetology board.

Ms. AUNE: Every tool that comes in contact with a client in Arizona needs to be disinfected or thrown away.

O'DOWD: And since you can't spray a living fish with Ajax or toss it in the trash with each pedicure, Aune says the practice is not allowed in Arizona.

Robert Spalding supports that ruling. He's a podiatrist in Tennessee, another state where spa fish are banned.

Dr. ROBERT SPALDING (Podiatrist; Author, "Death by Pedicure): There's not been any reported cases to me directly on this, but the ingredients for a problem certainly exist with this type of service.

O'DOWD: Spalding wrote a book called "Death by Pedicure," which tracks the dangers of unsanitary salon practices. He says cuts from a razor blade, or even a mosquito bite, are big enough to transmit salmonella from a fish.

Dr. SPALDING: The fact that they can culture this bacteria out of their mouth, there really doesn't need to be a whole lot more done to prove that this is a risk factor for people.

O'DOWD: And then, some feet are just dirty - warts and fungus. Salon owner Marie Bernat sees it all the time.

Ms. MARIE BERNAT (Salon Owner): They may be in the beginning stages, but they didn't know that that little yellow discoloration or that thick nail is actually a fungus, and fungus is highly contagious.

O'DOWD: Vong's attorney, Clint Bolick, disputes the claim that spa fish put anyone at risk. Customers who use the service say Vong kept the fish tanks clean and regularly replaced the water. And Bolick says no one ever complained about getting sick.

Mr. CLINT BOLICK (Attorney; Director, Goldwater Institute): The bigger picture is really the right to earn an honest living.

O'DOWD: Bolick works for the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian watchdog group that fights government intrusion into private business. He's suing the state cosmetology board to reverse the ban, and already he's getting calls from business owners in other states who face similar restrictions.

Mr. BOLICK: Nobody's forcing anyone to get a fish spa treatment, but they sure ought to have the right to do it.

(Soundbite of water circulating)

O'DOWD: As Vong ponders the future, her customers must settle for this traditional foot bath. And for Chelsea Brecia, that won't be a problem. She says the thought of hungry fish suckling her toes is just freaky.

Ms. CHELSEA BRECIA: I saw the movie "Piranha" when I was young and it sat with me, so me sticking my feet in a tank with biting fish is not going to happen.

O'DOWD: A judge is expected to make a ruling in the case this spring.

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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