British Columbia's only fish pedicure spa has been shut down by provincial health officials over concerns the treatment is unsanitary and can lead to a host of potentially deadly illnesses.

The Purple Orchid Spa in Duncan, B.C. has had to stop offering the treatment over threats of fines or even jail time for the owner.

The spa uses live garra rufa fish, known as doctor fish, which nibble dead skin from the client's feet in a filtered, bubbling tank.

"We know of at least 11 serious if not life-threatening illnesses that can be acquired from that type of treatment," said Dr. Richard Stanwick of the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

"This ranges from strep salmonella to more exotic organisms like nocardia and microbacteria."

At the Purple Orchid, owner Dixie Simpson said her clients come to the spa to experience the unique experience of having live fish nibble at their feet.

She said 700 people have undergone the treatment in the past year that the service has been offered, and there have been no adverse health effects whatsoever.

She said the argument that the practice is unsanitary doesn't hold water because her fish pedicure tanks use an ultraviolet filtration system that kills all bacteria.

"There's never been a public outbreak of any sort," Simpson told CTV B.C.

However, she said that wasn't taken into account when the health board made its ruling.

"I had to shut down my spa effective immediately or I would be fined up to $25,000 or up to six months in jail," she said.

The Vancouver Island Health Authority isn't the only regional health board to shut down businesses offering fish pedicures. It's also happened in New York and more than a dozen other states across the U.S.

The practice is common in Asia and the Middle East, and first gained popularity in Turkish spas where they are used to treat patients with psoriasis.

Only in recent years have the spas begun to appear in North America, and provincial and municipal health officials are struggling to come up with rules to regulate the industry.

Manitoba and Quebec allow fish spas to operate, while in the U.S. some states permit the practice while others do not.

For Simpson, the fish pedicure treatment has become an essential part of her business, which also offers manicures and hand treatments.

If she is forced to discontinue the service permanently, Simpson said, it will be difficult if not impossible to survive.

"A third of my business will be gone and that's a huge chunk for a small business," she said.

Simpson has started a petition challenging the decision by Health Canada and has enlisted the help of her local MP, who has asked the health authority to reconsider the decision.

With a report from CTV British Columbia