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Animal physiotherapy a rapidly growing profession

Photo: Physiotherapist Brooke Williams
One of the most rapidly growing industries in veterinary medicine, animal physiotherapy works in much the same way as in human practice, treating everything from arthritis to back pain and neurological conditions.

Animal physiotherapy, a relatively new specialisation in Australia, involves working closely with veterinary teams and surgeons to achieve optimum outcomes throughout rehabilitation.

Meagan Lamming, National Chair of APA Animal Group, said qualified, experienced physiotherapists can make significant improvements to an animal’s well-being and function in the same way that they can for people.

“Physiotherapists don’t just massage animals – those with extra training in treating animals can transfer their skills to provide improved health to animals in a number of areas,” said Ms Lamming.
Physiotherapist Michelle Monk, Director of Dogs in Motion, started Australia’s first physiotherapy and hydrotherapy centre for dogs in 2002 after realising animal rehabilitation was limited in Australia.

“I was concerned about the animals that weren't able to access rehabilitation. So, I set about getting training and educating vets about the importance of rehabilitation.

“These guys can't look after themselves. They rely on us to meet every one of their needs, and they suffer from the same ailments as we do.

“With advances in veterinary medicine and surgery, dogs can now also access many of the life and limb saving surgeries and treatments we can.

“And these require rehabilitation to restore strength, the ability to walk, comfort and reduce pain," said Ms Monk.

It is typical for dogs to require physiotherapy after orthopaedic surgery, such as cruciate surgery, surgery for hip and elbow dysplasia, patella lunation, spinal surgery and other neurological conditions.

“We have a large patient group of older dogs with arthritis that we can certainly help to move and feel better when their only medical option is typically drugs.”

The advantages of working as a physiotherapist for animals include helping two patients – the dog and their owner.

“Not only do we get to help people, but we get to help their animals as well, so it’s a double win.

"The negatives are only that dog's lives are short. That means that we have to say goodbye to our patients more often than I would like when their time is up.”

Brooke Williams, a physiotherapist who is passionate about establishing animal physiotherapy in Australia, said she has always had an affinity for animals.

“There is a huge amount of work behind the scenes to get this profession up and running and continue to run in Australia and internationally.

“It was a natural calling for me to embark on further postgraduate studies to be able to combine my skills and work with a different species!

"I was ready for a challenge in my career, and I got it!

“It is such a privilege to work with animals and be able to gain their trust and make a difference in their quality of life.

“The more we can allow an animal to relax, the more we can accurately assess and therefore treat.”

The challenges faced include the potential for animals to be aggressive and educating and managing the relationship with pet owners.

“There are the dynamics of the human owner to manage and education and involvement in their pet's treatment makes what we do all the more successful.

“It is a team approach, and many owners feel empowered to know how to manage their pet's pain and maximise their quality of life.

“It is rewarding work, but it takes a lot of work to embark on the amount of study required, and that can be financially and mentally draining."

Animal physiotherapy is more involved than branching out into other areas such a sports physiotherapy, whereby a weekend course enables a practitioner to transfer skills immediately.

“This essentially is a change of profession and much needs to be understood about how to enter this profession. You must have a passion for animals and be eager to learn effective and safe handling practices of a different species.

“It can also be more physically taxing requiring a lot of bending and lifting in small animals and risks with large animals.

“It is, however, very rewarding and with the appropriate training and mentorship can be a great new pathway for human physiotherapists to enter,” said Ms Williams.

"Our dogs rely on us to meet every one of their needs, and it's important that we provide the best information possible to owners to help them make informed decisions about their pet's wellbeing and happiness," said Ms Monk.


How to practice animal physiotherapy
In Australia (unlike the UK), Physiotherapist is a protected title so you must be a human physiotherapist first and be registered with AHPRA.

“You must understand the change in legalities to work in each state of Australia.

“I would recommend you join the Animal Physiotherapy Group of the APA (Australian Physiotherapy Association) to have access to professional development sessions and interactions with others in the industry," said Ms Williams.

Standards of practice for physiotherapists treating animals
Ms Lamming said: “As AHPRA registered physiotherapists, practitioners must comply with the PhysioBA (Physio Board Australia) codes and guidelines.


Training requirements for physiotherapists treating animals in Australia
“Physiotherapists are university qualified, completing a four-year bachelor’s degree undertaken at one of many universities nationally.

“They must continue to work with and treat humans and have their ongoing professional development related to humans each year to maintain registration with AHPRA.

“AHPRA also provide information via frequently asked questions.

“The APA’s Animal Group recommends that physiotherapists take appropriate measures to ensure they are working within scope.

“This includes appropriate rigorous postgraduate study and insurance that covers work with animals.

“Current pathways available are the Master of Science in Veterinary Physiotherapy completed via the University of Liverpool (UK) and the APA postgraduate professional development courses.

“The APA recommends that when people are seeking physiotherapy for their animals, they ask the practitioner about their qualifications.

“To check if the practitioner is a qualified physiotherapist, consumers can search for the physiotherapist’s name on the AHPRA website. If the practitioner is a registered physiotherapist their name will be listed,” said Ms Lamming.

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.