A career as a veterin­ary physiotherapist

Helen Fentem-Jones dog physio

The path that I took to becoming a veterin­ary physiotherapist was a long and interesting one, as initially my choice of career had not been obvious. I always knew I wanted to work with the veterinary profession. However, it took me some time to decide where my niche in this profession would be. I found out about physiotherapy, and specifically veterinary physiotherapy, 12 years ago when I was studying for a degree in equine science, and right from the word go I knew I had found my career. What really appealed to me about physiotherapy was the way in which hands-on techniques could make such a huge difference to patients; how the physio­therapist followed and assisted the patient from either surgical or medical trauma to complete recovery; and how it complemented and consolidated the work of the veterin­ary surgeon, improving outcomes and quality of life for the patient, and consequently the owner as well.

It occurred to me that physiotherapy was essential in human medicine due to the huge advances and improvements in healthcare. Surgeons perform continually advancing surgical techniques, and medics save and keep alive patients suffering from increasingly severe illnesses. The physiotherapist's role is to ensure that the aftercare of such patients is as good and progressive as the initial medical management has been. The same is true for veterinary patients.

Becoming a veterinary physiotherapist 

Despite now knowing what I wanted to do, the route into veterinary physiotherapy was limited (although this has changed). At the time, it was a requirement to train initially as a human physiotherapist. I completed my Masters in Physiotherapy at King's College London and, on graduation, took up a junior post in a local hospital. The next requirement was to complete two years working as a human physiotherapist, which I did. I then applied and was accepted on to the Royal Veterinary College's (RVC's) veterinary physiotherapy course. I graduated in 2009, and was lucky enough to find a post working full time in my new career in a local referral centre; I started work at Dick White Referrals in September 2009.

"The physiotherapist's role is to ensure that the aftercare of such patients is as good and progressive as the initial medical management has been"

Before my appointment, the practice had no physiotherapy service. The past three years have been spent establishing our in-patient and outpatient physiotherapy service to support the exceptional work being done by the veterinary surgeons. I received fantastic support from the clinicians and nursing staff, and in my experience this is not unique to my place of work. Veterinary physiotherapy is a growing profession and its contribution is increasingly widely recognised.

The outpatient aspect of my job is well established, although in-patient physiotherapy is not yet as abundant. However, this is another area where I feel the profession will grow exponentially. The feedback I have received from the vets I work with includes the consensus that patients are being discharged sooner and with more functionality than those that historically did not receive physiotherapy.

What is physiotherapy?

In the field of human medicine, the physiotherapy profession has been around for many years, even centuries. It is suggested that phys­icians such as Hippocrates advocated the use of techniques including massage, manual therapies and hydrotherapy. However, veterinary physiotherapy is a much younger discipline. Physiotherapists aim to restore movement and function to as near normal as possible following injury, illness or developmental problems. Although this statement is from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, which works with humans beings, it is equally applicable in a veterinary context. Veterinary physiotherapy offers many options for working with small and large animals – from critically ill, recumbent patients to top athletes – using a number of techniques including:

  • Movement and rehabilitation therapies
  • Manual therapies
  • Soft tissue techniques
  • Electrophysical therapies
  • Hydrotherapies/aquatic therapies

These are the well-known areas of specialism, but there are certain key areas that are less well recognised. The different areas in which human and veterinary physiotherapists can work include:

  • Musculoskeletal and sports injuries
  • Care of elderly patients
  • Neurological rehabilitation
  • Trauma and elective orthopaedic rehabilitation
  • Respiratory and critical care medicine
  • Pain management and wound healing

My area of interest and clinical specialism is with small animals. In-patient cases can include neurological, orthopaedic and even critically ill medical patients, all of which can benefit from respiratory physiotherapy techniques. Outpatient cases offer equal diversity through different challenges. Working closely with owners in these cases is exceptionally rewarding as, by teaching them physiotherapy techniques to assist the recovery of their pet, we offer them an element of control, which can be beneficial psychologically for the owner and their pet.

Experience and training

The route into my profession has changed and adapted, and is no longer exclusive to human physiotherapists wanting to convert to working with animals. It is essential to have a background and experience of working with animals, alongside an appropriate qualification. Veterinary surgeons, veterin­ary nurses and hydrotherapists can make exceptionally good veterinary physiotherapists, and there are a number of courses available specifically for professionals working in these fields.

"Veterinary physiotherapy offers many options for working with small and large animals – from critically ill, recumbent patients to top athletes – using a number of techniques"

Achieving an appropriate qualification to work as a veterinary or animal physiotherapist or rehabilitation therapist is essential, as underqualified practitioners can damage patients as well as the profession. One new course that is available to veterinary and small animal professionals is the University of Nottingham's postgraduate certificate in small animal rehabilitation therapy.

Veterinary physiotherapy is an exciting and rewarding area in which to work. The bond that can be achieved with the patients is extraordinary, as is the positive effect that can be made to people's lives. It is an ever-growing and expanding profession offering new challenges and opportunities.

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