Animals, like people, respond to physiotherapy, and a growing number of physiotherapists now work with animals

The purpose of physiotherapy is to restore and maintain mobility, function, independence and performance. Animal physiotherapy is now considered an essential addition to medical and surgical treatment of animals and is applied in several treatments, from the management of joint or spinal problems to rehabilitation after fractures or injury.

As an animal physiotherapist you'll cover the treatment of domestic pets, farm animals and exotic pets, though horses, dogs and cats are the most common. Typical procedures include:

  • assessment
  • massage
  • ultrasound
  • electrotherapy
  • exercise
  • owner education and advice.

Animal physiotherapy is also sometimes referred to as veterinary physiotherapy.

Types of animal physiotherapy

You may specialise in one area of animal physiotherapy, such as:

  • hydrotherapy
  • small animal physiotherapy
  • large animal physiotherapy
  • horse and rider.

However, the majority of animal physiotherapists are self-employed and decide for themselves whether they want to work across the full spectrum or specialise. Your professional qualification will prepare you equally for work with small or large animals, but you may have to undertake further courses in order to perform specialised procedures.

Responsibilities

As an animal therapist, you'll:

  • treat a range of complaints, including spinal problems, joint problems and injuries to muscles, ligaments and tendons
  • facilitate post-surgical rehabilitation
  • devise exercise regimes for a range of conditions, from neurological conditions, to obesity, to preventative physiotherapy.

You'll also need to:

  • provide advice on adapting an animal's living environment
  • administer patient records.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for qualified animal physiotherapists are comparable to NHS Band 5 - ranging from £23,000 to £28,000.
  • Experienced animal therapists (with more than five years' experience) may earn between £28,000 and £33,000.
  • Very senior animal therapists with additional responsibilities may earn higher salaries, of £33,000 to £43,000.

Many animal physiotherapists are self-employed and charge per appointment, which typically lasts an hour. Rates start from around £25.00 per appointment and reach £70.00 for longer appointments or more complex procedures.

Some self-employed animal physiotherapists are also trained human physiotherapists and offer 'horse and rider' physiotherapy consultations. These generally fetch higher rates.

Self-employed animal physiotherapists will also charge extra for travel to their client's home/practice.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

For full-time contracts the typical working hours are 37.5 per week, Monday to Friday. Part-time contracts are also common, and hours vary depending on the needs of the practice.

What to expect

  • The majority of jobs come up in London and other big cities, as well as in Gloucestershire (due to the high concentration of horse races).
  • If you decide to open your own practice, be prepared to travel often and over large distances. A driving license will be essential.
  • It's essential to establish good relationships with local veterinary practices, as you can't treat animals unless they are referred to you by a veterinary surgeon.
  • Whether you work for a practice or are self-employed, you'll need to apply for professional indemnity and public liability insurance (PLI).
  • Exercising animals and carrying equipment can be physically challenging and therefore the job requires good level of fitness.

Qualifications

At the moment animal physiotherapy is not a protected title, so a variety of training routes are available. Regardless of the route you take the job requires higher education training. However, you can choose what level of qualification you'd like to study for.

Make sure you check which professional bodies you would like to join, as they'll often have the minimum education prerequisites for membership. Joining organisations before completing your training is advised, as they provide excellent networking opportunities as well as advertise upcoming jobs. Many organisations offer reduced membership rates for students.

The most common routes into the profession are:

  • completing an undergraduate degree in human physiotherapy, followed by a postgraduate training in animal/veterinary physiotherapy
  • completing an undergraduate degree in veterinary nursing, followed by a postgraduate training in animal/veterinary physiotherapy
  • completing an undergraduate degree in veterinary physiotherapy (currently only offered by Harper Adams University).

The postgraduate training offered is typically either at MSc or PGDip level.

Opportunities for in-house animal physiotherapists appear rarely, so many animal physiotherapists choose to be self-employed. If you are thinking about starting your own business, consider taking up a business course to learn about the administrative, legislative and accounting aspects of running a business.

Skills

To become an animal physiotherapist, you'll need to demonstrate:

  • a genuine concern for the wellbeing and health of animals
  • a real interest in anatomy and physiology.

You'll need to have the following skills:

  • strong interpersonal and communication skills
  • teamwork skills
  • an aptitude for problem solving
  • analytical skills
  • administrative and record-keeping skills.

You'll also need to be:

  • patient, sensitive, tactful and persistent
  • flexible and adaptable.

If you're thinking about starting your own business, you'll need good entrepreneurial and enterprise skills.

Work experience

Work experience is essential, not only for securing your first job, but often for being accepted onto the relevant study programmes. When checking the programme make sure you know if they require you to have prior work experience and how much they're looking for.

Your work experience is likely to be voluntary, and due to a practice's insurance policy, what you can do might be limited. However, this is an opportunity for you to watch surgeons, nurses and specialists perform their day-to-day duties. Don’t be afraid to ask questions - the more you ask, the more you learn and the more likely you are to get involved with more advanced patient care procedures.

Very few structured work experience schemes exist, however contacting employers directly and networking can often lead to volunteering opportunities, as the people who run veterinary practices and other animal healthcare organisations are likely to relate to your position.

Employers

The majority of animal physiotherapists are self-employed. They advertise their offers through social media, professional websites and professional bodies they are members of. Membership of professional bodies is also essential if you are looking for an in-house opportunity, as these will often be advertised through their websites and newsletters.

Forming and maintain positive links with your local veterinary surgeries is essential, as animals will have to be referred to you by a veterinary surgeon. Veterinary practices are also more likely to pay for your services directly to support their in-patients, if they have good relationships with you.

Opportunities don't come up often on national job sites, but keep an eye on the key, industry-specific ones:

Professional development

Once you start working as an animal physiotherapist you're expected to keep up with the developments in animal healthcare, take part in continuing professional development (CPD), and attend conferences and seminars.

CPD training will allow you to further increase your knowledge, specialise and practice in a particular area of physiotherapy, or learn about ways of working will less common animals. Sometimes you'll have to complete a CPD training in order to perform certain procedures, for example, hydrotherapy.

The most common way of learning about any upcoming CPD or further development opportunities is through membership of professional organisations. Some of the largest are as follows:

Career prospects

Your career prospects and progression will depend largely on your own choices. Through CPD training you may choose to further specialise in one field of animal physiotherapy, such as neurorehabilitation or myotherapy. Once you have acquired sufficient practical and research experience in your chosen field you may wish to work as a lecturer or a consultant.

If you're employed in-house, you may find opportunities for promotion to more senior or leadership positions. At the same time, if you're self-employed and establish a successful business, you may wish to consider employing other animal physiotherapists to support your client base.

A good way to develop your professional networks and additional transferable skills is through active participation in your professional bodies, where, depending on your organisation, you may choose to take on additional responsibilities, from membership of a committee to more senior leadership roles.