Q: What is Physical Therapy?
A: Physical therapy has been an accepted traditional medical intervention for over 75 years.  Physical Therapists offer a variety of services including evaluation, treatment, consultation, education and research.

Physical therapists help problems involving the nerves, muscles and bones. They use many treatment techniques including: exercise, mobility training, massage, controlled walking and running, home activities, nerve and muscle stimulation, fitting equipment like slings and walkers, wound care, heat, cold or ice, ultrasound, laser and light therapy.

Prevention of injuries is also part of physical therapy. This includes promoting and maintaining fitness, health and quality of life.

Q: What kind of qualifications do physical therapists have? 
A: Physical therapists enter the profession with a master’s degree and many further their education by attaining a doctoral degree. The core curriculum for physical therapy requires 2-2 1/2 years. Each student completes 4-6 months of clinical internships prior to graduation.  Every therapist must pass a national licensure examination and maintain a current registration with the state or states where they work.

Q: How do physical therapists offers services to animals?
A: Animal physical therapy is not a replacement for traditional veterinary medicine. Physical therapists offer another option to health care for the benefit of animal patients. It is recommended that physical therapists work in collaboration with veterinarians using a team approach to examination and intervention. It is important to get a referral from your veterinarian before an evaluation or any treatment is provided.

Q: Is animal physical therapy a new approach within veterinary medicine?
A: The idea of applying rehabilitation principles and techniques to animals is not new in the United States. In fact, many of the treatment programs for humans were developed in the 1960’s using animals. Interest in the practice of animal physical therapy gained momentum in the late 1980’s and throughout the 1990’s due to the influence of national scientific conferences, recommendations by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA), the formation of the Animal Physical Therapist Special Interest Group, research and also clients asking about physical therapy for their animals.

Q: What is the Animal Physical Therapist Special Interest Group (SIG)?
A: The SIG is a group of physical therapists interested in sharing information and promoting the field of animal physical therapy. The group is a part of the Othopaedic Section of the APTA. The SIG develops education programs and encourages research in the field of animal physical therapy.

Q: How do I find a physical therapist trained in animal rehabilitation?
A: The SIG has a directory listing over 1200 physical therapists in the US. You can contact the SIG by calling 800-444-3982 or by links to the APTA web site.

Q: How can Physical Therapy help my animal?
A: Improved recovery from injury or surgery
Increased potential to return to typical performance or work
Enhancement of natural healing processes
Reduced pain
Increased speed and quality of movement
Improved strength and endurance
Increased flexibility
Prevention of future injury
Positive psychological effects for animal and owner

Q: What are some common conditions that Physical Therapists treat?
A: Care after surgery to nerves and bones
Muscle and tendon injury
Neck and Back problems
Joint problems, i.e. elbow, hip, knee
Stiffness or tightness of the joints or muscles
Decreased performance in the canine and equine athlete
Arthritis, pain and decreased movement
Pain Management
Breathing problems
Nerve damage
Care after a traumatic experience, i.e. being hit by a car
Concerns relating to old age
– difficulty walking, pain, decreased strength
Cancer i.e. quality of life issues, hospice.

Q: What might happen during an evaluation? 
A: An initial evaluation may take an hour or more depending on the animal and the problem to be addressed. The medical history, veterinary, diagnosis, results of testing, past treatment and results, current medication or remedies or supplements, routine function or “work”, social/home considerations, and history of present illness would be discussed prior to any treatment.

Physical therapists observe gait, posture, balance, functional skills(stairs, standing up, rolling, walking), pain, joint movement, muscle size, swelling, skin integrity (wounds), and neurological tests.

Based on evaluation results, the physical therapist develops a treatment program to resolve specific problems. Goals and expected results (prognosis) and length of care as well as an estimate for services are provided to the owner. The client and veterinarian would be able to provide feedback about the physical therapy program throughout the treatment period.

Q: What are common treatments techniques that Physical Therapists use?
A: Massage
Joint Movement
Mobility activities – walking, stairs, obstacles
Pool therapy – swimming
Walking Equipment- sling, carts, lifts
Breathing therapy
Muscle and nerve Stimulation
Wound Care

Other techniques such as Myofascial Release, Craniosacral Therapy and Therapeutic Touch, are sometimes used by therapists with specialized training.

Q: Will an animal physical therapist use machines on my pet?
A: Physical therapists have numerous skills and interventions available to offer to animal clients. Using machines, like ultrasound and muscle stimulators, often seems to be what people associate with physical therapy. However, one of the best pieces of equipment a physical therapist has to offer is a great pair of hands.

Q: What would a typical Physical Therapist treatment session involve?
A: After the initial visit for evaluation, a follow-up session may vary from 30-60 minutes. A brief discussion of responses to past treatment and new concerns would be noted. The therapist would assess function and take any measurements related to the injury.

As an example, a treatment for muscle injury or muscle pain could include massage, ice, stretching, and ultrasound. Exercises might be added later depending on how your animal is doing.

Q: Will physical therapy cause any harm to my animal?
A: Physical therapy treatment does not involve invasive procedures and does not have side effects like some drugs can have. The primary “tools” of therapists are their knowledge and experience, their hands and their eyes.

In the case of massage, joint movements and stretching, therapists adjust their pressure to what the animal can tolerate. Muscle stimulation and ultrasound when used appropriately by experienced licensed professionals are very safe. In many cases, the intensity of the machine is lowered to 1/2 or 1/3 of what is used for humans. Also, whenever an animal reacts to any intervention, even to turn their head towards equipment, it is recommended that the treatment be stopped to avoid creating discomfort to the animal. Exercise programs may be challenging to an animal but are closely monitored to keep activities within the animal’s ability.

Q: What role does the owner play in rehabilitation?
A: In some cases, the owner becomes the primary care giver and provides parts of the therapy program on a day-to-day basis. The therapist will demonstrate whatever is needed so the owner feels comfortable. The therapist remains available as a resource to answer questions or offer more training if needed. In this situation, the animal may come in for a re-check with the therapist every two weeks for 1-2 months.

When rehabilitation is more complicated, the physical therapist may recommend inpatient visits (having the animal stay in the clinic 3 days to one week or more) or outpatient visits (bringing the animal to the clinic 1x-3x in a week). In this situation, the physical therapist provides the primary treatments.

Q: How often will my animal need to be treated?
A: The frequency of visits depends on how critical your animals problems are. The initial evaluation will help the physical therapist answer this question for you. As an example, for an animal that was hit by a car and has multiple trauma, treatment sessions may be two times a day (intensive rehabilitation program). For another animal that is aging and dealing with arthritis treatment sessions may be once every two months.

Q: What should owners know about the legal aspects of animal physical therapy? 
A: You may find many well-meaning people who are not licensed offering “physical therapy” or   “animal therapy” services. Veterinarians and physical therapists are working to ensure education and certification for this emerging field of practice. It is recommended that consumers ask for credentials and qualifications before selecting a clinician.

The words “Physical Therapy” and “Physical Therapist” are protected in every state. Offering “animal physical therapy” services or using the title “animal physical therapist” is illegal for anyone other than a licensed physical therapist.

The AVMA guidelines state that veterinary physical therapy should be performed by a licensed veterinarian, a veterinary technician or a licensed physical therapist educated in animal anatomy and physiology. The AVMA also recommends that all therapy treatment should be under the supervision or referral by a licensed veterinarian.

Every state has it’s own laws that regulate the practice of working with animals. If you want to find out what is legal in your state you can contact the State Education Department for Veterinary Medicine and Physical Therapy.

Q: How much do physical therapy treatments cost?
A: Individual therapists will have different rates. There are no standard fees. Some rates are based on time spent with the animal and others are based on the type of treatment provided. Physical therapy for dogs has been reported from $40-75 per session. Horse evaluations and treatments may range from $60-120 or more.  Some pet insurance policies cover physical therapy treatments. You will have to contact your provider to determine the details of your policy.

Q: Can I get help for my animal by e-mail or phone consults?
A: Animals can not be fully evaluated over the phone or through e-mail no matter how detailed your descriptions might be. Although general information can be provided, the best advice you can get is to contact a PT in your area. Please contact the SIG at 800-444-3982 to ask for the Animal PT directory. Over 1200 physical therapists are listed by state. There may be a charge for this service.