Physical Therapy in Veterinary World

Exiting the practice of human physical therapy after 31 years and entering the field of veterinary physical rehabilitation in 2008 was a huge career transition.

Physical Therapy in Veterinary World

Suddenly I entered a world where what I did was no longer called “Physical Therapy” and many of the providers were not actual physical therapists!

Most canine rehabilitation practitioners are vets and veterinary technicians who have taken courses and certification programs to learn the various modalities, exercises and manual skills needed to help animals recover from injury, surgery, and illness. In the United States, the term “Physical Therapy” is protected and applies only when patient care by a licensed physical therapist.

So, is there a difference in “Canine Physical Rehabilitation “and Canine PT?

They are inherently the same service, provided by different professionals.  I should note that some Physical Therapists have a dual designation of PT and CCRP (Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner)”.

For the dog parent, what is important is that the person working with your dog is a qualified medical professional with extensive additional training.  For example, the provider should be a Veterinarian or Veterinary Technician with training in physical rehabilitation, or a licensed Physical Therapist with training in animal anatomy, pathology, and related veterinary topics. An aide or an office-trained receptionist does not qualify.

Practicing physical therapy in veterinary world requires a solid medical background, knowledge of gait mechanics, muscle/ joint function, and a high level of skill in manual techniques and physical modalities.

Other forms of treatment that can also benefit your dog are Chiropractic and Massage Therapy.  These are related to the rehabilitation field, but are generally not substitutes for it, and should only be provided by those with cross-training in animals. (These rules apply in the United States and other countries may have different practice patterns)

Where does PT and Rehabilitation for your dog fit in the Veterinary paradigm?  is it holistic or traditional?

On one of my first marketing missions to an animal hospital, after introducing myself and services, I was met with a Veterinarian who said “sorry, but I don’t favor the use of holistic practices for my patients”.

Shocked, I said “Holistic?

That particular encounter was unsuccessful in my attempt to explain the true nature of canine PT.  In “human” medicine, PT is very much a part of traditional, Western health care. It serves as an adjunct to other aspects of medicine such as pre/post surgery, during chemotherapy, dialysis, with medications, etc.

It is very similar in Veterinary care but usually called “Complementary”. Many dog parents tend to think of PT as “alternative or holistic” likely because it is a non-chemical form of treatment. However, it is definitely traditional and not an alternative to conventional veterinary care.

However, aspects of holistic or Eastern medicine such as Reiki or acupressure blend beautifully with PT and can be incorporated into treatment.

Physical therapists are not at all against holistic practices.

One of the first weeks I began providing PT at a shelter, a kennel attendant told me I had “awesome energy” in my hands.  I thought she meant that I had strong and sturdy fingers!  Of course, I now understand she was referring to biofield energy. I came to appreciate that over the past few years, working alongside Reiki practitioners, energy healers, and animal communicators.

There are additional standards that you should expect from a therapist working to rehabilitate your dog from injury or illness:

Practice settings

Usually, PT will be provided in an office or clinic setting.  My own practice model is on-location care. I hope that this becomes more available in the future as the field grows.  There is a distinct advantage in giving care where the dog feels most relaxed and comfortable. 

The downside is unavailability of large equipment such as an underwater treadmill or agility courses.  In these cases, the home-based therapist should refer you to a facility that provides it.


A program for your dog should include specific and measurable long and short-term goals along with a treatment plan.  This should be discussed with you and any questions answered.  It should include your dog’s prognosis for completing the goals.

If there is no significant improvement after the first few visits, the PT should modify the treatment approach.  A report should be sent to the Vet after the initial visit with follow-up progress communication. You should get copies of the communications.


The PT must have good problem-solving and treatment skills but ultimately have the ability to work well with dogs.  Your dog should immediately sense their passion for animals and respond to the therapist’s voice, touch, etc. 

A dog may be a bit unsure the first few minutes. Soon they should “figure it out” that this person is there to help them. A telling sign of a good fit is your dog trusting the therapist and enjoying the treatment sessions. Your dog’s therapist should also have good interaction with the whole family: people and other pets!

Your role

Try to be present during the sessions, help position the dog, stay close to touch and pet them. 

Physical therapists are not dog trainers so don’t expect expert advice on behavior or discipline. You may need to make sure your dog is able to cooperate and tolerate the care for optimum results!

Further reading:
Could my dog benefit from physical therapy?

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