Physiotherapy is a well-recognised and commonly practised technique in human medicine; aiding recovery from surgery, alleviating orthopaedic and muscular pain and helping to keep athletes in peak physical condition. However, as with many things, more popular it becomes, the more exposed it can become to abuse and fraudulent activity. So, what exactly is the law about physiotherapy on animals? Who can perform it and as a pet owner, how can you avoid getting caught out?

Physiotherapy has a long and noble history

Physiotherapy techniques are thought to have first been described as early as 460 BC. But it wasn’t until the late 1930s that animals first benefited from these methods. In fact, veterinary physiotherapy can claim to have royal roots. It was whilst being treated by the physiotherapist Charles Strong after a polo match in 1939 that Lord Louis Mountbatten, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and uncle to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, first suggested that maybe his horses could also benefit from Strong’s treatments. Strong proceeded to use his techniques on two lame polo ponies with such amazing results, that he deviated from human medicine and dedicated much of his time to promoting physiotherapy for animals. Over eighty years later, the field of veterinary physiotherapy continues to thrive and expand.

But who is “allowed” to perform it?

Everyone knows that to practice veterinary medicine or surgery on animals, you must be a qualified veterinary practitioner and registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. But what about carrying out physiotherapy on animals? Many colleges and universities now offer a veterinary physiotherapy degree or qualification. But legally, anyone is able to call themselves a ‘veterinary physiotherapist’, no matter what their level of training. This is because, even though in the human field the title ‘physiotherapist’ is protected, this is not the case for an ‘animal physiotherapist’ or ‘veterinary physiotherapist’. 

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they can simply start treating animals as they please. The Veterinary Surgery (Exemptions) Order 2015 states that anyone providing physiotherapy to an animal must be directed to do so by a veterinary surgeon. This means that a veterinary surgeon must refer or give permission for an animal to receive treatment by a veterinary physiotherapist. If the physiotherapist feels that an animal may have an injury or condition that requires medical treatment, they must refer them back to a veterinary surgeon. Veterinary physiotherapists are not allowed to diagnose. If an owner wishes their healthy pet to simply have a general massage, the physiotherapist ought to still inform the animal’s own vet, as courtesy. But also to check for any underlying illnesses or conditions that the physiotherapist may need to be aware of. 

Is this the same for other complementary techniques?

It is worth mentioning, that when we talk about physiotherapy for animals, it does not include aromatherapy, acupuncture or homeopathy. These can only be performed by a veterinary surgeon. Veterinary physiotherapists are allowed to utilise physical manipulation alongside mechanical devices such as laser therapy, electrostimulation or therapeutic ultrasound. 

How do I know who is a reputable professional?

Although there is no legal register of veterinary physiotherapists, there are voluntary associations that aim to uphold high standards of practice and allow vets and owners to be confident in selecting a suitable physiotherapist. All members of these registers will have a professional qualification in veterinary physiotherapy, will be fully insured, will follow a professional code of conduct and may have to complete programmes of continued professional development (CPD) every year. 

Why not look for someone cheaper?

Qualified veterinary physiotherapists are experts in anatomy, physiology, and conditions of the musculoskeletal system across a variety of species. Performing physiotherapy on animals is a skill that, when done correctly, can have a huge impact on that animal’s mobility, comfort or recovery from surgery. This makes it vital when looking for a veterinary physiotherapist, to be aware of the legalities around the profession. And to carry out thorough research in order to ensure that your pet will receive the best possible treatment and you can achieve the best possible outcomes. 

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