How to become a veterinary physiotherapist (With skills)

Updated 1 June 2023

If you have a passion for working with animals but don't want to become a veterinarian, there are other rewarding career paths in this sector that you might explore. As a veterinary physiotherapist, you work with animals recovering from injuries and help them regain strength and freedom of movement. Learning about the role's requirements, qualifications and standards may help you decide whether this profession aligns with your personal interests and career goals. In this article, we explain how to become a veterinary physiotherapist, define the role and explore some of their key practical skills.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

What is a veterinary physiotherapist?

A veterinary physiotherapist works with animals that have issues with movement while recovering from injuries or because they may have congenital defects. These specialists visit animals on farms, in zoos or in homes. Veterinary physiotherapists may work for animal clinics or hospitals. Some prefer to operate as freelance physiotherapists, which allows them to work with various clinics while also offering their services to private clients whose animals require physiotherapy.

After qualifying to work in this profession, an animal physiotherapist may also choose a specialisation. Two common specialisations include small animal physiotherapy and horse physiotherapy. Some specialists may also focus on exotic animals, such as turtles, lizards and birds. Here are examples of a veterinary physiotherapist's typical daily duties:

  • Visiting zoos and veterinary clinics to treat animals following injuries or surgery

  • Collecting animals' medical history by talking to their owners and analysing medical documentation

  • Researching similar cases to identify potentially effective treatment methods

  • Developing physiotherapy and exercise programmes for animals

  • Monitoring and recording each animal's progress using medical data entry systems

  • Using massage or hydrotherapy techniques to help animals feel less pain

  • Educating owners on proper animal care

  • Generating reports to demonstrate each animal's progress

Related: Top 20 popular jobs for animal lovers in the UK

Find veterinary physiotherapist jobs

How to become a veterinary physiotherapist

Discovering how to become a veterinary physiotherapist may help you create a career development plan if you're interested in pursuing this unique profession. Consider the following steps to learn how you can work in this discipline:

1. Pursue a university course

Complete an undergraduate degree in veterinary physiotherapy. To qualify for this three-year course, you require at least two A-levels, including biology, and five GCSEs, grades 9 to 4, including English, mathematics and science.

It's also possible to enter this profession by completing an undergraduate programme in human physiotherapy and choosing veterinary physiotherapy as your postgraduate qualification. Although this is a longer route, it may be suitable for you if you work as a human physiotherapist. Additionally, you may consider obtaining an advanced certificate in veterinary physiotherapy from the Canine and Equine Physiotherapy Training (CEPT).

Related: Popular careers with horses and stables

2. Become an apprentice

If completing a university course isn't an option for you or you simply don't want to pursue that route, then you can gain your qualifications by pursuing an apprenticeship. As an apprentice, you have the opportunity to work part time under the guidance of an experienced veterinary physiotherapist and continue your education as part of a physiotherapy degree apprenticeship, which requires two to three A-levels, including biology. After your apprenticeship, you can complete a postgraduate course in veterinary physiotherapy, which is similar to a bachelor's degree in human physiotherapy.

Related: The pros and cons of apprenticeships to guide your career

3. Complete specialised private training

The third path to becoming a veterinary physiotherapist involves specialised training, which you may pursue through a private practice or institution. It's usually a paid training opportunity, which gives you access to modern technology and devices that veterinary physiotherapists use. To identify private training options in your area, consider contacting organisations such as the National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists (NAVP) or the Institute of Registered Veterinary and Animal Physiotherapists (IRVAP).

Related: 12 travel jobs in the animal industry (Duties and salaries)

4. Join a professional association

After gaining knowledge and experience and completing your formal training, you can start promoting your services to clients. Before you do that, consider joining a professional association, such as the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT). Although veterinary physiotherapy is an advanced discipline, it's still a niche career, and becoming a member of the association is beneficial for networking with peers in the industry.

5. Gain clinical experience

If your goal is to become a self-employed veterinary physiotherapist, it may be beneficial to gain experience by first joining a veterinary clinic team. In this way, you also have the opportunity to improve your general veterinary skills. Additionally, this experience may teach you about decision-making during emergencies at work.

Related: What is vet work experience? (With FAQs and steps)

6. Pursue a specialisation

As with human physiotherapists, veterinary physiotherapists may pursue various specialisations. For example, they may focus on treating specific types of animals, such as cats, dogs or horses. Additionally, they may specialise in particular treatments, such as massage or water therapy, or focus on helping patients with specific challenges, which may include hip dysplasia, arthritis, post-surgery recovery or fractures. Specialisation may also help you maximise your earning potential.

7. Train in animal behaviour

Pursuing supplementary training allows you to improve your qualifications and ensure you can treat a variety of patients. Animals can be unpredictable when they're experiencing sensations such as cold or heat during treatment. From your knowledge of animal behaviour, you can better understand the cues that dogs or horses exhibit before they get angry. Training in animal behaviour may also improve your approach to health and safety at work, which is essential if you work as a part of a team or decide to train others in veterinary physiotherapy.

Related: How to become an animal behaviourist (Duties and skills)

Useful skills for veterinary physiotherapists

Veterinary physiotherapists require strong communication skills while also being understanding and empathetic. To succeed in the role, they continuously improve their practical abilities, such as the following:

Animal first aid

Having completed animal first aid training, you know how to react in emergencies, such as when a dog chokes on a toy or food. Usually, first aid courses take one to a few days to complete. To ensure this training is useful in your daily work, choose a school that specialises in first aid techniques that you can apply when working with specific animals, such as dogs.

Related: Veterinary nurse vs veterinary technician: what to know

Animal anatomy and physiology

Having studied animal anatomy and physiology, you can better understand how a horse's or cat's body works. This knowledge helps you appreciate the differences between various species and breeds and the techniques that are most likely to help the animal. If you decide to enter veterinary physiotherapy through a degree course, you're likely to acquire this knowledge at university. It's also beneficial that you continue self-learning, which allows you to help more animals and treat a variety of movement issues.

Knowledge of various physiotherapy techniques

As with human physiotherapists, those working with animals use various physiotherapy techniques. They include soft tissue mobilisation, ultrasound, hydrotherapy and neuromuscular stimulation. The more treatments you know how to administer, the more personalised your treatment plans can become. For example, two dogs with a similar condition may react differently to the same treatment.

Related: What is self-learning? (And benefits and tips for improving)

High level of physical fitness and stamina

Working as a veterinary physiotherapist can be physically demanding, and you may stand or hold animals for extended periods. Continuously working on your stamina and fitness levels allows you to feel more comfortable as you complete lengthy treatments or spend an entire day on your feet. It's also beneficial to find an activity that helps your body relax, such as yoga or swimming.

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