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Physiotherapy is a science-based healthcare profession concerned with how the body functions and views movement as a central part of health and well-being. Being able to move is so important in our lives. To enable people to achieve the highest possible level of independence in their lives physiotherapists treat people with movement disorders which may have been present from birth (such as cerebral palsy), acquired through an accident or through injury (such as motor vehicle accident or sporting injuries), or the result of life-changing major events (such as stroke or the development of a disease affecting the nervous system.)

Physiotherapist’s key areas of focus are

  • Prevention - identifying, monitoring and screening risk factors
  • Maintenance - for maximum flexibility, strength and performance
  • Treatment - assisting healing and rehabilitation using manual and electrotherapies

The physiotherapy approach to promoting, restoring or maintaining the health of the patient, uses core skills which include:

  • Skilled evaluation

  • Skilled hands-on (manual) therapy such as mobilisation, manipulation, massage and trigger-point release; myofascial release techniques, stretching techniques

  • Individually designed exercise programmes, relaxation techniques

  • Specialised electrotherapy equipment

  • Hydrotherapy

  • Heat/ice

  • Traction

  • Suitable walking aids, splints and appliances

  • Patient education

Treatment Benefits

Broadly, the expected outcomes of a physiotherapy treatment programme include:



  Avoidance of invasive/surgical treatment where possible and where surgical treatment is contra-indicated
Quicker process of recovery
Improved or restored function
Increased performance and strength
Increased range of movement
Minimising of muscle atrophy
Prevention of further or recurrent injury
Reduced pain
Reduced inflammation, swelling & muscle spasm
Repaired tissue damage
Enhanced general well-being

A physiotherapist is a first line practitioner in human treatments; this means they make their own clinical judgements and treatment choices. This use of clinical reasoning is a problem-solving approach to patient-centred care.

With animal treatments, physiotherapists usually work under referral from or in consultation with veterinarians.

Where do physiotherapists work?

Physiotherapists work in a great variety of settings such as:

  • In outpatient departments - treating spinal and joint problems, injuries through accidents and sports injuries.
  • Intensive Care Units - keeping limbs mobile and chests clear from infection.
  • Women’s Health - ante- and post-natal care advice, exercise and posture, managing continence and post-gynaecological operations.
  • Conditions affecting the elderly – helping patients to maintain mobility and independence, providing rehabilitation after falls, treatment of arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, chest conditions (bronchitis, pneumonias)
  • Neurology - helping people restore normal movement and function after a stroke, multiple sclerosis, head injury and other conditions.
  • Orthopaedics - restoring mobility after hip and knee replacements and spinal operations, treating patients after accidents.
  • Mental Illness - taking classes in relaxation and body awareness, improving confidence and self-esteem through exercise.
  • Occupational Health - treating employees in small to large organisations and companies, looking at work habits to prevent physical problems such as repetitive strain injury.
  • Terminally ill (Palliative Care) - working in the community or in hospices, treating patients with cancer and AIDS.
  • Paediatrics – in hospitals treating sick and injured children, in institutions for those with severe mental and physical handicaps, or in schools for children with conditions like cerebral palsy
  • Community - treating a wide variety of patients at home and giving advice to family members and carers.
  • Private Sector - working independently in private practice, clinics, hospitals, and GP surgeries, treating a wide range of conditions.
  • Education and Health Promotion - teaching people about many conditions and lifestyle choices. This may include back care, ergonomics, taking exercise classes and cardiac rehabilitation groups.
  • Sports clinics - treating injuries in sportsmen and women, advising on recovering fitness and avoiding repeated injury.
  • Voluntary Organisations - advising and consulting for organisations supporting and caring for people with head injuries, spinal injuries, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

One of the really wonderful aspects of physiotherapy is the wide choice of work situations. As a qualified physiotherapist you may choose to see patients in a particular age range for example teaching a mother in preparation for the birth of her child; handling tiny babies with lung infections or cerebral palsy, coaxing older children (and adults) to move again after surgery, injury or burns. You can work with patients suffering from the aches and pains of approaching middle age, and in old aged homes physiotherapists help the elderly person to retain or regain their independence.


Why Animal Physiotherapy?

Commonly asked questions about animal physiotherapy and why to choose physiotherapy as a treatment option for animals.

How do you train to be an animal physiotherapist?

The first requirement for training for animal physiotherapy is a four year human physiotherapy degree.  Only when this is completed and the registered physiotherapist has a minimum of two years clinical human experience are they able to treat animals. Post graduate training for this is available through the South African Society of Physiotherapy (SASP) or overseas through recognized animal physiotherapy degrees and courses.   Qualified physiotherapists are required to register with the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) - so it is very important that you check that the physiotherapist treating your animal is registered.

The titles “physiotherapist”, “physical therapist” and “physio” are protected by law and can only be used by physiotherapists who have achieved a high level of academic and practical training in all aspects of physiotherapy and are therefore qualified and registered to practice.

Why choose a physiotherapist to treat your animal?

Physiotherapists have specific training in analytical and treatment skills based on a thorough knowledge of anatomy, physiology and biomechanics. Whether it is to increase performance, prevent injury, enhance healing or improve quality of life, expert physiotherapy treatment from a registered physiotherapist can achieve remarkable results.

What does a physiotherapist actually do?

Just as humans have benefited from physiotherapy, animals do benefit as well.  Physiotherapists assess, treat and rehabilitate injuries to muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, back pain, muscle imbalances, poor performance in sporting animals, over-use injuries, wounds and post-surgical conditions.

Working on humans is an important part of preparation for animal work, as the physiotherapist is able to develop observational and palpating skills assisted by patients’ verbal responses and feedback.

A physiotherapist’s most valuable tool is his or her hands, for palpating (feeling) and locating areas of normal and abnormal function on the horse’s body.  The physiotherapist’s knowledge and understanding of anatomy, biomechanics, veterinary and physiotherapeutic procedures, neurophysiology and rehabilitation form a strong foundation for assessment and treatment.

Will physiotherapy help my animal?

The answer to that is yes.

Physiotherapy accelerates the healing process, relieves pain, and restores normal movement and function.

Physiotherapists are rehabilitation specialists and can assist in fitness training and specific exercise programmes.

All types of animals are referred by veterinary surgeons for physiotherapy treatment, including professional and working animals, e.g. race horses, show jumpers, competitive dogs and also domestic pets including cats and dogs. Other animals such as donkeys, monkeys, cattle, goats, parrots and ducks have been treated successfully with physiotherapy for a variety of problems.

What kind of physiotherapy treatments can be done on animals?

The physiotherapist will initially assess your animal to establish problem areas of function. This is essential before planning the treatment. Treatments may include a combination of techniques and modalities such as:

  • Manual therapies - joint mobilization/manipulation
  • Soft tissue techniques - specific massage, myofascial release, trigger point therapy
  • Electrotherapy - ultrasound, laser/light therapy, muscle stimulation, TENS, electromagnetic therapy
  • Hydrotherapy – in a heated pool
  • Hot and cold therapy
  • Stretching
  • Proprioceptive re training  - sensory integration techniques
  • Rehabilitation programmes
  • Assessment for orthotic devices - support splints, walking harnesses/wheels, dog ramps, etc
  • Advice (post-surgical) to owners on how to manage home care and exercise – written protocols, etc

Physiotherapists can also give advice on adaptations to your animals' environment that will help them perform tasks more easily. This can be especially helpful for elderly animals.

Physiotherapists work in consultation with the veterinary profession to ensure the best possible treatment outcome.


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