Day in the Life of an Animal Physiotherapist

A day in the life of an Animal Physiotherapist

By Donna Wills of Animal Physiotherapy Ltd


My career choice to be an animal physiotherapist has been amazing. I love what I do and find it highly fulfilling. It’s a challenge mentally and physically. You build a rapport with both patient and client. It’s very different to the nursing I did before. My days vary immensely. I have the return patients that are coming for maintenance and then also the challenging cases where no one is entirely sure what the problem is yet. Then I also have the variety of species.  There is also a variety of owners who need varying levels of emotional support. And then there is all the other tasks you are asked to do that add to the immense amount of variety into the work.

My day starts early. I have 5 different clinics in the south so I travel to each one, each day of the week. I am also the physiotherapist for the Pet Spa at Harrods. In my clinics I see the small animal patients. These will be cats, dogs and rabbits generally.  The patients I see will vary in their needs. Some come for post-operative rehabilitation and so will have had surgery on a stifle (knee) joint , or spinal (back)surgery, or have a fractured bone repaired. Some may have had a soft tissue injury, like a torn muscle or a sprain. Some owners maybe trying options before they decide on surgery. These may be hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia or luxating patellas (knee caps dislocating).  Some patients may be struggling due to arthritis and so need some help to build up their strength, range of movement, co-ordination and help reduce their pain. These arthritis patients are my favourite as it’s so lovely to see how a dog that may have been struggling for the last year comes to see me, and then over the next few weeks builds up into a dog with a new lease of life. The owners are always so happy to see their loved one bringing them toys and playing again as often they don’t notice the slow decline in them wanting to play.

Some of the patients may also have recently been in an accident. Road traffic accidents cause a high number of mobility issues. The owners of these patients will be very distressed. Some of these patients need high levels of physio care and it’s a lot for the owner to have to learn to do. For these patients the job of a physio is also emotional support for the owner. After all, a happy owner makes for a happy patient and a happy patient will make the fastest recovery. If the patient has nerve damage then they may be totally recumbent (unable to get up). Then the owner needs a lot of help so they feel confident they are moving the patient safely.

In a physio session there is a lot more time to go through everything slowly. My first session with a patient is an hour. I often find the owner will use it as a time to double check on anything the vet may have said. They may also check they are doing all their home nursing care correctly, if they are a patient with nerve damage and needing high levels of home care.  In this time you really form a bond with the owner and patient. I often find owners start telling you all about their lives and family. The patient also grows a high level of trust with you. I have many patients that on their return visits, run into my room and lay straight on the bed, but the owner will tell me if it wasn’t my room and the vet was calling, it would be a very different story! Physiotherapy is often a long process and many of my owners come back for repeat sessions once a month, depending on the issue and where they are in their rehabilitation process. This ensures I can update their home exercise regime so it is always perfect for them, as each patient will change over time, and progress. Each patient is an individual and so needs a completely bespoke program to follow at home. After only a few sessions some of my patients even learn when to roll over half way through the session so that I can massage and stretch the other side!

Each case needs a full assessment of patient and home life. This means I ask the owner lots of questions. Once this is done I then do a physical examination of the whole patient. I then see what the problems are for that patient. I then write a home exercise regime for the owner to do with the patient at home. This will vary depending on what the patient needs to heal or improve. It may be that I teach the owner to do some massage, or change their walk regime or add some exercises that will improve the patient’s strength, flexibility or co-ordination. Whatever I set, I always ensure the owner knows how to do it, and that the patient is happy with the owner doing it. I then see how it has all gone when the patient next visits. It’s very challenging to work out what the patient will do as not all patients co-operate, and so if they won’t do an exercise you want them too then you have to work out another way to achieve the action needed. Some patients are very clever at working out how to take an easier route than doing the exercises you set that will work on the problem area.

After seeing my clinic I may need to do home visits. This will be for the patients that are in rehabilitation at home and are too big to travel, or it’s too difficult for them to travel. These may be the spinal surgery patients, or the ones with more severe arthritis that are very uncomfortable with car travel, or those that are so nervous at the vets that their home environment is far better for effective physiotherapy. I may also be seeing horses at their yards, or be seeing my more unusual patients like the Alpacas or a Cow! When seeing these more unusual patients I always do a lot of extra research before to ensure I know all I can about their varied anatomy and physiology. Fortunately I have a strong history in working with a variety of species which pays off as these can be difficult patients to face if you've never handled one before. You always have to be confident and calm with any patient for them to trust and relax with you.

After works over it’s all about the paperwork. I have to write reports to all the vets who are in charge of each patient’s care so they know exactly what has been found and what the patient is doing.  I also use this time to write my lectures for the various establishments that ask. These will be for vets and nurses, or owners.

My work is a very physical job. You have to be able to form a bond with your patient and convince them to trust you. You work at their level, on the floor and without that trust it can be dangerous. My patients trust me immensely, as do my clients. As a result I see great results as my patients improve, and very happy owners. By the end of the day you’re very tired, but when you see your patient’s happy faces and greetings, it’s the most rewarding feeling.