Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World

A Perspective by Susan E. Davis
Exiting the practice of Physical Therapy for “people” after 31 years and entering the field of veterinary physical rehabilitation in 2008 was a huge career transition.

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 meant to be used only when patient care is rendered 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. It should not be a physical therapy aide or a vet receptionist who is simply “office-trained” in putting your dog in a water treadmill tank, etc.

This field 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. (Please note this perspective is taken from the United States and other countries may have different practice patterns)

You may be wondering where 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?  This is Physical Therapy!”  

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 is used 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, but it is definitely traditional and not meant to be 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, we are just not fundamentally trained that way!

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, which I have come to appreciate 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:  
  1. Practice settings: usually PT will be provided in an office or clinic setting.  My own practice model is in the dog patient’s home or location (animal shelter, zoo) and my hope is that this will become more available in the future as the field grows.  There is a distinct advantage in giving the care where the dog feels most relaxed and comfortable.  The downside of this is when a dog needs the use 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.
  2. Communication: your PT should have a written program for your dog which includes long and short-term goals that are specific and measurable, along with a treatment plan.  This should be discussed with you and any questions answered.  Your dog’s prognosis for completing the goals should be included. 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 by phone, email or fax and copied to you.
  3. Rapport: 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, but will soon “figure it out” that this person is there to help them.  If it is a good fit, the dog will trust the PT and enjoy the treatment sessions.   Your dog’s therapist should also have good interaction with the whole family: people and other pets!
  4. Get involved:  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 and be prepared to assist with making sure your dog is able to cooperate and tolerate the care for optimum results!


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery


  1. Excellent post and very timely for me! My Cornish Rex cat had PL surgery a month ago and will be starting PT in a week (you can read about her on my blog). I am totally happy with both the practice ( and the staff and so look forward to seeing what PT they do and what I have to do at home. I am soooo fortunate to live close enough to have the expertise of this great practice and staff...makes me a whole lot more comfortable with both having done the surgery and the success of her rehabilitation!

    1. Hi Teri, glad this had the right timing for you! PT is indeed paramount to the positive outcome of almost any surgery.

      Glad you have such a great resource!


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