What is physiotherapy?


This post discusses what is physiotherapy and outlines the qualifications you should look for when seeking a physiotherapist to care for you and your horse as well as your small animals. Namely:

  • Holds a Degree in Physiotherapy

  • Holds full registration as a physiotherapist with AHPRA

  • Holds a Post Graduate Diploma or Masters in Animal (Veterinary) Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy is an Allied Health profession employing physical treatment techniques and modalities to both improve and maintain health, function and well-being. Allied Health means that a physiotherapist will work alongside other health professionals involved in a patient’s care, as a member of that patient’s multi-disciplinary healthcare team. Physiotherapists are experts in restoring normal movement, function and quality of life. As an undergraduate student, each physiotherapist is required to gain comprehensive theoretical and practical skills working in three core areas of human healthcare – musculoskeletal physiotherapy, neurological physiotherapy and cardiovascular physiotherapy. Students spend up to four years fine tuning their understanding of the application of physiotherapy in each of these core areas and spend a minimum of 1000 hours on supervised clinical placement in hospital and community rehabilitation settings. Early in a physiotherapists career they will spend a few years rotating as a junior physiotherapist throughout a range of clinical areas, consolidating their knowledge and clinical reasoning skills. As a physiotherapist becomes more experienced and advances in their career pathway, they are likely to focus on and specialise in a particular clinical area.

There are many different specialities nestled under the umbrella term of physiotherapy, including but not limited to the following areas:

  • Musculoskeletal physiotherapy

  • Orthopaedic physiotherapy

  • Neurological physiotherapy

  • Cardiovascular physiotherapy

  • Women’s and men’s health physiotherapy

  • Paediatrics physiotherapy

  • Lymphoedema physiotherapy

  • Aged care physiotherapy

  • Pain management physiotherapy

  • Animal physiotherapy

What is a physiotherapist?

The title 'physiotherapist' is protected by law; in order to treat humans, a physiotherapist must have completed an undergraduate degree or postgraduate Masters in Physiotherapy, be registered with the Physiotherapy Board of Australia (PBA) and carry adequate professional indemnity insurance. It is an offence for a person to use the title ‘physiotherapist’ if they do not have the appropriate qualifications or are not currently registered with the PBA.

In order to maintain registration with the PBA, a physiotherapist must commit to undertaking a specified amount of continuing professional development (CPD) and a specified number of hours of clinical practice with human patients. In addition, a registered physiotherapist must commit to a code of practice and guidelines. This ensures that each physiotherapist keeps their knowledge up to date and is aware of the emerging research which guides their practice.

What about Animal Physiotherapy?

Unfortunately, at present, our animals do not enjoy the same level of protection as humans. At present, animal physiotherapy is still an unregulated industry in Australia. This means that you, the owner, must be extra diligent and ensure that if you do choose physiotherapy, that the therapist you select to entrust the care of your animal with is actually a fully qualified physiotherapist. Furthermore, you need to check that your physiotherapist has undergone the appropriate postgraduate training to specialise in animal physiotherapy. Consider it this way; you would not visit your GP or nurse for physiotherapy for yourself, so it is important that if it is physiotherapy that you are seeking, that you check the qualifications of the professional offering physiotherapy services for your animal.

You can easily check to see that the professional you have chosen is indeed a qualified physiotherapist. You can consult the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency database here and search for their details and check that firstly they are registered on the database and secondly that there are no restrictions or limitations to their practice in place.

Post graduate study in Animal Physiotherapy

Internationally, the gold standard route to specialising in animal physiotherapy is via a Post Graduate Diploma or Masters in Veterinary Physiotherapy. This training route was available in Australia until recently, however the course is no longer offered by Australian Universities. Physiotherapists who wish to specialise in animal physiotherapy, and who wish to study and train to the highest standard available internationally must study internationally. In the UK, fully qualified physiotherapists first earn the title of ‘Chartered Physiotherapist’. Only a professional who has trained as a human physiotherapist first (a three to four-year undergraduate degree) may use this title. At this point they may apply to be members of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, the professional membership organisation for physiotherapists in the UK. Physiotherapists may then continue on to study animal physiotherapy (or veterinary physiotherapy as it is referred to in the UK) through a validated postgraduate course. They may then apply to be members of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT), a professional network of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy which represents the interests of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy in the UK. ACPAT physiotherapists work closely with referring veterinarians and are highly regarded internationally.

With no post graduate animal physiotherapy courses available in Australia, many physiotherapists are now choosing to travel to the UK to complete post graduate training in this specialised area, then bringing their skills back to Australia.

The animal physiotherapy special interest group of the Australian Physiotherapy Association offer a range of introductory courses to fully qualified physiotherapists. These are an ideal introduction to animal physiotherapy for physiotherapists who wish to learn more about the profession.

We recommend that the physiotherapist you choose for your animal meets the following standards:

  • Holds a Degree in Physiotherapy

  • Is a fully registered physiotherapist with AHPRA

  • Holds a Post Graduate Diploma or Masters in Animal (Veterinary) Physiotherapy