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Ask The Expert : Physiotherapy For Animals

Physiotherapy for Animals


by Sarah Heaton


Physiotherapy is a growing area of care that not many people are aware of and it is no longer the case that is only used for the elite competition horse. It has benefits for all horses whether you have a happy hacker, riding club or competition horse and I feel that educating owners about the benefits of routine treatments is vital in order to get the best from the horses in their care.


I first became interested in veterinary physiotherapy after I was involved in a serious car accident. This is where I developed a good understanding of the benefits of the treatments available and how having a problem in one area of the body can dramatically affect the rest of it, if left untreated. These problems can cause a cascade of other problems which then become more difficult to treat as adaptations in the body develop to compensate for reduced range of motion at the initial sight of injury.


I had worked in veterinary practice as an equine veterinary nurse for 9 years prior to my accident and at no point during this time did I have any experience of veterinary physiotherapy. Thinking back now, I feel this was disappointing as many of the horses we treated would have recovered quicker if a proper rehabilitation program had been put in place. In most cases recovery from treatment involved box rest. Imagine the affects of this confinement on the rest of the body.


I began studying for my veterinary physiotherapy qualification during my recovery period and was able to qualify 14 months later. This was a relatively quick timescale but having an extensive knowledge of anatomy and physiology from studying for my equine veterinary nursing qualifications helped enormously, along with the knowledge I gained during my time as a lecturer in equine veterinary nursing on both higher education and foundation courses. I qualified while I was employed in a large orthopaedic equine hospital and soon became frustrated when I could see how many of the horses would benefit from my treatments but my skills were not being utilised fully. I decided to move back to Yorkshire and set up my own physiotherapy business.


Now I treat horses and dogs across the North West. I have several show jumping and eventing clients on my books that routinely treat their animals every 3 months. This is not to say that every client needs to do that. The interval is dependent on the work the animal is doing. Treating a horse that is regularly competing frequently helps to keep it in peak condition to maximise performance, but I do feel that all horses would benefit from a routine assessment and treatment bi annually (every 6 months). We need to remember that horses were not designed to carry the weight of a rider, but to carry the weight of the gastrointestinal tract on the underside of the vertebral column therefore by putting tack and the weight of the rider on top of the vertebral column it is essentially going against what nature intended. As horse owners we need to encourage our horses to develop a strong musculoskeletal system to reduce the risk of injury and prolong their healthy active lives.


Most people often ask what I do as a veterinary physiotherapist. This is not a difficult question to answer. I use my skills as an adjunct to veterinary treatment and not as a replacement. I aim to work alongside the veterinary team in order to provide pain relief for a multitude of conditions for example arthritis and sacroiliac joint pain. Working with the veterinary surgeons is something that legally we have to do in line with the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 and this is why when you book your appointment we ask for your veterinary details.


Once an assessment has been carried out I will focus on treatment of problem areas using both manual techniques such as massage, myo-fascial release and trigger point therapy or if required mechanical modalities like ultrasound and pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF). Following this a bespoke treatment plan is devised for your horse. This may involve simple exercises such as; carrot stretches and tail pull exercises or may encompass ground work using a training aid, or poles. Then eventually progress to ridden work. I have often included hydrotherapy too. Water treadmills have proven to be a great asset for some of my cases although sourcing water treadmills for horses can sometimes be problematic.


There are many reasons why physiotherapy may be used; performance enhancement, pain relief, fracture repair, skin conditions, soft tissue injury, post surgical rehabilitation and management of chronic conditions to name a few. The fact is whatever the reason you decide to use physiotherapy, your animal will benefit.


I have seen some fantastic cases both equine and canine and I feel extremely privileged to have been involved with their rehabilitation. Sometimes this job can be challenging and I will admit there have been some cases which have caused numerous sleepless nights but when I receive the positive feedback from animal owners and other paraprofessionals; vets, farriers etc. It is all worthwhile. It may be that the horse has won a class, got a high dressage score or simply that their animal has slept well during the night following treatment when normally they are restless and whimper in pain. I am extremely lucky to be involved in a profession that I am so passionate about.


If you would like any more information regarding Physiotherapy or you would like to arrange an appointment please do not hesitate to contact me on 07590750312. This article has focused on the treatment of horses but I also treat dogs too and I work in conjunction with a hydrotherapist.

You can also visit my website www.shvphysio.co.uk or Facebook page.