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Helping pets rehabilitate from surgery, injury and chronic conditions is an emerging branch of veterinary medicine that can help practices build loyalty and lasting relationships with clients. By Angela Tufvesson
Injury and post-surgical rehabilitation, acupuncture, chiropractic treatments and hydrotherapy are no longer only the domain of human medicine. Owing to a greater focus on animal health throughout the lifespan, Australian pet owners are increasingly turning to ‘animal rehabilitation’, a suite of allied health treatments that use physical therapy to improve the quality of life of four-legged companions.
“There’s an increased interest and willingness to look at these treatments rather than just going down the path of medication or bandaid solutions to illnesses and conditions,” says Dr Ilona Hudson, co-owner of Noah’s Ark Veterinary Services, which operates two practices in NSW that offer general veterinary services as well as animal rehabilitation.
“People use these modalities for themselves and their pets are increasingly part of their family, so they want them to have access to similar types of care.”
Expanding your expertise
Over the past 10 years, Dr Hudson has added qualifications in animal chiropractic, acupuncture and sports medicine to her existing veterinary qualifications. She uses this expertise to treat common injuries like lameness, back pain and muscle tears, design rehabilitation programs to help animals recover from injury or illness, and care for animals with sports-related injuries.
“I treat mostly dogs and horses,” she says. “I look after horses participating in really high levels of sport right down to horses that just go on trail rides and have a nice life in the paddock.”
Some animal rehabilitation practitioners have a background in human medicine. Dr Rhys Donovan is an osteopath who made the switch to animal healthcare via the Graduate Diploma of Animal Biomechanical Medicine, a two-year course offered to qualified vets, chiropractors and osteopaths.
He’s now co-owner of the Animal Rehab Klinik in southern Sydney, a standalone animal rehabilitation clinic that treats conditions like arthritis, hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament injuries, along with post-surgical rehab and chronic injuries. The most common patients are horses and dogs, along with an occasional cat.
“A lot of animal rehab is very similar to treating a person—the main difference is you’ve got four-legged animals who can’t speak to you,” says Dr Donovan. “It’s about harnessing your skills and applying them in different ways.”
Animal rehabilitation is a small but fast-growing industry where demand can outstrip supply, says Dr Hudson. “I do know of other practices, but I wouldn’t say it’s common—which is why we get people who drive up to four hours on a regular basis to see me.”
Dr Donovan agrees: “It’s definitely a growing industry that will become more and more common, especially as it’s quite common in America and the UK”.
He says animal owners value rehabilitation treatments because they can improve post-surgical outcomes. “One reason owners are looking for rehab is a lot of them want help after surgery,” he says.
“Their animal has a $10,000 spinal surgery, which goes great, and the vet gives them discharge instructions. Many people feel very overwhelmed—perhaps they’ve got a dog not walking, and even though everything’s gone fine, they don’t know what to do. Having rehab can help them feel in control of the situation and confident that things will work out okay.”
Animal rehabilitation is also an effective alternative when surgery isn’t an option, as well as for building strength before surgical procedures, says Dr Donovan. Dr Hudson agrees animal rehabilitation helps build lasting relationships with clients. Plus, practices don’t need a lot of specialised equipment. “From a business perspective, it can be an incredibly profitable side to the practice,” she says. “Even though you need a lot of knowledge, you don’t need a lot of new equipment, so it’s something that anyone who’s interested can do.”
Animal rehabilitation isn’t a regulated profession—yet—but Dr Donovan says credible formal qualifications are an asset for practitioners. There’s the Graduate Diploma of Animal Biomechanical Medicine or courses run through the US-based Canine Rehabilitation Institute and The University of Tennessee.
“The legislation is very blurry as to what’s acceptable but there’s a massive difference between someone who has a university degree like a vet, or an osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist who expands their skill set into treating animals, and someone who does a weekend course,” says Dr Donovan. “It’s a lot more than sticking a water treadmill in the practice. You’ve got to have an understanding of how rehabilitation works.”
Dr Hudson recommends touring a practice or two that offers animal rehabilitation before embarking on further study or purchasing specialised equipment—as well as sounding out your client base. “Ask your clients whether they’d use rehab services; you’ll probably be blown away by what they’re looking for,” she says. “Then spend some time with a practitioner who offers animal rehabilitation and see how it fits into the practice. I went to a practice that offers a whole bunch of integrative treatments and therapies, and from there I was able to meet other practitioners.
“No two practices are the same in what they have to offer, but all of them offer a bunch of extra skills that really benefit the welfare of the animals.”