Animal Physical Therapist: Job Description and Requirements

Animal physical therapists are usually licensed physical therapists who choose to treat animals. However, physical therapist assistants, veterinarians and veterinary technicians are also allowed to practice physical therapy on animals.

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Animal Physical Therapist Job Description

Animal physical therapists provide rehabilitative care to animals who have had surgery, been injured or suffer from chronic pain. Physical therapy can speed an animal's recovery and improve its quality of life.

Physical therapy for animals is relatively new. In the past, veterinarians would immobilize an animal's limbs after surgery for 4-6 weeks using casts, splints or braces. However, it is now known that allowing mobility can speed along the recovery process. Physical therapy can help by increasing blood flow to the injured area, reducing inflammation, minimizing muscle atrophy, normalizing joint function and increasing collagen synthesis.

Animal physical therapists employ much of the same treatments, such as exercise rehabilitation, aquatic therapy, massage, ultrasound therapy, heat therapy, passive range of motion activity, neuromuscular stimulation and cryotherapy, as do physical therapists who treat humans.

Animal Physical Therapist Requirements

Different professions may practice physical therapy in animals. Therefore, multiple paths to becoming an animal physical therapist are available.

Physical Therapist Requirements

Undergraduate students interested in becoming physical therapists should take science and mathematics courses as well as gaining volunteer experience in a hospital or clinic to be competitive for physical therapy programs. A minimum of a master's degree is required to become a physical therapist, but there are doctoral programs in physical therapy as well.

Master's programs generally take 2-2.5 years to complete, while doctoral programs typically take three years. Physical therapy students take science courses, such as pharmacology, neuroscience, anatomy, physiology and pathology. They also gain clinical experience and learn about diagnostic processes, medical screening and therapeutic interventions.

After graduating from an accredited program, physical therapists need to become licensed. This usually involves passing the National Physical Therapy Examination. Some states may have other requirements for licensure, such as jurisprudence exams and continuing education to maintain licensure.

Physical Therapist Assistant Requirements

Most states require that physical therapist assistants graduate from an associate's degree program in physical therapy assisting. These programs have both classroom and clinical components. Students typically learn anatomy, physiology, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid. Most states also require physical therapist assistants to obtain licensure, certification or registration. This usually involves passing the National Physical Therapy Exam, but some states may require additional state examinations and continuing education to maintain the credential.

Veterinarian Requirements

Students interested in becoming veterinarians should take science courses as an undergraduate, including chemistry, organic chemistry, biology and physics. Many veterinary schools do not require a bachelor's degree, but students who have bachelor's degrees are more competitive for admission. Undergraduate students should also gain experience working with animals.

After graduating from a 4-year veterinary medicine program, veterinarians must obtain licensure by passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam before they may practice. Most states also require that veterinarians pass a jurisprudence examination that covers state laws and regulations for licensure. Newly licensed veterinarians can choose to start practicing right away, or they may begin a 1-year internship that may lead to better paying opportunities down the road.

Those who wish to specialize in an specific area, such as internal medicine, ophthalmology, dermatology, anesthesiology, surgery or nutrition, can enter a 3- or 4-year residency. After completing a residency, veterinarians can take an examination to become board certified in their chosen specialty.

Veterinary Technician Requirements

Veterinary technicians must have at least an associate's degree in veterinary technology. However, 4-year bachelor's degree programs are also available. Graduates of accredited veterinary technology programs must take a credentialing examination to become licensed, registered or certified. Requirements can vary by state, but most states require that veterinary technicians pass the National Veterinary Technician (NVT) exam. Additionally, new veterinary technicians are usually required to complete on-the-job training under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Optional Animal Physical Therapy Programs

Physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, veterinarians and veterinary technicians may enroll in a weekend course or an animal rehabilitation certificate program to learn how to treat animals using physical therapy. Completion of such a program or course is not necessary to practice physical therapy in animals but may be helpful. Courses typically cover the differences between human and animal anatomy, neurological and orthopedic conditions, osteoarthritis, pain management, massage techniques, therapeutic exercises and other methods of rehabilitation. These programs and courses are relatively rare and may not always be convenient, however.

Job Outlook and Salary Information

Job openings for physical therapists, physical therapist assistants and veterinary technicians are expected to experience a much faster-than-average job growth between 2012 and 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); veterinarians should see average job growth over that same period. The salaries for these jobs vary. In May 2012, the BLS reported that veterinarians earned a median salary of $84,460, and physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $79,860. Veterinary technicians and technologists earned a median of $30,290, while physical therapy assistants made a median of $52,160.

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