What the Health: Animal Physical Therapy

For this month’s segment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Joshua Hall, an animal PT from Salt Lake City, Utah. That’s right, ANIMAL PHYSICAL THERAPY (@saltlakeanimalphysicaltherapy) This was a trick interview for me because it was so outside my realm. What do I ask to give readers a deeper look at the benefits of animal therapy as well as information for those more interested in pursuing this specialty. Like you give an animal a home exercise program?! Do you perform MANUAL THERAPY on an animal? Honestly, how the heck do you even get started in this field?! These were only a few of the questions I had and Dr. Hall addresses them with an elegance and devotion that I could feel his passion for this field by just reading his words off the page. 

As with most people in 2020, the pandemic caused some unplanned career changes and Dr. Hall was no exception. Here is a look at Dr. Hall’s background as well as how he got started in the animal PT field. “I graduated from Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in December of 2014. I opened my human practice, Hall PT in July of 2018. I had done some training for my Certified Canine Rehab Therapist (CCRT) through the Canine Rehab Institute but wasn’t planning on starting a canine business in the middle of a pandemic. In May of 2020 I got a distressful call from a friend. She said, “Josh, Mylo can’t walk, he’s hobbling like an umpa lumpa. The Vet gave him pain meds and said there’s nothing else we can do. He has given him about 3 months to live. Can you help?” Long story short, I treated Mylo about 5 times and now he walks perfectly. He can’t see or hear much, but he can walk! She and her family told everyone they knew. Then the calls started coming in. Out of it Salt Lake Animal Physical Therapy was born. So in the middle of the pandemic I started the animal practice, the opportunity was there and I knew it was time to act. My heart was yearning to work with these amazing animals.” 

As someone who grew up with animals, I found Dr. Hall’s story about Mylo moving, and wanted to know more about what sparked his interest in this specialty to begin with.

“I have always loved animals. They are so amazing and we can learn so much from them. The unconditional love and patience that they show is a true lesson for mankind. I had heard of animal PT and when I was in my final residency in Oklahoma I spent some time shadowing with a Veterinarian. I wasn’t allowed to have many dogs growing up, but my love and connection for them was always there. They are so fun to be around and each one offers its own uniqueness…the unconditional love of a dog, the majesticness of a horse, the independent attitude of cat lol, and so on. “

For therapists and potential patients

Of course scope of physical therapy practice is hardly universal state by state (ie. dry needling, manipulations, direct access, etc), and the practice of animal physical therapy is no exception. If you are interested in pursuing this field, it is recommended you first and foremost look into your state physical therapy practice laws/guidelines and see what they say about requirements to practice animal PT in your state! Dr. Hall gives us further insight into his state requirements as well as coursework/certifications he completed.

The requirements to work with animals varies by state. A certain amount of hours of training and shadowing with a Vet are required. Each state has its own laws, so I would refer to the state practice act for that. In some states you are allowed to use the words “animal physical therapy”, while others are not. Some require a written authorization from a Vet while others just a verbal authorization. Utah is a very friendly state for animal PT, so I got lucky there. I also completed the Equine Massage and Rehab certification through NE Indiana Equine and Massage. I also was introduced to Katie of Unbridled Equine through a human client. Their facility is amazing and I will be spending some time with her this summer. They have the most state of the art equipment such as a regular and water treadmill for horses and so much more. She travels and treats horses that work on a professional and olympic level as well. I say all this in hopes that you realize there is no limit to where you can take this. Your dream is your reality.”

What does a normal day for an animal physical therapist look like? Do they have a clinic and their “clients” come to them? Do they do house calls? What are some “must haves” for equipment during sessions? Well, Dr. Hall does both in clinic and house calls and here is why:

“I do have a clinic that I treat animals in. I have various equipment such as: a laser (a must for animal PT), infrared near infrared light, pulsed electromagnetic field bed, balance equipment such as a BOSU, a step, an instrument for soft tissue work, etc. I also do house calls because some dogs are a bit shy and anxious in the clinic. I always develop a bond with the animal and work with what is best for them. Not stressing them out and creating this bond is very important. Just because you can force them to do something doesn’t mean you should. I also always work with the owner as it is much easier when they are present and involved. Many of the clinics have followed what Vets are doing and not allowing owners in the clinic due to the pandemic. This has caused stress on many animals and I have gained many clients, both in clinic and in home, because the owners recognized the stress level was just too much for them elsewhere. Of course with the horses I go to their barn.“

As there are some common diagnoses PT’s see in humans across settings, I had to know what are some common diagnoses among animals?! And I know a majority of outpatient human therapists must be thinking “DO YOU PERFORM MANUAL THERAPY ON ANIMALS?!” because I sure was.

Dr. Hall does such a great job showing the comparison in manual therapy in a human and a dog.

“I do lots of manual therapy on animals. I do joint mobilizations, PNF, light tail traction, etc. It really is amazing, all the skills that you learn as a human PT translate really naturally. For example, you may do what we refer to in the human world as PA’s or posterior to anterior mobilizations on the back of a dog, horse, etc. The grade of mobilizations is the same and may be indicated in a dog with a disc herniation, back pain, or compensation from a limb injury. Also, you may see an animal with a stiff forelimb or stiff hip, once again joint mobilizations would be appropriate here. Tail traction may be indicated on a dog, horse, or other animal when you are looking to open up the spine, such as in a case of back pain or disc herniation. It is important to realize that animals come in many different sizes and the force is much different with each animal. This is something one can only learn and perform with proper training and experience.”

Obviously I had several questions (this is an interview after all) but as we were talking about home exercise programs, all I could think is “What exercises do you prescribe animals and HOW the heck do you have an animal comply with home exercise program?! It’s hard enough getting a human to do exercises on their own”.

“The common diagnoses that I work with in dogs are disc herniations, cranial cruciate ligament (CCL – equivalent to human ACL), and general aging conditions such as arthritis or joint pain. Disc herniations in dogs is a big one, as they are often just given medication and not much hope. It has been truly amazing as I have seen a dog with no back leg function begin to walk in only a few visits. There is a wide variety of conditions in horses, such as ligament injuries and general aches and pains. The horse market is a harder one to break into and my normal google ads that produce so well for animals didn’t work with horses. I had to offer my time for free to local trainers and say “give me your toughest horse and I’ll show you what I can do.” It may seem a little arrogant but that is kind of what the horse world is like. I was given this advice by another professional who specializes in horses. It is also good to find a niche, like the runners and jumpers, and focus on them. Once you break into this market you will have more horses than you ever have time to treat. “

“There is really an infinite supply of exercises that one can give the animals. On a dog we may begin with simple weight shifting or three leg stand, cavaletti poles (poles set in drilled cones) for coordination or proprioception, cone weaves for weight shifting side to side, sit to stands for back leg strength, or standing on or jumping over a peanut ball. There are also neurological exercises for dogs such as pinching the toes in a paralyzed dog to get leg movement and activate the withdrawal reflex. Or neurodevelopmental sequencing (imagine how babies develop) to redevelop neurological patterns, side lying roll to partial laying or sitting, sitting to standing using a peanut ball, etc. In horses, the exercises are not that much different, of course they both have four legs. When working with any animal of course it is safety first, but horses are so powerful, they bring their own unique challenges. One can also do weight shifting, 3 legged stand, etc with the horses, but this is definitely something I would not try at home. There is a right and wrong way to do it. You can also put the horse on a lead rope and work change of directions, put pvc pipes on the ground for them to step over and so forth. Some clinics even have treadmills or underwater treadmills, but I have not reached that level yet. With any other animal you just have to get creative, use your experience, and do what works. It is also important to keep in mind what equipment or items the owner has at home that they can adapt and use.“

Prescribing exercises is a must with the animal patients. That is why it is best to have the owner present, so that they buy in and understand what is going on. Not to mention a second set of hands is needed. I also use an online exercise prescription program that has videos and the works. It’s through physiotec and was created by the amazing animal therapist, Laurie Edge-Hughes. She also offers great online education through www.fourleg.com This at home exercise program helps the owners to really know and understand what they are doing. They work daily with the animals at home, at least you hope they do”

Ok ok but most importantly, does Dr. Hall have a favorite animal to work with? Spoiler alert, he is like a loving parent who cannot pick a favorite child. However, his response is so charming, you can’t even be annoyed that he gives a long winded answer for “I can’t pick a favorite.”

“I don’t know that I have a favorite animal to work with. They are all majestic in their own right. Dogs are so full of unconditional love, even pitbulls that can lick your mask right off your face lol. Horses are so magical and in tune to your emotion. You have to be dialed in and not afraid as they can sense your every emotion. They are more dangerous and you could have a bad day real quick, but they are so amazing to work with. I have been fortunate with the cats I have worked with, they have all had a good temperament. One of the most magical experiences I had was when shadowing a Vet, I got the true pleasure of petting and interacting with white tigers, a lion, black panthers, a zebra, warthog, kangaroos, an emu and much more. It was a magical day that I will never forget. “

Dr. Hall still has his human practice as well which is a cash based practice. Like many physical therapists I have spoken with, he didn’t plan to go the cash based route until he realized burnout was very real, and insurance is a big cause of that. 

Interested in pursuing animal therapy: 

For those interested in pursuing animal PT my number one piece of advice would be JUST DO IT! You will never regret it. As much as you help them and transform their lives, the love they offer you will change you forever. They are the gift that keeps on giving. Many days they bring me to absolute tears of joy.

Dr. Joshua Hall

Resources Dr. Hall highly recommends:

Social Media Dr. Hall recommends checking out: 

For Students

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