SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — As physical therapy takes root in animal healthcare, veterinary regulators and the profession's leaders scramble to create
guidelines to restrict lay and untrained practitioners.
It's a form of rehabilitation that's attained value within the human sector but, until recently, took a back seat as an adjunct
to traditional veterinary medicine. Now client demand is growing, prompting the veterinary profession to address the complementary
therapy branded animal physical rehabilitation.
At least that's what California's veterinary leaders call it. Title protection bars expanding the term "physical therapy"
to animals because state law defines it as a human medical treatment. At presstime, the California Veterinary Medical Association's
(CVMA) Board of Governors was considering the level of veterinary supervision required for non-DVMs to practice the modality
on animals. Its proposal will go to the California Veterinary Medical Board (CVMB) this year.
Yet while talks concerning the modality's addition to veterinary practice play out in California, Nevada leads the way. In
2004, veterinary officials added a certification process for physical therapists that allows them to practice animal rehabilitation
provided they complete additional training and register with the Nevada State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. The move
prompted the American Association of Veterinary State Boards' (AAVSB) vote to mirror the provision in its model practice act
Still, most state practice acts fail to sanction physical therapy on animals outside of veterinary medicine's direct purview.
Contrary to AAVSB, the American Veterinary Medical Association's model act makes no direct exceptions for the modality, and
even California refuses to give therapists leeway when it comes to practicing on animals.
State law bars physical therapy outside of the veterinary-client-patient relationship, CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker
says, but the modality needs to be categorized and defined. With no clear description, it's difficult to distinguish a comfort
massage from a therapeutic one, she says. And although CVMB shut down two rehabilitation practices last year, an Internet
search reveals plenty more currently receive animal patients.
"We want animal physical rehabilitation in the practice act so it's clear and can be enforced," Fenstermaker says. "It's interesting
to look at this whole issue because there is a demand for animal physical rehabilitation. Still, there is not a therapist
in California who can legally practice on animals. It isn't even a profession."
That might sound harsh, but it does not mean California's 18,000 physical therapists aren't highly trained professionals.
Charged with helping patients restore normal physical movement, physical therapy licensure requires clinical training and
a master's degree, stimulating many physical therapists to go on to earn doctorates. High standards for education and licensure
have earned the profession placement in the mainstream human medical arena, which the California Physical Therapy Association
(CPTA) expects will translate to veterinary medicine. Roughly 1 percent of its members work directly with veterinarians, CPTA
Chief Staff Executive Patricia Evans says, prompting the profession's desire to collaboratively amend the state's veterinary
and physical therapy practice acts to spell out physical therapy's role among animal patients.
"I think veterinarians' concern is our concern as well; people treating animals need to be qualified," she says. "We don't
have any requirements yet in the state, which also allows anybody to say they can do animal physical therapy. I'm really hoping
that through this collaborative effort that our national association is fostering, it will at least eliminate the doubts and
concerns about physical therapists."
While few question the length of training involving human medicine, no accreditation guidelines exist for physical therapy
programs geared toward human health. Dr. Dick Schumacher, chairman of the California Physical Therapy Task Force and former
CVMA executive director, notes the profession's success in veterinary medicine can only be achieved when veterinarians and
therapists work together. He favors maintaining a DVM's direct supervision of a patient receiving animal physical rehabilitation.