Sophie Malo will ring in her 30th birthday this weekend with her mini pig, cat and dog at her side — and those are just her own pets. She’ll also spend the day knee-deep in water with four-legged clients using an underwater treadmill, and distracting them with treats as they undergo laser therapy.
Malo moved to Ottawa from Sudbury in 2011 to pursue a bachelor of science in kinesiology at the University of Ottawa but after graduating was torn between treating human or animal patients. In the end, animals won out, especially when Malo discovered an animal rehabilitation program at the University of Tennessee.
“I was looking for jobs working with animals and that’s where I came across it. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world and, with my qualifications, I was able to get in,” she said. “And I’m so happy I did.”
A certified canine rehabilitation practitioner, Malo first began working at Rehab Fur Your Pet on Carling Avenue. In her four years at the clinic, Malo said the market for animal rehab “grew exponentially.” When she moved to Alexandria in 2020, Malo said she saw an opportunity to bring those services to Eastern Ontario.
“I was doing the commute (to Ottawa) and I didn’t mind it, but I started meeting people out here and telling them what I do for a living and people thought it was really cool. It was fun explaining to people what I can do,” she explained. “I was looking into it and there were no services like this offered in this area, so I decided I’d do it.
“When I got into the pet clinic in Ottawa, I had no intention of (starting a business), but I saw a big need for it in these counties and I couldn’t give that up.”
Malo started Playbow Animal Rehabilitation Clinic (PARC) as a mobile service providing therapeutic laser, ultrasound and other portable services.
“There’s a different mentality here, a lot of farmers and more country living in general, so I wasn’t sure if I’d have the same clientele (as Ottawa),” Malo said.
After a year, Malo said she was seeing clients who could benefit from larger, more extensive support and she didn’t have anywhere to refer them.
“That’s when I started working on the next steps,” Malo said.
As a first-time entrepreneur, Malo said she relied on support from the community to get her footing. She worked with Business Sisters, a business networking company for rural women entrepreneurs in Alexandria, and was referred to Cornwall’s Starter Company Plus program.
“The program really helped me a lot to focus on building a better business plan and financial forecast and the goal for me was to help me launch that second phase, which was opening that physical clinic,” Malo explained. “I was actually one of the grant recipients for that program and then I went on a hunt for my location.”
With support from her family and the starter program, Malo opened a brick-and-mortar clinic in Lancaster in April featuring a wide range of services and tools, including an underwater treadmill.
The clinic is open four days a week and Malo still provides mobile services one day a week for clients that struggle to get into cars or otherwise travel to the clinic.
To maintain her certifications, Malo treats “human clients” one day a week with in-home therapeutic services. But the “non-human” clients are where her heart lies.
As the sole employee and owner at PARC, Malo sees between six and 10 animals each day, though she hopes to double that number once she hires her first employee.
The startup costs for the clinic were steep, she said, since the equipment is an investment. For example, the therapeutic laser costs about $40,000 and the underwater treadmill was $80,000. Not to mention other costs, like animal lifejackets, blow dryers and “distraction techniques” like snuffle mats, lick mats and treats. But with the steady growth of her business, she said she’s “happy where I am.”
“The program allowed me to do a two-year financial plan and I’m on track for where I want to be,” she said. “I’m getting two to three new referrals a week, so I’m definitely on track.”
Tara Kirkpatrick, manager of economic development for the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, said PARC is “filling a defined need in our community.”
“Pets have always played an important part in the lives of their owners and, over the past few years, this connection has only strengthened. Pets are now seen as an extension of our families and, in many cases, they also fill important jobs on the farm as companions and working in various sectors,” she said. “When they are in pain or injured, there are limited options for their recovery. The Playbow Animal Rehab Clinic is a new business in our county that is working to fill that gap.”
Although Malo most often treats dogs, she said she has also worked with cats and rabbits as the concept of animal rehabilitation gains momentum. She has helped almost 100 clients to date.
“Pet insurance is becoming more popular and a lot of it covers rehab, so it’s getting more normalized. There are lots of services for our pets, and they’re very similar to services in human physiotherapy practices,” she explained.
Her treatment options include the underwater treadmill, which is a type of hydrotherapy that allows her to target specific conditions, including gait training and taking weight off the joints to allow an animal to build muscle. The clinic also offers laser therapy, which can accelerate healing and reduce pain, ultrasound and other therapeutic practices.
Malo’s own pets are “quite the bunch” and also receive regular treatment, she said.
Cashew the mini pig recently tore a muscle in his foot, which Malo treated with laser therapy. Dog Molson was adopted at eight years old “in rough shape” and Malo said she treats him every day. Molson will be 11 in August and, thanks to the therapy, Malo said people “would think he’s a puppy, if it weren’t for the grey hair.”
Lastly, Gizmo the cat is paralyzed in his back legs and, when his foster family moved away, the rescue centre wasn’t sure they’d be able to continue with the rehabilitation services. “So I took him on and thought at least I could treat him and foster him,” Malo said, “knowing full well I would keep him.”
Malo has also started treating patients at Bee Meadow Farm, a nearby sanctuary that is home to hundreds of rescued animals. She began by helping out at the farm with chores but, since starting her clinic, she has worked with sheep and horses.
“It’s very rewarding,” Malo said. “When I see one that can’t use a leg start to use it, or when they’re paralyzed and always have been and then they get walking again, the owner’s happiness … that’s what I’m in it for.
“I wish I could do everything for free. I’m really in it just to help animals.”