TAKING the plunge to leave a stable job to become a business owner is one thing, but completely changing your career is quite another. Former business high-flier Natasha Chooi did both.
She came across animal physiotherapy during a stint in London while working for an American multinational corporation in 2008.
"I had plenty of time and wanted to do something with animals, and bring a skill back home with me," she says.
The avid animal lover was curious about the field and attended various courses.
"My first course in Britain was one in canine massage therapy with the Institute of Complementary Animal Therapies at the beginners' level.
"I also signed up for a course with Greyfriars Rehabilitation & Hydrotherapy Centre that teaches the use of the hydro treadmill.
"At the end, I found that both therapies complement each other and provide great results," says Ms Chooi, 44.
When she decided to leave her corporate job in September 2010 to pursue animal physiotherapy, the intention was to give it a try for a year.
The usual reactions ranging from sceptical to supportive came from friends and family, but one phrase stood out.
"I don't know if they were praising me or not, but they said, 'You're very brave.' I don't know what that means, but somebody has to start something," says Ms Chooi.
"Either you do it now and have a go or not. I don't want to sit on my rocking chair and regret one day, that I didn't even try."
She had identified a growing need for animal physiotherapy and hydrotherapy services through other animal lovers and started with house calls.
"My first office was a van. I started travelling to my clients' homes," she recalls.
"Most of my (animal) patients then were paralysed or old, so moving them was difficult."
Ms Chooi, who has two daughters, was soon pursuing her new-found passion for animal physiotherapy full-time, working with dogs of all sizes, although she can treat small animals such as cats, rabbits and ferrets.
She was keen to expand her hydrotherapy and physiotherapy services to include hydro treadmill treatment, which she knew no one else in Singapore offered.
"I was very sure of what I wanted; I didn't want to fight with the rest who already had hydro pools."
Hydro treadmill therapy treats chronic conditions and helps in post-operative recovery or building an animal's muscles.
The machine combines the features of a hydro pool and treadmill. Factors like water levels, speed of the swim and temperatures can be controlled to suit the animal.
It can also be used to train show dogs and improve the stamina of animals.
Ms Chooi knew how to operate a hydro treadmill from her studies in Britain but setting one up here required a shop front and a hefty investment, given a machine costs about $105,000.
She went knocking on bank doors for 21/2 years before Hong Leong Finance (HLF) saw the potential in her business.
"It was very difficult because (the banks) did not understand the industry. Hydrotherapy and massage therapy for animals are established in Britain; they use it mostly for race horses."
That period of rejection tested her resolve.
She says: "I wanted to give up on many occasions. Your savings are going down, you have to be realistic.
"I'm the breadwinner, and even though the girls are older and take care of themselves, I still have my helper, house bills, van loan and sometimes I have to pay bills for my clients in advance."
She moved into her 750 sq ft clinic in the third quarter of last year.
With the help of HLF's loan, the hydro treadmill was bought and turnover has since increased by nearly 30 per cent.
At the same time, one of her customers became her "angel funder".
Touched by how Ms Chooi cared for her paralysed dog, the customer gave her initial financial support for her clinic, allowing her to return the money when the business stabilised.
What also kept her going was seeing her patients improve, along with their quality of life.
She has been told by pet owners: "You are our last resort, otherwise we'll let the animal go."
In the four years since she became an animal physiotherapist, Ms Chooi has seen her patient numbers grow to 10 to 15 each month compared with only 10 or so in her first year.
This is despite three new market entrants offering hydrotherapy.
Sessions start from about $100.
She does not have staff and her children take turns to help out at the clinic.
Ms Chooi adds: "So far, our business has been picking up... Our treadmill only arrived last August, so more time will be required to monitor the finances."
She hopes to conduct hydrotherapy and hydro treadmill courses here for people who may not be able to train overseas.
Ms Chooi says her toughest moment was seeing her first patient on its deathbed.
"The owner called me late in the night and I drove to see (the pet). (It) was in very bad shape and I knew (it would) be leaving soon.
"I asked myself, is this for me? Do I want to do this full-time? I wondered if it's something I wanted to carry on doing.
"But I told myself, if I totally stop, it doesn't benefit anyone. If I do it, at least for a brief moment, they have relief."