Become a Pet Psychologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a pet psychologist. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a pet psychologist.

Should I Become a Pet Psychologist?

Pet psychologists, often referred to as veterinary behaviorists or applied animal behaviorists, specialize in companion animal behavior. They provide their services to owners who are having difficulties with their pets by correcting behaviors and looking for triggers for those behaviors.

Some pet psychologists work in schools of veterinary medicine or at veterinary clinics, while others work for private businesses or are self-employed. Pet psychologists may work with animals of all kinds, some of which may demonstrate aggressive behaviors. As a result, there is some risk of injury. Pet psychologists who are self-employed may set their own schedules but will also be responsible for generating business until they can establish a client base and reputation.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's degree, Ph.D. or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Degree Field Animal behavior or related field
Licensure and Certification Certification is voluntary for applied animal behaviorists through the Animal Behavior Society (ABS); veterinary behaviorists are licensed veterinarians and can choose to earn the title of ACVB Diplomate
Experience Experience with animals is required
Key Skills Compassion, decision-making skills, patience and problem-solving skills
Salary (May 2014) $98,230 per year (Mean annual salary for all veterinarians)

Sources: Animal Behavior Society, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB)

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

People entering this profession must first earn a bachelor's degree; animal behavior, biology and psychology are common major choices. Biology students might seek courses that focus on animal behavior, and psychology students could focus on behavior research. Students can seek programs with a flexible curriculum that allows them to choose courses relevant to the relatively new animal/veterinary behaviorist profession.

Success Tip:

  • Gain experience in the animal behavior field. While enrolled in school, students can get experience by obtaining a position with a program or clinic that provides animal care. They can choose from positions at animal shelters, wildlife care centers, veterinary clinics, animal training facilities or zoos. This allows them to become familiar with working with animals.

Step 2: Get an Advanced Degree

Students wishing to become certified as animal behaviorists need to obtain a master's or doctoral degree in animal behavior or the biological sciences, depending on which level of certification they wish to attain. Master's degree programs typically take two years to complete, and students usually take coursework in research methods and animal behavior. These programs frequently include a research thesis or project as well.

Ph.D. programs dealing with animal behavior are more research intensive and take about five years to complete. Students can choose from a variety of research concentrations in the applied animal behavior field. Advanced coursework can vary considerably by specialty, and students have to prepare a dissertation from original research.

Alternatively, individuals interested in becoming veterinary behaviorists must earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, which will prepare them for careers as veterinarians and qualify them for further training in animal behavior. Programs are quite competitive; there were only 28 in the nation as of 2012. Students take courses in animal anatomy and physiology and learn about animal pathology and treatment through a combination of classroom and clinical work; the last year of the 4-year program is generally devoted to clinical rotations.

Success Tip:

  • Undertake an internship, fellowship or apprenticeship. The ABS recommends apprenticing with a practicing certified applied animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist or undertaking a fellowship in animal behavior. This can be done while enrolled in a graduate program. Prospective veterinary behaviorists need to complete an internship as part of their schooling.

Step 3: Become Licensed (For Veterinary Behaviorists)

Veterinary licenses are issued by the veterinary licensing entities or regulatory boards of each state. To become licensed veterinarians, individuals must take the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam and any required state exams after completing a DVM or VMD program.

Success Tip:

  • Prepare for the exam. The National Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, which administers the exam, provides a self-assessment test for a fee. The 200-question test exam must be taken within 30 days of purchase and provides immediate feedback.

Step 4: Get Certified (For Applied Animal Behaviorists)

Certifications for non-veterinarian animal behaviorists are conferred by the ABS at the level of Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB) for master's-educated individuals and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) for those with a Ph.D. A limited number of individuals possess these voluntary credentials, so they could represent a mark of distinction for applied animal behaviorists trying to start a successful business.

Step 5: Obtain Further Training (For Veterinary Behaviorists)

Individuals going the veterinary behaviorist route typically obtain an additional 2-3 years of training in veterinary behavior in the form of a residency or a mentored training program. If they intend to seek the title of Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, they also must publish a scientific paper and write three case reports for peer-reviewed journals. Certification also requires passage of a comprehensive 2-day exam.

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