Become an Animal Behaviorist: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become an animal behaviorist. Research the education and training requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in animal behavior.

Should I Become an Animal Behaviorist?

Animal behaviorists may focus on companion and domestic animals, such as dogs and horses, or they may concentrate their studies on animals in the wild. Behavior topics can include what causes certain behaviors, why the animal exhibits that behavior and how the particular behavior influences the behavior of other animals.

Some animal behaviorists are self-employed, while others can work in animal care, academia or related settings, like a zoo. Animal behaviorists who work in the field to observe animals in their natural habitats may be subject to harsh physical conditions and isolation. Those who work closely with animals can risk illness or injury.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree for entry-level positions in the field; master's or doctoral degree for animal behaviorist positions
Degree Field Animal behavior, veterinary science, zoology or related field
Experience At least five years of experience to become a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist
Certification Veterinary board and other certifications optional
Key Skills Observational, critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, interpersonal and outdoor skills, emotional and physical stability, patience
Salary $72,590 per year (2014 average salary for all animal scientists)

Sources: University Programs, MSPCA-Angell, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET OnLine

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degree programs in animal behavior are available, but some students may choose to major in broader fields of life science, such as zoology, biology or ecology. Courses in biology, chemistry, psychology, physics and mathematics are usually the basic requirements for such programs. Animal behavior courses can be included as elective choices, with subjects including behavioral ecology, neuroendocrinology and animal cognition. Upper-level credit might be earned through internships and/or research projects.

Success Tips:

  • Participate in an internship or volunteer experience. Even employers for entry-level jobs might prefer applicants who have experience working with animals in a position related to behavior. Humane societies and zoos are possible locations for one to be a volunteer or intern.
  • Complete research experiences. This option is important for those planning on earning a graduate degree in animal behavior. Not only might this experience help when applying to a program, it might also be a valuable experience that assists one when completing a thesis or dissertation.

Step 2: Earn a Graduate Degree in Animal Behavior

Programs that lead to a master's degree or a Ph.D. require advanced courses in animal behavior topics, plus research projects in the form of a thesis for a master's degree and a dissertation for a Ph.D. Graduate-level courses might include evolution, genetics, neurobiology and physiology (in the context of behavior), wildlife conservation and advanced animal behavior seminars. Another graduate degree that may lead to a career in animal behavior is the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine or D.V.M. Some graduates choose to practice their knowledge of animal behavior in a clinical environment, while others conduct research in a similar fashion as those with a Ph.D.

Success Tip:

  • Earn credits as a teaching assistant. Even if programs do not require teaching experience to complete a degree, they may highly recommend earning credits this way. Options might be to give class lectures or assist in field courses or labs. Teaching experience is a way for students to learn relevant skills for future careers as postsecondary teachers.

Step 3: Find Employment

Those with a bachelor's degree in animal behavior might find employment opportunities at zoos as zookeepers, assistant zoo directors or zoo directors. Humane societies hire animal behavior technicians and specialists for companion animals and look for people with at least the equivalent of a 2-year education in the field.

Research is also a common career choice for an animal behaviorist with an advanced degree. Researchers are employed at universities, state and federal agencies and private institutions. Topics of research at some universities include connections with animal behavior and conservation biology, evolution of antipredator behavior and primate socioecology. Teaching is usually a requirement of those who conduct research under an academic institution. This position is usually for holders of Ph.D. or D.V.M degrees.

Step 4: Consider Veterinary Board and Specialty Certifications

Becoming board certified is an option for veterinarian behaviorists and is supported by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. The process involves internships, residencies through collaborating universities, publishing original research in the field, writing case reports and passing an examination. Those who are certified are listed by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and are sought after by pet owners wanting to address behavioral issues in their companion animals. Another option is to obtain specialty certification as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. This designation is offered through the Animal Behavior Society to individuals from various professional disciplines.

Success Tip:

  • Become a member of an animal behavior organization. Organizations such as the Animal Behavior Society and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants offer membership to professional animal behaviorists. Benefits include access to current peer literature in the field and professional networking prospects. Conferences and opportunities for continuing education may also be offered, helping to keep careers updated with the most recent advances in knowledge or skills.

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