How to Become an Animal Care Specialist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become an animal caretaker. Research the job description and the education requirements, and find out how to start a career in animal caretaking.

Do I Want to Be an Animal Care Specialist?

Animal care specialists train, groom, exercise and provide care for animals in a variety of settings, including kennels, shelters, stables, animal parks, aquariums, veterinary clinics and zoos. Depending on their jobs, they could work with animals as varied as dogs, reptiles, horses, birds, cats, livestock or marine mammals. This work can be physically demanding, with sometimes moving or lifting large objects and exercising animals. Seeing abused or sick animals, in addition to possibly observing animals being euthanized, can be difficult aspects of this occupation. On the other hand, these specialists can help to make animals' lives more enjoyable and healthy.

Job Requirements

This diverse field can require various levels of education that range from on-the-job training to apprenticeships to college degrees. Optional certifications are available. The following table contains some of the typical requirements for this profession.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Certificate, bachelor's degree*
Degree Field Diverse, including animal science, marine biology, dog grooming, pet sitting*
Experience Varies widely, including on-the-job training, prior experience,* education in place of experience****
Certification or Licensing Licensing not usually required, except for animal breeders;*** various certifications are available through professional organizations*
Key Skills Compassion for animals, patience, physical stamina, problem-solving,* good judgment**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net OnLine, ***Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, **** Kansas City Zoo job posting (December 2012).

Step 1: Select a Career Path

Many job opportunities exist for an animal care specialist. The level of education and training required varies, so the first step in starting a career is deciding what type of animal or animals to work with and in what capacity. Dog- and cat-lovers can work as groomers who clip coats, trim claws and bathe animals, often according to breed standards. They could also find jobs as pet sitters, dog walkers and animal shelter assistants. Someone who's interested in horses might pursue horse training, riding instruction or horse grooming as a career.

An animal care specialist could also work as a general caretaker for zoo or aquarium animals, rescued animals or livestock like cows, goats or chickens. This might include feeding, keeping records of health and/or behavior, basic medical care and maintaining cleanliness. Those with patience and knowledge of animal behavior might become trainers for service or performance animals.

Success Tips:

  • Work in a pet shop. This is a good way to get acquainted with many animal species and learn what animal caretaking is like. Workers also become familiar with the products and tools used to care for different animals.
  • Volunteer at an animal charity. Shelters and rescue organizations often rely on volunteers to help with the abandoned, sick and/or abused animals at their facilities. Volunteer work is a good way to network with other animal lovers, and it may sometimes lead to a paid position. Some animal shelter workers receive training in animal care offered by the Humane Society or the American Humane Association.

Step 2 : Complete Training or Education

Pet groomers often complete an apprenticeship or certificate program at a dog grooming school. On-the-job training is typical for others, such as kennel attendants or pet shop assistants. For a more formal education, community colleges and vocational schools offer certificate and associate's degree programs in animal care and management with broad applicability. Students learn about the anatomy, nutrition, health and behavior of exotic and domestic animals, as well as basic medical care for large and small animals. Some programs include a practicum at a vet clinic or working farm. Graduates can seek work at places such as horse stables, breeding facilities and vet clinics.

For aspiring zookeepers, marine animal trainers or dairy farm managers, a bachelor's degree in animal science, biology, marine biology or a related field is usually required. Students receive hands-on training with animals in lab and practical settings, and they learn about science topics like nutrition, reproduction, physiology, pathology and immunology. They may also explore farm management and accounting, with social and cultural contexts provided through studies of animal ethics, animal welfare and the use of animals for food.

Success Tip:

  • Pursue an internship. The opportunity to work with animals or do an independent research project under the supervision of professionals may be available while earning a degree. This experience could be helpful in finding work following graduation, and it also provides a chance to network.

Step 3: Obtain Certification

Earning a credential can enhance an animal care specialist's reputation, demonstrate competence in the field, or provide a skill necessary to doing the job. For example, marine mammal caretakers need SCUBA certification.

Depending on an individual's career goals, certifications are available in a number of areas. Groomers can become nationally certified through the National Dog Groomers Association of America. The Certified Horsemanship Association tests horse specialists in training, caretaking and equine facilities management. General animal specialists, breeders and care providers can seek certification through the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council in bird, dog, cat, fish, reptile and small animal specialties. There are also certifications available for pet sitters, such as through the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters.

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