Degrees in Companion Animal Behavior: Program Information

Oct 09, 2019

Animal behavior is a field that combines psychology and biology to translate animal movements and actions into terms that humans can understand. Undergraduate and graduate programs prepare students for related careers and professional certifications.

Essential Information

Animal care and service workers can have a variety of educational backgrounds. Veterinarians are required to complete a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program before they can gain licensure and practice, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, individuals who want to work with animals without becoming licensed veterinarians might consider enrolling in an undergraduate or graduate degree program in animal behavior.

Other programs related to animal behavior include animal science, biology, marine biology, wildlife studies, and veterinary technology. These interdisciplinary programs can prepare graduates for careers as field researchers, zoo assistants, animal scientists and more.

A bachelor's program usually does not have any prerequisites. However, master's and doctoral degree programs require a bachelor's degree in biology or psychology. Graduate students may specialize in the animal behavior of domestic animals. Some schools provide a residency option, allowing students to learn behavior assessment and rehabilitation in a hands-on setting. Doctoral programs include the research and writing of a dissertation and can be 4-6 years in length.

Bachelor's Degree in Animal Behavior

Students in animal behavior programs - also called animal science - use observation, dissection and classroom instruction to deepen their understanding of animal interactions. Students can learn about animal management, animal-based industries, working with animals and animal genetics. Four-year Bachelor of Science (BS) and Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees may be awarded to graduates; BS degrees require students to take additional classes in the natural sciences.

Although companion animal behavior does not specifically exist as a bachelor's-level degree, some schools offer it as a concentration. Students typically enroll in biology, chemistry, statistics, psychology and research methods courses. Classes focusing on dogs, cats, horses, birds or other animals commonly kept as pets may be offered through companion animal concentration options. Research projects may be a required component of the curriculum. Other undergraduate topics of study include:

  • Behavioral neuroscience
  • Animal nutrition
  • Vertebrate morphology
  • Physiology of domestic animals
  • Reproduction of domestic animals
  • Animal welfare

Master of Science in Animal Behavior

Graduate students can learn about topics like stress physiology and social behaviors. These full-time, 2-year programs can prepare students for work in private facilities, museums, zoos, universities and the government.

Graduate students build a comprehensive working knowledge of animal behavior through training in a variety of disciplines like neurobiology, evolution and environmental science. A master's degree student might also take courses in:

  • Animal conservation
  • Neuroethology
  • Mammalogy
  • Primate ecology
  • Advanced statistical analysis
  • Comparative physiology

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Animal Behavior

Doctoral programs allow students partake in laboratory work and field research and focus on a specific research area of interest, like companion animal behavior. Coursework and research can be tailored to emphasize these animals.

PhD students take advanced courses in a variety of subjects, such as scientific, physiological and evolutionary bases of animal behavior. Other topics might include:

  • Environmental physiology
  • Mating system structure
  • Chemical communication
  • Visual communication
  • Social foraging
  • Sensation and perception

Certification Information

The Association of Companion Animal Behavior Counselors' (ACABC) Board of Professional Certification (BOPC) administers various levels of certification for those working in the companion animal field. For example, bachelor's degree-holders who find employment working with dogs might eventually become Certified Dog Training Instructors or Certified Canine Behavior Counselors. Applicants are required to prove at least three years of professional experience and a certain amount of continuing education experience. Recertification requires the completion of a certain number of continuing education credits; credentials must be renewed every three years (

For graduates at the master's level, the ACABC offers the Board Certified Companion Animal Behaviorist credential. Candidates for this credential must also go through a BOPC-approved internship with a mentor or have an experience review. As with the other certifications available through the ACABC, applicants seeking recertification must meet a continuing education credit requirement every three years.

PhD degree-holders in animal behavior with at least five years of experience working in a professional field may apply to become Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists. This designation is granted through the Animal Behavior Society.

Popular Career Options and Employment Outlook

Though an advanced degree is required for most positions related to animal behavior, a few entry-level positions exist, typically in assisting those with higher degrees and levels of experience. Bachelor's degree-holders are qualified to work as children's science coordinators, field assistants, research assistants and assistant zoo directors.

The majority of jobs within the animal behavior field require a doctoral degree. Animal behavior professionals can work in research and academic settings within the fields of behavioral ecology, comparative psychology, ethology or sociobiology. PhD holders are qualified to take positions as:

  • Animal behavior professors
  • Animal ecology consultants
  • Directors of zoo research
  • Head zookeepers
  • Museum curators

Master's and PhD degree-holders might also find employment in animal science research, which focuses on the nutrition, genetics, development and reproduction of domestic animals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of animal scientists was expected to grow 7% between 2018 and 2028. These professionals earned a median annual wage of $58,380 as of May 2018.

Bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs in animal behavior cover a wide array of subjects in life science and psychology to prepare students for careers as researchers, educators or animal trainers. Certifications are also available for graduates who work with companion animals or hold positions as animal behaviorists.

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