How to Become an Animal Behavioral Specialist: Career Guide

Jul 10, 2020

Should I Become an Animal Behavioral Specialist?

Animal behavior is the study of the developments, behavioral causes and functions of animals' actions and relationships. Specialists in this field observe and analyze animals to determine the reasons for their behavior, which may be attributed to evolutionary traits or physical environment.

They may carry out this work in the field, sometimes at great distances or remote locations, and in offices and laboratories. Fieldwork may also require atypical hours, depending on the habits of the animals being studied. Office work can also require more than 40-hour workweeks and include nights and weekends. Those who work in close physical proximity to animals run some risk of injury, or illness depending on the health of the animals.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree minimum; Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) more commonly required
Degree Field Biology, zoology, psychology, animal behavior or a related field
Licensure and Certification A license is required for veterinarians, voluntary animal behavior certifications available
Key Skills Critical-thinking, ability to solve problems and determine diagnoses, strong observational skills, ability to work as a team, compassion, personable character, familiarity with veterinary medicine databases and analytical and medical software, like Vetport and AlisVet, ability to use stunners, laboratory centrifuges and other animal testing equipment
Salary $58,270 (2014 median salary for all zoologists and wildlife biologists)

Sources: Animal Behavior Society, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net OnLine

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) states that animal behavioral specialists can be educated in multiple disciplines, including zoology, psychology, animal science or biology. Several schools offer undergraduate programs specifically in animal behavior. The interdisciplinary curriculum typically combines coursework in biology and psychology. Coursework may also include mammalogy, evolution, entomology, animal-plant interaction, ornithology (the study of birds), primate behavior and invertebrate zoology. Students may also have to complete a cooperative learning experience or independent research project, depending on the program.

Success Tip:

  • Volunteer. Aspiring animal behavioral specialists can benefit from volunteering at local animal shelters or veterinary clinics during college. They might also serve as assistants to professional specialists. Volunteering can help a student gain first-hand experience as well as help him or her stand out on graduate school applications.

Step 2: Complete Graduate Study in Animal Behavior

Most jobs in animal behavior require graduate degrees; in fact, the ABS reports that employers most often require a doctorate. Master's and Ph.D. programs in animal behavior typically involve more in-depth study of the same topics presented in undergraduate animal behavior programs. Students may also have the opportunity to focus on specific areas of interest, such as ethology or conservation. A thesis is usually required for the master's degree program, whereas students in the Ph.D. program complete dissertations.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in an internship. Internships in animal behavior are available through zoos, aquariums, government agencies, animal shelters, museums and other institutions. Participating in an internship can help an aspiring animal behavioral specialist develop his or her skills outside of a classroom environment and may be required for graduation, depending on the school. Additionally, completion of an internship is mandatory for admission to a post-doctoral training program, should a student choose to pursue one further along his or her education path.

Step 3: Consider a DVM Program and Post-Doctoral Training

Another path to becoming an animal behavioral specialist is to earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and complete a residency. This can be completed in addition to a Ph.D. program or as an alternative, and specialists who pursue this path are known as veterinary behaviorists. The DVM program typically lasts four years, after which point students can enroll in a clinical animal behavior residency that tends to last three years. Residents learn to diagnose and treat behavioral problems in dogs and cats, as well as studying behavior in lab animals, exotic pets, birds, horses and livestock. Residents usually complete clinical rounds, attend seminars and teach veterinary students during the program. Most residencies require completion of an animal behavior research project that could be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Step 4: Choose a Career Path

Animal behavioral specialists may find jobs at all degree levels. Those with bachelor's or master's degrees may find work as educators with museums, zoos and aquariums. They may also find employment as research assistants at academic or private institutions, government agencies, aquariums, museums and zoos.

According to the ABS, most animal behavioral specialists work as researchers or instructors on college campuses. This typically requires a Ph.D., but those with master's degrees may teach at 2-year colleges. Another option - mostly for Ph.D. graduates - is to work at private research institutes or government laboratories. Specialists with Ph.D.s or DVMs could also work as curators or researchers at zoos, museums and aquariums.

Step 5: Consider Certification

Veterinarians can become board certified through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) after meeting certain qualifications. To apply for the certification exam, veterinarians must complete an internship and an ACVB-approved residency. Other requirements include publishing a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal and writing three case studies. Candidates who are accepted must successfully complete the 2-day exam to receive certification. Additionally, the ABS grants the Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist credential to specialists who meet education and experience requirements.

Step 6: Continue Education

Animal behavioral specialists may find increased job opportunities by developing skills throughout their careers, and attending continuing education events hosted by professional organizations, such as the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. These events cover topics like dominance in dogs and wolves, canine behavior and fatigue, animal emotions and ethology. Depending on the agency a specialist obtains certification through, continuing education may be required on a regular basis for certification renewal.

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