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.

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Should I Become 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 work with animals as varied as dogs, reptiles, horses, birds, cats, livestock, or marine mammals. This work is physically demanding and sometimes involves moving or lifting large objects and exercising animals. Seeing abused or sick animals, in addition to observing animals being euthanized, can be difficult aspects of this occupation. On the other hand, these specialists help make animals' lives more enjoyable and healthy.

This diverse field requires various levels of education ranging from on-the-job training to apprenticeships to college degrees. Optional certifications are available. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median annual salary of $19,910 for non-farm animal caretakers in May 2015.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Certificate or bachelor's degree
Degree Field(s) 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 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.

Steps to Become an Animal Care Specialist

Step 1: Select a Career Path

Many job opportunities exist for animal care specialists. 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 work as groomers who clip coats, trim claws, and bathe animals, according to breed standards. They also find jobs as pet sitters, dog walkers, and animal shelter assistants. Someone 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 includes feeding, keeping records of health and/or behavior, basic medical care, and maintaining cleanliness. Those with patience and knowledge of animal behavior become trainers for service or performance animals.

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 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 sometimes leads 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 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 seek work at 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 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 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.

Pursue an Internship

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

Step 3: Obtain Certification

Earning a credential enhances an animal care specialist's reputation, demonstrates competence in the field, or provides 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 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 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.

To become an animal care specialist, you have to decide upon your career path and then obtain the education or training and certification required for your chosen career.

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