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.

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Do I Want to Be 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, academic 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 because distressed animals can bite, scratch, kick or show other signs of aggression. Depending on their employment setting and job responsibilities, veterinarians who work as animal behaviorists could work evening, weekend, holiday or on-call hours to provide healthcare to animals.

Job Requirements

It's possible to get a job in the animal behavior field with only a bachelor's degree; positions might include animal behavior specialist or technician. However, the job title 'animal behaviorist' usually refers to a higher-level, research-oriented position. In fact, the Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist designation through the Animal Behavior Society requires a PhD or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), along with years of experience.

A doctoral degree is also typically required to be a teacher at a university or college. Professionals working in animal behavior may also find employment at zoos, museums, veterinary clinics, private research institutions, government laboratories, and conservations organizations. The following table lists the common educational and skill requirements for animal behaviorists:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree for entry-level positions in the field; master's or doctoral degree for animal behaviorist positions, teaching, and research*
Degree Field Animal behavior*
Experience At least five years of experience to become a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist**
Key Skills Understanding and application of animal behavior, research skills and teaching skills**; understanding of biology and psychology, critical observation skills***

Sources: *Wheaton College, **Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University ***University of New England.

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 topics including subjects like behavioral ecology, neuroendocrinology and animal cognition. Upper-level credit might be earned through internships and/or research projects.

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.

Success Tips:

  • Participate in an internship or volunteer experience. Even entry-level job positions 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 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 PhD 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 PhD. Graduate-level courses might include evolution, genetics, neurobiology and physiology (in the context of behavior), wildlife conservation, and advanced animal behavior seminars. There may be a comprehensive exam instead of a thesis for a master's. The PhD dissertation process might include a written research proposal, a qualifying exam covering the chosen research topic, research, and oral defense of the research.

Another graduate degree that may lead to a career in animal behavior is the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, or DVM. 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 PhD, only this research may focus on how animal behavior factors into veterinary topics.

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 a postsecondary teacher.

Step 3: Find Employment after Earning a Graduate Degree

Research is 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 evolution of antipredator behavior, connections with animal behavior and conservation biology, and primate socioecology. Teaching is usually a requirement of those who conduct research under an academic institution. This position is usually for holders of PhD or DVM degrees.

Success Tips:

  • 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. Each may have certain requirements for admission, but the 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.
  • Become a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist. This is an option for veterinarians 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 behavior issues in their companion animals.
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