Guide to Animal Care Careers


It may be a given that you like animals, but what may be unclear is whether there is an animal care career that may be specifically meant for you. From cleaning cages to assisting in surgery to doing diagnostic testing on animals to determine if they sick are ill, a variety of career options are available for animal lovers. In this Guide to Animal Care Education & Specialization, we take a look at seven animal care career options that range in training from no degree at all up to the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, or DVM. We provide brief information about the education and certification needed for each as well as other details like income potential. Finally, we encourage you to do more research by using the career and occupational links we provide in each of the seven sections, for a total of more than 40 in all to explore.

The Vet Assistant Career

If you love animals, or just like being around those typically furry creatures, the job of vet assistant could be a quick way to find employment and start working in a career. Often, only a high school diploma or a GED is required for entry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although employers may want to see that there is some indication of previous experience working with animals. On the job, vet assistants handle many of the day in and day out types of activities, be they in an animal shelter, clinic, hospital or research facility. These responsibilities can include:

  • Bathing and exercising animals
  • Cleaning out cages or kennels
  • Prepping examination or surgical rooms
  • Stepping in to assist with emergency care

There are approximately 74,600 vet assistants working in the U.S., according to the BLS, and job growth by 2022 is expected to be 10 percent, leading to a total anticipated 7,100 new positions. Mean annual wages earned by veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers reached $23,130 in 2012. Veterinary assistants may also seek certification as an Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA) through the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA), potentially improving upon their opportunities for better employment and pay.

Students may want to complete a training program that is approved by NAVTA to be eligible for the AVA certification. Currently, there are only 13 NAVTA-approved programs, but students looking for an education to improve their skills can find many diploma and certificate based programs in vet assisting available through community colleges and trade schools. Generally, these programs teach students how to provide first aid and medication to animals that are ill, prepare and sterilize surgical equipment, and maintain health histories and records for animals. States with the highest levels of vet assistant employment include California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Virginia, according to the BLS, but opportunities may be available in many different regions. The BLS notes that because turnover in the job is high, new vet assistants may find job opportunities available. Below, we provide more resources to help you learn more about the vet assistant career.

  • “Veterinary Assistants and Laboratory Animal Caretakers,” BLS: Find out how to become a vet assistant, what skills are required, what the mean pay is for the career, and related job occupations that may be of interest.
  • “Veterinary Assistants,” NAVTA: Read about the AVA certification designation, including how to become eligible. Students can also find a list of NAVTA-approved training programs, of which completion is important for AVA eligibility.
  • “Veterinary Career Center,” American Veterinary Medical Association: Search for jobs by type of animal species, including aquatic, bovine, canine and others; by employment type, such as government, industry, or non-profit; and by hours, including part-time, full-time or externship.
  • “Meet the 10-Year-Old Who’s Already a Vet Assistant,” KOMO News: If you need inspiration, read about this story of a 10-year-old in Olympia, Washington, who obtained an online certification to become a veterinary assistant.
  • “Veterinary Assistants and Laboratory Animal Caretakers,” O*NET Online: Read more informational details about the career, including the kinds of equipment and technology used for the job, the knowledge that is generally needed, and the skills and abilities that may be helpful.

The Vet Tech Career

If you are interested in more hands-on experience and slightly higher pay, the job of a vet tech could be for you. However, this also means a postsecondary education is needed, but this can be done through one of the 217 vet tech programs accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) that offer programming. Most of these are two-year associate degree programs, but a handful of four-year education programs also exist. On the job, vet techs may have responsibilities slightly more advanced than those for a vet assistant that include:

  • Performing laboratory tests
  • Collecting samples, such as blood and urine, for testing
  • Helping administer anesthesia and medication

Approximately 84,800 vet technicians and technologists are employed in the U.S., reports the BLS, and job growth is expected to be much faster than average, at 30 percent, by 2022, leading to the potential creation of 25,000 new openings. Mean annual wages earned by veterinary techs were $30,290 in 2012. Most veterinary technicians seek credentialing by passing the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE), administered by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards. There may also be specialized certification available such as through the Academy of Veterinary Dental Technicians, Academy of Veterinary Technician Anesthetists, and others.

Postsecondary programs introduce students to veterinary terminology, comparative animal anatomy and physiology, parasitology, large animal and smart animal care and nutrition. Students often need to do internships or externships or otherwise gain hands-on experience. Students may also find programs offering more classes or additional training in certain areas of vet tech care. Options for consideration can include the:

  • Vet dental tech: Assist a veterinarian with dental cleaning or do parts of the cleaning themselves. May need to know how to assist with anesthesia, intubate an animal with an IV, and check vitals during the cleaning process.
  • Vet nutrition tech: Convey the importance of good health and nutrition to pet owners and assist vets and owners in handling dietary matters.
  • Vet radiology tech: Carry out procedures helpful to identifying and diagnosing illness in animals. May need to be able to do X-rays as well as other types of testing, such as computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Vet avian tech: Help veterinarians in caring for injured avian pets or wildlife. Could help provide treatment and care, including bandaging a wing close to the body to promote healing and recovery.
  • Marine and aquatic vet tech: Assist in the care of these animals whether in aquariums, zoos or health care facilities. May need to know how to take stool and urine samples, give medications and provide other types of care.
  • Large animal and equine vet tech: Often are in a barn or other outdoors setting as part of their working environment. May help with livestock birthing, cleaning hooves, bandaging and dressing wounds, and even restraint of animals.

The states with the highest employment levels for vet technicians and technologists include Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York, according to the BLS, with many of the job demand being best for techs who don’t mind working in rural areas. Below, we provide more resources to help you better understand and more deeply consider a vet tech career.

  • “Veterinary Technicians and Technologists,” BLS: Find out what steps to take to become a vet technician, whether you need licensing, the type of pay that is available, and similar job occupations that may be of interest to you.
  • “Veterinary Technician National Exam,” AAVSB: Find out more about the VTNE, including how it is used to test competency for entry-level vet technicians. The computer-based exam is offered three times a year and constantly reviewed and updated by writers so that it retains its validity.
  • “You are NAVTA,” National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America: Find out about membership in this vet tech association, including the benefits of joining and info about upcoming events. Members also receive a subscription to the bi-monthly NAVTA Journal.
  • “Veterinary Technicians and Technologists,” U.S. News & World Report: Take a look at some of the background information available about becoming a vet tech or technologist and see how the career rates in terms of flexibility, stress level and upward mobility. What about stress? The vet tech career is just average, for example.
  • “Top Tips for Scoring a Job as a Vet Tech,” Carrington College: Obtaining a vet tech degree may certainly be important, but so can networking, especially when you are in school completing your clinicals. This short article has three advice tips that are easily digestible, but more importantly, meaningful.

The Veterinarian Career

A truly high-paying and rewarding career can come from employment as a veterinarian, but this requires a substantial investment in education as well. The BLS reports that veterinarians typically complete a four-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, and that follows completion of a four-year bachelor’s degree at the undergraduate level.

Fortunately, there are some 29 accredited DVM programs available in the U.S., but students who have completed a pre-vet degree at the undergraduate level or have a strong foundation in the sciences, may have some of the best chances for admission. In fact, competition for admission to vet school is fierce, and only half of all applicants were admitted in 2012, according to the BLS. Job duties for veterinarians will vary based on the setting as well as any specializations they obtain. In general, however, job responsibilities may include:

  • Vaccinating against disease
  • Doing surgery on animals and treating wounds
  • Prescribing medication

Veterinarians also have the unfortunate task of euthanizing animals, but, fortunately, they learn how to do this in a manner that is compassionate in vet school. Some 70,300 veterinarians are employed in the U.S, reports the BLS, and job growth is anticipated to be 12 percent through 2022, which is nearly as fast as average, but could lead to 8,400 new openings by that year. In 2012, veterinarians had mean annual wages of $84,460. Some of the states with the highest employment levels of veterinarians include California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois. Many different certifications are available to vets who wish to specialize in particular animal care areas.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has some 40 specializations available through its various umbrella organizations in areas like dermatology, internal medicine, veterinary surgery and others. Advanced education and completion of a fellowship is often necessary to become a specialist. Veterinarians with an interest in large animal care or farm animals may be in high demand since some veterinarians may tend to shy away from this field more. To help you learn more about the veterinarian occupation and career, we have posted useful links below that can lead to additional material and information.

  • “Veterinarians,” BLS: Discover more about what veterinarians do on the job, what education is required, and what their potential income looks like. Information on licensing, certification, and similar job occupations are also available.
  • “Accredited Veterinary Colleges,” AVMA: You, of course, want to apply to a vet program that is accredited by the AVMA, particularly since this relevant to board certification in the future. On this site, you can print out a full list of accredited schools through a PDF or search by state.
  • “Careers in Veterinary Medicine,” Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges: This association provides a list of potential veterinary career paths, such as in research, private practice, public health and shelter medicine. Students can learn about the association’s initiatives and programs and read about the publications that it makes accessible.
  • “Veterinary Career Center,” AVMA: Students can look for job leads by keyword, location, animals species and more, post their resume, and finds tips for job seekers on this site. Employers can also post information about available job openings.
  • “Veterinarian,” U.S. News & World Report: This article provides background information on the veterinarian career and also posts the salary range for veterinarians. For example, did you know that veterinarians in the highest 75th percentile had beginning salaries at $108,640?
  • “Veterinary Hospice,” Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association: There are many different types of associations that vets can join after completing their degree or becoming board certified. This association, just one of many, promotes the compassionate care of animals. Members also receive a free subscription to Animal Sheltering magazine.

The Vet Anesthesiologist Career

Veterinary anesthesiologists are veterinarians that specialize in the preparation and administering of anesthesia and sedatives to animals. Their skills may be applicable in many different settings. Like traditional veterinarians, vet anesthesiologists need to complete a DVM program. However, afterward, they may want to seek a residency in animal anesthesiology, particularly if they desire to become board certified through the American College of Veterinary Anesthesia and Analgesia (ACVAA). In their job, vet anesthesiologists know how to:

  • Develop a sedation plan
  • Give the appropriate amount of anesthesia or sedatives to an animal
  • Monitor vitals

This organization was founded in 1975 and currently has over 220 members. Applicants to the organization do need to meet multi-year residency requirements and be trained by an existing diplomate, which is a veterinarian currently board certified through the organization. Fellowships can be found at sites ranging from the University of Bern, in Switzerland, to Colorado State University, in Fort Collins. There are other requirements that are necessary to obtain board certification and these include a rigorous exam, according to the organization.

Job growth and pay for vet anesthesiologists are not specifically available by the BLS, although the agency does report that mean annual income for all vets as of 2012 was $84,460. However, since these veterinarians typically seek board certification, they could see their salaries and opportunities improve with that certification. Below are several websites that could be of interest to you if you are considering a career in veterinary anesthesiology.

  • “ACVAA Registered Residencies,” ACVAA: Students thinking about a veterinarian career in anesthesiology may want to take a look at this list of 30 residencies available in the U.S. and worldwide to prepare for residencies, including in Australia, after completing their DVM degree.
  • “Veterinary Anesthesia, The Good, The Bad, and The Guidelines,” Did you know that one in every 1,000 pets that undergoes anesthesia will die? Take a look at this short article to find out how this compares to mortality rates for humans, and find links to guidelines that exist for animal anesthesia care. Yes, it’s all part of the vet anesthesiology career.
  • “Declaws Should Be Performed Humanely,” This article, written by a veterinarian, provides insight into some areas where anesthesia is applicable when it comes to pain management and animal care for pets. In fact, other articles related to pet anesthesia can be found by entering related terms in the magazine’s search box.
  • “2011 Anesthesia Guidelines for Dogs and Cats,” American Animal Hospital Association: Read about the guidelines that exist for anesthetizing a dog or cat, as released in the 2011 November/December issue of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association.
  • “Welcome to the VASG,” Veterinary Anesthesia & Analgesia Support Group: This group is made up of vet anesthesiologists who are interested in excellence in anesthetic and pain management, and focused on improving patient comfort and care.
  • “Jobs and Available Positions,” ACVAA: Find residencies, internships and jobs available on this ACVAA web page. Of course, you’ll probably already have many leads through the networking you naturally do while in your residency program, but you can use this page and other job search sites to look for employment opportunities.

The Vet Dental Career

Veterinarians interested in improving an animal’s oral care and hygiene may want to become a vet dentist. Like veterinarians pursuing training in other specialty areas, this includes an investment of four years in school to become a DVM, plus additional training and education afterward, to seek board certification through the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC). Veterinary dentists can work in research universities, in teaching positions, in private practice or other settings. Often, their job responsibilities include:

  • Saving damaged teeth
  • Removing tumors from the mouth
  • Doing mouth evaluations of breeding and show animals

The BLS does not specify job growth and pay for vet anesthesiologists, but the mean annual income for all vets as of 2012 was $84,460. However, veterinarians that are board certified may receive more in pay just because of their advanced skill. Indeed, lists a variety of average salaries for vet dentists working in various cities. These include above $80,000 in Denver, approaching $100,000 in Houston, and close to $120,000 in San Francisco. Below, we list numerous websites to encourage you to think more deeply about the veterinary dental career and to consider organizations that you could join after completing vet dentistry training.

  • “Information for Veterinarians,” AVDC: Read about the steps that you can take to become board certified through the AVDC. Information on the college’s continuing education program, vet journal, and national pet health dental program are included on this page.
  • “Academy of Veterinary Dentistry Online,” AVD: This international organization is composed of veterinarians with an interest in dental care. Search around on the side to find information on dental cases and dental links and to consider how this might be a useful organization to join if you do decide to pursue a career in vet dentistry.
  • “Q&A with Barron Hall, Vet Dentist,” Looking for inspiration? Read about the career of this vet dentist, who works at the National Zoo, and has done root canals on cheetahs, lions, and gorillas.
  • “National Pet Dental Association,” NPDA: This non-profit organization exists to help veterinarians, pet owners, and the public understand the importance of medically-supervised dental procedures. Find information about becoming a member and read about the latest news and studies related to pet dental care.
  • “Anesthesia Free Pet Dentistry May Feel Brush of Law!” Why are good vet dentists needed? Well, as this article points out, some people are turning to non-anesthesia pet dentistry (NAPD) to provide dental care for their pets, but they may actually be causing them potential harm.

The Vet Radiologist Career

It may not be what you imagined for a vet career, but the vet radiologist plays an important role when it comes to veterinary care; they interpret diagnostic imagery to determine if an animal patient may be sick or ill. Like other veterinarians, they need to complete a four-year DVM program and to seek additional training afterward to become board certified. Board certification through the American College of Veterinary Radiologists (ACVR) is actually available in two areas including radiology, which is the imaging part of the career, and radiation oncology, which focuses on radiation therapy for cancer. Within the scope of their responsibilities, vet radiologists:

  • Use non-invasive imaging technology
  • Help diagnose and treat disease
  • Select the right diagnostic tools to use such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) and MRIs

Residences are needed for veterinarians to seek board certification through the ACVR. For those interested in radiology, residency programs require a minimum of three years, while for radiation oncology, a minimum of two years is required. Afterward, you will need to pass a certifying exam available through the ACVR to become board certified.

Unfortunately, the BLS does track pay for veterinarians working in radiology, but it does report that the annual mean income for all veterinarians, as of 2012, was $84,460. Veterinarians who are board certified may be able to expect more in pay simply because they have obtained more experience and skill. In fact, data available through, shows that veterinarian radiologists in several cities, including Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Houston, earn income exceeding $100,000 annually. In San Francisco, this salary averages around the $150,000 mark, according to the site. Take a look at the links below to discover more about the veterinary radiologist occupation and career.

  • “How Do I Become an ACVR Radiologist or Radiation Oncologist?” ACVR: Read about the various steps necessary to becoming certified through the ACVR, including residency and exam requirements, and what you can do way beforehand, like volunteering before college to gain initial experience.
  • “Approved Radiology Residency Programs,” ACVR: More than 25 residency programs have been approved by the ACVR as meeting their training guidelines in radiology. The organization also has a separate list of approved radiation oncology residency programs.
  • “Interventional Radiology,” VCA Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle: If you are interested in a vet radiology career, read about the many reasons that a pet owner could bring their pet in to you. It could be to identify injuries, confirm a treatment plan, or to pinpoint a diagnosis.
  • “Radiology/Diagnostic Imaging, Although this is just one of several schools offering vet radiology services through its teaching hospital, this site provides information about the tools that you might use on the job. 16-slice helical computed tomography, anyone?
  • “Overview of Radiation Therapy,” The Merck Veterinary Manual: Although somewhat technical in focus, this article in the Merck Veterinary Manual reports that an increase in “demand and sophistication” in radiation therapy has occurred in recent years.
  • “Veterinary Radiology & Ultrasound,” You may not have even know that a journal for this career occupation existed, but this journal is bi-monthly and you can read a free sample issue at
  • “Veterinary Diagnostic Imaging Residency,” Although this is just one of many residences approved by the ACVR, this page gives you insight into what you can expect during a residency. For example, at Colorado State University, residents are expected to prepare and have two articles selected for publication.

The Animal Psychology Career

Animal psychology is one animal care career where students do not have to obtain a DVM degree to practice. In fact, they may just need to complete an undergraduate degree that may be offered through a school’s psychology department, animal sciences programs, or in conjunction through both. While this degree, often referred to as animal behavior, may be enough to obtain employment, a master’s degree or even PhD may be more helpful. While in school, students typically study subjects such as animal welfare, comparative psychology, sociology and zoology. Responsibilities that an animal psychologist may have include:

  • Working with shy or aggressive dogs
  • Helping animals with chewing problems
  • Doing research and studies on animal behavior

However, to become certified through the Animal Behavior Society, students will need to pursue advanced training. The organization requires students to complete a master’s, doctoral or DVM degree to be eligible. Applicants must also have been published in academic journals. However, if you pursue the DVM degree route, you might just want to seek board certification through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB). A DVM degree is required for this certification as well as completion of a residency program. Board certification could be one facet that could lead to improve pay or better employment opportunities.

The Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, reports that salaries for animal behaviorists can range from $36,000 to $74,000 annually. Of course, if you become a veterinarian you could improve your chances for a better income; the BLS reports that the annual mean salary for veterinarians was $84,460, as of 2012. Below, we offer numerous links to provide you with more detail about the animal behavior career, including information on certification opportunities and the types of settings that you could work in.

  • “Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists,” Animal Behavior Society: This is one organization that offers certification for animal behaviorists. Read about the steps necessary to become a certified specialist, of which there are only approximately fifty in the U.S.
  • “Careers in Animal Behavior,” Indiana University at Bloomington: Want to know more about where a degree in animal behavior could take you? Read about potential settings, including in government and private research institutions, college teaching and research, or as an animal trainer.
  • “Career in Animal Behavior,” How I Did It, And How You Can, Too,” Dr. Sophia Yin, a DVM, talks about she saw more pets come into her practice with behavioral problems than with medical problems, and how she went back to school to learn more about animal behavior.
  • “Animal Behaviour,” This journal, published by the American Behavior Society in conjunction with the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour, may be of interest to students considering an animal behavior career.
  • “Why Join?” Animal Behavior Society: This organization, founded in 1964, was established to promote the study of animal behavior in a broad sense. Membership is available to those with experience studying animal science behavior and comes with a subscription to Animal Behaviour.
  • “Animal Communication,” Psychologist World: Research in the animal behavioral field can be interesting as this article about language training in chimpanzees points out.
  • “Become Board Certified,” ACVB: Read about the steps needed to seek board certification through the ACVB. A published paper and completion of a residency are required and students can also find a list of available residencies posted on this web page.
Maggie O'Neill (Writer)

Maggie O'Neill is a journalist from Northern Nevada, specializing in features stories, original content, and of course, careers in animal care.