Becoming An Animal Psychologist – Steps & Degrees

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Move over Cesar Milan. There may be plenty of opportunities in the U.S. and elsewhere for people who are skilled and educated in the field of animal psychology and behavior. Although Cesar Milan gained much of his knowledge by watching free-roaming pack dogs as he grew up in Mexico and from working with animals there on out, students can advance in their knowledge and gain needed skills to be able to work in the field of animal psychology through animal behavior programs available at the college level.

Of course, animal psychologists, more accurately termed animal behaviorists, can be involved in work with typical domesticated animals such as cats and dogs, but can also work with animals found in the zoo or even those that are out in the wild such as African elephants or Capuchin monkeys.

Animal psychologists often complete programs available through a psychology department or through a joint program offered through the psychology and biology departments or similar. Some animal psychologists or behaviorists may actually be DVMs (doctors of veterinary medicine). However, the field of animal behavior can more tightly focus on the behavioral patterns and interactions of animals than that of the DVM unless a veterinarian specializes.

Animal lovers, rejoice: careers in animal behavior are on the rise and there are many career options available. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) predicted that 110,800 new entry-level animal care and service workers, a career that requires a high school diploma, will be needed between 2020 and 2030. Job openings in the field are projected to swell by 33 percent, which is much faster than the national average (8 percent). In the same time period, an estimated 14,500 new veterinarians will be needed nationwide—a career that requires a DVM, certifications, and experience—and is anticipated to grow 17 percent.

While it’s true that most animal psychology or behavior careers require a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree, it’s worth noting there are multiple points of entry on the animal psychologist career pathway, and professionals are encouraged to pursue all available opportunities.

In fact, according to the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), a degree in animal behavior can give students the opportunity to explore many things of interest about animals: how they avoid predators, choose their mates, find their food, and reproduce and care for their young. The ABS offers professional memberships, grants, certifications, and awards to those working in the field.

Degree programs also provide insight into how animals interact with similar and different species. Graduates of animal psychology and behavior programs can seek various career opportunities, depending on how advanced they are in their education. This can include jobs with aquariums, conservation organizations, museums, natural resource organizations, and zoos. They can work as educators, museum curators, and researchers, but often an advanced degree at the graduate or even doctoral level is needed to provide the scientific and research skills for these positions.

Another opportunity for animal behavior graduates may be in the field of applied animal behavior, which uses animal behavioral knowledge as applied to the conservation, management, and care of domestic or wild animals.

Steps to Becoming an Animal Psychologist

As the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) points out, most careers in animal behavior require a master’s of science (MS) or master’s of arts (MA) degree, although lesser education may be acceptable for some.

Here’s one step-by-step path to becoming an animal psychologist.

Step 1: Graduate from High School (Four Years)

High school students aspiring to work in the field of veterinary science are encouraged to take as many science and math classes as possible to be prepared for college-level courses in biology and chemistry.

If possible, students should take psychology courses and volunteer or pursue internships with veterinary clinics or join a youth development organization such as 4-H, which offers extracurricular STEM opportunities in agricultural and animal sciences for youth in all 50 US states.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

For students who want to keep their career options open, earning a four-year degree is the next step. Since animal psychology is an interdisciplinary field, students can choose to major in natural sciences or create a major course of study that includes biology and chemistry, psychology and statistics, and research methods.

An undergraduate degree program may have supervised internships allowing students to explore specialization in exotic or large animals, marine mammals, or cats and dogs. Indiana University Bloomington, for example, offers one of the few undergraduate animal behavior majors, as well as a PhD minor and graduate certificate program.

Step 3: Complete a Master’s Degree (Two Years)

Master’s degree programs allow aspiring animal behaviorists to specialize within research and practice-based frameworks. Students wanting to gain admission to these programs should keep their grades high and earn undergraduate credits in biology, psychology, statistics, and laboratory coursework.

For example, the master’s of arts and graduate certificate program in Animal Behavior and Conservation (ABC) through Hunter College in New York specializes in companion animal psychology, and students can study dog and human relationships through their community resource, the Thinking Dog Center.

Step 4: Enroll in a PhD or DVM program (Two to Four Years)

As students pursue more advanced education, their learning becomes more in-depth. At the University of California, Davis, students can complete a PhD in animal behavior through the Animal Behavior Graduate Group, an interdepartmental program. Students in this program investigate the adaptive and evolutionary aspects of animal behavior in specialized areas that vary from animal science to psychology and zoology.

More often, a graduate degree or even a four-year PhD or DVM may be required. Students interested in advanced animal behavior education can find various opportunities at the graduate level. To be accepted into a program, a student may need to have:

  • A substantial undergraduate education in psychology
  • A minimum specified GPA
  • Professional recommendations
  • Residency and internship requirements

Step 5: Pursue Professional Certification (Timeline Varies)

There are multiple certifications for animal psychologists and behaviorists, which are detailed below.

For those with a DVM degree, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) offers the highest level of certification, which requires an extensive list of steps, including graduating from an accredited veterinary school, maintaining veterinary licensure, completing an internship and a residency, authoring a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal, writing three peer-reviewed case reports, and applying to take a two-day examination to become an ACVB Diplomate.

Check out details about various certifications in the final section of this article.

Animal Psychologist & Behaviorist Degree Programs

Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Behavior

A bachelor’s degree in animal behavior is highly recommended. However, there aren’t many programs available. If relocating to attend an animal behavior program is not an option, pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in the field through an interdisciplinary approach featuring biology, neuroscience, psychology, and other disciplines is recommended.

Required courses in an undergraduate education program in animal behavior education could include biology I and II, general chemistry, psychology research statistics, research methods, animal cognition, biological basis of behavior, and animal learning and behavior.

Here is one excellent undergraduate degree in animal behavior:

Carroll University College of Arts and Sciences

Carroll University in Wisconsin offers an undergraduate degree in animal behavior that prepares students through the use of an outdoor classroom and a 75-acre scientific field station. It also partners with the Milwaukee County Zoo to provide students with even more opportunities for research and training. Its graduates have gone on to work at animal welfare societies, aquariums, wildlife science centers, and zoos.

One exciting aspect of this program is the required senior thesis project. Students choose from one of 2,000 birds, fish, mammals, or amphibians to observe and complete an in-depth research project on their behavior. Some students in this program even publish original research while completing their projects. Graduates are prepared for additional studies or work as wildlife biologists, zookeepers, lab managers, animal trainers, and wildlife rehabilitators.

  • Location: Waukesha, WI
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • Tuition: $610 per credit

Master’s Degree in Animal Behavior

Unity College

Aspiring animal psychologists can complete the online master’s in animal science and behavior at Unity College. This 30-credit program can be completed entirely through distance learning allowing animal behaviorists to expand their skills without having to relocate or quit their jobs. Students can choose to specialize in either equine health and care or feline and canine health and care.

There is a strong emphasis on leadership education and development in this program to help students become leaders in their workplaces. Typical job titles of graduates include animal trainers, managers, and rehabilitators. Required classes for this degree include animal behavior and modification, advanced animal training, and service animals’ rules and regulations.

  • Location: New Gloucester, ME
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education
  • Tuition: $650 per credit

Doctoral Degrees in Animal Behavior

Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine

Located in Indiana, Purdue University offers a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) program. This four-year program prepares bachelor’s degree holders to pursue a career in veterinary medicine, including bachelor’s degree holders who are looking to make a career change. The College of Veterinary Medicine features a veterinary teaching hospital with behavior medicine services offered to community members. DVM students can complete their residency and internship requirements at this clinic or at the Purdue Small Animal Hospital.

  • Location: West Lafayette, IN
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Council on Education (COE) of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
  • Tuition: $44,746 per year

University of Washington

The Department of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle offers an animal behavior PhD program. This program has a strong emphasis in understanding the study of behavior and then helps students apply that knowledge to animal behavior. Since this is an interdisciplinary program, students can expect to collaborate with departments across campus.

To qualify for this program, applicants must have a bachelor’s degree and some experience with psychological research. Research opportunities in the field, laboratories, and zoos are available. Current faculty research that students may participate in includes primates, animal communication, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral genetics.

  • Location: Seattle, WA
  • Duration: Five to seven years
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • Tuition: $1504.50 per credit

To learn more, VetTechColleges.com offers a list of 7 Top Animal Behavior & Psychology Programs.

Professional Certifications in Animal Behavior & Psychology

A wide range of certifications is available for animal psychologists. Here’s a list of organizations that offer professional certification for animal behaviorists.

Animal Behavior Institute (ABI): This organization offers professional courses for continuing education credit, as well as certificate programs. There are ten 15-credit courses that give professionals in-depth knowledge in animal-assisted therapy, animal training and enrichment, exotic animals, laboratory animals, service & therapy dog training, wildlife rehabilitation, and zoo and aquarium science, which can be completed in less than a year.

Specialized certification programs are also available in canine training and behavior, equine behavior and management, and feline training and behavior, which can be completed in six to nine months. The ABI is accredited as an authorized provider by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET).

Animal Behavior Society (ABS): Students who have completed an animal behavior program and have advanced education may want to seek certification through the ABS. Two levels of certification are available, including:

  • Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB): Don’t be deceived by its name. A master’s degree in the biological or behavioral sciences with an emphasis in animal behavior and a research-based thesis is required to be eligible.
  • Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB): A doctoral degree in the biological or behavioral sciences with an emphasis in animal behavior is required for eligibility, as is at least five years of professional experience or a DVM degree along with a two-year fellowship and three years of additional experience in applied animal behavior.

Either of these certifications lasts for five years but must be renewed annually through good standing in the ABS and proof of liability insurance. Anyone who wants to apply their animal behavioral knowledge to treat specific behavioral problems in animals might find certification beneficial, according to the ABS website.

Again, animal behavior is not necessarily confined to the treatment and study of domestic animals and could include helping animals at a zoo, aquarium, or in natural habitats. Those who are certified can post their credentials after their name and also have their name placed on the online directory on the ABS website.

American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB): As previously mentioned, certification can also be obtained for veterinarians with a DVM degree through the ACVB. Veterinarians must complete a residency, have an academic article published, and meet other requirements. The ACVB keeps a list of approved residency programs in animal behavior available in the U.S. and Canada.

Companion Animal Sciences Institute (CASI): Featuring self-paced online programs that award diplomas in specialized areas of animal behavior, CASI certifications are based on the personalized system of instruction (PSI) approach. This certification is ideal for animal behaviorists who want to specialize in canine, feline, parrot, and equine science and technology or professional dog training.

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC): Founded in 2004, the IAABC aims to standardize and support animal behavior consultant work. They provide evidence-based continuing education, mentoring, resources for per owners, and certification. Members of this organization can gain professional development experience in multiple tiers.

  • Supporting ($85): All new members must join with an $85 membership fee which includes the first year’s dues and an application fee. Supporting members at this level get access to extensive online video-based courses, discounts, voting rights, membership to exclusive social media groups, and access to the IAACB handout library.
  • Certified Species & Shelter ($120 per year plus a $125 application fee): Membership benefits are the same as the Associate level with a specialization for species and shelter animals’ behavior.
  • Accredited Canine Trainer ($95 annual fee plus $125 application fee): This designation gets all the benefits of a supporting role plus a professional designation as a canine trainer.
  • Entrenador Canino Acreditado ($85 anuales + $65 tarifa de postulation): This is for Spanish-speaking canine trainers and infers the same level of benefits as those listed above.
Rachel Drummond (Writer)

Rachel is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).