How to Become an Animal Care Technician

For those wishing to work with animals, the number of possible caretaking careers may seem overwhelming. From grooming to training to operating kennels to veterinary assisting, the list of how one can care for animals as a career is quite vast. For folks who like the idea of bringing care and compassion to the laboratory animals who help humans to advance biomedical and pharmaceutical understanding, a career as an animal laboratory technician may be a meaningful and satisfying path.

Animal laboratory technicians can work at shelters, animal hospitals, or research labs, helping to maintain sanitary conditions, preparing food and feeding animals, and checking on animal conditions and behavior. These professionals may also help with cage repairs, maintenance of animal housing, and animal restraint. At a more advanced level, these technicians might help with management in a technical specialty, such as mice or primates, assist with research or during emergency procedures, and even oversee the administration of medication or specific diets.

While no formal training is technically required to become a laboratory animal care technician, there are programs available to give these professionals the tools and skills they need to succeed. This is one of the rare careers that those without a high school diploma or GED can enter. Aspiring lab animal caretakers may also enter the field after high school graduation/GED attainment, through formal training as a veterinary assistant (three to 12 months), through veterinary technician training (two years), or through veterinary technologist training (four years).

Some laboratory animal care technician positions require employees to earn certification from the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. These certifications can be earned through hands-on experience or through a combination of training and experience.

Skills & Traits of the Successful Animal Care Technician

Many people who work with animals have a high degree of empathy and patience. Working in a research lab may present its own challenges, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics describes the characteristics below as important to the laboratory animal caretaker.

  • Compassion: Animal care technicians need to be able to treat animals with kindness and show understanding to them, their owners, and anyone else involved with or responsible for their care.
  • Detail-oriented: Technicians need to understand the specific procedures used to provide care to animals in their facility. Whether this is how to provide them with medicine or food, sterilize equipment for use or keep a watchful and consistent eye on them, paying attention to details helps provide a safe environment.
  • Dexterity: Because they can handle medical and laboratory equipment, technicians must be careful in its maintenance, storage, and use. Equipment may be expensive or could even lead to small delays in research or care when damaged. Some types of equipment that might be used on the job include animal razors and electric clippers, digital X-ray equipment, injection equipment, and urinalysis analyzers, according to O*NET OnLine.
  • Physical strength: Laboratory care technicians need to be able to move animals as well as to help with restraint. Often, when seeking employment, they need to be able to lift a certain maximum weight. For example, to become an Animal Lab Technician I at Emory University, in Atlanta, Ga., applicants need to be able to lift up to 75 pounds.

Requirements to Become A Certified Animal Care Technician

At the most basic level, the only requirement to become an animal care technician is the willingness to work in a laboratory setting with animals. Even those without a high school diploma can find a place in this career. With that said, things like educational attainment and pursuing official certifications can open up more employment opportunities for prospective animal care technicians. In some circumstances, certification may even be required prior to employment.

Certification is a process where an animal care technician takes an exam to demonstrate they have cultivated a standardized set of knowledge and skills regarding their occupation. Certification helps employers to distinguish qualified employees, may make a candidate more competitive in the job market, and can lead to higher wages than those without certification.

The main certifying body for laboratory animal caretakers is the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS). AALAS provides three levels of certification for animal care technicians:

Assistant Laboratory Animal Technician (ALAT)

The most basic certification, ALAT certified technicians prove their capacity to provide assistance to veterinary scientists, veterinarians, and veterinary technicians. Those without a GED or high school diploma need two years of experience with lab animals to qualify to sit for the ALAT. High school graduates and GED recipients need one year of experience. Those with an AA need six months of experience. The test is two hours, 120 questions, and is mostly focused upon animal husbandry, health, and welfare.

Laboratory Animal Technician (LAT)

The next level up, LAT certified technicians prove higher-level knowledge and skills than those with an ALAT. Those without proof of education level can still qualify for this certification by passing the ALAT, and providing proof of two years of work with lab animals.

To sit for the LAT, tose with a GED/HS diploma need three years experience. AA/AS holders need two years. BA/BS holders need 1 year. And those with the LAT and a GED/HS diploma or higher, need six months of experience. The test is 2.5 hours, 155 questions, and is also mostly focused on animal husbandry, health, and welfare.

Laboratory Animal Technologist (LATG)

The highest level of all certifications, the LATG enables lab animal techs to show they also have management capacity. Those with a GED/HS diploma qualify to sit for the certification exam with 5 years of experience. AA/AS holders need four years of experience. BA/BS holders need three years of experience.

Those who already earned the LAT and have a HS diploma (a GED or higher) need to prove six months of experience. The LATG exam is three hours, has 180 questions, and is 50 percent focused on animal husbandry, health, and welfare, and 50 percent focused on facility administration and management.

In addition to technician certifications, AALAS offers a Certified Manager of Animal Resources (CMAR) exam, designed to increase the number of qualified management professionals in lab animal sciences.

Animal Care Technician Training and Certification Prep

As mentioned before, no training is technically required to work as a laboratory animal technician. However, as with certifications, training can lead to a more competitive job application and/or higher wages. The following are examples of training pathways that can lead to work and/or certification as an animal care technician.

The Washington state branch of AALAS offers study classes for ALAT certification. The multi-week class requires outside study and reading and helps students to learn more about federal, state and local regulations related to animal research, care of animals in a safe and sanitary lab environment, common signs of clinical illness, and many other topics.

Training programs at colleges can also help prepare students for certification.

At Yuba College, in Marysville, Calif., students in the veterinary technology program take courses on Laboratory Animal Medicine and need to complete a vet tech internship. Those who are interested in becoming lab animal caretakers can complete their internship with lab animals, and apply those hands-on hours to what is required to sit for the ALAT/LAT exam.

Front Range Community College, in Westminster, Colorado, offers an associate of applied science degree and a veterinary assistant certificate that both prepare graduates for work as laboratory animal caretakers. The veterinary assistant program includes a veterinary assistant laboratory and clinical procedures course, and an internship where the student can choose to work in a lab.

In addition to an internship, the AAS vet tech program may prepare a tech for work in animal labs by offering coursework including humane treatment handling of animals, introduction to laboratory procedures, clinical laboratory procedures, pharmacology, and microbiology.

Animal Care Technician Career Outlook and Salary

According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics (2021), the career outlook for animal care technicians is quite bright. The BLS predicts that demand for laboratory animal caretakers will increase by 16 percent between 2019 and 2029—four times the expected growth rate for all occupations during that time (4 percent). With 99,500 people already occupying these positions in 2019, the growth rate is anticipated to add 15,700 new animal caretaker jobs to the market.

This growth rate is also mirrored in the BLS (2021) predictions for veterinary technicians and technologists. Just like laboratory animal caretakers, the BLS predicts that the vet tech occupation will grow by 16 percent between 2019 and 2029. Adding to the 2019 workforce of 112,900, this growth rate will add 18,300 new tech jobs to the market.

How much an animal care technician has the potential depends on the training they receive. In general, those entering the field as vet assistants and animal lab caretakers have less experience than those who enter the field as veterinary technicians or technologists. As a result, there is a difference in earning potential. According to the BLS (May 2020), here is an idea of earning potential for animal care technicians:

Vet Assistants/Lab Animal Caretakers Vet Technicians/Technologists
Average Annual Salary $30,980 $37,860
10th Percentile $21,570 $25,520
25th Percentile $25,370 $30,030
50th Percentile (Median) $29,930 $36,260
75th Percentile $35,900 $43,890
90th Percentile $41,080 $52,410
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