How Animal Lovers Can Turn Passion into Employment
Careers with Animals
When people think of working with animals, they probably imagine zoos and veterinarians' offices. But the animal industry is expansive and diverse, employing more than a million professionals in areas such as scientific research, medicine and rehabilitation, and animal rescue. This guide explores animal-related careers in-depth and provides practical advice on how to get your foot in the door.
Finding an Animal Career Path
When it comes to animal careers, possibilities exist in several occupational categories. For some, the right path isn't so clear. To help narrow down your options, ask yourself the following questions:
Career Fields for Animal Lovers
Most people recognize marine biology and veterinary medicine, but career opportunities can be found in several other sectors. In fact, the industry is filled with positions that cut across multiple disciplines. Animal lovers can do everything from produce safe food supply chains to lobbying for political action to rehabilitating injured animals. This section outlines the necessary education, range of duties, and possible job titles for 10 different animal career fields.
Animal agriculturalists may work on a multi-animal farm, on a single-species farm (e.g., poultry or dairy cows), or in an aquaculture (i.e., fish) facility. Working either in the field or behind a desk, these professionals have the central goal of humanely raising animals to produce food and/or other animal products, such as wool.
A bachelor's degree in business, agriculture, or animal science with a specialization in animal production is traditionally required for the field.
Potential Careers in Animal Agriculture
Works on a single-species farm and is responsible for the daily care of animals. Tasks include ensuring animals have proper access to food and water, monitoring temperature controls, conducting regular health checkups, and maintaining animal facilities and cages.
Animal Care Quality Specialist
Monitors and coordinates health safety inspections and animal welfare quality audits. Provides hands-on training to farmers, processing plant staff, and other livestock workers. Oversees animal transportation processes and acts as a quality liaison between animal suppliers.
Animal/Marine Science and Biology
Animal scientists and marine biologists study animals and marine organisms, including their biological, social and physical aspects, and how they interact with their environments. In this case, however, animals are separated and studied based on their natural habitat. The goal is to gain a better understanding of animal behavior and come up with ways to maintain balanced ecosystems.
An associate degree in animal science or a related field may serve as entry-level education. A bachelor's degree in animal science, ecology, or marine biology is required for scientific or research positions. A master's degree or PhD in marine biology, animal science, biology, or ecology is typically recommended for advanced research positions.
Potential Careers in Animal/Marine Science and Biology
Works with animals in veterinary or research laboratories, performing animal observation, office tasks, and some clinical services. Responsible for cleaning animal cages, conducting daily health checks, managing laboratory supply inventory, preparing supplies for research studies, and sometimes calibrating laboratory instruments.
Studies animals that live in the ocean. Collects and analyzes biological data, studies plant life, and researches the impact of environmental factors on ocean species. May also serve in administrative roles at aquariums, which would include responsibilities for fundraising, facility management, animal curation, and research.
Animal Behavior/Animal Training
Animal behavior is the scientific study of animals with a focus on understanding the causes and evolution of that behavior. Animal behaviorists examine how internal (e.g., physiological, emotional) and external (e.g., predators, environment) factors influence animal behavior. They may work in animal rehabilitation or training, but they are just as likely to be found working purely in an academic setting conducting research
A certificate in assisted animal therapy or a bachelor's degree in animal behavior, animal science, or psychobiology may be sufficient to begin working in the field. However, graduate degrees are recommended and can be found in fields such as animal husbandry, animal science, biology, behavioral science, and zoology. Some positions may require a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine to practice applied animal behavioral research.
Potential Careers in Animal Behavior/Training
Works with animals and their owners to better communicate and teach animals to respond to commands or situations. Trainers might work with service animals to train them for individuals who are blind or have other disabilities. Other trainers might work with show animals, such as horses, for performances. Still others may serve as obedience trainers, teaching, for example, dogs to walk on a leash and listen to their owner's commands.
Works with animals in a zoo, laboratory, or shelter. Studies behavioral patterns to accomplish different goals, such as rehabilitating an animal from an abusive environment or treating aggression problems. May also work in a research capacity with wildlife.
Animal rescue is a profession concerned with the health, safety, and well-being of domestic and wild animals who have been neglected, abandoned, abused or exposed to natural disasters. The ultimate goal is to rehabilitate the animal and coordinate with a placement partner to find an adoptive home.
A high school diploma and on-the-job training is typically required, and a certificate, such as one from the National Animal Cruelty Investigations School, can be beneficial. A bachelor's degree in animal science or criminal justice can be useful for investigator or animal control positions.
Potential Careers in Animal Rescue
Shelter Care Technician (Kennel Worker)
Works in a shelter or kennel and provides hands-on care to domestic animals (typically cats and dogs). Performs a range of basic tasks, including nursing animals, cleaning cages, and feeding.
Responsible for investigating reports and complaints of animal abuse, cruelty, abandonment, and neglect. Collaborates with law enforcement to conduct investigations and may testify in court cases. Provides training and holds animal care workshops for local community organizations and government agencies.
Animal and wildlife conservation focuses on the protection and preservation of wild animals and their habitats and ecosystems. These professionals may help alleviate threats such as climate change, wildlife crime and poaching, pollution, exploitation of natural resources, and illegal trade, to name a few. Conservation includes opportunities to work in natural environments, research facilities/academia, zoos, and aquariums.
A bachelor's degree in ecology, biology, animal science, zoology, or wildlife management is the typical minimum education requirement. A master's degree may be required for advanced positions.
Potential Careers in Conservation
Analyzes wildlife ecology. May evaluate animal population trends, take soil and water samples, test laboratory samples, and prepare reports about findings.
Studies how wildlife and animals interact and engage with their environments and ecosystems. Conducts experiments with animals either in controlled or natural surroundings to collect biological data and specimens. May monitor and manage wildlife populations in enclosed settings (e.g., zoos) or open areas (e.g., game reserves). May also specialize in a particular species, such as mammals, birds, or reptiles and amphibians.
Opportunities in animal education and research are extremely broad. Professionals in this area study animal genetics, behaviors, and environmental factors to gain a better understanding of the animal kingdom for various purposes. For instance, research findings can help policy makers create laws to better protect an animal or its habitat.
A high school degree and on-the-job training is sufficient for some entry-level jobs. A bachelor's degree in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, immunology, or animal science is recommended for scientific positions. A graduate degree may be required for advanced research positions.
Potential Careers in Research/Education
Animal Care Coordinator at a Research Facility
Ensures that the research facility is in compliance with internal and federal regulations. Oversees overall care of all animals in the facility to make sure they're treated humanely. May also conduct workshops or manage educational programs for the public.
Research scientists typically work at a university, conducing large-scale research projects on a wide range of animal-related topics to advance knowledge in that particular area.
Medicine/Animal welfare deals with all aspects of an animal's well being — physical, mental, and social. It's a professional field that goes beyond veterinary care and crosses into education, advocacy, and scientific research.
An associate degree in veterinary medicine or a bachelor's in animal science is considered appropriate for entry-level careers. A Doctor of Veterinary Medicine is required for veterinarian careers, and a law degree is necessary for most legal and lobbyist positions in animal welfare.
Potential Careers in Medicine/Animal Welfare
Works under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian, with duties varying by state regulations. Common tasks include assisting veterinarians with medical procedures, collecting and preparing laboratory samples, anesthetizing animals, performing dental procedures and cleanings, and dispensing medications.
Requiring a Doctoral or professional degree, veterinarian jobs focus on the care and health of animals. These professionals diagnose and treat sick and injured animals and can be found in a range of work settings, from clinics to farms to zoos.
The pet industry covers business arenas such as pet breeding, product development and sales, dog walking, pet grooming, accessories and specialized medicine. Opportunities exist for smaller side jobs (e.g., starting a pet walking business) or in major sectors (e.g., developing pet monitoring tools). The pet business is big, with pet owners spending over $70 million on their companions in 2018, according to the American Pet Products Association.
A high school diploma and on-the-job training may be enough for entry-level positions. A bachelor's or master's degrees in business administration is recommended for entrepreneurial roles.
Potential Careers Pet Business
Provides companionship and care services to animals while owners are away for extended periods. Working in the animal's home environment, pet sitters ensure pets have food and water, playtime and exercise, clean litter boxes and cages, and any necessary medications.
Dog Day Care Operator
Owns and operates a day care facility for dogs, offering social interaction, exercise, nutrition, and other services to animals while their owners are at work. Manages staff, oversees facilities, handles customer service, negotiates contracts with suppliers, and establishes rates for service.
Animal protective services help to establish and maintain healthy relationships and environments between animals and humans through animal control, public education, emergency assistance, and safety inspections. In these roles, professionals often collaborate with law enforcement agencies to enforce pet laws, resolve neighborhood animal disputes, and impound stray animals.
A high school diploma and on-the-job training is needed for entry-level positions, but an associate degree in animal science or a related field is often preferred. Animal control certification is also typically required. Some agency employers may require a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
Potential Careers in Protective Services
Animal Care Officer
Monitors and enforces local ordinances that govern both domestic and livestock animals to ensure public safety and maintain animal welfare. Responds to complaints about animals in abusive or abandoned environments and coordinates with external agencies to legally remove and place animals into a shelter or other facility.
Animal Control Officer (Humane Investigator)
Responds to complaints about cases of animal abuse, conducts investigations, and collaborates with local law enforcement in related court cases. May specialize in certain areas, such as working with illegally imported species, or serve in a supervisory position with a local, state or federal office.
Wildlife rehabilitation is an interdisciplinary profession that blends an understanding of animal behavior with veterinary medicine. Professionals in this area care for and treat sick, wounded, or abandoned animals in order to return them to their natural habitats. The recovery time of each animal varies, which means some animals may need additional therapies, exercise, and medications before they are well enough to be returned to the wild.
A bachelor's degree in biology, ecology, animal science, or wildlife management is recommended if not required. A graduate degree may be required for supervisor or advanced research positions
Potential Careers in Wildlife Rehabilitation
Works either with multiple or single wildlife species and handles a variety of responsibilities, including tracking and tagging animals for researchers, taking blood samples, collecting environmental samples, and caring for captured animals.
Works directly in the daily care, treatment, and rehabilitation of injured, abandoned, and sick wildlife. Tasks may include cleaning cages, administering medications, keeping medical records, managing volunteers, establishing a nutritional plan, and educating the general public about wildlife recovery and conservation.
The Not-So-Fun Side of Working with Animals
Working with animals can be an extremely rewarding career for those who love being around furry and non-furry creatures. However, the animal industry is not always enjoyable. Before committing to an animal job, here are some important things to keep in mind about the field.
Working with animals can be unpredictable and even dangerous
Whether wild or domesticated, all animals have a mind of their own. Because there's no real way to truly know what they might do in a given situation, working with animals can sometimes be dangerous. Whether attempting to rescue a pit bull from a dogfighting ring or cleaning cages at a pet store, the possibility of being bitten, scratched, or kicked is very real.
Working with animals can be physically taxing
Animals need 24 hours of care each day. In animal medicine, you may have to travel long distances in rural settings and remain on call during the evening and weekends. Workdays can easily exceed 8 hours and stretch into the night. Other animal professions require you to be on your feet all day lifting heavy feed and/or transporting animals.
Tedious tasks may be part of the job
Much of animal care, training, and husbandry consist of small and often thankless tasks, such as cleaning kennels and cages, removing feces, brushing and washing dirty animals, and vaccinating animals.
You may be put in difficult emotional situations
As an animal worker - and animal lover - you'll likely develop attachments to animals across the life spectrum or have to help animals that come from distressed situations. As a result, there will be emotional times such as death from natural causes, injuries, or euthanasia.
Animal careers are extremely competitive
There are three reasons many of these occupations can be limited and competitive. First, animal work can be seasonal, which limits the opportunities for professionals. Second, nonprofits are big players in the industry, but they often rely on volunteers to supplement their small paid staff. Third, some animal careers have geographic limitations. For instance, last count had fewer than 60 animal control workers in Minnesota, while nearby states like Illinois and Ohio had over 300.
Salaries are typically low
Individuals working in animal careers often do so because they enjoy their work, not because of the pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median pay ranged from $23,950 in 2018 for nonfarm animal care workers to $93,830 for veterinarians.
Types of Employers
When deciding on an animal career, it is important to not just consider what occupational field to pursue but also where to work. The types of employers in the animal industry are as diverse as the career fields themselves. Take a look below:
How to Begin Your Animal Career
While working with animals is a rewarding career, becoming a competitive job applicant takes preparation, training, and hands-on experience. The following five steps can help you land a career in the animal industry:
Explore the industry
Take some time to find out what the industry has to offer. Volunteering with wildlife conservation organizations, animal shelters, or animal welfare groups allows you to learn about the tasks involved with different careers so you can figure out what interests you most. Another way to learn more about what a particular job might be like is to shadow professionals.
Obtain the required education
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most animal-related jobs, particularly entry-level roles, do not require postsecondary education. Yet these fields can be competitive, so a college degree can set you apart from other candidates. Some careers do require degrees. Regardless of the degree level or prospective area of work, you should have fundamental skills in science and take college-level coursework in biology, ecology, chemistry, and animal science.
Gain relevant experience
As much as classroom-based knowledge is recommended, relevant hands-on experience is just as valuable. Internships are a powerful avenue to learning how to work with animals. So is volunteer work. Both internships and volunteer opportunities can be found in nearly every animal career sector.
Certain animal occupations, such as veterinary medicine and laboratory research, are regulated either at the state or national level. For example, veterinarian technicians must pass a state exam and earn a state license to practice, while laboratory animal science professionals must hold certification from the American Association of Laboratory Animal Science. Other fields, such as dog training or animal control, have voluntary certifications available from organizations such as the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and National Animal Care and Control Association.
Find a job
After becoming familiar with your chosen industry, completing formal training, gaining work experience, and earning relevant certification, the final step is to get a job. To get started on the job hunt, consider trying the following:
Attend networking events
You can attend networking events hosted by professional associations such as the Animal Welfare Association to make industry contacts and get the scoop on new job openings.
Volunteering with groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, or organizations you're interested in, may eventually lead to a full-time position.
Most professional animal associations have online job boards where you can find, learn about, and apply for open jobs with various employers.
Animal Internships and Scholarships
Completing an animal internship serves several purposes. You can gain industry knowledge, develop practical skills, make professional contacts, and build confidence working with animals. More importantly, internships provide an opportunity to learn more about a specific field and ensure it's the right path for you. The U.S.-based animal internships below should give you an idea of the types of internships available.
American Bear Association
Location: Orr, Minnesota
Interns live in rustic accommodations in the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary with no electricity, telephone or running water. They complete a variety of services, including cleaning bear feeding areas, educating sanctuary visitors and chopping firewood. Preference is given to applicants who are either enrolled in a college program or hold a degree in wildlife biology, wildlife management, environmental education or natural resources.
Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
Location: Boulder, Colorado
To qualify, candidates must be at least 18 years old. Candidates with a degree (or enrolled in a degree program) in wildlife management, natural sciences or veterinary medicine are preferred. Interns learn about animal rehabilitation, work with a variety of wildlife species, and practice care fundamentals such as sterilization, food preparation, and feeding methods.
International Exotic Animal Sanctuary
Location: Boyd, Texas
Applicants must have completed at least two years of undergraduate studies in biology, zoology, animal management or a related field, and have three or more years of experience at an Association of Zoos and Aquariums facility. Interns live on-site for three months, receive a stipend and work with exotic animals in areas such as feeding, animal management, habitat construction, and animal health.
Location: Hickman, Tennessee
The equine internship is open to individuals who are at least 18 years old, have a driver's license and are physically fit. An on-site program, interns may bring and board a horse as they learn about livestock, pasture improvement technologies, secure fencing, and other large animal/livestock practices.
Pelican Harbor Seabird Station
Location: Miami, Florida
This unpaid internship (which can be done part-time or full-time), is open to high school students, college students and recent high school graduates who are interested in pursuing a degree in environmental studies, wildlife sciences, biology or a related field. Interns learn how to identify native species and observe medical procedures. They can expect to focus most of their energies on seabirds.
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
Location: Eureka Springs, Arkansas
This six-month internship is open to college graduates in the fields of zoology, biology, animal psychology, veterinary sciences, and similar animal-related areas. Eighteen accepted interns will gain experience caring for exotic cats and animals, and TCWR will provide housing and a small stipend. Many of TCWR's previous interns have gone on to work in zoos throughout the U.S. and internationally. Others have used their internship experience to pursue veterinary medicine.
Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
Location: Friday Harbor, Washington
This is an on-site, unpaid internship that lasts eight to nine weeks. Interns learn about diets for wild animals, develop skills in handling wildlife and assisting rehabilitation staff to provide medical treatments, all in an effort to return injured animals back into the wild.
Sponsoring Organization: American Dog Breeders Association
This annual scholarship may be used for a student's education fees and expenses. To qualify, students must be enrolled as a first-year student in a postsecondary program, have experience working with American pit bull terriers, be a member of an American Dog Breeders Show club or attend events, and provide letters of recommendation.
DeForest Kelly/Dr. Leonard McCoy Memorial Medical and Veterinarian Scholarship
Sponsoring Organization: StarFleet
Long-time Starfleet members enrolled in a postsecondary program of study in veterinary medicine or another medical discipline can apply for this scholarship.
Dennis Raveling Scholarship
Sponsoring Organization: California Waterfowl Association
$1,000 to $2,000
An annual award designed for students interested in working with waterfowl or wetlands ecology, the Dennis Raveling Scholarship is open to those pursuing a graduate degree in botany, wildlife, zoology, ecology or a related biological science. Scholarship funds can be used for training and field experience in wetlands/waterfowl research and management.
Dorothy Renfro Memorial Scholarship
Sponsoring Organization: Pony Club
Pony Club members can apply for this award if they have been accepted to or enrolled in a higher education program of study and demonstrate qualities in horse management, leadership and volunteer work.
John D. Spurling Scholarship
Sponsoring Organization: American Kennel Club
$10,000 in total funding
Up to five Spurling scholarships are awarded each year and may be used for tuition assistance at accredited institutions. Applicants must be enrolled in full-time programs of study in veterinary medicine, animal care, animal behavior, grooming and training, veterinary technology or physical therapy.
National Future Farmers of America Scholarship
Sponsoring Organization: Future Farmers of America
The Future Farmers of America runs a national scholarship program that provides more than 1,800 scholarships from different sponsoring organizations to members who are in college or the last year of high school.
Shaw-Worth Memorial Scholarship
Sponsoring Organization: The Humane Society of the United States
$3,500 (may be divided among multiple recipients)
The Shaw-Worth Memorial Scholarship is awarded annually to New England high school seniors. Applicants must demonstrate their work in the service of animals, from animal protection to animal rescue.
Resources & Professional Associations
American Association of Equine Practitioners
The AAEP is a professional association for all equine disciplines and has more than 9,300 members across 61 countries. The AAEP maintains a job board with postings throughout the U.S.
American Association of Veterinary Clinicians
The AAVC is an organization for veterinary clinicians who teach or conduct research at the graduate, professional or postgraduate level. As a professional organization, the AAVC conducts educational programs and resident/intern matching programs.
American Veterinary Medical Association
The AVMA is a nonprofit organization with more than 88,000 members. Its corresponding student association has 12,000 members, all of whom can access a career center with job postings, career webinars and externship site opportunities.
Association of Professional Dog Trainers
Founded in 1993, APDT has more than 5,200 members across 48 countries. It provides professional training courses, career networking events and an online search platform for pet owners to find dog trainers.
Association of Zoos and Aquariums
A national nonprofit organization, AZA works in the fields of education, science, recreation, and conservation. It accredits zoos and aquariums, supports conservation projects around the world, offers professional development programs, and operates a country-wide job board.
National Animal Care and Control Association
Founded in 1978, NACA is an organization for professionals working in animal welfare and public safety. It provides a range of training, networking, advocacy, and occupational services, including a career center.
Zoological Association of America
Created in 2005 for the management and conservation of animals in both private and public facilities, ZAA offers members a job board for careers in zoology, conservation, and animal care.
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