Becoming an Animal Behaviorist: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of an animal behaviorist career? Get real job duties, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming an animal behaviorist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of an Animal Behaviorist Career

As an animal behaviorist, your work would involve studying different aspects of animal life and development. Consider both the ups and downs of a job in animal behavior before making your career and education decisions.

Pros of Being an Animal Behaviorist
Variety of specialties to choose from (veterinary behavior, ethology, etc.)*
Strong earning potential (2014 median salaries of $58,000 for zoologists and wildlife biologists - $88,000 for veterinarians)**
Fulfillment from contributing to the planet's ecology and human understanding of animals*
Good job growth for veterinarians (12% from 2012-2022)**

Cons of Being an Animal Behaviorist
Often requires at least a master's degree in behavioral science or a related major*
Completion of veterinary school and licensure required to work as a veterinarian**
Stress and health risks from working with sick, dangerous or fierce animals**
May require physical stamina for demanding fieldwork and possibly working in harsh climates**

Sources: *North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Description

As an animal behaviorist, you would investigate and analyze the activities and characteristics of many types of animals, such as reptiles, fish and mammals. You would explore various facets of animal behavior, including how they mate, parent their offspring and defend themselves against predators. You'll also study how animals relate to their environments, such as ways in which they locate, manage and protect resources needed to survive. Depending on your employer and area of specialization, you could work in many environments, such as laboratories, universities, zoos, farms and natural wildlife habitats.

Specialization Options

There are numerous specializations in the field of animal behavior, some of which overlap considerably. For example, if you become an animal behavioral ecologist, your work would center on how animal behavior is linked to environmental and social conditions. As an applied animal behaviorist, you would evaluate and treat animal behavior problems, primarily working with pets in their home environments.

Zoologists are also animal behaviorists; however, while zoologists do study animal behavior, they also study the physiology and biological categorization (e.g., phylogeny or taxonomy) of animals. You could also focus on ethology, which is a branch of zoology. As an ethologist, your studies would involve evaluating learned and genetically linked behaviors in animals' natural environments. If you choose to work as a veterinary behaviorist, you would be a clinical veterinarian who treats animals for medical or behavioral issues, specifically focusing on locating medical issues that lead to behavioral issues.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

Your salary as an animal behaviorist would be subject to your specialization. For example, zoologists' annual median salary was about $58,000 as of May 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also reported that veterinarians earned an annual median salary of approximately $88,000 as of the same year. Job outlook also varies by specialty. While employment of zoologists was expected to grow by a mere five percent from 2012-2022 (slower than average), veterinarian employment was projected to grow at a higher rate of 12%, which is about average when compared with all occupations, in the same time frame.

What Are the Career Requirements?

The North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research (NCABR) reports that, while the minimum educational requirement for some jobs is a bachelor's degree, many animal behavior careers require graduate degrees. Bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs in animal behavior are available at many colleges and universities. These programs prepare you for a career in the field through classroom and laboratory instruction in animal psychology and behavior research as well as fieldwork. Other related degree programs include zoology, animal biology, wildlife biology and ecology.

While some employers accept majors in various biological science disciplines, other career opportunities require very specific degree programs for employment. For example, as a veterinary behaviorist, you must be a trained veterinarian, which requires that you complete a 4-year, accredited Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program.


There are no known state licensing or state certification requirements for non-clinical animal behaviorists, such as zoologists, ethologist and applied animal behaviorists; however, every U.S. state and the District of Columbia require that you obtain a license to practice as a veterinarian. While some requirements vary among states, you must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam as well as any state-administered licensing exams.

What Employers Are Looking For

Many positions for animal behaviorists are located in government agencies, private businesses and not-for-profit organizations. The main qualifications that employers look for are education and experience relevant to a specialty area and, in some cases, types of animal care. Read through these April 2012 job postings to get an idea of what employers look for in animal behaviorists:

  • A cruelty prevention organization in New York wants to hire an animal behaviorist who has at least a bachelor's degree, though a master's is preferred. You must have professional animal shelter experience and at least three years of experience as a professional animal trainer. Designation as a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and completion of coursework in disaster sheltering and the FEMA Incident Command System is also required.
  • An animal sanctuary in Texas needs a veterinarian who has a current veterinary license for the state of Texas. They're looking for someone with wide-ranging work experience in veterinary medicine and surgery as well as equine hoof, dental and geriatric care. The ideal candidate will also have substantial experience in caring for diverse animal types, such as porcines, primates, bovines and exotic animals.
  • A technical college in Vermont is looking for an assistant professor with at least a master's degree in zoology or a related science. A doctorate or veterinary medicine degree is preferred. You would teach courses from the school's science/vet tech curriculum, such as introductory zoology and physiology. Excellent oral and written communication skills are required.

How to Stand Out in the Field

While not mandatory for this career, you might increase your career opportunities by earning professional certification that correlates with the type of work you do as an animal behaviorist. Professional certification is usually offered through trade organizations. For example, the Animal Behavior Society offers two levels of applied animal behaviorist certification, and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers offers the Certified Professional Dog Trainer designation. If you work as a veterinary behaviorist, you might pursue credentialing through the American Veterinary Medical Association, which provides certification in 40 clinical specialties, including internal medicine and microbiology.

Alternative Career Paths

Veterinary Technician

If you would like to work with animals but are put off by the time commitment and expenses of graduate school, becoming a veterinary technician may be more appealing. In this career, you would examine animal behavior, monitor animals' conditions and perform medical exams under the supervision of veterinarians in order to diagnose and treat injured or ill animals. To enter this career, you'll need a 2-year associate's degree from a veterinary technician program and, in most states, a license or certification. Veterinary technology is among the fastest-growing fields in the nation, with a projected growth rate of 52% from 2010-2020; however, earnings are considerably lower than for animal behaviorists - the BLS reports that vet technicians earned a median salary of about $30,000.

Animal Trainer

If you prefer a career that focuses on behavior in animals, but you don't want to complete formal education, you might enjoy a career in animal training. As an animal trainer, you would teach pets how to refrain from unwanted behaviors and exhibit desired behaviors. You can generally enter this career with only a high school diploma, though advanced positions may require a bachelor's degree related to the field. Jobs in animal training were expected to grow much faster than the average, at a rate of 28% from 2010-2020; however, these professionals only earned a median salary of about $26,000 as of 2011.

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