How to Become a Pet Psychologist

The Basics

Imagine having a dog that tears up your furniture or barks incessantly. Perhaps you have a cat that shows its fangs and bears its claws whenever one of your family members enters the room. You might even have a horse that bucks and poses a danger to you or other potential riders.

These are common problems that people encounter with pets, and issues that, despite seeming hopeless or out of control, can be resolved with time and patience. But being patient is often a challenge for people that have a crisis with a pet. Since pets are usually considered members of the family, it can be a heartbreaking situation when a dog, cat, or other beloved animal displays signs of being in distress or behaving inappropriately. This is where a pet psychologist can help.

What is a Pet Psychologist?

A pet psychologist is a professional that works with animals that have any number of behavioral issues. They seek to discover why a pet is misbehaving, why the animal is stressed, why the animal is unhealthy, and the like, and offer solutions to these problems based on a deep understanding of psychology and animal behavior.

Pet psychologists work most often with typical household pets, like dogs and cats, but they can also work with more non-traditional animals, ranging from fish and reptiles to horses and livestock. Key to their work as well is meeting with the animal’s master and discussing with them the problems and issues as they see them. In that regard, pet psychologists don’t just attend to the animal, but to its owner as well.

What Does a Pet Psychologist Do?

Pet psychologists have a variety of responsibilities that differ from one work setting to the next. Psychologists that work in a private practice or clinical setting will work with both pets and their owners to facilitate behavioral change. In this setting, pet psychologists explore both animal-animal and human-animal interactions to determine precisely what the problem is that the pet is experiencing. For example, if a family brings in their dog that seems to be exhibiting signs of anxiety and stress, a pet psychologist would delve into the pet’s interactions with other animals and with each member of the family to determine a possible cause of the animal’s condition.

Of course, a pet may display any number of undesirable behaviors, from excessive barking to difficulty in house training to aggressive behavior towards other animals or humans. A pet psychologist would address these issues in a similar way as above, with an exploration of the pet’s relationships with others, seeking answers regarding the starting point of the problem, and devising an appropriate intervention for addressing the issue and improving the animal’s behavior.

Pet psychologists that work in research focus less on a practical application of knowledge like those in clinical settings and more on examining why pets behave the way they do. For example, a pet psychologist that works in a private research setting may devote much of his or her time seeking to better understand how bonds form between pets and their owners and how to facilitate the development of that bond between a new owner and an animal that has been abused or neglected. Similarly, pet psychologists that work in academia will focus on research-based issues, such as improved methods to use to train dogs to be companion animals for disabled individuals or therapy dogs to work with mentally ill persons.

Other pet psychologists specialize in training animals, especially dogs and horses, for the benefit of their owners. Training might involve behavior modification, such as teaching a dog how to obey verbal or hand commands. Pet training also involves a heavy educational component. For example, pet psychologists cannot just train pets to behave in a certain way; rather, they must also educate pet owners about how to change a pet’s behavior and why certain behavior modification techniques work while others do not.

Why Do We Need Pet Psychologists?

Pet psychology may sound to some like a ridiculous occupation, but that could not be further from the truth. Roughly 10 percent of dogs suffer from depression, and a great percentage more have other stressors and even phobias that cause them to behave in ways that distress other animals, as well as their masters.

Taking into account all the other types of pets that people have living in their homes, there is a significant need for professionals that understand animal behavior, can work with animals to change unhealthy or undesirable behaviors, and who can work with humans to help bring about positive change in their pets. As a result, pet psychologists fill a very important niche that bridges the gap between veterinarians and animal trainers, and animal behaviorists and psychologists.

Where Do Pet Psychologists Work?

Pet psychologists can work in a variety of settings, but the most popular is probably in an applied field, such as private practice, in which they offer their services to individuals and families that have a pet in need of behavioral intervention. Pet psychologists might also be employed by a veterinary clinic to provide services to clients as part of a larger scope of animal-related services, or they may even work with local animal shelters or animal protection agencies to train animals that are up for adoption, educate the public about animals in need, and provide training services for prospective pet owners.

Another popular workplace for pet psychologists is in public entities like zoos or nature preserves. Here, pet psychologists take on less of a counseling role of working with a pet and its owners and more of an animal behaviorist role to monitor the behavior and health of animals that are on display. Research is often a large component of this type of work, with pet psychologists seeking to better understand animal behavior and develop ways to educate people about various types of animals.

Academia is another common work setting for pet psychologists. In this context, pet psychologists typically work in the psychology or biology departments, conducting research on animal behavior and human-animal interaction, and teaching courses on animal behavior as well. For example, a psychology professor might work with undergraduate students in a comparative psychology class to draw attention to the similarities and differences between animal and human behaviors.

Pet psychologists often conduct research in the private sector as well. Before shifting to a private practice setting, for example, a pet psychologist might gain valuable work experience working for pest control companies or livestock businesses, at which they study animal behavior and gain insight into the methods that are most effective for controlling the manner in which an animal behaves. Some pet psychologists even start out working for pharmaceutical companies, conducting drug tests on animals and devising methods to ensure that test animals are treated in a humane way.

What are the Requirements to Become a Pet Psychologist?

Educational Requirements

To become a pet psychologist, one must first earn an undergraduate degree. Common degree programs for this field of work include psychology, biology, or animal behavior. Regardless of the program chosen, undergraduate studies generally last around four years if a student attends full-time.

Naturally, coursework will vary depending on the discipline, but the most important classes for a future pet psychologist will revolve around both animal and human behavior. As a result, coursework in human and animal biology, physiology, and behavior are common. At the undergraduate level, it is also important that students get practical experience working with animals. This is usually done through a work experience or internship type placement in an animal shelter, veterinary clinic, zoo, or animal research facility.

Graduate level training (and in many cases, doctoral training) is also required to become a pet psychologist. But, because the term “pet psychologist” is so broad, there are many avenues to becoming one. Many pet psychologists obtain graduate degrees in fields outside the realm of psychology, opting instead to focus on animal behavior, zoology, or biology, to name a few. Degrees in this field are much more science-based and result most often in a Master of Science degree. These degrees usually take about 2-3 years to complete, depending on the credit requirements.

Typically, students that opt for these programs go on to obtain a doctorate, usually in a similar program of study, such as wildlife or animal sciences, while others choose to pursue a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). Doctor-level training can take years or more to complete.

Having said that, there are many pet psychologists that stay in a psychology track for their graduate and doctoral studies. The most common area of study for students in pet psychology is comparative psychology. Graduate studies in comparative psychology focus heavily on research as it pertains to animal behavior.

Often, students in these programs will observe the behavior of animals in various situations and make determinations about why and how an animal behaves in a manner in which they did. Master’s and doctoral programs in comparative psychology are somewhat less common than those discussed above, but remain a viable option for prospective pet psychologists. Choosing this option will likely mean 2-3 years to complete a master’s degree, and another 4-6 years to complete a doctoral degree.

Regardless of the graduate program of study, it is a good idea for students to take advantage of internships, apprenticeships, and the like, to get real-world experience applying what they have learned in the classroom. As with undergraduate work placements, graduate and doctoral level work experiences may be found in a variety of settings, including working with pet psychologists at a clinic or private practice. In many situations, graduate and doctoral programs may require their students to have these out-of-classroom work experiences as part of their program of study.

Licensing Requirements

The licensing requirements to work as a pet psychologist will depend heavily on the type of training one receives in college. For those that pursue a degree in animal science, biology, or related fields, certification, rather than licensure, may be needed. Certification for applied animal behaviorists is conferred by the Animal Behavior Society and is a voluntary process. This certification is offered to workers with either a master’s degree or a doctorate. Requirements to obtain certification further stipulate that workers have at least two years of experience working in an applied animal behavior setting and have three letters of recommendation from animal behavior professionals.

Students that pursue a DVM must, at a minimum, pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam to obtain licensure. But, because licenses are issued by individual states, further requirements, such as state-level boards, may be necessary.

As for students that obtain their education in a psychology program, there is an abundance of certification programs from local, state, and national organizations that provide credentials to workers that offer animal behavior services. For example, there are certification programs available from the Association of Companion Animal Behavior Counselors for individuals that wish to work as a Canine Behavior Counselor, Companion Animal Behaviorist, or Dog Training Instructor. These certification programs are intended to demonstrate that the certificate holder has met the educational and experience requirements to perform their specialty of work.

Often, if a pet psychologist does not provide services to human clients, they may not required to be licensed by the state. However, it is most prudent to check with your state licensing board to determine what, if any, licensure options are available.

What Does it Take to be a Pet Psychologist?

There are several personality types, skills, and qualities that are essential for one to be successful as a pet psychologist. These include:

  • Compassion – Pet psychologists must be able to be compassionate toward both their animal clients and the pet’s owner.
  • Patience – Working with an animal often requires even more patience and understanding than it does when working with a human client because animals can’t explain what’s bothering them or what’s wrong. As a result, patience is essential for any pet psychologist.
  • Problem-solving skills – Just like any other psychologist, pet psychologists must be able to rely on what they’ve learned to be able to solve animal behavior problems.
  • Knowledge of animals – Pet psychologists cannot just be familiar with human behavior. They must also have intimate knowledge of why animals behave the way they do and have the ability to offer insights into how to change or control animal behavior.
  • Love of animals – Naturally, pet psychologists must have a strong desire to work with animals.

What Careers are Similar to Pet Psychology?

Animal Behavioral Scientist

Those who study animal behavior for a career engage in the scientific study of essentially everything animals can do. This field may encompass animals that would rarely be seen in a home setting, but many types of pet animals as well. Animal behavioral scientists generally work in fields of anthropology, behavioral ecology, comparative psychology or ethology.

To become an animal behavioral psychologist would generally require at least a Bachelor of Arts or Sciences (B.A. or B.S.) degree, but usually at least a master’s and possibly a Ph.D. in the appropriate behavioral psychology field. These types of animal psychologists might study or focus their entire career on pet psychology, but would generally not be in any sort of clinical practice but would work for research institutions or other organizations.

Veterinary Behaviorist

Veterinary behaviorists, who like any animal behaviorists must complete advanced schooling but would have more of a clinical focus. In general a veterinary behaviorist would need to complete a veterinary degree (D.V.M.) first and earning a vet’s license, then complete additional post-doctoral work.  The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists offers a certification process for qualified veterinarians. There is also the Animal Behavior Society, which offers a track to becoming a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, which reports that fewer than 50 people in the U.S. currently work in this specialized field.

Related Reading

Campus Type:
Matching School Ads
Copyright © 2016 All Rights Reserved. All logos and trademarks belong to their respective owners. Program outcomes can vary according to each institution's curriculum and job opportunities are not guaranteed. This site is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional help.