Becoming a pet psychologist may be an interesting and fun career for anyone who is an animal lover by nature, and interested in what makes different types of animals tick. Many people have only the vaguest grasp of what pet psychology is, however–a primary area of confusion is the distinction with pet psychics, who generally need have no specialized training and have more in common with palm readers and other occultists than professional specialists.
What is a Pet Psychologist?
Anyone can call himself or herself a pet trainer or similar title, but those people tend to be freelancers who get by without real credentials, and would thus never receive referral business from, for instance, a pet hospital. If you prefer knowing what really motivates animal behavior in general as well as in pet-human interactions, you will need to go to some sort of school, and the type depends on the target occupation. Occupations which may be described as pet psychologists include animal trainers and animal or pet behavioral specialists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 2010 median pay across all subcategories of animal care and service workers was $19,780 per year or $9.51 per hour. However, many animal behaviorists would be expected to earn more in general than a farm hand who works with horses. Degree requirements vary with the subfield.
Animal trainers vary as widely as the occupational setting and type of animal which needs to be trained. On-the-job training is a necessary component, and some animal trainers get by with just a high-school diploma or even less, while at the other end a specialized trainer such as a marine mammal trainer, working for a zoo or aquarium, would likely need at least a bachelor’s degree in biology, especially marine biology, or a related animal science field. Patience, a yen for animal work and how animals think, and unique knowledge of the species with which you may work as a trainer are of course huge pluses if you intend to go this occupational route. The good news is that to be an animal trainer who deals with pets, you would generally not need an advanced degree.
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, and 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.
This category includes 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. There is even a certifying organization, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, which offers a certification process for veterinarians including work experience requirements as well as educational and research qualifications, after which a candidate would be required to take a certification exam. 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.
Steps to Becoming a Pet Psychologist
The steps would vary based on your intended final job description. Obviously, becoming some sort of animal trainer or voodoo-practicing pet witch doctor would involve the least certifications, though they might still depend greatly on knowledge of pet behavior. For the specialized field, you would likely start by achieving first a bachelor’s degree in some field related to animal science, including many different sub-fields of biology. You would want to consult with degree advisors early on about the possibility of entering a pre-veterinary track if your aim is to be a veterinary behaviorist, with the possibility of adding on classes related to animal psychology or behavior to general degree requirements. After or during attainment of your four-year degree would be a perfect time to start thinking about slotting in the research and on-the-job training requirements for entry into your particular subfield. The good news: there should be little competition for jobs when you do achieve your degree, as all of these fields are relatively specialized.