Animal Psychology: Careers and Educational Paths
Featuring an expert interview with Dr. Todd Freeberg
Animal psychology is the study of animal cognition and behavior, specifically focusing on how they compare to human thought and behaviors. By studying animal psychology—also known as comparative psychology—scientists hope to learn more about our own species’ evolution and how individual humans develop brain functions and behaviors over time.
Researchers want to see the differences between species to learn what’s been advantageous to our evolution. That’s where the “comparative” aspect comes in: What’s different, what’s the same, and what all this tells us about the human mind.
With non-human animal research, you can often test ideas, in terms of experimental manipulation, that might not be possible to test with humans.
—Dr. Todd Freeberg
An animal psychologist is like an animal behaviorist in many ways, and the fields do overlap—although psychology is the broader discipline. Behaviorists observe and attempt to modify animal behaviors. This might be as simple as dog training or as complicated as encouraging mating in the wild. Psychologists, on the other hand, study more than just behavior. They also look at cognition (the internal mental processes) behind animal behaviors to help explain why creatures do what they do.
A lot goes into animal psychology, from metacognition to behaviorism. On this page you’ll learn more about these field subtopics, as well as specific degrees and jobs you can hold in animal psychology.
What Does an Animal Psychologist Do?
An animal psychologist typically does one of three things: conduct research, apply their knowledge to real-world issues, and teach.
Psychology departments need professors who understand the discipline so they can teach and advise undergrads and doctoral candidates, who may be moving toward their own research careers. Universities aren’t only for teaching, though—they’re also hotbeds for research. Researchers study animal behavior and cognition so that practitioners can better train and treat animals with psychological disorders. Finally, practitioners work with zoos, veterinary offices, animal trainers, and others to treat pets and animals for psychological issues such as stress and behavioral issues like aggression.
Animal Psychology Research
Animal psychology research investigates both behavior and cognition. This includes determining things like the following:
Dr. Todd Freeberg, comparative psychology professor at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, recalls a study he conducted dealing with the complexity of vocal communication of birds. His hypothesis was that the complexity of vocal communication is influenced by the complexity of the social group the bird is in. “What I did was test it experimentally. I did a simple outdoor cage study in which I set up groups that differed in the number of individuals and just recorded and analyzed their calls. I found that individuals in larger groups were using more complex signals to communicate compared with individuals in smaller groups.”
Further avenues for research are boundless and include consciousness, problem-solving, theory of mind, attention, and tool use.
Applied Animal Psychology
Practitioners benefit from academic research, using evidence gathered through observation and experimentation to ensure animals are psychologically healthy and can live in harmony with humans.
The obvious application for animal psychology is in behavioral training, specifically for dogs and other companion animals, which is why there’s such an overlap between animal behaviorism and animal psychology. However, animal psychologists might also find opportunities to:
Obviously, you can’t ask a non-human how they think or feel. You can’t have them fill out a questionnaire. So that can be a challenge—trying to come up with experimental methods or observational methods that somehow get the animals to basically tell you what you’re interested in and what’s important.
From the experimental angle, though, you can sometimes get more experimental control when working with animals instead of people. The other benefit would be learning more about the natural world and finding out something that’s going to be useful for conservation issues. Some of the basic research in experimental psychology has agricultural applications, for example.
—Dr. Todd Freeberg
Teaching Animal Psychology
In a 2014 survey of 650 top colleges and universities, fewer than 13% offered an undergraduate course in comparative psychology. Therefore, animal psychologists may find themselves mostly teaching related subjects, like evolutionary psychology, or foundational courses within the general psychology discipline.
There’s more opportunity for specialization at the graduate level as students work on original research and dissertations. However, at larger universities, teaching duties will likely mix with research obligations, meaning that professors may work with graduate students and doctoral candidates pursuing their own research.
Animal Psychology vs. Ethology
Animal psychologists and ethologists both study animal behaviors, and both are particularly interested in evolution. However, whereas comparative psychology comes under the umbrella of general psychology, ethology falls under biology.
That means the resulting research manifests differently, according to Gary Greenberg, Ph.D. Psychologists tend to stick to controlled laboratory settings, where they can switch up the variables. Ethologists prefer to work in animals’ natural environments.
These differences have natural consequences. Working in a laboratory requires animals suited for that environment, which is why most animal studies you hear about in the news involve rats. Ethologists, however, have been better able to study different species, from dogs to apes, and compare their behaviors. Animal psychologists are therefore usually making observations about possible human psychology from a much smaller set of animal species.
Animal Psychologist Job Growth and Career Trends
A 2015 paper in Frontiers in Psychology bemoaned a shortage in comparative psychology undergrads, as the specialized discipline is consumed by related studies of psychology and biology. Nonetheless, the Animal Behavior Society reports a steady demand for people to fill a wide range of jobs related to animal behavior.
Animal Psychologist Salary Range
Animal psychology is a niche field, so there isn’t much data available on salary range. That said, as of November 2019, ZipRecruiter estimates the median annual animal psychologist salary in the U.S. to be $68,983. The top 25% of earners take home $96,500 or more, with New York being a particularly well-paying state—animal psychologists there earn an estimated $75,481 annually.
How to Become an Animal Psychologist
The path to becoming an animal psychologist involves a number of years of education and, if you want to work in applied psychology, getting licensed.
Dr. Freeberg recommends diving into academic research as early as possible. “The most important traits for someone to have when pursuing the field is intrinsic motivation and an inner drive to do research.” He adds, “If you’re at all interested in going to graduate school, get research experience as soon as you can. It’s not for everybody. Plus, it’s no longer surprising for a prospective graduate student to have research experience; it’s expected they’ll have a lot of it as undergraduates.”
1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
There are few schools that offer undergraduate animal psychology courses, and even fewer that have full-fledged animal psychology majors. Instead, as an undergrad, you could major in psychology and minor in a biological science, such as zoology. Doing so should put you into a position to apply for master’s programs or even doctoral programs that don’t require a master’s for entry.
A bachelor of science in psychology degree typically features courses in:
A minor in biology, meanwhile, will likely cover areas such as genetics and evolution.
As an undergraduate, you shouldn’t worry too much about the combination of psychology and biology courses you take, since master’s and doctoral programs will provide you with more opportunities for specialization.
2. Get a Graduate Degree
Many aspiring psychologists enter doctoral study without a related master’s degree. However, getting a master’s will give you the chance to take more specialized courses that relate to animal psychology and thus better prepare you for a doctoral program.
Master’s Degree Programs in Animal Psychology
The standard master’s program in psychology involves two to three years of full-time study. The first year will likely cover foundational coursework. That includes courses like:
The initial coursework also prepares you for the intense research that follows—you can expect more in the way of ethics, research methods, and statistics. To graduate you’ll typically have to conduct original research and produce a thesis. The curriculum will often incorporate research practicums that allow you to practice your trade in the field.
Doctoral Degree Programs in Animal Psychology
To earn the title of “psychologist” you will need a doctorate. The length of a doctoral program varies, depending on how much the graduate courses you may have taken align with the school’s curriculum. You can expect four to six years of additional work for this step.
Doctorate programs usually include a year of supervised internship, during which you will have the opportunity to gain vital research experience. You can leverage that as you pursue your own research: ask a question no one in the field has answered, then design an experiment, conduct it, analyze the results, and publish them.
3. Licensing and Board Certification
Those who go into research generally do not need to be licensed. But if you plan to work in applied psychology, you will need a license. Although licensing can vary by state, it generally involves taking an exam such as the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). The American Psychological Association (APA) provides detailed information about licensing.
Although board certification is a voluntary process, it shows that you have the education, experience, and ethics to work in the field. The primary board that certifies animal behaviorists is the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). ABS offers two levels of certification: Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACCAB) and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB). The latter category involves more rigorous educational and experiential requirements. Check out the ABS website for more information.
Resources for Animal Psychology Students
The following organizations, all of which accept student members, may prove useful as you look to grow professionally, earn certifications, and network with other animal psychologists:
Meet the Expert
Dr. Todd Freeberg
Dr. Todd Freeberg is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. He studies the vocal communication of animals, specifically birds. His research includes the development and evolution of signaling, including the social context of bird songs and other systems of vocal communication. He also studies the genetic, ecological, and social influences on those systems.