Rarely are two workdays alike for psychologist Andy Lattal, PhD. One day, the West Virginia University professor might be called in to evaluate whether a rottweiler that attacked a child should be retrained or put to sleep. The next day, he might be asked to help figure out why a family's beloved pet cat refuses to use its litter box.
This kind of problem-solving might seem an unusual occupation for a psychologist, but Lattal is also a certified applied animal behaviorist, so to him it's nothing out of the ordinary. Applied animal behaviorists--who are usually either psychologists or veterinarians--use their knowledge of animal behavior and learning to help both animals and humans. They might assist farmers in breeding livestock or work in zoos designing healthy habitats. Or, like Lattal, they might help assess and curb pets' behavior problems.
As the pet industry continues to expand, opportunities abound for those who, like Lattal, are interested in animal behavior, says psychologist Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, also an animal behaviorist and the senior vice president of national programs at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York.
"Pet care in this country is a 10 billion dollar per year industry," he says. "And there are a lot of interesting places to work--with veterinarians, in private practices, at humane societies--all over."
New field, old science
Psychologists have been working with animals since Pavlov first trained his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, but the official field of applied animal behavior is much younger. In fact, the Animal Behavior Society, based in Bloomington, Ind., only began its Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist program in 1993.
To become a certified behaviorist, an applicant needs a doctoral degree in a biological or behavioral science with an emphasis on animal behavior, or a veterinary degree with a residency in animal behavior, plus three to five years of professional experience.
In fact, the requirements are so strict that there are only about 50 certified applied animal behaviorists in the country. Roughly half are psychologists and half are veterinarians or zoologists, according to Zawistowski.
Most of the psychologist members began their careers with an interest in animal learning and behavior. Psychologist and animal behaviorist Melissa Shyan-Norwalt, PhD, for example, works at the Iams pet food company in Dayton, Ohio, researching such topics as increasing enrichment for kenneled animals, and also has a private practice working with pets with behavior problems. She also has worked with animals in zoos--once, for example, she spent three months helping to train otters to sit on a scale so that they could more easily be weighed. But she began her career as a comparative cognitive psychologist, studying cognitive processes in dolphins and monkeys, and memory and visual acuity in elephants--in one study, for example, she examined whether elephants could tell the difference between a picture of a full circle and one of a C shape.
Lattal, in addition to his work with pets, studies mechanisms of animal learning in his research as a professor at West Virginia University.
Both psychologists say that understanding basic principles of animal learning and behavior is crucial to their work. "A lot of it is operant conditioning," says Shyan-Norwalt. "A dog might accidentally be reinforced to jump up on visitors at the door because he gets attention, even if it's negative attention. It's all about reinforcement contingencies."
Other problems Shyan-Norwalt and Lattal might see include aggressive dogs, dogs with severe thunder anxiety, cats that can't get along with other felines, or dogs with separation anxiety.
The approaches the psychologists use to solve problems vary, but are often based on operant conditioning. For example, for a dog afraid of thunder, Lattal might start out playing a relatively soft recording of thunder, and then give the dog a treat if it didn't react fearfully. Then, he would gradually increase the level of the recording until it matched the sound of real thunder.
"Basically, you see whatever walks in the door," says Lattal, who works in conjunction with a veterinarian's office. Because there are so few animal behaviorists around, and because he is listed in an online directory, Lattal says he is often called as a last resort--and tends to see the most intractable problems.
And often, he says, when it comes to pets, understanding humans' behavior is key to understanding animals' behavior.
Recently, for example, a family asked Lattal to figure out why its cat was refusing to use the litter box. The cat had already visited a vet and been given a clean bill of health, so the problem was clearly behavioral. Lattal visited the family in their home, observed the cat and its interactions with the family members, and talked to each member of the family--including two young children. Eventually, the answer emerged: The family kept the cat's litter box in a closet, and the children would sometimes absent-mindedly shut the closet door. Since the cat couldn't always get to its litter box, it learned to empty its bladder elsewhere.
"It's amazing how similar it can be to clinical psychology--interviewing skills come in really handy," Lattal says. "If you don't ask the right questions, then you won't get the right answers."
Applied animal behaviorists can also command salaries comparable to those of clinical psychologists--as much as $200 to $300 for a clinical consultation, according to Zawistowski. But, Lattal points out, animal behaviorists face challenges other psychologists don't, such as the fact that they receive no third-party health insurance payments. Psychologists who want to work full time as applied animal behaviorists for pets can also find extra income consulting with lawyers for court cases and providing lectures or training programs for animal shelters and veterinarians, Zawistowski adds.
Opportunities and challenges
Although the need for animal behaviorists is great, Zawistowski says, the field does face many challenges.
"Right now, we haven't really been picked up within the academic community," he says. "I don't think that when psychology departments have career days, they talk about this much."
Part of the reason for that, he says, is the waning popularity of the kind of Pavlovian or Skinnerian research that examines how animals respond to different stimuli and reinforcement contingencies. Although the basic principles are still key to much of psychology, Zawistowski says, many psychology departments are no longer concentrating on this type of research as much as they used to. "One of the things we've really been seeing a lot of in psychology departments is the loss of courses in comparative psychology," he adds.
It's also difficult, Zawistowski says, for graduate students and recent graduates to find the practical training they need to deal with animals in the real world. "It's one thing to deal with a rat in a lab, it's another thing if you're in a room with a rottweiler," he explains.
Recently, the ASPCA created two postdoctoral fellowships to help remedy this training shortage, and the first two postdocs are set to finish the program this year. For now, though, Zawistowski says that the fellowships are the only ones of their kind in the country.
"There are a lot of opportunities," Zawistowski says, "but for people who are interested in the field, it can require persistence to get the training you need."
Letters to the Editor
- Send us a letter