Comparative psychology, or animal psychology, is a multidisciplinary field designed to study the behaviors and cognitive processes of non-human animals.
The epistemology of this field draws from many related areas of inquiry, including but not limited to, ethology, general psychology, and evolutionary biology. The findings and inquiries related to this field potentially bear great significance not only on our general knowledge of behavior across species but also on human social sciences.
But animal psychology is not as widely known or understood by the general public as other areas of psychology. In this guide, we’ll delve into the features of this unique field of psychological practice to give you a more informed understanding of what it is, why it’s important, and what you can expect to experience as an animal psychologist.
Goals and Related Fields of Inquiry
The main goal of this field of inquiry is to examine differences (or lack thereof) in observed behaviors across many different species. This includes how animals interact with one another, how they interact with their environment, and how they interact with human beings.
This analysis can ultimately come from many different angles. For example, disparities across species in terms of behavioral traits can be used to assess what may or may not be considered “normal” animal behavior.
By establishing a norm in terms of animal behavioral traits, we can then pose the question of whether or not certain traits persist as evolutionarily-stable strategies. If this is in fact the case for a given trait, the genes associated with that trait are more likely to survive the “battle” of natural selection than those associated with less viable traits.
Other lines of inquiry include:
- Writing journal articles and research papers
- Presenting their findings at conferences
- Collaboration with other scientists on animal research
- Diagnosis and treatment of animal conditions, like aggression or anxiety
These and other fields of inquiry are carried out in a research setting. In some cases, this might be in a laboratory where animal psychologists observe the behavior of animals in a highly controlled setting. In other cases, animal psychologists might use naturalistic observation, by which they examine the behavior of animals in their natural environment.
Regardless of the setting in which animal psychologists work, they tend to observe similar behaviors, such as how the animal learns, its social interaction in groups, instinctual processes (i.e., how they react to a specific stimulus), how the animal communicates with others of its kind, and learning strategies that are employed by the animal.
For example, an animal psychologist that’s doing research on bonobos might observe how bonobos communicate with one another when presented with a stimulus that they perceive to be dangerous (i.e., a rival troop). As another example, an animal psychologist that works with domesticated animals might consult with a dog owner about the dog’s aggressive behavior. The consultation would likely include an observation of the dog, an analysis of the dog’s behavior, the development of a plan to adjust the dog’s undesirable behaviors, and the implementation of the treatment plan to mitigate the dog’s aggression.
So, while both of these examples are of animal psychology, you can see that they have far different goals. In the first example, the goal is to develop a better understanding of bonobo behavior through observation – there is no direct intervention in the behavior of the animal. But in the second example, the inverse is true – the psychologist uses classic psychological techniques to manipulate the behavior of the animal.
Animal Psychology vs. Ethology
For example, animal behavior (and human behavior, for that matter) results from the interplay of nature (genetics) and nurture (the environment). Ethological studies focus on the nature aspect of this equation while psychology focuses on the nurture component.
Yet, there are important differences, too.
As noted earlier, animal psychology can be defined as the study of how animals interact with one another, their environment, and with humans. Additionally, animal psychology often focuses on the behavior of a single animal, from which a better understanding of broad behaviors within the same species might be gleaned.
Meanwhile, ethology seeks to scientifically examine the behavioral traits across species under the conditions of their natural habitats. There is a focus on evolution, and how the evolutionary process has influenced the development of animal behaviors.
So, for example, while an ethologist would be interested in the socio-cultural creations of a group of social animals as a result of genetic development, an animal psychologist would focus on the cognitive or mental processes involved in the ability to synthesize such social creations.
At the end of the day, animal psychology and ethology work more hand in hand than independently of one another. Together, these fields of study have led to great advancements in the understanding of animal behaviors.
Cognitive Animal Psychology
One particularly significant subset of the physiological school of animal psychology is the focus on the cognitive abilities of non-human animals. This particular field of inquiry focuses upon the ability of animals to learn, pay attention, create organizing principles, and to think symbolically or in an abstract manner. Studying mechanistic physiological reactions that occur at the neurological level may help us to one day better understand the biological origins of animal behaviors.
Additionally, there are hotly debated topics within the field of animal psychology that can potentially hold significance in terms of philosophical knowledge.
One such controversy surrounds the question of whether or not non-human animals are conscious beings. If the non-human animal in fact has a concept of self, the philosophical definition of what it means to be a human being, distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom, would be rendered somewhat invalid.
There has been some research pointing to the potential ability of certain non-human species to engage in meta-cognition. These results, if replicated, can potentially serve as evidence of consciousness.
The debate over whether or not non-human animals can possess this trait may perhaps be the most significant philosophical area examined by animal psychology. If corroborating evidence were to be found suggesting that non-human animals do in fact operate at a level of consciousness, the distinction between humans and non-human animals may become quite blurred.
Where Do Animal Psychologists Work?
While many animal psychologists work in the research field, there are many other work opportunities for someone with training in this area.
As a researcher, you would likely work for an academic institution like a college or university, a government agency, like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or a non-profit, like a conservation organization.
In these settings, your task might be to study the psychology of a particular type of animal in an effort to promote improved conservation practices or to guide future environmental policy to spare a species from possible extinction.
Likewise, animal psychologists that engage in academic research might focus their attention on understanding certain animal behaviors in an effort to generalize their findings to better understand human behaviors.
For example, by comparing animal behavior to human behavior, you might learn new insights about how the process of evolution affects the development of certain human behaviors.
Related to this research focus is teaching. Many animal psychologists teach at institutions of higher learning (where many of them also conduct research).
Teaching animal psychology is precisely what you think it would be – professors instruct students on applying psychological principles to studying non-human animals. Students might be psychology majors, veterinary majors, biology majors, or students from any number of other fields of study.
When teaching at the collegiate level, you must develop a curriculum for the course, lead class discussions, create and grade assignments, and quizzes, and the like. Typically, professors are tasked with conducting research as well.
A lot of animal psychologists are also in direct practice with animals. You’ll often find animal psychologists employed at zoos, aquariums, animal shelters, veterinary practices, animal training centers, and conservation organizations.
Applying animal psychology in this work setting usually takes the form of training animals, treating them for injuries, working with pet owners to manage their animal’s behavior, or providing educational programs for the general public about certain kinds of animals.
This is a wide field of work, so as an animal psychologist, you could be a field researcher, work with animals that have recently been rehomed in a zoo, provide training to pet owners, or even have a private practice where you use psychological techniques to treat a pet in a one-on-one therapy session, not all that different from what you would do with a human client.
Animal Psychology Salary and Job Outlook
According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary for an animal psychologist in the United States is just under $70,000 per year. This works out to about $34 per hour. However, the salary range is much wider. The lowest 25 percent of workers in this field earn about $28,500 per year while the highest 25 percent of workers earn nearly $100,000 per year.
The pay for this position depends greatly on your level of education and experience. For example, if you have a master’s degree in animal psychology and very little work experience, you can expect to earn less than an animal psychologist with the same degree, but 10 years of experience.
The location in which you work can also affect your salary. For animal psychologists, the best location to work (in terms of salary, anyway) is in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco’s animal psychologists earn an average of $15,882 more than the national average of $69,788 per year. Fremont, California and San Jose, California also have much higher than average salaries for this line of work.
The job outlook for this position is a little more difficult to pin down. Predictive data for this field of work isn’t provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, the BLS does provide job outlook forecasts for psychologists as a whole, as well as other related occupations, like veterinarians.
The BLS predicts slower than average growth for psychology jobs through 2029, at just three percent growth. Jobs for veterinarians, on the other hand, are expected to be in very high demand. The BLS predicts jobs in that sector will grow by 16 percent through the end of the decade. Another related field – research science – is expected to see explosive growth over the next decade as well. The BLS predicts this field will have 15 percent job growth through 2029.
Educational Requirements for Animal Psychologists
At a minimum, you need a master’s degree from an accredited institution in psychology with a specialization, minor, or double-major in animal science, animal behavior, or a closely related field. Some colleges and universities offer animal psychology programs or comparative psychology programs, that might negate the need to add a minor or a second major.
To improve your employment prospects, though, you’ll need to get a Phd. Doing so allows you to specialize in a specific area of animal psychology that can lead to lucrative research positions, teaching positions at universities, or consulting jobs as an animal psychologist.
It’s also recommended that you get a certification in animal psychology as well. There are many different certifications available, like the Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) credential. Other certifications and continuing education courses are available from organizations like the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), the Companion Animal Sciences Institute (CASI), and the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB).
Conclusion and Implications for Animal Psychology
Animal Psychology as an up-and-coming field has a lot of explanatory potential for the behavior of both human and non-human animals. By comparing the behavior of humans with other species, we can potentially better separate biological from environmental or ecologically influenced behaviors.
Additionally, by understanding the behavior of non-human animals in a more nuanced way, we not only stand poised to learn more about ourselves, but we stand to acquire a more detailed understanding of physiological behavioral mechanisms and the process of natural selection as it pertains to social and behavioral traits.
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Updated May 2021