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Most people like animals. But, as pet owners can attest, it is hard work taking care of them. Animal caretakers, sometimes called animal attendants or animal keepers, feed, water, groom, bathe, and exercise animals and clean and repair their cages. They also play with the animals, provide companionship, and observe behavioral changes that could indicate illness or injury.
Kennels, animal shelters, animal hospitals, pet stores, stables, veterinary facilities, laboratories, and zoological parks all house animals and employ caretakers. Job titles and duties vary by employment setting.
Kennel staff usually care for small companion animals like dogs and cats. Beginning attendants perform basic tasks, such as cleaning cages and dog runs. Experienced attendants may give basic treatment and first aid, bathe and groom animals, and clean their ears and teeth. "Dog groomers" specialize in maintaining the animals appearance. Some groomers work in kennels and others operate their own grooming business. Caretakers also sell pet food and supplies, teach obedience classes, help with breeding, or prepare animals for shipping.
In addition to providing the basic needs of the animals, caretakers in animal shelters screen applicants for animal adoption, vaccinate newly admitted animals, and euthanize (put to death) seriously ill, severely injured, or unwanted animals.
Pet store caretakers provide basic care, sell pet supplies, and give advice to customers.
Workers in stables saddle and unsaddle horses, give them rubdowns, and walk them through a cool-off after a ride. They also feed and groom the horses, muck out stalls, polish saddles, clean and organize the tack room, and store supplies and feed. Experienced staff may help train horses.
Animal caretakers in animal hospitals are like primary care nurses in human hospitalsthey spend more time with the patients than anyone else. Busy veterinarians rely on caretakers to keep a constant eye on the condition of animals under their charge. Caretakers watch as animals recover from surgery, check whether dressings are still on correctly, observe the animals' overall attitude and notify a doctor if anything seems out of the ordinary. While among the animals, caretakers clean constantly to maintain sanitary conditions in the hospital.
In zoos, caretakers called keepers prepare the diets, clean the enclosures, monitor the behavior of exotic animals, and sometimes assist in research studies on their wards. Keepers also may answer questions from visitors about the natural habitat or eating habits of exhibited animals.
Keepers are generally assigned to work with a broad group of animals such as mammals, birds, or reptiles. In large zoological parks, keepers may work with a limited collection of animals such as primates, large cats, or dolphins.
People who love animals get satisfaction from working with and helping animals. However, some of the work may be physically demanding and unpleasant. Caretakers have to clean animal cages and lift heavy animals, or supplies like bales of hay. Also, the work setting is often noisy. Some duties like euthanizing a hopelessly injured or aged animal may be emotionally stressful.
Animal caretakers can be exposed to bites, kicks, and disease from the animals they attend. Caretakers may work outdoors in all kinds of weather. Hours are irregular. Animals have to be fed every day, so caretakers rotate weekend shifts. In some animal hospitals and animal shelters an attendant is on duty 24 hours a day, which means night shifts. Most full-time caretakers work about 40 hours a week; some work 50 hours a week or more. Caretakers of show and sports animals travel to competitions.
Animal caretakers held about 125,000 jobs in 1994. Most were employed in veterinary facilities and boarding kennels. Other employers were animal shelters, stables, pet stores, grooming shops, zoological parks, and local, State, and Federal agencies. One out of every 6 caretakers is self-employed. More than a third work part time.
Most animal caretakers working in kennels, pet stores, animal shelters, and stables are trained on the job. There are few formal training programs, but the American Boarding Kennel Association offers a home-study program for kennel technicians. Some States require certification of caretakers who euthanize animals. Training may be through a veterinarian or a State Humane Society. Otherwise, there are no formal training requirements in these settings; nonetheless, many employers look for people with some experience with animals. Caretakers start by cleaning cages and advance to giving medication and grooming. Most dog groomers learn their trade through on-the-job training, but a few grooming schools do exist.
Dog groomers may receive professional registration or certification from the National Dog Groomers Association of America. The American Boarding Kennels Association accredits kennels and offers a Certified Kennel Operator program, both of which show professional competency.
There are no formal education requirements for animal caretakers in veterinary facilities. They are trained on the job.
Large zoological parks may require their caretakers to have a bachelor's degree in biology, animal science, or a related field. They also require experience with animals, preferably as a volunteer in a zoo or as a paid keeper in a smaller zoo.
Advancement varies with employment setting. Kennel caretakers may be promoted to kennel supervisor, assistant manager, and manager. Caretakers with enough capital may open up their own kennels. Pet store caretakers may become store managers. Caretakers in animal shelters may become a humane agent, animal control officer, assistant shelter manager, or shelter director. The Humane Society of the United States offers seminars for animal shelter and control personnel. Zoo keepers may advance to senior keeper, assistant head keeper, head keeper, and assistant curator but few openings occur, especially for the higher level positions.
Employment opportunities for animal caretakers generally are expected to be good. Employment is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005 as the population and economy expand and pet ownership grows. The number of dogs and cats has increased significantly over the last 10 years, and is expected to continue to increase in the future. More animals will require more caretakers to provide services.
Despite growth in demand for animal caretakers, the overwhelming majority of jobs will result from the need to replace workers leaving the field. Many animal caretaker jobs that require little or no training have work schedules which tend to be flexible; therefore, it is an ideal first job for people entering the labor force as well as for students and others looking for temporary or part-time work. Because turnover is quite high due to the hard physical labor and low pay, the overall availability of jobs should be very good. Much of the work of these animal caretakers is seasonal, particularly during vacation periods.
The outlook for caretakers in zoos, however, is not favorable. Jobseekers will face keen competition because of expected slow growth in zoo capacity, low turnover, and the fact that the occupation attracts many candidates.
Animal caretakers who worked full time earned a median weekly salary of $275 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $211 and $368. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $182; the top 10 percent earned more than $536 a week. Generally, veterinary technicians, laboratory animal technologists, and zookeepers earn more than other animal caretakers.
Other occupations working with animals include agricultural and biological scientists, veterinarians, retail sales workers in pet stores, gamekeepers, game-farm helpers, poultry breeders, ranchers, and artificial-breeding technician.
For more information on animal caretaking and the animal shelter and control personnel training program, write to:
Animal Caretakers Information, The Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L St., NW, Washington, DC 20037.
To obtain a listing of grooming schools or the name of the nearest certified dog groomer in your area, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to:
National Dog Groomers Association of America, Box 101, Clark, PA 16113.
For information on training and certification of kennel staff and owners, contact:
American Boarding Kennel Association, 4575 Galley Rd., Suite 400-A, Colorado Springs, CO 80915.
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