Animal Nutritionist Career Profile
Pets are becoming a big part of people's lives. So it's no surprise spending has increased in the pet industry. In fact, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) reported that pet owners across the U.S. spent about $69.5 billion on their furry friends in 2017 — the highest ever spent on pets since it began conducting research in the industry. The highest expense was food, with a total of $29.07 billion that year. Keep in mind, this figure is limited to companion animals, and does not include agricultural livestock or other animals.
Food is still the single highest expense people make when it comes to their animals, with high-end, premium food being a big driver for the industry. People are now turning away from giving pets scraps and human leftovers, as animals' diets become increasingly more important to their owners. And people want to learn more in order to keep their animals healthy.
That's where the animal nutritionist comes in. An animal nutritionist is responsible for creating and balancing rations to ensure all dietary needs are met for animals under their supervision.
An animal nutritionist must consider the varied nutritional needs of different species as they formulate balanced rations. Nutritional and caloric requirements may vary greatly based on the animal’s condition and type of physical activity such as performance, reproduction, lactation or overcoming nutritional deficiencies in cases of prior neglect.
Animal nutritionists use an assessment of fatness or thinness, known as body condition scoring, to determine what adjustments should be made to an animal’s diet. The condition scores generally range from 1 (extremely thin with no fat reserves) to 9 (extremely obese) in cattle and horses — an ideal score for these species would be a 5. Cattle, swine, sheep, dogs and cats are evaluated on a scale from 1 (extremely thin) to 5 (extremely obese). The ideal score for these species would be a 3. Generally, a nutritionist will feel the vertebrae, breastbone and ribs to determine the thickness of fat cover in these areas and make a visual assessment of the animal’s muscle structure before assigning a body condition score.
Nutritionists may also be involved in research or teaching activities. They often work in conjunction with veterinarians and veterinary technicians, zookeepers, wildlife rehabilitators, broodmare managers, and other animal professionals.
Animal nutritionists can specialize by working with a specific group of animals such as companion breeds, livestock or exotic wildlife. Some nutritionists specialize their focus even further by working specifically with only one species such as horses, dairy cattle, dogs or cats.
Animal nutritionists can work in a variety of environments such as farms, corporate research, development facilities, pharmaceutical companies, pet or livestock feed companies, federal government offices, laboratories, zoos, and wildlife rehabilitation facilities.
While many animal nutritionists are traditionally employed, some choose to freelance and make up their own schedules.
Education & Training
Animal nutritionists must take college courses in areas such as biology, chemistry, animal husbandry, animal nutrition, anatomy and physiology, mathematics, animal science, animal behavior, forage and food production, and ration formulation. During their education, animal nutritionists are taught both computerized methods of creating and balancing rations as well as how to accomplish the same results by hand.
A Bachelor of Science degree is usually required for entry-level animal nutritionists. Many college programs offer undergraduate degrees in animal nutrition, but nutritionists may hold degrees in a variety of areas ranging from animal science to biology to biochemistry. Masters and Ph.D. degrees are generally required for research and teaching positions — especially those at the collegiate level.
Those working as college professors are usually required to conduct and publish research as they seek tenure in their departments. Some corporate employers may require completion of intensive internships or apprenticeships for the potential employee to gain practical experience.
Some veterinarians attain board certification in the specialty of nutrition through the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). This intensive program requires a two-year residency after the completion of the basic veterinary degree and year of general residency. This residency is conducted under the supervision of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.
Some veterinary technicians attain certification in nutrition through the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians (AVNT). To be certified, a licensed tech must have three years or a minimum of 4,000 hours of work experience in the field, 40 hours of continuing education credits directly related to the study of nutrition, and detailed documentation showing advanced clinical or research experience.
Animal nutritionists generally earn a solid salary, though this can vary widely based on years of experience, the level of education and the specific nature of their work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics cited a mean annual salary of $62,910 for all agricultural and food scientists (in which animal nutritionists fall) as of 2017. Pay ranged from as little as $37,890 for the bottom tenth of earners in this category to more than $116,520 for the top tenth of earners.
Payscale.com's figures for animal nutritionist salaries are generally in line with those from the BLS. The average salary in the field as of November 2018 was $76,273. The range of salaries were between $39,479 and $116,380 for the industry.
Animal nutritionist and other food scientist careers are expected to grow about the same as the average for all professions according to the BLS, approximately 7% between 2016 and 2026. The BLS says this industry will likely see more growth as production methods and techniques continue to evolve.
While competition for college faculty positions will continue to be especially keen, there should be ample opportunities for animal nutritionist positions in research, manufacturing, and sales.