Lab Animal Technician
There's a very good chance you know the medication you take, the fragrances and makeup you use have all been tested on animals in scientific laboratories. What you may not know is there are several different types of career paths that end up in these labs. It's not just the researchers who work in these facilities — there are also lab animal technicians who come to work every day and interact with the staff and animals that are tested.
Lab animal technicians are responsible for studying and caring for a variety of animals involved in research programs. It may seem odd that people who care about animals will be involved in this type of work. But those in this position have a lot of compassion for lab animals and their well-being, treating them humanely and with a lot of respect.
The position of lab animal tech shouldn't be confused with that of the animal lab technician. This person is trained to help or act as an assistant to a licensed veterinarian, so they are totally different careers.
Lab animal technicians are responsible for providing basic care for lab animals such as mice, rats, reptiles, dogs and primates. This usually entails basic duties such as cleaning and disinfecting cages, monitoring animal behavior, supplying food and water, and facilitating reproduction of animals in the colony when required. Techs also may assist veterinarians and researchers with handling animals for examinations and procedures when necessary.
A frequent duty for lab animal technicians is recording highly detailed information about each animal’s weight, size, diet, and behavior. They may also be involved with maintaining database records, collecting or analyzing data, taking samples, compiling results, maintaining and sterilizing equipment, taking inventory of supplies, writing reports, creating employee work schedules, and supervising entry-level animal caretakers.
Lab animal techs must ensure their facility complies with all animal welfare guidelines and standards set forth by the Animal Welfare Act, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC), and the National Institute of Health’s Guide for the Use and Care of Laboratory Animals. Facilities are subject to inspections to ensure proper conditions are being maintained.
Lab animal techs may find employment in a wide variety of laboratory settings in both the private and public sectors. Lab animal tech positions can be found in colleges, universities, veterinary or medical schools, government agencies, military labs, private research facilities, biotechnology companies, pharmaceutical companies, and other organizations concerned with research.
Lab animal technicians may also advance to a management role in their research facility once they have obtained the necessary experience and certification. The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science offers a Certified Manager Animal Resources (CMAR) certification program for those seeking to qualify for management positions in their laboratory.
Education and Training
A high school diploma is generally the minimum educational requirement for becoming a lab animal technician, but many in the field hold a bachelor or associate degree in animal science, biology, or a related area. Degrees in these fields usually include coursework in animal science, genetics, anatomy, physiology, nutrition, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and communications.
Lab animal techs may have gained useful prior experience by working as a veterinary technician or veterinary assistant. Vet techs have the opportunity to develop advanced skills by handling a variety of species, administering medications and operating medical devices. Lab animal techs may also have gained valuable experience during the course of their college studies, as most college science programs place a heavy emphasis on lab components of the major classes.
The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) offers three certification paths: Assistant Laboratory Animal Technician (ALAT), Laboratory Animal Technician (LAT), and Laboratory Animal Technologist (LAT). Those seeking certification must meet minimum educational and work experience requirements before becoming eligible to take the exam.
Once certified by the AALAS, lab animal techs must complete continuing education (CEU) hours to maintain their certification status. This educational requirement ensures certified lab animal techs have the most current information regarding emerging techniques in the field of laboratory animal science. CEU credit hours can be earned by attending lectures, participating in training courses, and completing workshops.
Characteristics and Qualities
Because these techs are dealing with animals involved in scientific research, they should be compassionate. They must be able to treat them humanely and with kindness.
Techs should also have great communication skills — because of the relationship they have with other lab staff including researchers. Since they work directly with the animals, they will need to pass on information and their observations clearly and concisely to those with whom they work.
Another quality techs should come with is being able to physically handle the job. Since there is a lot of manipulation and heavy lifting that can come with the position, techs should be able to lift and handle animals, cleaning and medical equipment, as well as any instruments they may require.
According to most recent statistics gathered by the AALAS in 2016, level II certified lab animal technicians (high school diploma) earned a mean salary of $34,716, ranging from a minimum of $29,513 to a maximum of $44,810. Level III certified lab animal technicians (Bachelors or Associates degree preferred) earned a mean salary of $43,048, ranging from a minimum of $39,815 to a maximum of $47,333.
The AALAS survey of 2016 also indicated non-certified lab animal caretakers earn a mean salary of $29,933, with a salary ranging from a minimum of $24,980 to a maximum of $34,323.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the lowest 10% of vet techs earned $22,880 as of May 2017, while the highest 10% earned $49,350.
As certification enhances both the salary and career opportunities for a lab animal technician, it is highly recommended by professionals in the industry.
According to the BLS, job prospects for those in the field of veterinary technology (of which lab animal techs are considered a part for reporting purposes) will increase by 20% from 2016 to 2026. This rate represents a much faster rate of growth than the average for all careers.
With the rapid expansion of the biotechnology industry, the need for lab animal technicians is expected to be strong for the foreseeable future. Lab animal technology offers a stable career path for those willing and able to work with animals kept in a research environment.