If you want to work with animals and are interested in scientific research, a career as an animal technician could suit you

Animal technicians are responsible for the care and welfare of laboratory animals used in scientific and medical research.

The work contributes to developing treatments for diseases and new methods of diagnosis. Some technicians at certain levels are also directly involved in experimental work.

You will mostly care for rats and mice, but other species are also used. The different requirements of each species and each set of experiments mean the working environment varies considerably.

Animal research is strictly regulated in the UK and a high level of animal welfare is required. You must understand and adhere to this law, as well as trying to improve the quality of life for laboratory animals.

Responsibilities

Much of your work will involve routine tasks essential to the care and welfare of animals, including:

  • cleaning cages, pens, trays, equipment and fittings;
  • feeding and watering animals;
  • handling and moving animals safely;
  • administering medicines;
  • checking the environment (for example, temperature and humidity);
  • monitoring the condition of animals and recognising and resolving any behavioural problems;
  • obtaining samples and measurements;
  • collecting and recording data;
  • ensuring animals are kept clean and comfortable.

You may be involved in designing studies and setting the conditions and protocols that will provide scientists with the information required. You need to understand the physical, behavioural and environmental requirements of individual species and be able to predict and interpret the animals' responses.

As an experienced technician, you could help to breed animals for use in research. You would monitor pregnancies, care for newborn animals and measure weight gain and growth.

Technicians play a key role in selecting animals for studies, as well as carrying out and developing dosing, assessment and sampling techniques. You will need some understanding of the science supporting individual studies.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for trainee animal technicians range from £12,000 to £15,000.
  • Trained technicians can earn between £15,000 and £20,000, while those at a senior level can earn £20,000 to £28,000.
  • Chief technicians earn £28,000 to £35,000 and managers and facility directors may achieve salaries higher than £40,000.

Salaries vary according to the location, type of employer and nature and level of the work undertaken.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Technicians typically work around 37 hours a week. This usually includes some early morning, late night, weekend and bank holiday working on a rota basis, as animal care is needed 24 hours a day, all year round. Overtime payments may be available for weekend and holiday work.

Part-time work is available for experienced and qualified technicians.

What to expect

  • Most of the work takes place indoors and can involve sterile conditions or hot, humid environments. There is some outdoor work with certain species.
  • The work can be physically demanding and tiring and you will need a high level of concentration and attention to detail.
  • You will wear protective clothing, which will vary depending on the species of animal and type of study being undertaken. As a minimum, technicians wear a full outfit of clean protective clothing every day.
  • There are opportunities in most parts of the UK, particularly in large cities. More vacancies occur in London and the South East.
  • Animal research is a controversial issue. Although there is considerable support available from colleagues, you need to be prepared to deal with adverse comments (and sometimes actions) from members of the public or animal rights groups.
  • Many animal technicians find it a rewarding career, working daily with animals and being able to contribute to medical research in a high-quality, scientific environment.
  • A number of external factors, for example new or amended laws and regulations, can potentially affect the numbers of animals used in research, which could, in turn, affect the numbers of people employed as technicians.
  • There are opportunities for qualified technicians to work overseas.

Qualifications

You do not need to have a degree or HND to enter this career as many employers will be more concerned with you having a genuine interest in animal care.

There are however, certain degrees that may be useful for the role:

  • animal behaviour/management;
  • biology;
  • pharmacology;
  • physiology;
  • toxicology.

At a higher level, knowledge of immunology and pathology, microbiology and genetics may be required.

You can take a relevant HND in subjects such as:

  • animal care and welfare;
  • animal management;
  • animal science.

You may want to consider joining the Institute of Animal Technology (IAT). It will give you access to the IAT's journal, help you to keep up to date with developments in the industry and give a discount on courses and resources.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • a love of animals and a willingness to care for them;
  • attention to detail;
  • good mathematical and computing skills;
  • high levels of concentration;
  • a responsible attitude and an understanding of the need for confidentiality;
  • a good standard of physical fitness;
  • a willingness to work as part of a team;
  • good communication skills, as it is often necessary to consult with a variety of professionals;
  • an awareness of the ethical issues surrounding this work.

Work experience

It is vital to convince a potential employer of your genuine interest in, and commitment to, animal care and welfare. Direct experience, either paid or voluntary, of working with animals is useful.

This can include caring for pets or working in dog kennels, on farms or in a veterinary practice for a sustained period of time.

Employers

Animal technicians work in a range of academic and commercial institutions including:

  • pharmaceutical companies;
  • research institutes and other government or private organisations;
  • specialist animal breeding laboratories;
  • teaching hospitals;
  • universities;
  • veterinary and medical colleges.

There are opportunities for employment in research centres in most large cities within the UK but there are more pharmaceutical research centres in London and the South East.

The life sciences industry is growing in Scotland and ranges from university start-ups to multinational companies. Some employers are located in remote, isolated areas.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies are handled by specialist recruitment agencies such as:

Professional development

Training involves a combination of practical on-the-job experience and part-time study for qualifications awarded by the IAT.

There are various levels of qualification, including:

  • IAT Level 2 Diploma in Laboratory Animal Husbandry - an entry-level qualification, focusing on the importance of high standards of routine care and legal responsibility of animal technicians.
  • IAT Level 2 Diploma in Laboratory Animal Science and Technology - builds on animal husbandry knowledge and gives a broad understanding of key scientific principles.
  • IAT Level 3 Diploma in Laboratory Animal Science and Technology - encourages thorough understanding of animal welfare and scientific practice for more experienced technicians.

The IAT also offers higher education qualifications, delivered through the College of Laboratory Animal Science & Technology (CLAST), including:

  • IAT Level 4 Diploma in Laboratory Animal Science and Technology - prepares for senior positions in animal technology.
  • IAT Level 5 Diploma in Laboratory Animal Science and Technology - enhances career progression and effectiveness in the workplace.
  • IAT Level 6 Diploma in Laboratory Animal Science and Technology.

For more information see IAT - Education.

Employers may grant day-release, allowing staff to study for the IAT qualifications at local colleges. Study is also possible via distance learning. Most employers provide financial assistance for fees and travel.

Understanding and implementing the legal controls on animal research is essential to the job and is taught at all levels of qualification.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is an important part of the job as you need to keep up to date with advances in legislation and refresh your skills and knowledge. The IAT provides seminars, workshops and courses that support CPD.

Under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, animal technicians are required to have a personal licence to carry out certain procedures on animals, such as giving injections. You can typically get a licence after gaining practical experience of routine work and completing a short training course. You will then be able to get involved in the experimental side of the work as well as caring for animals.

Career prospects

It is likely that you will start out by undertaking routine tasks, such as feeding and watering the animals and cleaning out cages. Practical experience is considered to be of prime importance and you need to build this up before progressing in the job.

If you are prepared to start at a basic level and study part time for IAT qualifications you will receive good progression opportunities.

You can move on to become a senior technician, where you may carry out procedures on animals, as long as you have the necessary personal licence, as well as supervising trainee technicians and assisting the running of the animal facility.

Following this you can progress to facility manager, where you will have full responsibility for the running of the facility, making sure it meets all legislative and health and safety requirements.

It may be possible to specialise in areas such as breeding, genetically altered animals, management, training, facility design and specific research areas including safety testing, immunology and pathology. Specific roles are available such as animal welfare specialist and training specialist.

The IAT maintains a register of animal technicians who agree to abide by an ethical code of conduct. Entry to the register is restricted to technicians who hold the IAT membership or fellowship qualifications and have at least five years' relevant experience, two of which must be post-qualification. Members of the register may use the letters RAnTech after their name. For more information see IAT - Registered Animal Technologists.

Technicians with expert knowledge and suitable experience of animal technology may be nominated as a Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer (NACWO) under The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.

NACWOs are actively involved in safeguarding the welfare of animals used in designated establishments and advise project and personal licence holders how to fulfil their responsibilities.