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

In the role of animal technician or technologist, you'll be responsible for the care and welfare of laboratory animals used in scientific and medical research. You'll 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.

The research work, which is strictly regulated in the UK, contributes to developing treatments for diseases and new methods of diagnosis. At a higher level you may become directly involved in experimental work.

Responsibilities

As an animal technician, you'll need to:

  • understand and adhere to UK law governing the use of animals in scientific research
  • ensure a high level of animal welfare and work to improve the quality of life for laboratory animals
  • clean cages, pens, trays, equipment and fittings, to keep animals clean and comfortable
  • feed and water animals
  • handle and move animals safely
  • administer medicines
  • check the environment (for example, temperature and humidity)
  • monitor the condition of animals and recognise and resolve any behavioural problems
  • obtain samples and measurements
  • collect and record data.

Depending on your employer and level of experience, you may also:

  • design studies and set the conditions and protocols that will provide scientists with the information required - drawing on your understanding of the physical, behavioural and environmental requirements of individual species
  • predict and interpret the animals' responses
  • help to breed animals for use in research - you would monitor pregnancies, care for newborn animals and measure weight gain and growth
  • play a key role in selecting animals for studies - as well as carrying out and developing dosing, assessment and sampling techniques.

Salary

  • Trainee animal technicians earn between £12,000 and £15,000.
  • As a trained technician you can earn from £15,000 to £20,000, rising to £28,000 with experience.
  • In the role of chief technician you'll earn £28,000 to £35,000, and as a manager your earning potential is £40,000+.

Income data from the Institute of Animal Technology (IAT). Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

As a technician you'll 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 24/7. 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'll need a high level of concentration and attention to detail.
  • You'll 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.
  • 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.
  • There are opportunities for qualified technicians to work overseas.

Qualifications

You don't need a degree or HND to enter this career, as many employers will be more concerned with your 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.

It's also possible to study an apprenticeship for entry into this career. See the IAT and GOV.UK - Find an Apprenticeship for more information.

You may consider joining the IAT. By becoming a member you'll gain access to its journal, stay up to date with developments in the industry and receive a discount on courses and resources.

Skills

You'll 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's often necessary to consult with a variety of professionals
  • an awareness of the ethical issues surrounding this work.

Work experience

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

You can find 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 - see Life Sciences Scotland for more information.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies are handled by specialist recruitment agencies such as:

Professional development

Your training will involve 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 also offers a Diploma in Laboratory Animal Science and Technology:

  • Level 2 - builds on animal husbandry knowledge and gives a broad understanding of key scientific principles.
  • Level 3 - encourages thorough understanding of animal welfare and scientific practice for more experienced technicians.

It may be possible to continue your study at a higher level. Contact IAT - Learning & Development for more information.

Your employer may grant you day release in order to study for these qualifications at a local college. Study is also possible via distance learning. Most employers provide financial assistance for fees and travel.

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

Practical experience is considered to be of prime importance and you need to build this up before progressing in the job. At first you'll start with routine tasks, such as feeding and watering the animals and cleaning out cages.

Studying for IAT qualifications will open up good progression opportunities and you can do this part time while you work. Qualification will enable you to become a senior technician and (with a personal licence) carry out procedures on animals. You may also supervise trainee technicians and assist in the running of the animal facility.

From this you can progress to the role of facility manager, where you'll have full responsibility for the running of the facility, making sure it meets all legislative and health and safety requirements. Specialisation is also possible, for example in areas such as breeding or genetically altered animals.

Being a holder of the IAT Membership or Fellowship Diploma, combined with five years' relevant experience (including two years post qualification) qualifies you for entry to the Register of 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.