When you think of an animal control officer, you might think of one of the many reality television series that follow animal control officers around. Animal Cops from Animal Planet and Discovery has several spin-offs in many cities around the United States; Animal PD from NatGeo follows investigators in Florida; Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe had an episode on life as an animal control officer; Joel McHale is even starring in an upcoming sitcom about animal control officers. These shows can do a good job of showing what life is like as an animal control officer but at the same time, they’re still reality television and there’s still a lot left out. So what’s it really like to be an animal control officer and how do you become one?

NOTE: This is solely meant as an introduction to the field of animal control and welfare and does not reflect any legal advice. It is NOT an official statement/opinion nor reflective of any outside employers. Please refer to your local animal control or law enforcement department regarding any animal welfare problems, laws, or cases.

The exact nature, responsibilities, and requirements of an animal control officer will be very location specific, as different cities, counties, and states have different legislation surrounding animal welfare. While there have been great strides made in regard to animal welfare legislation, the fact remains that there is still a lot of work to be done. That unfortunately means that what you think animal control officers (ACOs) are and should be able to do and what they are legally able to do can be very different. Additionally, who provides animal control will depend on your location but municipalities, police departments, counties, and human societies are typically the most common.

To be an animal control officer, you typically need to have great communication skills, experience working with animals, de-escalation and conflict resolution skills, and the ability to work physically demanding tasks. Animal control departments deal with a truly wide range of issues and cases that can be physically and/or emotionally difficult. Some tasks include:

  • Stray animal pickup, including farm animals that got out of enclosures
  • Investigating cases of suspected neglect and abuse
  • Pickup and appropriate disposal of deceased animals (domestic and wild) involved in vehicle collisions
  • Work with local law enforcement and courts to enforce relevant animal welfare legislation
  • Testify in court regarding appropriate cases and issue citations as necessary
  • Educating the public and helping locate resources for those in need
  • Assisting with TNR (trap, neuter release) programs, particularly providing humane traps and assisting in the pickup and subsequent drop off of community cats
  • Providing humane care to domestic and wild animals
  • Writing thorough reports and keeping detailed notes

Training, education, and required experience will vary but many places will offer on-the-job training. In Washington, the legislation that covers animal welfare and prevention of animal cruelty is RCW 16.52 and it covers the legal definition and requirements of animal control agencies and officers. The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission also has an Animal Control Officer Academy, an 80-hour intensive course for ACOs. In Oregon, Chapter 609 covers dogs, exotic animals, and dealers. Additionally, Oregon established a new type of law enforcement officer through House Bill 4021, the Humane Special Agent. These agents are able to do very similar work to animal control officers but are not limited to a specific jurisdiction and can operate statewide in Oregon.

  • Learn more about animal cruelty laws in Oregon with this 2016 Background Brief from the Oregon Legislative Policy and Research Office

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to explain the exact details of what an animal control officer does on the job because as mentioned, different jurisdictions will have their own laws describing what ACOs can and cannot do. Television shows like Animal Cops can give some insight into this work but thanks to the internet, there are many ACOs sharing what it’s like to do their job. Mechelle Crites, for example, is an animal control officer for Sacramento County Animal Care and Regulation in California and writes about her work as an ACO on her blog “Tails From The Field”

If you are interested in becoming an animal control officer, the beginning steps would be to gain relevant experience and skills, like working at doggy daycare, as a pet sitter, with or as a dog trainer, volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center or humane society, and/or in customer service. The exact qualifications depend on the jurisdiction but many places require at least a high school diploma or GED. Higher education can help but it’s not typically required. Relevant fields of study include animal science, applied animal behavior, veterinary medicine (such as veterinary technician programs), and sociology. For specific state resources, make sure to check out the National Animal Care & Control Association’s resources page

Working as an animal control officer can be fulfilling in many ways but it’s also incredibly challenging, both physically and emotionally. If you’re looking for a job that exclusively spends time with animals or you have a sensitive stomach, this is probably not the job for you. Being an ACO means working with people, domestic animals, and wildlife in a variety of different situations and environments and everyday on the job can bring something new.

**Again, this is solely meant as an introduction to the field of animal control and welfare. If you have concerns about an animal, questions about laws in your area, or anything else, please contact your local animal control department. 

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