On a cold winter day in 2014, three Texas Tech animal science faculty members scribbled notes on a napkin in a Lubbock coffee shop. Their goal was to move the department beyond its traditional agriculture focus, by giving it a new and unique dimension.
The Department of Animal and Food Sciences is located amidst vast stretches of farm and ranchland, influenced by the agricultural resources of the West Texas, and dedicated to livestock. The department, true to its agricultural roots, is ideal for students looking for a traditional livestock-focused program.
However, the department is also home to a group of students who do not fit the traditional livestock mold. Because the department’s animal science program lays claim to being the most popular pre-vet option, it has accumulated many students from urban backgrounds who are interested in studying companion animals, which include dogs, cats and horses.
During the fall of 2013, Dr. Michael Orth, chair and professor of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, recognized this growing group of non-traditional animal science students, passionate about animals that do not fall into the livestock category.
“Obviously we have this very rich tradition with judging teams…and an incredible number of national champions,” Orth said. “We have outstanding programs in those areas. But, I picked up that if you aren’t in one of those areas you kind of feel like, ‘Well, what do I do?’”
In two short years and with the help of two other animal science faculty members, Drs. Guy Loneragan and John McGlone, Orth set out to integrate a new, unique area of study into the department that would meet the needs of these students and set Texas Tech above the rest.
A New Concentration
Due to the efforts of the three dedicated faculty, Texas Tech’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences now has a companion animal science concentration within the animal science major. It is one of the world’s first universities to integrate this concentration within an animal science department and is one of the few universities to focus on human- animal interaction.
Orth said the addition of the companion animal concentration gives the department a fourth area of research, opportunities for new grant funding, and the ability to cater to students who do not want to go the traditional animal science route.
“It gives these students some opportunities to do experiential learning that they would not have had, and so I think that’s big,” Orth said.
According to Orth, in this concentration the term “companion animal” refers primarily to dogs with some attention to horses and cats. Through hands-on research, students will explore canine well-being, behavior, olfaction, nutrition, training and management, as well as equine and canine human-animal interaction.
Orth said the concentration is broken into two course tracks. Students may choose to follow the general companion animal science option or the pre-vet option with a companion animal emphasis.
The general option is designed for students who want to work with companion animals, but are not interested in vet school. The course track is heavily focused on identifying alternative career opportunities through practicums. The pre-vet option remains true to the traditional pre-vet course track, but allows students to substitute some livestock courses for companion animal courses.
With the knowledge and experience gained through this concentration, students are well prepared for both industry and non-profit jobs in areas such as military dog training, nutrition and shelter management.
Nathan Hall, Ph.D., assistant professor of companion animal science, said many students want to become veterinarians because they know they have an interest in working with companion animals, but with time and exposure to alternative routes, many discover a career better fit for their passion. All courses have been created with the intent to open doors that may not have previously existed for students.
Hall said exposing students to a variety of career options within the companion animal industry is a goal of the program.
“We will hopefully try and spark that intellectual passion that will match with their passion for working with dogs and cats, or horses, or any other companion animal,” Hall said, “so that they can sort of marry those two aspects into a career and not just some sort of job here and there.”
However, students who do choose to pursue a career as a veterinarian will leave the program exceptionally prepared and equipped with a very unique knowledge base.
Sasha Protopopova, Ph.D., assistant professor of companion animal science, said the companion animal concentration exposes undergraduate students to ideas and insights only veterinarians will be exposed to through experience.
“Students will be very well prepared for veterinary school as well as other fields and industries within companion animal science. Students will learn to be critical and forward thinkers, with a community-based mindset.”
Additionally, students are offered the opportunity to study how horses serve as companions through equine mental assisted therapy. Katy Schroeder, Ph.D., assistant professor of companion animal science, said the animal assisted therapy industry is growing exponentially and horses are playing an important role in human health and wellness.
“Horses have a special place in the program,” Schroeder said. “I think horses do get lumped into [the program] as companion animals, but they serve a special role in terms of their connection with human beings.
Schroeder said she will add a mental health component to the equine therapeutic programs already being provided by Texas Tech.
None of them have an animal science degree, but they’ve got an appreciation for animals.Michael Orth
A Thriving Industry
As the largest single segment of American agriculture, it comes at no surprise the cattle industry has over an $88 billion economic impact nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. However, the pet industry also has a hefty impact on America’s economy.
Companion animals have created a multibillion-dollar industry consisting of the products and services created to keep pets alive, healthy and happy. According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent approximately $62 billion caring for their pets in 2016. With well over half of the country’s homes owning a pet, the industry is booming and full of opportunity for entrepreneurship and employment.
While the difference between cats and cattle may be drastic, the integration of a companion animal focus into a traditional animal science department has been subtle.
When considering the impact of the new concentration, Orth reflected on the department’s motto, “discovering solutions, empowering students, and serving society.”
“It’s the empowering student aspect,” Orth said. “It’s letting them do things and be involved in projects and classes that five years ago they wouldn’t have been able to do if they came here.”
Orth said the addition of a unique area of study took nothing away from the department’s traditional roots, but simply added another piece to the pie.
“We have brought in three faculty members,” Orth said. “None of them have an animal science degree, but they’ve got an appreciation for animals. These individuals bring in some different thinking about animals and how you can interact with students, and different perspectives on things that, quite frankly, the rest of us wouldn’t have. I like that diversity of thought in the department. I think it’s good.”