Students Alena Patire, left, and Katelyn Marschall, right, practice a routine health exam on a dog during an animal handling unit in Animal Sciences 102: Intro to Animal Sciences Lab, in the Stock Pavilion at UW–Madison on Wednesday, September 14, 2022. Photo by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS

“I will always be a cat and dog girl,” says Maria Rivera, with a glint of light in her eyes.

Rivera, a third-year University of Wisconsin–Madison pre-veterinary student from suburban Chicago, has wanted to be a veterinarian since she was very little. She imagines a future working with small animals in her own general practice, or perhaps specializing in surgery. A new UW–Madison major — animal and veterinary biosciences — will get her several steps closer to living that dream.

Maria Rivera, a third-year UW–Madison student now studying animal and veterinary biosciences, poses for a picture with a horse during a study abroad experience with the University of Belgrade’s veterinary school in Serbia, May 12, 2023. Photo supplied by Maria Rivera/UW–Madison CALS

The animal and veterinary biosciences major is for students who care about animals’ health, well-being, and their relationships to humans and the environment — from the smallest companion and service animals to the largest livestock. Thanks to an array of course choices, students can tailor their studies to prepare themselves for veterinary school or a multitude of other animal-related careers. The major prioritizes flexibility, making it easier for students to add a certificate or study abroad if they wish, and graduate more quickly.

“We’re adapting to directions students are already going,” says Kent Weigel, chair of the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, which will be phasing out its current animal sciences major in favor of this new curriculum. “With more options and fewer required courses, students can dig deeper into the traditional disciplines but also explore emerging topics like animal welfare, microbiome studies, sustainability and digital agriculture. They can really pursue or discover their true passions.”

Hands-on research opportunities for undergraduate students are abundant on the UW campus, with more than 75 percent of students in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences completing independent studies or lab research before they graduate. Many get involved just weeks into their first year. Moving forward, the department — which prides itself on strong partnerships with the nearby School of Veterinary Medicine — plans to expand opportunities to learn about and study companion and service animals.

Students are already flocking to the new major. Rivera was an animal sciences major but chose to switch to animal and veterinary biosciences. This year she’s excited to have the flexibility to take two courses that truly fit her interests: The Biology and Appreciation of Companion Animals, and Lactation Physiology. She’ll have time to be a teaching assistant for an introductory animal sciences course and can be more involved with her many career-related extracurriculars.

“I am super happy I [chose] Madison,” says Rivera, who is vice president of the Poultry Club, a member of the Pre-Veterinary Association and a vet tech in UW Veterinary Care’s small animal operating room. She was also an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Steven Ricke, a professor of animal and dairy sciences who studies foodborne pathogens in poultry. “I can’t imagine not having the clubs or the cows at the Dairy Cattle Center. I’ve been in the field and worked on research, and I’m so unbelievably impressed with the resources and organizations we have here.”

“Exploring Poultry” students Karolina Blando, right, and Colin Wallrich, left, gain experience handling and observing chickens during an animal welfare session of the class at the Poultry Research Lab at UW–Madison, in Madison, Wis., Thursday, April 13, 2023. Photo by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS

The job outlook is favorable for veterinarians, animal care specialists and other animal-related fields, with projected growth ranging from seven to 30 percent over the next decade (the national average for all sectors is five percent). Most of these graduates will grow Wisconsin’s workforce: a UW–Madison graduate outcomes survey indicated that about two-thirds of recent animal science graduates were employed in Wisconsin. And in terms of broader impact, animal health is key to global health, a growing area of study recognizing the intersection of animal, human and environmental health.

Liv Sandberg, undergraduate student services coordinator and advisor for the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, thinks the new major strikes the perfect balance between rigorously preparing pre-vet students for veterinary school, while ensuring a path to success for students interested in other careers.

“When a student comes to me, they might be really interested in going to vet school, but ultimately they just want to work with animals,” says Sandberg, citing several reasons students sometimes change their minds about vet school. “Whatever they decide, they can remain in our major and have a pathway to accomplish all that they want to do.”

That pathway could be in welfare, genetics, nutrition, or meat and animal biologics, for example. New for the coming academic year, all students in the department will be paired with faculty mentors in their sophomore year, further helping them find the academic and career path that is right for them.

The animal and veterinary biosciences major, housed in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, is available to declare for Fall 2023. Current animal science majors have the option of finishing out their current academic plan or migrating to the new major. For more information, or to talk with an advisor, visit: