Georgia community wins big with summer camp for next-generation veterinarians, pet owners

Some veterinarians might dream of the day when a 9-year-old goes home to educate his or her parents about the importance of heartworm prevention and regular wellness checks.

Staff members at Tiger Tails Animal Hospital in Duluth, Ga., are working to make that dream a reality.

In June 2013, the AAHA-accredited hospital will host its inaugural weeklong veterinary camp for children ages 9 to 12. Tiger Tails staff will spend the week giving children an extended glimpse into the daily lives of veterinarians, as well as teaching them the ins and outs of protecting their pets’ health.

While not all of the participants will eventually become veterinarians, they should at least leave the camp with a wealth of knowledge to make them lifelong responsible pet owners, said Dr. Zack Mills, the hospital’s owner.

“What we’re trying to do here to benefit the community is twofold: number one, get kids interested in knowing more about what veterinary medicine is all about, and two, getting the community to know more about taking care of their pets,” Mills said.

Mills and Leslie Scarpa, the hospital’s customer relations expert, shared details about the veterinary camp, discussed its benefits for the community, and explained how it aids the hospital’s marketing efforts.

Giving kids a realistic veterinary experience

Scarpa, a former teacher, has been busy parlaying her past educational experience into a week of unique veterinary experiences for the participating children.

The kids will spend the bulk of their days at a nearby park and adjoining dog park, where they will participate in various lessons and enjoy presentations from groups such as the police K9 unit, the local SPCA, and a dog behavioral trainer who will teach the kids about topics such as bite prevention.

As another touch to make the experience more realistic for participants, each child will bring a stuffed animal to camp, which will be modified to include a beating heart, kidney stones, fleas and ticks, and other faux medical features.

The hospital will take extended lunch breaks that week so the children can come to the clinic and spend time with hospital staff, Scarpa said. During the lunch breaks, camp participants will get to observe procedures, look at microscope slides, examine X-rays, use equipment, and pick the brains of hospital staff.

“The staff here is really great about talking to the kids when they come through because we’ve had homeschool groups in here as well, and they talk to them and show them different things that would be of interest to them and explain for example how a dental will go, and if there’s one going on then they can see that,” Scarpa said.

Putting a premium on preventive care

In addition to discussing veterinary treatments and procedures, the hospital staff also will educate the children on the importance of preventive care. For example, they have planned a Wormy Wednesday, where Merial employees will educate the kids about heartworms and parasites, Scarpa said.

By educating children early about preventive care, Mills said he thinks the hospital is helping to combat the current trend of fewer people taking their pets to veterinarians for wellness visits.

“You change it by working with kids and eventually when they become pet owners themselves, they’re going to know what’s best to do with their pets and they’re going to know the importance of taking your pet to the veterinarian - that it’s not all about getting a rabies vaccination and that type of thing, and you don’t just take them there when they’re sick. That’s our focus,” Mills said. “You’ve got to start them young to train them for later. So yeah, it may not affect my business now, but I think it will be affecting other veterinarians’ businesses in the future.”

Marketing the hospital and influencing the community

Mills owned two practices in Charleston, S.C., before spending about 15 years in the industry - mostly in Merial’s sales and marketing divisions. One of the biggest things he missed about being away from private practice was involvement in the community, which is something he said he is emphasizing with his new hospital.

While the veterinary camp fits squarely in his mission to engage the community and educate people about pet health, he said his marketing background has him well-aware that the camp should also benefit the hospital’s marketing efforts and eventual growth.

“We’re a brand-new practice trying to break into a community where there are a lot of other practices, and we know that this is one of the many ways we can differentiate ourselves. We know it’s important, and we enjoy doing it. That’s what makes it even better,” Mills said. “Everybody loves the aspect of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, from all staff members to the parents of the kids who own the pets.”

Through endeavors such as the veterinary camp and classroom presentations, Mills and his staff are able to have meaningful interactions with elementary schools that sometimes have around 1,000 students in them, he said.

“It is a way to market our practice, it is a way for people to get to know our practice a little better, and it creates a tremendous word-of-mouth aspect,” Mills said. “Leslie goes into these schools and these kids come home talking about things they’ve learned, lessons they’ve learned. The principals of the schools are so excited about what we’re doing for them, they allow us to send brochures out about the camp to all their kids.”

The hospital also sends the children home with branded mementos after they have completed the program, which gives them a sense of accomplishment and also spreads the hospital’s brand beyond the school walls.

“Once they attend a lesson, they get to be official members of the Tiger Tail Pet Club. And with that they get a certificate of membership, an invitation for a behind-the-scenes tour, and they get one of the silicone wristbands. The kids love that, and of course our branding is on that. So it’s good for everybody,” Scarpa said.

Future plans for the veterinary camp

The inaugural camp will not be a one-and-done program, said Scarpa. She eventually wants to expand the concept into more classrooms, and even have monthly get-togethers for the kids who are in the Tiger Tail Pet Club, which is something she said the kids have asked about.

Scarpa also is looking forward to working with older kids because the hospital can help those kids decide whether they are definitely interested in veterinary medicine as a career, and even get them thinking about which school courses would benefit them when working toward a veterinary career.

Although the first camp has not yet begun, there has been enough interest in the camp that the hospital may even consider adding a second weeklong session, Scarpa said.

“The overall community response to all of this that we’ve been doing has been really great, so it’s something that I think they’re hungry for,” Scarpa said. “They may not have known they were hungry for it, but now that they’ve gotten a taste they want more. I think it’s been very well-received.”