La’Toya Latney’s grandmother has a photo from when Latney was about 5 years old. In it, she is sitting in front of the television, transfixed by a nature program on grizzly bears hunting salmon swimming upstream.
“At that time she said she knew I was going to be a veterinarian, so it’s been a long time coming for me,” says Latney.
Latney, now an attending clinician at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, has not only fulfilled her grandmother’s prediction but is committed to advancing the state of knowledge in her chosen profession. A firm believer in evidence-based medicine, Latney, though still early in her career, is already being turned to by colleagues eager to have her share her knowledge of species that go well beyond the typical dog and cat clientele seen by most vets.
Latney has long been part of a unique group of animal lovers she refers to as “herpers,” or people that share a fondness for herpetofauna, otherwise known as lizards, snakes and amphibians. Growing up just outside the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., she spent her days exploring the creek behind her grandmother’s house, where she was raised.
“Box turtles, garter snakes, you name it, they’re there,” Latney says.
Every now and then, she’d encounter an animal that was hurt or ill and take it in to a vet to get help.
“I’d be met with a lot of fearful resistance and this sentiment that, ‘Not only do I not know how to care for them, but why would I afford them medical care?’” she says. “So I decided at a very early age that I was going to be that person who was going to take care of them in the future.”
With concrete steps towards filling that role, Latney earned her undergraduate degree at Cornell University and then went to Ross University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Ross’s vet school, based in St. Kitts, offers an accelerated curriculum; students complete their final year at an affiliated U.S. university. In her last year, Latney traveled to Louisiana State University, which has strengths in exotic species and wildlife medicine. She followed her schooling with an internship at an all-exotics clinic on Long Island and contemplated staying in private practice. But she found herself frustrated at the lack of evidence-based medicine when it came to the care of exotic animals.
“As an intern I kept coming across questions I didn’t have answers for,” she says. “I’d try to go find a resource in an article or a book, but there weren’t many, if any. At that point I decided that the only way I was going to be able to amass the knowledge base that was necessary to try to form valid clinical questions and know how to answer them would be to pursue an academic residency.”
That realization turned Latney in the direction of Penn. She began her residency in exotic animal medicine in 2008 and sought research mentorship under Dorothy Brown, a professor at Penn Vet and director of the school’s Veterinary Clinical Investigations Center.
Her first year, Latney dove straight in with an attempt to answer questions that had puzzled practitioners with a seemingly odd experiment. Her inquiry was this: How do you raise insect prey, such as crickets, to make them more nutritious for the reptiles and insectivores to which they are fed?
Through a series of tests, Latney identified ways to tweak insects’ diets to boost their nutritional value, improving calcium levels in reptiles, primates and insectivores kept as pets or in zoos. Her findings landed her invitations to present at conferences in the United States and abroad.
“It’s funny what a little bug study can do,” she says.
To further her expertise in designing and conducting full-fledged clinical trials, Latney, encouraged by Brown, began a master’s degree in the clinical epidemiology and biostatistics program at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine after finishing her residency.
That program has provided her with the skill set to launch Penn Vet’s first-ever clinical trial to examine species other than either cats or dogs. With it, she aims to develop a pain scale to evaluate lizards experiencing orthopedic injuries, qualifying their clinical signs, which range from changes in color to changes in behavior.
Beyond conducting research, Latney handles emergencies cases and sees appointments at Penn’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital five days a week, teaches Penn Vet’s course on small mammals and reptiles and is an on-call assistant veterinarian at the Brandywine Zoo.
Sometimes her teaching and clinical responsibilities complement one another, as when she’s able to involve students in the care of exotic species from the zoo. She also occasionally brings in her own pets to class for handling demonstrations and other lessons. Her adopted brood consists of a bearded dragon, a Columbian tegu, a Russian tortoise and a ball python.
“It can be really hard to get the class to pay attention to me when I bring them in because they’re all focused on my animals,” Latney says.
While Latney’s pets have helped familiarize her, and her students, with a variety of species, she admits that vets cannot intimately understand the intricacies and medical eccentricities of every animal they may come into contact with. For that reason, she says, the best thing a vet can do when encountering an unfamiliar animal is try to read their behavior.
“I always say, ‘Stop what you’re doing, put yourself in that animal’s shoes and ask yourself how you would feel if you didn’t understand that you were sick and you don’t know what your handlers’ intentions are at that time,’” Latney says. “Once people begin to do that, they begin to garner the experience they need to tackle the care of different species. Many of the species we see are not domesticated, and in the wild they must hide signs of illness. We in turn have to assess their behavior very carefully to learn about their ‘true’ health status.”
In her career thus far, Latney has applied that philosophy to treating a wide array of species, from a captive pet alligator to a snow leopard at the zoo to an injured — and critically endangered — bog turtle.
Even vets without an innate love of animals that come with scales or feathers instead of fur may end up finding themselves treating so-called “exotic” pets. According to the American Pet Product Association's 2012 national survey, Americans own 16.2 million pet birds, 16 million small mammals and 13 million pet reptiles.
“These changing trends are challenging today’s clinician to adapt to practice with a large number of species,” Latney says. “While not all veterinarians are exotic specialists, many are practicing exotic pet medicine.”
Latney’s goal is to make that practice easier for vets and more effective for the animals they’re serving.
“Many of us are trying to improve practice standards by making evidence-based medicine a practical thing that can be accessed by everyone,” Latney says. “I’m trying to put myself in the situation of the everyday practitioner — because in my heart of hearts that’s what I am — and find a way to answer their questions about animal care in a simple and clinically relevant way.”