LaâToya Latneyâs 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.
âAt that time she said she knew I was going to be a veterinarian, so itâs been a long time coming for me,â says Latney.
Latney, now an attending clinician at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, has not only fulfilled her grandmotherâs 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 âherpers,â 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 grandmotherâs house, where she was raised.
âBox turtles, garter snakes, you name it, theyâre there,â Latney says.
Every now and then, sheâd encounter an animal that was hurt or ill and take it in to a vet to get help.
âIâd be met with a lot of fearful resistance and this sentiment that, âNot only do I not know how to care for them, but why would I afford them medical care?ââ she says. âSo 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.â
With concrete steps towards filling that role, Latney earned her undergraduate degree at Cornell University and then went to Ross Universityâs School of Veterinary Medicine. Rossâs 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.
âAs an intern I kept coming across questions I didnât have answers for,â she says. âIâd try to go find a resource in an article or a book, but there werenât 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.â
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 schoolâs 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 insectsâ 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.
âItâs funny what a little bug study can do,â she says.
To further her expertise in designing and conducting full-fledged clinical trials, Latney, encouraged by Brown, began a masterâs degree in the clinical epidemiology and biostatistics program at Pennâs Perelman School of Medicine after finishing her residency.
That program has provided her with the skill set to launch Penn Vetâs 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 Pennâs Ryan Veterinary Hospital five days a week, teaches Penn Vetâs 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 sheâs 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.
âIt can be really hard to get the class to pay attention to me when I bring them in because theyâre all focused on my animals,â Latney says.
While Latneyâs 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.
âI always say, âStop what youâre doing, put yourself in that animalâs shoes and ask yourself how you would feel if you didnât understand that you were sick and you donât know what your handlersâ intentions are at that time,ââ Latney says. âOnce 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 âtrueâ health status.â
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 â and critically endangered â 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 âexoticâ 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.
âThese changing trends are challenging todayâs clinician to adapt to practice with a large number of species,â Latney says. âWhile not all veterinarians are exotic specialists, many are practicing exotic pet medicine.â
Latneyâs goal is to make that practice easier for vets and more effective for the animals theyâre serving.
âMany of us are trying to improve practice standards by making evidence-based medicine a practical thing that can be accessed by everyone,â Latney says. âIâm trying to put myself in the situation of the everyday practitioner â because in my heart of hearts thatâs what I am â and find a way to answer their questions about animal care in a simple and clinically relevant way.â