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Several students and two interns crowd around an operating table in Penn Vet’s Exotic Companion Animal service, where La’Toya Latney’s next patient lies waiting. His name is Hoagie, a white rat who wiggles nervously under the doctor’s fingers as she strokes him gently.

“I know…” she says in a soft voice.

Latney’s bedside manner is one of respect and affection. She addresses her whiskered, scaled, and feathered patients directly, trying to comfort them with her attention and touch before she begins a procedure. This one isn’t particularly dramatic, but every medical operation carries risk.

Hoagie is pure white, aside from a few pink spots and an angry bubble of an abscess next to his mouth. The source and contents of this bulge are today’s concern; the team is here to remove the lump and determine whether it is cancerous or benign.

The cells do not come out easily at first. It takes a few tries to remove them from Hoagie and place them in a plastic tub of formalin, a preserving agent that will keep them intact until someone can examine them. La’Toya and her team close the cut with sterile thread and clean out Hoagie’s mouth, carefully pulling the rat’s thin pink tongue to either side as they catch all the debris.

All goes mostly to plan until they check Hoagie’s heartbeat using a stethoscope. Latney hears a wheezing as Hoagie begins to regain consciousness. Soon everyone can hear it, a strange rasping that obscures the sounds of a slow heartbeat that grows increasingly faint.

Swinging into resuscitation mode, Latney compresses Hoagie’s heart using CPR, administers epinephrine and atropine to restart it and increase its rate—as is done for humans—and attempts to push air into the animal’s lungs using mouth-to-snout resuscitation. Twice the heart is jolted back into action—calls of “I got a heartbeat” echo through the room—and twice it slows again. An intern calls Hoagie’s “mom”—first to tell her that they are resuscitating, and then that the heart has failed twice, and it is unlikely Hoagie will survive. The owner gives permission to stop, and another student acts as a second witness, which Latney says is required to end resuscitation.

They stop.

Roughly 1,000 exotic animals go through the service each year. Latney remarks that Hoagie is the first cardiac arrest event in four months.

As invisible gears wind down from their surgical intensity and begin to whir at a workaday pace, Latney wraps Hoagie gently in the towel he had rested on, his snout just visible. The team is systematic, cleaning and recording their work, but eyes are red. Later, veterinary technician Mary Baldwin gets the team to sign a sympathy card for Hoagie’s “family,” and makes an impression stamp of Hoagie’s feet for a keepsake. This is the how the Exotic Companion Animal service treats its patients and clients: gentle professionalism, emotional awareness, and respect for sensitivity.

Though the allure of having an exotic pet can be intoxicating, and many states including Pennsylvania have only partial restrictions on procurement and ownership, care for non-standard pets is hard to find. It requires special training, and only a small number of veterinary hospitals in the country offer it. Exotic pets in the care of Ryan Veterinary Hospital’s Exotic Companion Animal Medicine service range from endangered species, like the bog turtle, to simply unfamiliar ones, like kinkajous, coatimundis, and binturongs.

But whether they are birds, marsupials, reptiles, or small mammals, all the patients are household pets. The service does not treat wildlife, and only occasionally offers support or consultations for zoo animals.

The Exotic Companion service, which now employs two senior clinicians, is a voluntary stop for Penn Vet students in their fourth-year clinical rotation, says Latney, who trains them.

But at the moment she has another patient to attend to: Colt, a leopard gecko who has come for a free exam in connection with a study on reptile pain sponsored by Penn’s Veterinary Clinical Investigation Center and the School of Medicine’s Center for Clinical Epidemiology & Biostatistics.

The study, whose goal is to develop a reptile pain-measurement scale for use in treatment, is unusual in part because it relies upon owner input. Most scientific studies of reptiles do not request particulars from owners or handlers, the humans who know them best.

The study doubles as an opportunity to encourage pet owners to think carefully about the pain their reptiles may be suffering due to their ordinary living conditions. “When these very unique species are not fed the right diet, are not afforded the appropriate enclosure, are not afforded enrichment, the right enclosure components, or temperatures, we see significant and even life-threatening illness,” Latney says.

Colt’s owner, Theresa Miranda, is a second-year vet student who aspires to join the Exotic Companion Animal service. She listens attentively as Latney explains the procedure for this exam, noting the salt gland on Colt’s nose (which expels excess salt from her system) and her ear opening to the side; these things, to Latney, make the lizard special.

“In the reptile world, they’re pretty swagalicious,” she says about this species with a smile. The owner of a frog, a lizard, two turtles, and three snakes—some of whom serve as teaching animals brought in to demonstrate procedures—Latney specializes in reptile medicine and is a lifelong enthusiast. After studying veterinary medicine in an accelerated program in St. Kitts, spending her last year as a clinician at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Latney landed an all-exotics internship at Island Exotic Veterinary Care, a private clinic on Long Island. She did her residency at Penn’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital, and then began a master’s degree in medical clinical epidemiology and biostatistics. Her work lies squarely outside the realm of typical veterinary medicine, but her commitment to patient care is deep. For a bird with a platelet disorder, Latney found a second bird whose owner was willing to volunteer it as a blood donor. She is now developing a surgical procedure to treat snakes injured in the act of biting prey, refining ultrasound and x-ray techniques specifically for ferrets, and working on a parasite-treatment protocol for pet rabbits.

As the end of her clinical day approaches, Latney finds herself attending to a rabbit named Squish.

“I don’t give bunny exams, I give bunny massages,” she says, as she strokes the animal from ear to tail. He calms with each stroke, though a pause will quickly set him on edge. She proceeds with the check-up by incorporating it into her soothing motions, rubbing the glands under his chin and calming his shivers as she eases an instrument in to peer down his long ears.

She reviews the small mammal’s history while she establishes a rapport with the owner, discussing medical changes and challenges over the 2,000 years humans have bred rabbits. She injects some teaching about rabbit anatomy and medicine as she proceeds with the exam for the benefit of both the attending student and the owner. The only one who sits idle is Squish, who squirms when the petting stops in a bid for more.

“Many exotic pets now live longer in captivity than in the wild,” Latney says. With Penn Vet’s innovative and sympathetic approach to their care and treatment, owners can handle the hurdles that come with a longer and richer life.

—Violet Baron
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