Cats, ferrets and humans: The Covid connection

Tom KingFarragut

Many of us have cats. A few may have pet ferrets. Jim Thompson DVM, dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, says humans can pass Covid to cats and ferrets but those animals – or any others – can’t pass it back to humans.

That was part of the conversation the Rotary Club of Farragut had with Thompson yesterday during its weekly meeting. He is in his 13th year as dean of the college that opened in 1976. Prior to that, many Tennesseans who wanted to become vets did so at Auburn University.

Jim Thompson DVM

The numerical makeup of the college today is 405 students, 310 staff, 120 faculty and 70 house officers who are in graduate courses studying specialty areas of practice.

“The studies have shown humans can pass Covid to the cats and ferrets, but they typically have mild cases and then become immune to it, and they do not pass it back to humans,” he explained. “Turkeys and pigs also can have the coronavirus but do not pass it to humans. Most animals do have coronavirus but can’t pass it on.”

When nearly the entire UT campus shut down last spring due to Covid, the vet school did not. But it was not untouched by the pandemic – 28 employees and 52 students tested positive. He says 231 have now been immunized – 181 employees and 50 students.

He shared a number of interesting facts about the college. Here are a few:

  • Since the school opened, it has graduated 2,700 veterinarians and 2,100 of those are in the southeast and half are from UT.
  • Average age of graduates is 29.
  • The school autopsies all dead animals from the Knoxville Zoo. “It’s vitally important for the zoo to know why an animal dies,” he said. “Any animal.”
  • The vet school handles vet services for the animals at Tiger Haven in Roane County — tigers, lions, leopards, puma, snow leopards, jaguars and panthers. “There’s hardly a week that goes by that we don’t have a big cat with us,” he said. “They are kept in a separate area away from the other animals. Can you imagine what a horse would do if it caught the scent of a tiger?”
  • Annual in-state tuition is approximately $29,000 and double that for out-of-state students.
  • The target is to graduate 90% or more of their students each year and they have exceeded that in each year under Thompson.
  • The majority of the graduates become small-animal vets.

Thompson did not mention this, but it has been previously reported and confirmed that three Malayan tigers at Zoo Knoxville had Covid last year. At the time zoo officials said the three had had mild coughing, lethargy and loss of appetite and believe they got the virus from a staff member who was asymptomatic. A team from the vet school cared for the cats.

The main areas of the school are animal emergency, avian and exotics, the equine hospital, the farm animal hospital and the small animal hospital.

To explore membership in the Rotary Club of Farragut, email Tom King here or call 865-659-3562. Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and has been the editor of two newspapers.

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