For Florida to thrive, it has to meet an immense challenge of caring for patients who do not report symptoms, have no insurance, dwell in sometimes hard-to-reach places and don’t care about contagion.

Fortunately, our veterinarians treat these patients. Animals heal us or infect us. Which one it is depends in part on how well animal doctors do their jobs.

The UF College of Veterinary Medicine might be one of the few things growing faster than Florida itself. In just the past four years, its success in fundraising and competing for research grant money has helped it increase its service to animals and their owners by more than 50 percent.

Veterinary medicine is key to battling the mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus. It keeps sick cattle and chickens from becoming the source of sick people. It figures in the rescue of beached manatees. Of course, it also guides treatment of pets from an estimated 5 million households in the state.

Animals are a hidden work force that puts billions of dollars in our pockets. Pet food sales, fishing charters, cattle auctions and horse race purses depend on healthy animals.

To keep that economic engine running, the College of Veterinary Medicine’s graduates run numerous practices in St. Johns and Duval counties.

It sends medical professionals to the hidden Florida — such as cattle ranches in the sparsely populated inland areas or beneath the surface of our waters. All this is why it’s been so important that Dean James Lloyd has been able to hire dozens more people with the expertise to keep pace with Florida’s growth. These include world-class researchers who focus on diseases that animals can transmit to people.

Without the additional professionals, our small animal hospital in Gainesville could not have grown to become one of the busiest in the nation.

Last fall, the college received more than 900 applications for just 112 spots.

While Dean James Lloyd has expanded the operation, he hasn’t sacrificed its heart. I consider him a true leader by example. I saw it two years ago when my own dog fell gravely ill.

Lloyd told his employees to treat me like any other pet owner.

Even if I received no preferential treatment, I felt that I received special treatment. I left the hospital in anguish over my loss. At the same time, I was heartened to see a leader reinforcing the ethic that treating animals means treating animal owners.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.