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Fisk EA, Cassirer EF, Huggler KS, Pessier AP, White LA, Ramsay JD, Goldsmith EW, Drankhan HR, Wolking RM, Manlove KR, Nordeen T, Hogg JT, Taylor KR. ABORTION AND NEONATAL MORTALITY DUE TO TOXOPLASMA GONDII IN BIGHORN SHEEP (OVIS CANADENSIS). Journal of wildlife diseases. 2023 Jan 1; 59(1):37-48.

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Low lamb recruitment can be an obstacle to bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) conservation and restoration. Causes of abortion and neonate loss in bighorn sheep, which may affect recruitment, are poorly understood. Toxoplasma gondii is a major cause of abortion and stillbirth in domestic small ruminants worldwide, but no reports exist documenting abortion or neonatal death in bighorn sheep attributable to toxoplasmosis. Between March 2019 and May 2021, eight fetal and neonatal bighorn lamb cadavers from four western US states (Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and Washington) were submitted to the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory for postmortem examination, histologic examination, and ancillary testing to determine the cause of abortion or neonatal death. Necrotizing encephalitis characteristic of toxoplasmosis was identified histologically in six of eight cases, and T. gondii infection was confirmed by PCR in five cases with characteristic lesions. Other lesions attributable to toxoplasmosis were pneumonia (3/5 cases) and myocarditis (2/5 cases). Protozoal cysts were identified histologically within brain, lung, heart, skeletal muscle, adipose tissue, or a combination of samples in all five sheep with PCR-confirmed T. gondii infections. Seroprevalence of T. gondii ranged from 40-81% of adult females sampled in the Washington population in October and November 2018-2021, confirming high rates of exposure before detection of Toxoplasma abortions in this study. Of 1,149 bighorn sheep postmortem samples submitted to Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory between January 2000 and May 2021, 21 of which were from fetuses or neonates, a single case of chronic toxoplasmosis was diagnosed in one adult ewe. Recent identification of Toxoplasma abortions in bighorn sheep suggests that toxoplasmosis is an underappreciated cause of reproductive loss. Abortions and neonatal mortalities should be investigated through postmortem and histologic examination, particularly in herds that are chronically small, demographically stagnant, or exhibit reproductive rates lower than expected.

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