Longitudinal relationship between fecal culture, fecal quantitative PCR, and milk ELISA in Mycobacterium avium ssp. paratuberculosis-infected cows from low-prevalence dairy herds

Beaver, A.; Sweeney, R.W.; Hovingh, E.; Wolfgang, D.R.; Gröhn, Yrjö T.; Schukken, Y.H.


Mycobacterium avium ssp. paratuberculosis (MAP), the causative agent of ruminant Johne's disease, presents a particular challenge with regard to infection mitigation on dairy farms. Diagnostic testing strategies to identify and quantify MAP and associated antibodies are imperfect, and certain facets of the relationship between diagnostic tests remain to be explored. Additional repeated-measures data from known infected animals are needed to complement the body of cross-sectional research on Johne's disease-testing methods. Statistical models that accurately account for multiple diagnostic results while adjusting for the effects of individual animals and herds over time can provide a more detailed understanding of the interplay between diagnostic outcomes. Further, test results may be considered as continuous wherever possible so as to avoid the information loss associated with dichotomization. To achieve a broader understanding of the relationship between diagnostic tests, we collected a large number of repeated fecal and milk samples from 14 infected cows, in addition to bulk milk samples, from 2 low-prevalence dairy herds in the northeast United States. Predominately through the use of mixed linear modeling, we identified strong associations between milk ELISA optical density, fecal quantitative PCR, and fecal culture in individual animals while concurrently adjusting for variables that could alter these relationships. Notably, we uncovered subtleties in the predictive abilities of fecal shedding level on milk ELISA results, with animals categorized as disease progressors reaching higher ELISA optical density levels. Moreover, we observed that spikes in fecal shedding could predict subsequent high ELISA values up to 2 mo later. We also investigated the presence of MAP in individual milk samples via PCR and noted an association between poor udder hygiene and MAP positivity in milk, suggesting some level of environmental contamination. The paucity of positive milk samples and the complete absence of detectable MAP in the bulk tank throughout the study period indicate that contamination of milk with MAP may not be of chief concern in low-prevalence herds. An enhanced understanding of the interrelationships between diagnostic tests can only benefit the development of testing strategies and objectives, which in turn may lessen MAP infection prevalence in dairy herds.