The protozoan parasite Neospora caninum is an important cause of reproductive disease in cattle worldwide. The dog is a definitive host for the parasite and the oocyst stage, shed in the faeces, is a source of infection for cattle through consumption of contaminated feed or water. In addition, transplacental transmission of N. caninum is a very efficient means of the parasite infecting a new host and this can occur in successive pregnancies and over several generations. Neospora parasites may cause disease during pregnancy resulting in death of the foetus or birth of live congenitally infected calves that may show some neurological clinical signs at birth. The stage of pregnancy at which infection/parasitaemia occurs is an important factor in determining disease severity. Neospora infection in the first trimester of pregnancy may have more severe consequences for the foetus compared with infection occurring in the final trimester. The host-parasite relationship during pregnancy is a fascinating interaction and research in this area will improve understanding of disease pathogenesis and the various consequences of the host immune response, being host-protective, parasite protective and contributing to disease pathology. Pregnancy poses an interesting problem for the immune system of the dam as she is essentially carrying a semi-allogeneic tissue graft (the foetus) without immunological rejection taking place. To facilitate the pregnancy the cytokine environment in the placenta favours the regulatory Th-2-type cytokines, whose role is to counteract the pro-inflammatory Th1-type immune responses. Protective immunity to N. caninum, similar to many other intracellular parasites, involves Th1-type immune responses, which may pose problems for the dam trying to control a Neospora infection during pregnancy.
This paper will discuss the host-parasite relationship at different stages of gestation in pregnant cattle and review the implications of this research for our understanding of disease pathogenesis, parasite transmission and host protection.