It is well established that dietary protein supply can influence the peri-parturient breakdown of immunity to nematode parasites but there is no information on the importance of exposure to nematode larvae during pregnancy for this response. We investigated this by exposing housed pregnant sheep, scanned as carrying two lambs, to a vaccinating infection with a trickle mixed infection of Teladorsagia circumcincta and Trichostrongylus colubriformis larvae (L3) or to no infection during weeks − 9 to − 4 relative to parturition. At the beginning of week − 3 all sheep were treated with anthelmintic to remove any vaccinating worm burden and from week − 2 to week +6 received a trickle challenge infection with the same nematodes. Within each vaccinating treatment there were two nutritional treatments (no. = 20 per subgroup) designed to provide 1.5 or 1.0 and 1.3 or 0.8 of metabolisable protein (MP) requirement during pregnancy and lactation, respectively. Five ewes were necropsied during weeks +1 and +3 to measure worm burdens and mucosal inflammatory cells and the remainder maintained until week +6. Serum levels of total, IgA and IgE antibodies against L3 antigen of each nematode were measured.
Scanning errors and lamb losses resulted in some ewes carrying and/or rearing only one lamb. Numbers of lambs reared was therefore introduced as a treatment effect. Vaccinating infection delayed the peri-parturient rise in faecal egg count (FEC) by an average of 2 weeks but its effect on FEC during the first 6 weeks of lactation was smaller and less persistent than that of dietary MP supply and single- v. twin-suckling.
Populations of both nematodes were lower in association with high MP supply, vaccination and single suckling. These changes were associated with increases in numbers of mucosal mast cells (MMC) as a result of both increased MP supply and vaccination. Evidence for a more rapid return of host ability to limit populations of the abdominal nematode T. circumcincta than of the intestinal nematode T. colubriformis was associated with fewer eosinophils and more globule leucocytes (GL) in abomasal than in intestinal tissue.
None of the serum antibody isotypes was affected by dietary protein supply. Total and IgA antibodies were maintained by a current larval (vaccinating) intake. IgA titres, however, increased progressively during pregnancy, especially in twin-bearing ewes. IgE titres appeared to be sensitive primarily to the reproductive cycle itself, peaking around parturition.
This work supports the conclusion that availability of MP supply influences the recruitment and activity of cells of the immune armoury of the gastro-intestinal tract to nematode parasites. The precise outcome may differ with site and/or nematode species.