Skip to main content
Johne's Disease Information

Johne's Disease Information

Johne's disease (pronounced "yo-knees") is a contagious, chronic and usually fatal infection that affects primarily the small intestine of ruminants. All ruminants are susceptible to Johne's disease. Johne's disease is caused by Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis, a hardy bacteria related to the agents of leprosy and tuberculosis. The disease is worldwide in distribution.

Signs of Johne's disease include weight loss and diarrhea with a normal appetite. Several weeks after the onset of diarrhea, a soft swelling may occur under the jaw (bottle jaw). Bottle jaw or intermandibular edema is due to protein loss from the bloodstream into the digestive tract. Animals at this stage of the disease will not live very long, perhaps a few weeks at most.

Signs are rarely evident until two or more years after the initial infection, which usually occurs shortly after birth. Animals are most susceptible to the infection in the first year of life. Newborns most often become infected by swallowing small amounts of infected manure from the birthing environment or udder of the mother. In addition, newborns may become infected while in the uterus or by swallowing bacteria passed in milk and colostrum. Animals exposed at an older age, or exposed to a very small dose of bacteria at a young age, are not likely to develop clinical disease until they are much older than two years.

A national study of US dairies, Dairy NAHMS 96, found that approximately 22 percent of US dairy farms have at least 10% of the herd infected with Johne's disease. The study determined that infected herds experience an average loss of $40 per cow in herds with a low Johne's disease clinical cull rate while herds with a high Johne's disease clinical cull rate lost on average of $227. This loss was due to reduced milk production, early culling, and poor conditioning at culling. The cost of Johne's disease in beef herds still need to be determined.

Farm specific plans can be implemented to reduce economic losses and cleanup Johne's disease from the farm. For more information on Johne's disease, diagnosis, prevention, and control, contact your herd veterinarian or your State's extension office.

Johne's disease is caused by a bacterium named Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis; often the name is abbreviated as M. paratuberculosis or MAPM. paratuberculosis is akin to, but not genetically related to Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium bovis, the bacterium that cause tuberculosis in humans. MAP is 99 percent genetically related to Mycobacterium avium, but has different phenotypic characteristics such as 1) slower growth, 2) requires the addition of an iron transport chemical known as mycobactin when grown in vitro (outside the body) 3) forms a rough colony when grown on solid agar media, and 4) infects mammals instead of birds. Also, the environmental distribution of MAP is markedly different from that of M. avium, which can produce mycobactin and therefore grow and multiple outside the body.

MAP is a small (0.5 x 1.5 microns) rod-shaped bacterium that has a rough waxy cell wall with a trilaminar structure. This wall is composed of a thick waxy mixture of unique lipids and polysaccharides but lacks glycolipid antigens on its surface. This kind of cell wall facilitates the mycobacterium's resistance to physical factor's (e.g. heat, cold, sunlight, drying. etc.) and common disinfectants. If MAP is found in soil or water samples, it can survive (but not grow and multiple) for over a year after fecal contamination via an infected animal.

The primary site targeted by Johne's disease is the lower part of the intestine know as the ileum. The wall of the ileum contains a large number of pockets of lymphoid tissue known as Peyer's patches that lie just beneath the interior surface of the intestine. Peyer's patches are clusters of macrophages and lymphocytes that are organized much like lymph nodes. Covering Peyer's patches are a layer of cells called M cells. These cells function to circulate into the lumen of the intestines where they ingest antigens (bacteria) before returning to the Peyer's patch to "show" these antigens to the macrophages and lymphocytes. This is a means of "educating" the cells in a young animal about its environment and is a protective mechanism designed to help the animal become immune to pathogens in its environment

Unfortunately, when M cells bring MAP to the Peyer's patch, the bacteria finds an ideal place for growth. Macrophages in Peyer's patches engulf MAP with the intention of destroying the foreign invader, but for reason that are unclear, these macrophages fail to do this. Inside a macrophage MAP multiples until it eventually kills the cell, spreads and infects other nearby cells. In time, other parts of the ileum and other regions of the body are teaming with millions of the mycobacteria. How MAP neutralizes or evades the normally efficient bacterial killing mechanisms of the macrophages is unknown.

The animal's immune system reacts to the MAP invasion by recruiting more macrophages and lymphocytes to the site of the infection. The lymphocytes release a variety of chemicals signals, called cytokines, in attempt to increase the bacterial killing power of the macrophages. Macrophages fuse together forming large cells, called multinucleated giant cells, in an apparent attempt to kill the mycobacterium. Infiltration of infected tissues with millions of lymphocytes and macrophages leads to visible thickening of the intestines. This prevents nutrient absorption and diarrhea results. Late in the infection, antibody production by the animal occurs to MAP in serum of animals and is an indicator that clinical signs of disease and death from the infection will soon follow.

Johne's disease usually enters a herd when healthy but infected animals are introduced to the herd. Herds that are not infected should take precautions against introduction of Johne's disease. Such precautions include keeping a closed herd, or requiring replacement animals come from test negative herds. In 1998, the United States Animal Health Association approved the Voluntary Johne's Disease Herd Status Program for Cattle (VJDHSP). The VJDHSP provides testing guidelines for States to use to identify cattle herds as low risk for Johne's disease infection. With numerous tests over several years, herds progress to higher status levels. The higher the status level, the more likely a herd is not infected with Johne's disease. In April of 2002, USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services-Veterinary Service incorporated portions of this program into its national program standards: Uniform Program Standards for the Voluntary Bovine Johne's Disease Control Program (VBJDCP). VBJDCP test negative herds (often referred to as Status Herds) serve as a source of low Johne's disease risk replacement animals. 

Some basic prevention strategies are:

  • Calves, lambs, kids, etc. should be born in a clean environment.
  • Reduce the newborns exposure to manure from adult animals by separation when possible.
  • Avoid manure contamination of feed by using feed bunks and not using the same equipment to handle feed and move manure.
  • Avoid manure contamination of water sources were animals drink.
  • For natural colostrum needs of newborn animals, use colostrum from Johne's negative animals.
  • Do not pool colostrum.
  • Avoid natural nursing and milk feeding whenever possible. Feed an artificial milk replacer or pasteurized milk instead of raw milk to supply the needs of newborns. Never feed pooled milk or waste milk.
  • Thoroughly clean the udder and teats before collection of the colostrum to avoid manure contamination.
  • MAP can survive up to a year in the environment so if possible, for pastures that have become contaminated, till the ground or graze using non replacement feeder cattle.
  • Identify all females in the herd. Identify and remove, or keep separate all test positive animals.
  • Prevent infection from spreading by culling, or separating offspring of infected mothers as soon as possible.
  • If purchasing herd additions, try to buy from low risk herds. Some herds are enrolled in the Voluntary Bovine Johne's Disease Control Program to help identify their herd as low risk.

Work with your veterinarian to develop a strategic plan for Johne's prevention and control for your farm. Consult with them about which Johne's test is best for your situation and use a test certified diagnostic laboratory.

USDA-APHIS-VS role in the design and implementation of a national Johne's strategic plan has been to provide expertise and help coordinate implementation of Johne's disease programs by the States. Some activities include:

The final ruling for proposed changes to the CFR (Parts 80 and 71) were published on April 10, 2000 and went into effect on May 10, 2000. These changes include: requiring cattle that are positive for an Official Johne's disease test be moved interstate to slaughter only with changes to make this movement easier. The changes define an official test as an organism based test, and eliminate the need for VS 1-27 and branding for interstate movement. To see the full text of the changes and the responses to the written comments read Johne's Disease in Domestic Animals; Interstate Movement [Docket No. 98-037-2]

National Veterinary Service Laboratory (NVSL) continues to provide Johne's disease serologic and organism detection check testing. In addition, NVSL also offers a fecal culture training course to laboratories. For information on participating in a check test or training courses, contact Dr. Janet Payeur, (515) 239-8676.

Click here for a list of laboratories which have passed the Johne's serology and/or organism detection check testing.


Complementary Content
${loading}