Sarcocystis spp. are protozoan parasites that cause a spectrum of lesions in various hosts. Hepatic sarcocystosis and encephalitis have been described in captive American black bears (Ursus americanus) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus), and in a free-ranging grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), but have not previously been reported in free-ranging American black bears. This study aimed to characterize the presence and lesions associated with Sarcocystis spp. in free-ranging bears in British Columbia, Canada from samples submitted to the provincial diagnostic laboratory. From 2007 to 2019, 102 free-ranging American black bear and grizzly bear tissues were examined postmortem for sarcocystosis using histopathology and follow-up molecular diagnostics. Sarcocystosis was confirmed in 41 (40%) free-ranging bears including 39 American black bears and two grizzly bears. Microscopic lesions included multifocal necrotizing hepatitis, nonsuppurative encephalitis, and/or intramuscular sarcocysts with or without associated inflammation. Sarcocystosis was considered the cause of death in eight (20%) of these bears, exclusively in cubs of the year (<1 yr old). Sarcocystis canis was identified in 22/32 (69%) cases where molecular characterization was performed and was the etiologic agent associated with bears that died of sarcocystosis. Confirmed cases were distributed widely across British Columbia. While there was an alternate proximate cause of death in the other confirmed bears, sarcocystosis may have contributed. Age was a significant risk factor, with yearlings presenting more often with fulminant lesions; however, there was a sampling bias toward juvenile bear submissions due to size and ease of transport. Further research is needed to understand the disease epidemiology and significance to population health.
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Vol. 57 • No. 4