Mycobacterium avium ssp. paratuberculosis causes Johne's disease in ruminants, whereas the antigenically and genetically similar subspecies Mycobacterium avium ssp. avium is less virulent. In this study, we compared one strain of each subspecies for its ability to survive, induce cytokines, suppress MHC class I and II expression and induce apoptosis or necrosis in ovine monocyte-derived macrophages. Both subspecies survived intracellularly and induced the secretion of IL-10. Low levels of TNF-alpha were detected after infection with both subspecies at 4 h. IL-12 was not upregulated after infection. Downregulation of MHC class I and II was evident in response to infection with both M. avium ssp. avium and M. avium ssp. paratuberculosis. No significant cytotoxicity was detectable in ovine macrophages after the addition of bacteria. M. avium ssp. paratuberculosis induced slightly more apoptosis than M. avium ssp. avium. Still the overall rate of apoptosis was very low and both subspecies suppressed LPS-induced macrophage apoptosis.