Thyroid dysfunctions can produce reproductive problems. Untreated maternal hypothyroidism has serious consequences on development of offspring, resulting in stunted growth and mental retardation. The effects of propylthiouracyl-induced hypothyroidism (0.1 g l(-1) in drinking water starting 8 days before mating, or given to virgin rats for 30 or 50 days) on the serum profiles of hormones related to reproduction and mammary function (prolactin, growth hormone (GH), progesterone, corticosterone, oestradiol, insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), triiodothyronine and tetraiodothyronine), and on mammary function in virgin, pregnant and lactating rats, were investigated. Propylthiouracyl treatment severely decreased circulating triiodothyronine and tetraiodothyronine concentrations, and increased serum TSH concentrations. Virgin rats showed prolonged periods of vaginal dioestrus, increased circulating progesterone concentrations and afternoon peaks of prolactin concentration, which are indicative of prolactin-induced pseudopregnancy. Propylthiouracyl-treated virgin rats had mammary development comparable to that of midpregnancy, and half of these rats had increased mammary casein and lactose concentrations. Serum prolactin concentrations were decreased on the afternoon of day 5 of pregnancy, increased during late pregnancy (days 15-21) and were normal during lactation. Circulating GH concentrations decreased on days 15-21 of pregnancy, whereas progesterone concentrations increased during late pregnancy and early lactation. Circulating oestradiol (measured in late pregnancy and in virgin rats), IGF-I and corticosterone concentrations were decreased. Although assessment of mammary histology showed no differences in extent of development, casein content was increased in propylthiouracyl-treated rats on day 21 of pregnancy; litter growth was severely reduced and at day 20 of age the pups were hypothyroid, with decreased GH serum concentrations. An acute suckling experiment was performed on days 10-12 of lactation to determine whether some impairment in mammary function or the suckling reflex might account for these differences. After an 8 h separation of mothers from their litters and 30 min of suckling, circulating prolactin values were not affected by propylthiouracyl treatment, but serum oxytocin concentration and milk excretion were reduced. In conclusion, hypothyroidism induces various alterations in the hormone profiles of virgin and pregnant rats, and induces pseudopregnancies and mammary development in virgin rats. These alterations do not appear to have an overt impact on the outcome of pregnancy and on mammary function during lactation, with the exception of the milk ejection reflex, which may account at least partially for the reduced litter growth.