To examine effects of pseudorabies virus (PrV) on immune cells, we investigated the ability of PrV to infect and replicate in porcine peripheral blood leukocytes (PBLs). Flow cytometric analysis revealed a leukopenia after challenge, with loss of 40% of circulating monocytes and 50% of circulating lymphocytes. Virus was isolated from PBLs of challenged pigs by cocultivation with porcine kidney cells, indicating that PBLs were infected in vivo. Presence of virus in PBLs coincided with the appearance of neurological signs 1 to 2 days prior to death. Lymphocytes stimulated with mitogens and infected in vitro sustained a low-level infection (10(5) median tissue culture infective dose per 2 x 10(6) cells). In vivo challenge perturbed the CD4/CD8 ratio of circulating lymphocytes. Survival was associated with low CD4/CD8 ratios and high levels of CD8+ cells. Mortality was associated with low levels of CD8+ cells and CD4/CD8 ratios greater than one. A maturational deficiency of CD8+ cells was found in young pigs. Our results support a mechanism of PrV immunosuppression through direct infection of circulating lymphocytes, with CD8+ T lymphocytes being important for survival.