A comparison was made of the ability of ergocalciferol and cholecalciferol to elevate plasma concentrations of vitamin D and 25-hydroxyvitamin D in cats. Cholecalciferol, given as an oral bolus in oil, resulted in a rapid elevation of plasma concentration of cholecalciferol followed by a rapid decline. In contrast, 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration in plasma increased until day 3 after administration and remained elevated for a further 5 days. When 337 microg of both cholecalciferol and ergocalciferol in oil were given as an oral bolus to 10 cats, the peak plasma concentrations of cholecalciferol and ergocalciferol occurred at 8 or 12 h after administration. Peak concentrations of cholecalciferol were over twice those of ergocalciferol (570 +/- 80 vs. 264 +/- 42 nmol/l). The area under the curve 0-169 h for cholecalciferol was also more than twice that for ergocalciferol. When ergocalciferol and cholecalciferol were administered in a parenteral oil-based emulsion, higher concentrations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 than 25-hydroxyvitamin D2 were maintained in plasma. When both vitamins were included in the diet in the nutritional range, plasma concentrations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D2 were 0.68 of those of 25-hydroxyvitamin D3. Discrimination against ergocalciferol by cats appears to result from differences in affinity of the binding protein for the metabolites of the two forms of vitamin D. These results indicate that cats discriminate against ergocalciferol, and use it with an efficiency of 0.7 of that of cholecalciferol to maintain plasma 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration.