Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) provides morphologic preservation of rods in several animal models of retinitis pigmentosa (RP). However, CNTF may alter photoreceptor morphology and rod photoreceptor differentiation in vitro, as well as affecting normal retinal electrophysiology. In addition, the capacity of CNTF to support other cell types affected secondarily in RP (cones and ganglion cells) is unclear. The purposes of this study were to examine the effects of CNTF upon a canine model of RP, the rod-cone degeneration (rcd-1) dog. Archival tissue from a previous study assessing the capacity of CNTF to rescue photoreceptors in rcd-1 dogs was used. One eye was treated for 7 weeks before being explanted. The contralateral eye was untreated. A total of 23 rcd-1 dogs and seven control dogs (four untreated and three CNTF-treated) were used. Morphometric data describing outer and inner nuclear layer thickness, inner retinal thickness, cones and ganglion cells were collected at nine evenly spaced points along each retina and analysed using a mixed effects model. Immunohistochemistry was performed on a subset of 11 dogs for expression of rhodopsin, human cone arrestin (hCAR) and recoverin. CNTF protected the outer nuclear layer and increased inner retinal thickness in a dose-dependent manner (both were maximal at CNTF doses of 1-6 ng day-1). Significant cone loss or reduction of inner nuclear layer width in rcd-1 did not occur in this model, therefore we were unable to assess the protective effect of CNTF upon these parameters. CNTF did not afford significant ganglion cell protection. CNTF induced morphologic changes in rods and ganglion cells, as well as reducing expression of hCAR and rhodopsin, but not recoverin. The dose of CNTF which provided optimal outer nuclear layer protection also resulted in several other effects, including altered ganglion cell morphology, increased thickness of the entire retina, and reduced expression of some phototransduction proteins. These changes were more marked in rcd-1 retinas than in wild-type retinas. This implies that the consequences of CNTF treatment may be substantially influenced by the cellular context into which it is introduced.