Osmotic stress is an important factor that can result in cell damage during cryopreservation. The objectives of this study were to determine: (1) isosmotic sperm cell volume; (2) osmotically inactive volume; (3) osmotic tolerance limits of rat sperm; and (4) the effects of addition and removal of glycerol (Gly), ethylene glycol (EG), propylene glycol (PG) or dimethyl sulfoxide (Me(2)SO) on rat sperm function. Sperm from Fischer 344 and Sprague-Dawley rats were used in this study. An electronic particle counter was used to measure the cell volume of rat sperm. Computer-assisted sperm motility analysis and flow-cytometric analysis were used to assess sperm motility, plasma membrane and acrosomal integrity. The isosmotic sperm cell volumes of the two strains were 37.0+/-0.1 and 36.2+/-0.2 microm(3), respectively. Rat sperm behaved as linear osmometers from 260 to 450 mOsm, and the osmotically inactive sperm volumes of the two strains were 79.8+/-1.5% and 81.4+/-2.2%, respectively. Rat sperm have very limited osmotic tolerances. The sperm motility and the sperm plasma membranes of both strains were sensitive to anisosmotic treatments, but the acrosomes of both strains were more sensitive to hyposmotic than hyperosmotic conditions. The one-step addition and removal of Me(2)SO showed the most deleterious effect on rat sperm motility, plasma membrane integrity, and acrosomal integrity among the four cryoprotectants. These data characterizing rat sperm osmotic behavior, osmotic and cryoprotectant tolerance will be used to design cryopreservation protocols for rat sperm.