Oxytocin (OT) is known to stimulate natriuresis in rats when administered in large doses that produce high plasma levels. We examined the effects of physiological plasma OT levels on renal sodium excretion by infusing graded doses of OT sc in conscious adult male rats maintained on a sodium-deficient diet. Our results demonstrate that OT causes a dose-related increase in urinary sodium excretion during the initial day of infusion. The lowest plasma OT levels associated with increases in urinary sodium excretion (5-6 pmol/liter) were well within the range of physiological OT secretion in rats. However, this natriuretic effect was not sustained during subsequent days of maintenance on a sodium-deficient diet, suggesting that the OT-induced natriuresis was limited in part by receptor desensitization and/or a decreased exchangeable sodium pool in combination with secretion of opposing antinatriuretic factors such as aldosterone. Pretreatment with an OT receptor antagonist completely blocked the natriuresis produced by a 20 pmol/h infusion of OT, but urinary sodium excretion was not affected by a vasopressin V1 antagonist and was blocked only partially by a combined vasopressin V1 and V2 antagonist. Together with previous studies in rats demonstrating an inverse relation between pituitary OT secretion and sodium appetite, these results support the hypothesis that peripherally and centrally secreted OT act in concert in rats to produce a negative sodium balance by stimulating sodium excretion while inhibiting sodium ingestion.