To characterize the kidney in a high-fat-induced obesity model, we examined the renal structure of adult Sprague-Dawley rats fed a control diet or a high-fat diet for 3 months. Ten adult female Sprague-Dawley rats were fed a diet consisting highly of fat (30%) for a period of 3 months. Ten control rats were maintained with standard rat chow. All animals were weighed every 10 days for 3 months. At the end of the experiment, the naso-anal length of the anaesthetized rats was measured to calculate body mass index, and subsequently whole kidneys of intracardially formalin-perfused animals were removed. Quantitative features of the kidney were analysed with the Cavalieri and physical dissector methods applied to serial paraffin sections. Kidney samples were also examined histologically. The body mass indices of the control and treatment groups were 4.528 +/- 0.242 and 5.876 +/- 0.318 kg m(-2), respectively. The difference between the body mass indices of the two groups was statistically significant (P < 0.01, Mann-Whitney U-test), suggesting that the animals fed with a high-fat diet may be overweight. Stereological examination of the kidneys revealed differences in kidney weight, total kidney volume, volume of cortex, medulla, glomeruli, proximal and distal tubules, and numerical density of glomeruli and glomerular height in the treatment group compared with the control group. Light microscopic investigation showed a dilatation in blood vessels and Bowman's space, mononuclear cell infiltration, degeneration in nephrons, including glomerulosclerosis and tubular defects, and an increase in the connective tissue in the kidneys in the treatment group. We concluded that a fatty diet is responsible for the rats' obesity and may lead to renal deformities as a result of histopathological changes such as dilatation, tubular defects, inflammation and connective tissue enlargement of the kidney.