The rat coronavirus sialodacryoadenitis virus (SDAV) causes respiratory infection and provides a system for investigating respiratory coronaviruses in a natural host. A viral suspension in the form of a microspray aerosol was delivered by intratracheal instillation into the distal lung of 6-8-week-old Fischer 344 rats. SDAV inoculation produced a 7 % body weight loss over a 5 day period that was followed by recovery over the next 7 days. SDAV caused focal lesions in the lung, which were most severe on day 4 post-inoculation (p.i.). Immunofluorescent staining showed that four cell types supported SDAV virus replication in the lower respiratory tract, namely Clara cells, ciliated cells in the bronchial airway and alveolar type I and type II cells in the lung parenchyma. In bronchial alveolar lavage fluid (BALF) a neutrophil influx increased the population of neutrophils to 45 % compared with 6 % of the cells in control samples on day 2 after mock inoculation. Virus infection induced an increase in surfactant protein SP-D levels in BALF of infected rats on days 4 and 8 p.i. that subsided by day 12. The concentrations of chemokines MCP-1, LIX and CINC-1 in BALF increased on day 4 p.i., but returned to control levels by day 8. Intratracheal instillation of rats with SDAV coronavirus caused an acute, self-limited infection that is a useful model for studying the early events of the innate immune response to respiratory coronavirus infections in lungs of the natural virus host.