Vascular changes associated with early diabetic retinopathy that include the selective degeneration of pericytes, the formation of microaneurysms and acellular capillaries, and vessel dilation have been experimentally investigated in age- and sex-matched beagle dogs fed a 30% galactose diet and treated with or without the aldose reductase inhibitors sorbinil and/or M79175. Eyes from dogs in each group were periodically enucleated during a 36-month period and their retinal capillaries were examined as trypsin-digested flat preparations. These studies reveal that the destruction of retinal pericytes to form pericyte ghosts is the earliest observable retinal vessel change occurring after 19 to 21 months of galactose feeding. By 24 months, both an irregular distribution of endothelial cell nuclei near pericyte ghosts and the presence of acellular capillaries containing neither endothelial cells nor pericytes can be observed. This was followed by the histologic appearance of microaneurysms after 27 months and the funduscopic appearance of intraretinal hemorrhages after 33 months. Varicose enlargements of capillaries were also observed in the trypsin-digested preparations from dogs fed galactose for 33 to 36 months. All of these changes are linked to the initial aldose reductase-associated destruction of pericytes. The onset and progression of these retinal changes were retarded in a dose-dependent manner with aldose reductase inhibitors.