Little is known about exocrine pancreatic secretory function in patients with acute pancreatitis, in particular during the early phase of the disease. Therefore, this study evaluates basal and stimulated pancreatic secretion in vivo and in vitro in four different models of acute pancreatitis which reflect its clinical spectrum of severity: (a) edematous pancreatitis induced in the rat by seven IP injections of 50 micrograms/kg cerulein at hourly intervals; (b) edematous pancreatitis with cellular necrosis induced in the mouse by seven IP injections of 50 micrograms/kg cerulein at hourly intervals; (c) hemorrhagic pancreatitis induced in the mouse by feeding an ethionine-supplemented, choline-deficient diet for 66 hours; and (d) hemorrhagic pancreatitis induced in the rat by retrograde infusion of 0.6 mL 5% sodium taurocholate into the pancreatic duct. Secretory studies were performed in vivo and in vitro at various times after onset of pancreatitis. The results show that the exocrine pancreas gradually became resistant to cholecystokinin stimulation after the onset of acute pancreatitis in all four animal models. Cholecystokinin-stimulated secretion was almost abolished in vivo and in vitro at the time of maximal histological damage. In vivo basal secretion was also reduced. In vitro there was an increase in basal release of amylase from isolated acini that was not caused by an increase in luminal secretion but by enzyme release from damaged cells. The time course of improvement of secretory function after acute experimental pancreatitis depended on the severity of the pancreatitis. Recovery of secretory capacity took longer after severe necrotizing pancreatitis than after edematous pancreatitis. However, the ultimate resolution of secretory function was remarkable, in particular after severe hemorrhagic pancreatitis. In all four models, secretory capacity became indistinguishable from normal before the morphological alterations had completely resolved. The present experimental data suggest that pancreatic secretion, and particularly pancreatic secretory response to cholecystokinin, may also be reduced in patients early after the onset of acute pancreatitis.