The effects of salicylate and indomethacin on glycosaminoglycan (GAG) synthesis by atrophic and osteoarthritic (OA) canine cartilage were examined in vitro by transecting distal femora at the metaphysis and incubating the knuckle, with its overlying cap of articular cartilage, in medium containing sodium salicylate or indomethacin, and 35SO4. Atrophic cartilage had an intact articular surface, but its uronic acid content averaged 65% of the control level, and GAG synthesis was decreased to 50% of control values. Both salicylate and indomethacin decreased net GAG synthesis in the atrophic cartilage by an additional 10%. OA cartilage showed surface disruption, a uronic acid content 49% of the control value, and a 49% increase in net GAG synthesis. Salicylate and indomethacin profoundly decreased GAG synthesis in the OA cartilage. However, GAG synthesis and uronic acid content of cartilage which had been lacerated in vitro immediately prior to culture (to stimulate fibrillation) were normal and not affected by either drug. The data emphasize the importance of matrix proteoglycan content in protecting the chondrocyte from the suppressive effects of salicylate and indomethacin on GAG metabolism, and suggest that the lower proteoglycan content of OA cartilage may be more important than fibrillation in rendering it vulnerable to the metabolic effects of these drugs.