The effects of cholinergic agents, electrical stimulation and vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) were studied on transverse muscle strips of the canine ileum, ileocolonic junction and colon. Acetylcholine, methacholine and carbachol caused concentration-dependent contractions in the three gut tissues. Only acetylcholine (greater than 10(-5) M) evoked transient relaxations in the ileum and the ileocolonic junction before the onset of contractions. During contractions by noradrenaline, acetylcholine induced relaxations, which were enhanced by atropine; electrical stimulation also caused frequency-dependent relaxations. Propranolol or naloxone did not affect the relaxations. Hexamethonium, cocaine or lidocaine inhibited the relaxations induced by acetylcholine but not those evoked by electrical stimuli. Tetrodotoxin inhibited all relaxations, VIP did not evoke relaxation in the ileocolonic junction. These data indicate that acetylcholine stimulates nicotinic receptors on non-adrenergic non-cholinergic neurons, which do not release VIP or opioids. It is thus suggested that there is a nicotinic inhibitory innervation at the canine ileum and ileocolonic junction.