An experimental model was developed for studying ocular infections with herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1 in vitamin A-deficient (-A) and pair-fed control (+A) rats. The severity and course of the disease was evaluated by clinical examination, slit lamp biomicroscopy and histopathologic observations. Experimental animals were in good health and were infected in the early stages of vitamin deficiency (either prior to or at the beginning of the weight plateau). In all trials the onset of herpetic keratitis was more rapid and the clinical disease more severe in -A rats compared to +A controls. Mean slit lamp scores (which assessed the severity of the corneal disease) increased from 3 to 10 d after infection and were higher (P less than 0.002) in -A rats at all time points and doses of virus tested. The inflammatory response in the cornea and uveal tract of -A rats was significantly higher than that of +A animals. Since ocular HSV disease is a common cause of blindness, the availability of a rat model should be valuable in studies of the role of nutritional factors in host susceptibility and response to viral challenge. Mild vitamin A deficiency increased the severity of experimental corneal HSV infections and resulted in a high incidence of epithelial ulceration and necrosis.