Recent reports using anesthetized ventilator-dependent animal models, have suggested that in certain shock states, a disparity exists between arterial and mixed venous blood gases with regard to acid-base status and oxygenation. In a chronically instrumented unanesthetized canine model of acute cardiac tamponade breathing room air, we studied the effect of a graded decline in cardiac output on arterial and mixed venous pH, PCO2, and PO2. Cardiac tamponade resulted in a profound arterial respiratory alkalosis, whereas mixed venous pH, PCO2, and calculated serum bicarbonate levels remained relatively unchanged. As intrapericardial pressure increased and cardiac output declined, the difference between arterial and mixed venous PCO2 progressively increased. Further, whereas arterial oxygenation improved as cardiac output declined, mixed venous oxygenation steadily worsened. This disparity began early in cardiac tamponade (reductions in cardiac output of 20-40%) long before arterial blood pressure began to fall and progressively worsened as hemodynamic deterioration and lactic acidosis developed. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that a reduction in blood flow, resulting in decreased CO2 delivery to the lungs, is the primary mechanism responsible for the difference in pH and PCO2 observed between arterial and mixed venous blood. In this conscious, spontaneously breathing animal model, mixed venous blood gases thus are superior to arterial blood gases in assessing acid-base status and oxygenation, even early in acute cardiac tamponade when the decline in cardiac output is in the range of 20 to 40% and arterial blood pressure has not changed significantly.