We studied the effect of chronic immune sensitization on the airway reactivity and associated cytologic and histologic alterations in initially nonatopic cats, a species that spontaneously develops idiopathic asthma. Seven cats were sensitized by intramuscular injection of Ascaris suum antigen (AA) for 4 wk, and four other cats served as sham controls. Airway sensitization was demonstrated by an increased response to nebulized AA in sensitized animals (RL = 45.9 +/- 6.1 cm H2O/L/s, versus a baseline response of 24.7 +/- 1.5 cm H2O/L/s, p < 0.01), and hyperresponsiveness was demonstrated by an increased response to acetylcholine (ACh)-challenge 24 h after AA (approximately 1.0 log decrease in PD200, p < 0.01). The number of eosinophils in the sensitized animals' bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid increased 12-fold (p < 0.01 versus control) in response to AA challenge; 32 +/- 5% of the BAL eosinophils had a specific density < 1.050, versus 8 +/- 2% prior to AA challenge (p < 0.05). There was no change in airway reactivity, eosinophil recovery, or density in the control group 24 h after sham challenge with saline. The same seven sensitized cats further received nebulized AA three times weekly for 4 to 6 wk, after which BAL samples were again obtained and ACh dose-response curves generated 72 h after the final administration of nebulized AA. Airway hyperresponsiveness increased (approximately 1.5 log decrease in PD200, p < 0.001) and the number of eosinophils recovered in BAL fluid was increased 11-fold (p < 0.05). Necropsy specimens demonstrated bronchoconstriction in AA-challenged animals but not controls; luminal narrowing was accompanied by: (1) a 29.0 +/- 0.34% increase in smooth-muscle thickness (p < 0.05); (2) goblet-cell and submucosal-gland hypertrophy and hyperplasia; and (3) epithelial erosion and eosinophilic infiltration. We demonstrate in nonhuman species persistent airway hyperreactivity associated with a complete constellation of histologic changes in epithelium, smooth muscle, and mucus glands, and cytologic changes in BAL fluid, all induced by immune sensitization. Our data suggest that chronic immune sensitization per se could be a salient factor in causing many of the changes associated with chronic bronchial asthma.