The role of interleukin-1 (IL-1), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor alpha during endotoxin-induced mastitis in cows was characterized. Six cows had 10 micrograms of Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide infused into 1 mammary gland. Three other cows served as nontreated controls. Within 1.5 to 2.5 hours after infusion, endotoxin caused obvious edema of the mammary gland and increased serum albumin concentration in milk of infused glands 6 times. Milk somatic cell count began to increase 3 to 5 hours after infusion in all treated glands. At 7 hours after infusion, somatic cell counts were increased > 10 times, compared with counts in milk from control cows. Pyrexia of > 1 C developed in only 1 cow, but all treated cows had serum cortisol concentrations > 50 ng/ml in response to endotoxin treatment. High concentrations of IL-1 (10 to 600 U/ml) and IL-6 (2 to 22 U/ml) were detected in milk of infused glands beginning 2.5 to 4 hours after infusion. Endotoxin did not induce detectable amounts of tumor necrosis factor activity in milk or serum. Swelling and mammary gland permeability changes preceded any detectable increase in IL-1 and IL-6 activity, indicating that these clinical signs of inflammation were not mediated by these cytokines. Systemic responses and the leukocytic influx into endotoxin-infused glands developed after or concurrently with initial increases in IL-1 and IL-6 activities in milk. These results suggested that IL-1 and IL-6 may have a role in mammary gland defenses and in the pathophysiologic changes during endotoxin-induced mastitis.