The effect of social stress on the vulnerability to commence cocaine self-administration was examined in Sprague-Dawley rats repeatedly exposed to aggressive attack by a same-sex opponent. Both sexes were studied, since the factors influencing the acquisition of drug self-administration in females have not been defined. Male and female rats encountered an aggressive male or lactating female opponent on four separate occasions over the course of one week. Control male and female rats were not exposed to attack. All animals were implanted with jugular catheters, and six days later placed into the self-administration box, where a nose-poke in the designated 'active hole' resulted in a 20 microliters injection of cocaine (0.32 mg/kg). Nose-pokes in an 'inactive' hole had no effect. Male and female rats that had experienced social stress self-administered more cocaine than non-defeated controls. The difference between the stressed and non-stressed animals in the number of cocaine injections was not present during the first few days of exposure to cocaine, but became more pronounced over time. Social stress increased the number of responses for cocaine, but did not alter the number of non-specific responses. Sex differences in self-administration were not significant. Therefore, social status appears to be a potent influence in the onset of drug taking behavior in both male and female rats.