In moderate renal failure, the serum calcitriol level is influenced by the stimulatory effect of high PTH and the inhibitory action of phosphorus retention. Our goal was to evaluate the relative effect that high PTH levels and increased dietary phosphorus had on calcitriol production in normal rats (N) and rats with moderate renal failure (Nx). Normal and Nx (3/4 nephrectomy) rats were divided into two groups: (1) rats with intact parathyroid glands (IPTG) and (2) parathyroidectomized rats in which PTH was replaced (PTHR) by the continuous infusion of rat 1-34 PTH, 0.022 microgram/hr/100 g body wt, using a miniosmotic Alzet pump. To test the effect of dietary phosphorus, rats received either a moderate (MPD, 0.6% P) or a high phosphorus (HPD, 1.2%) diet for 14 days. The experimental design included pair-fed N and Nx rats with either IPTG or PTHR. Serum calcitriol and PTH levels in N rats fed a MPD were 69 +/- 3 and 40 +/- 5 pg/ml, respectively. In Nx rats on a MPD, serum calcitriol levels decreased only if hyperparathyroidism was not allowed to occur (76 +/- 4 vs. 62 +/- 4 pg/ml in Nx-IPTG-MPD and Nx-PTHR-MPD groups respectively, P < 0.05). Even in N rats on a HPD, high PTH levels (67 +/- 8 pg/ml in the N-IPTG-HPD group) were required to maintain normal serum calcitriol levels (69 +/- 4 vs. 56 +/- 6 pg/ml in Nx-IPTG-HPD and Nx-PTHR-HPD groups, respectively; P < 0.05). In Nx rats on a HPD, the development of secondary hyperparathyroidism (286 +/- 19 pg/ml in the Nx-IPTG-HPD group) prevented a decrease in serum calcitriol levels (68 +/- 7 pg/ml). In contrast, serum calcitriol levels were low in the Nx-PTHR-HPD group (52 +/- 4 pg/ml, P < 0.05), which were deprived of the adaptative increase in endogenous PTH production. In conclusion, our results in rats indicate that in moderate renal failure, an elevated PTH level maintains calcitriol production and overcomes the inhibitory action of phosphorus retention.