The mammary gland has the ability to undergo repeated cycles of tightly regulated postnatal proliferation, differentiation, and apoptosis-mediated regression, providing a model to investigate potential regulators of mammary epithelial growth and differentiation. Protein kinase C eta is a candidate regulator of mammary epithelial differentiation, as increased expression of PKC eta is often observed during the terminal differentiation of many epithelial tissues. In this study, PKC eta expression and localization were characterized during puberty, pregnancy, lactation and involution in isolated rat mammary epithelial cells (MEC), as well as in paraffin-embedded and frozen rat mammary gland sections. By Western blot analysis of whole cell lysates from purified MEC, PKC eta protein expression increased during the shift from resting to a pregnant state. This increased PKC eta protein expression during pregnancy was associated with alveolar rather than ductal development, as immunohistochemical staining for PKC eta was increased in differentiating secretory alveoli, but not ducts. By immunofluorescent staining, PKC eta was stained intensely in an intracellular reticular meshwork throughout the cytosol of alveolar epithelial cells from pregnant mammary gland. During lactation, PKC eta was abundant in apocrine bodies budding from the alveolar epithelium, in the lumen of alveoli, and was present in milk, in association with casein, while being decreased in the cytoplasm of the luminal alveolar epithelium. Staining intensity of alveoli for PKC eta decreased further during involution. Western blotting of subcellular fractions from isolated mammary epithelial cells demonstrated that PKC eta remained associated with the membrane and particulate fractions throughout development. The upregulation of PKC eta in alveolar but not ductal epithelium during pregnancy suggests an association with functional secretory differentiation.