Cellular dehydration of central osmoreceptors evokes an integration of behavioral (i.e. drinking) and endocrinologic (i.e. arginine vasopressin secretion) responses to maintain body fluid balance. These osmoregulatory mechanisms have been intensely investigated in adult models. However, there has been limited research of the fetal development of neural mechanisms regulating responses to dehydration. Although behavioral and neuroendocrine responses to dehydration have been demonstrated in utero in precocial species (e.g. ovine), there has been no study to date demonstrating that these responses develop before the neonatal period of altricial species (e.g. rat). This study is the first to use the near-term rat fetus to investigate the effects of maternal subcutaneous hypertonic (2 M NaCl) or isotonic (0.15 M NaCl) saline injection on fetal plasma osmolality and brain FOS-immunoreactivity (FOS-ir). Maternal subcutaneous hypertonic saline significantly increased maternal and fetal plasma osmolality to similar levels (328+/-6 and 326+/-6 mosM/kg, respectively). In response to plasma hypertonicity, maternal and fetal brain FOS-ir increased significantly in the regions including the lamina terminalis, and the supraoptic and paraventricular nuclei (SON and PVN) of the hypothalamus. Together, these data indicate that central mechanisms for dipsogenic and arginine vasopressin secretory responses to hypertonicity are present and responsive in the fetal rat brain at near-term gestation. However, differences between fetal and maternal FOS-ir mapping suggest that fetal osmoreceptor development is not yet completed near term.