Infection of Lewis rats with Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae represents an experimental model system of acute and chronic arthritis. We studied here the acute inflammatory phase with respect to stimulation of macrophages and lymphocytes. Intragluteal injection of viable E. rhusiopathiae (102 to 104 bacteria) rapidly induced generalized inflammation, loss of body weight, hind leg arthritis, and systemic macrophage activation within 2 to 3 days. The same symptoms could also be evoked by injection of dead E. rhusiopathiae. Ex vivo, peritoneal macrophages released large amounts of tumor necrosis factor alpha on day 2 and interleukin-1 on day 3, whereas production of prostaglandin E2 was delayed to days 5 to 7 and appeared to counteract tumor necrosis factor alpha synthesis. The inflammatory response and development of arthritis were strongly dependent on T lymphocytes, as evidenced by the following findings: (i) lymphocytes released lymphokines that activated macrophages to enhanced mediator release; (ii) treatment of rats with cyclosporin A reduced infection-induced macrophage activation; (iii) mitogen-stimulated thymocyte proliferation was enhanced, indicating an infection-induced maturation-differentiation process in the thymus; and (iv) in T-cell-deficient nude rats, a higher dose of bacteria was required for infection, the inflammatory response was less severe, and only mild, but not chronic, arthritis developed. Thus, an E. rhusiopathiae-induced inflammation in rats provides a useful tool to characterize activated macrophages and T lymphocytes during the development of acute arthritis and its transition into the chronic form.