We have measured plasma volume and cardiac index in rats after 50% isovolemic exchange transfusion with human hemoglobin cross-linked between the alpha-chains with bis(3,5-dibromosalicyl)fumarate (alpha alpha Hb) and with bovine hemoglobin modified with polyethylene glycol (PEGHb). alpha alpha Hb and PEGHb differ in colloid osmotic pressure (23.4 and 118.0 Torr, respectively), oxygen affinity (oxygen half-saturation pressure of hemoglobin = 30.0 and 10.2 Torr, respectively), viscosity (1.00 and 3.39 cP, respectively), and molecular weight (64,400 and 105,000, respectively). Plasma volume was measured by Evans blue dye dilution modified for interference by plasma hemoglobin. Blood volumes in PEGHb-treated animals were significantly elevated (74.0 +/- 3.5 ml/kg) compared with animals treated with alpha alpha Hb (49.0 +/- 1.2 ml/kg) or Ringer lactate (48.0 +/- 2.0 ml/kg) or with controls (58.2 +/- 1.9 ml/kg). Heart rate reduction after alpha alpha Hb exchange is opposite to that expected with blood volume contraction, suggesting that alpha alpha Hb may have a direct myocardial depressant action. The apparently slow elimination of PEGHb during the 2 h after its injection is a consequence of plasma volume expansion: when absolute hemoglobin (concentration x plasma volume) is compared for PEGHb and alpha alpha Hb, no difference in their elimination rates is found. These studies emphasize the need to understand blood volume regulation when the effects of cell-free hemoglobin on hemodynamic measurements are evaluated.