Experiments were designed to determine the rate and nature of postmortem autolysis in the gut of neonatal rats, as necessary baseline information for developing a model of human neonatal necrotizing enterocolitis. We studied 60 animals, including 33 Wistar rats, 18 Sprague-Dawley rats and nine CD-1 mice. The variables examined included age of the animals (2 or 14 days) and length of delay and holding temperature (20 degrees C or 37 degrees C) after sacrifice. At necropsy, bowel was rapidly removed and fixed for histopathological examination. In all instances, bowel removed immediately after sacrifice was normal whereas after delays as short as 30 minutes it was abnormal (P less than 0.001), becoming markedly so after 60 minutes. The prominent features were detachment and lysis of mucosal epithelial cells. The rate of autolysis was not altered in 14 day old animals or in carcasses held at 20 degrees C or 37 degrees C. Investigators of bowel injury syndromes in young rats should be aware that histopathological studies will be valid only if specimens held at room temperature are fixed within 15 minutes of death.