Osmotic swelling of dissociated Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cells in NaCl medium is followed by shrinking (regulatory volume decrease, or RVD) or in KCl medium by secondary swelling. The cation ionophore gramicidin has little effect on volumes of isotonic cells but accelerates volume-activated changes in either medium. Immediately after hypotonic exposure, the membrane becomes transiently hyperpolarized followed by depolarization. The depolarization phase is diminished by the anion transport inhibitor 4,4'-diisothiocyanostilbene-2,2'-disulfonic acid (DIDS). Swelling is also associated with an almost immediate increase in Ca2+ influx and elevation of cytoplasmic Ca2+ ([Ca2+]i) preceding RVD. In Ca2(+)-free medium, [Ca2+]i rapidly declines to a low level. Osmotic swelling, under these circumstances, is associated with a small transient increase in [Ca2+]i, but RVD or secondary swelling (in KCl) are minimal. Under these conditions, addition of gramicidin or the Ca2(+)-ionophore A23187 induces significant volume changes, although not as large as those found in the presence of Ca2+. Quinine inhibits RVD in the absence of gramicidin, but not in its presence; oligomycin C, DIDS, and trifluoperazine, on the other hand, inhibit in the presence of the ionophore. These findings suggest that in MDCK cells RVD involves activation of distinct conductive K+ and Cl- pathways which allow escape of KCl and osmotically obligated water and that activation of both pathways is associated with elevated [Ca2+]i derived largely from volume activation of a Ca2(+)-influx pathway.