Portacaval anastomosis (PCA) is a surgical procedure whereby blood from the portal vein is shunted into the inferior vena cava. PCA in the rat results in a significant increase (from 0.77 +/- 0.26 to 3.51 +/- 0.37 g of ethanol/kg/day) in voluntary ethanol consumption in a free-choice paradigm between water and 5% ethanol solution. After PCA surgery, increased voluntary ethanol consumption starts abruptly at 6 to 7 days and is maintained for > 28 weeks. Voluntary ethanol consumption in rats after PCA results in blood ethanol levels up to 158 mg%. After PCA, the ethanol preference ratio (defined as the percentage of total fluid intake constituted by ethanol) increased from 19 +/- 2% to 78 +/- 2% (P < 0.001). Administration of the nonselective opioid receptor antagonist naloxone (5 mg/kg, sc) resulted in a significant 6-fold attenuation of voluntary ethanol consumption by rats with PCA, an effect that was not mediated by an effect on locomotor activity. These findings, together with previous reports of widespread alterations of the mu- and delta-opioid receptors in the brain after PCA, suggest that increased voluntary ethanol consumption and ethanol preference in PCA rats may result from activation of the endogenous opioid system. Preliminary studies suggest that rats with PCA manifest behavioral signs consistent with the development of dependence. The portacaval-shunted rat may provide a useful preparation for the study of mechanisms, in particular those involving the liver, implicated in the development of increased voluntary ethanol consumption and ethanol preference.