Background In cirrhotic livers, the balance of vasoactive substances is in favour of vasoconstrictors with relatively insufficient nitric oxide. Endothelial dysfunction has been documented in cirrhotic rat livers leading to a lower activity of endothelial nitric oxide synthase but this might not be sufficient to explain the low nitric oxide presence. We compared the amount of all nitric oxide synthase isoforms and other factors that influence nitric oxide bioavailability in livers of two portal hypertensive rat models: prehepatic portal hypertension and carbon tetrachloride induced cirrhosis, in comparison with healthy controls. Results Endothelial nitric oxide synthase was the solely detected isoform by Western blotting in all livers. In cirrhotic livers, the amount of endothelial nitric oxide synthase protein was lower than in healthy controls, although an overlap existed. Levels of caveolin-1 messenger RNA were within the normal range but endothelin-1 messenger RNA levels were significantly higher in cirrhotic livers (p < 0.05). A markedly lower superoxide dismutase activity was observed in cirrhotic livers as compared to healthy controls (p < 0.05). Conclusions In contrast to prehepatic portal hypertension, cirrhotic livers had decreased endothelial nitric oxide synthase protein and enhanced endothelin-1 messenger RNA amount. We hypothesise that a vasodilator/vasoconstrictor imbalance may be further aggravated by the reduced activity of superoxide dismutase. Decreased activity allows enhanced superoxide action, which may lead to breakdown of nitric oxide in liver sinusoids.