The effects of low-level cadmium (Cd) administration to rats on animal health, liver and kidney thiols, metallothionein, and glutathione reductase (GSSG reductase) and their modulation by cysteine (as a possible protector) and diethyl maleate (as a possible potentiator) have been investigated. Male Sprague-Dawley rats were treated with sodium or Cd acetate (25 micrograms Cd/kg) orally five times a week for 6 weeks. A second group of animals received cysteine (500 mg/kg; po) before each gavage while a third group received diethyl maleate (DEM) (0.85 mg/kg; ip) in addition to sodium or Cd acetate. When rats were treated with cadmium alone neither weight gain nor serum parameters indicative of hepato- or nephro-toxicity were affected. However, acid-soluble thiols, primarily glutathione, were decreased by about 25% in liver only. A tendency to a decrease in hepatic protein thiols was also noted. No changes were observed for hepatic or renal metallothionein in response to this low level of cadmium administration alone or in combination with the other treatments. Animals receiving cysteine, either alone or with cadmium, showed decreased body weight gain, but no change in serum parameters. Acid-soluble thiols in liver were lower in cysteine-treated rats (24%) and cysteine + Cd (33%) while kidney thiols were unaffected. Administration of DEM alone or with Cd did not cause any alteration in body weight gain. When given DEM + Cd, however, an increase in serum bilirubin was observed, which suggests interference with hepatobiliary function. Acid-soluble thiols were decreased by DEM alone (45%) and DEM + Cd (51%) in liver while renal thiols showed no change. Our data indicate that low-level Cd gavage decreases hepatic cellular thiols but not those of kidney. Cysteine gavage does not protect from the Cd-related effect. Indeed, cysteine itself was found to reduce acid-soluble thiols under the experimental conditions. This was observed only in liver, as was the decrease in thiols due to DEM treatment. DEM administration together with Cd resulted in signs of liver toxicity. There is no indication that inhibition of GSSG reductase by Cd might be involved in the thiol-decreasing effect of short-term repeated low-level gavage of Cd to rats.