In vivo biotelemetry studies have demonstrated a variety of heart rhythm disturbances in type 1 diabetes mellitus. In the streptozotocin (STZ)-induced diabetic rat, these disturbances have included reductions in heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV) and an electrocardiogram that displays prolonged QRS duration and Q-T interval. The aim of this study was to investigate the chronic effects of type 2 diabetes mellitus on heart rhythm in the Goto-Kakizaki (GK) rat. Transmitter devices were surgically implanted in the peritoneal cavity of young male GK and age-matched Wistar control rats. Electrodes from the transmitter were arranged in Einthoven bipolar lead II configuration. Electrocardiogram, physical activity and body temperature data were recorded in rats from age 2 to 15 months. Data were acquired for 2 weeks each month. Non-fasting blood glucose, glucose tolerance and body weight were measured periodically. In GK rats, growth rate and maximal attained body weight were significantly reduced and non-fasting blood glucose was progressively increased compared with age-matched Wistar control animals. Heart rate was significantly lower in GK compared with control rats at 2, 7 and 15 months of age. At 2 months of age, HR was 316 +/- 6 beats min(-1) in GK rats compared with 370 +/- 7 beats min(-1) in Wistar control animals. There was a progressive age-dependent decline in HRV in Wistar control rats; however, HRV in GK rats did not alter significantly with age. Heart rate variability was significantly reduced in GK compared with Wistar control rats at 2 and 7 months. At 2 months of age, HRV was 28 +/- 2 beats min(-1) in GK rats compared with 38 +/- 3 beats min(-1) in Wistar control rats. Reduced HR in GK rats may be an inherited characteristic. The absence of age-dependent reductions in HRV in GK rats may be a consequence of an underlying impairment of autonomic control which manifests at early age.