Bovine leukemia virus (BLV), a transactivating lymphotropic retrovirus, is the etiologic agent of enzootic lymphosarcoma or leukemia in cattle. Sera from BLV-infected animals possess high BLV-neutralizing antibody titres. The availability of the recombinant BLV receptor candidate, BLVRcp1, allowed us to determine a mechanism of virus neutralization by polyclonal sera and monoclonal antibodies (MAbs). Bovine sera from animals naturally infected with BLV blocked gp51 binding to recombinant BLVRcp1. In contrast, virus-neutralizing MAbs specific for gp51 F, G, and H epitopes did not prevent gp51-receptor attachment. Furthermore, gp51 neutralization epitopes F, G, and H were accessible to antibodies following gp51 attachment to BLVRcp1. This finding implies that virus neutralization by MAbs to defined BLV gp51 epitopes can occur subsequent to virus engagement of the receptor while polyclonal sera can specifically block virus attachment to the receptor. In conclusion, these data suggest that cell infection by BLV is a multistep process requiring receptor binding (inhibited by polyclonal sera) followed by a second, postbinding event(s) at the cell membrane (inhibited by anti-gp51 MAbs).