Information was sought on the temporal distribution of transmissible mink encephalopathy virus in royal pastel mink inoculated subcutaneously with 10(3.0) 50% intracerebral lethal doses of the Idaho strain. As determined by intracerebral assay in mink, extremely little replication of the virus occurred during the preclinical stage of infection. It seemed largely limited to lymph nodes draining the site of inoculation. Virus first appeared in the central nervous system (CNS) at 20 weeks, when all mink were still clinically normal. Early spongiform degeneration, limited to the posterior sigmoid gyrus of the frontal cortex, was first found at 28 weeks, or a few weeks before onset of clinical disease in most of the mink. Once virus reached the CNS, where greater concentrations occurred than elsewhere, it appeared in many extraneural sites (spleen, liver, kidney, intestine, mesenteric lymph node, and submandibular salivary gland). These seemingly anomalous findings, especially the limited extraneural replication of virus as a prelude to infection of the CNS, suggest that mink are not natural hosts of the virus. The results of this study support the generally held view that transmissible mink encephalopathy arises from chance or inadvertent infection of ranch mink with an exogenous virus, most likely feed-borne wild scrapie virus.