The correlation between bovine leukemia virus (BLV) unintegrated DNA, viral expression, and stage of disease was determined in cattle naturally infected with BLV. The concomitant presence of unintegrated BLV DNA with viral transcriptional activity was observed in 53% (18 of 34) of hematologically normal, BLV-seropositive cattle and in 100% (10 of 10) of BLV-seropositive cattle with the preneoplastic syndrome persistent lymphocytosis. In vitro studies suggested that accumulation of unintegrated BLV DNA resulted from a process of reinfection rather than intracellular reverse transcription of newly synthesized BLV RNA. Interestingly, unintegrated BLV DNA was not detected in tumor cells from cattle with BLV-associated lymphocytic leukemia/malignant lymphoma despite viral transcriptional activity in 100% (eight of eight) of these cattle. Thus, the presence of unintegrated BLV DNA differentiated nonneoplastic from neoplastic conditions in BLV-infected cattle. These results demonstrate that unintegrated viral DNA serves as a marker of disease progression in BLV-infected cattle but is not necessarily associated with induction or maintenance of the neoplastic state.