The 140 kDa ternary complex of insulin-like growth factor-binding protein-3 (IGFBP-3), IGFs and an acid-labile subunit (ALS) has previously been shown to be decreased in diabetes mellitus in humans and rats. We have studied IGF-I levels and ternary complex formation in normal and diabetic cats. Total IGF-I concentrations, measured by RIA using des(1-3)-IGF-I as tracer were (+/-s.e.m.) 54+/-13 nmol/l in eight normal and 227+/-57 nmol/l in eight diabetic cats (P<0.01). The size-distribution of IGFBPs in the cat circulation was determined by incubation with (125)I-IGF-II and Superose 12 chromatography. In normal animals 26+/-2% of the (125)I-IGF-II were in a 140 kDa form compared with 48+/-5% in diabetic cats (P<0.01). When samples from normal and diabetic animals were co-incubated 52+/-3% were at 140 kDa. A similar shift was seen when normal cat and normal human serum were co-incubated. A 2-fold increase in the 140 kDa form in diabetic cats was confirmed first by size-fractionating samples and then performing a ligand-binding assay with (125)I-IGF-I or -II and charcoal separation. SDS-PAGE and Western ligand blotting demonstrated a 45 kDa doublet (presumably IGFBP-3) and 30-35 kDa forms. There were no apparent differences between normal and diabetic profiles on SDS-PAGE, suggesting that a proportion of IGFBP-3 which circulates 'free' in normal cats forms a ternary complex in the diabetic circulation. We conclude that (i) in contrast to humans and rats, ALS is the limiting factor for ternary complex formation in normal cats, (ii) ALS concentrations increase in feline diabetes mellitus and, by promoting ternary complex formation, this leads to an increase in total IGF-I concentrations, and (iii) total IGF-I concentrations may not be reliable in the diagnosis of acromegaly in diabetic cats.