New regulatory approaches to metal toxicity (e.g., biotic ligand model [BLM]) focus on gill metal binding and tissue-specific accumulation of waterborne metals; the dietary route of exposure and dietary/waterborne interactions are not considered, nor are the consequences of chronic exposure by either route. Therefore, we studied the effect of the same gill Cd load (approximately 2.5 microg/g), achieved by a chronic, 30-d exposure to Cd either via the diet (1,500 mg/kg) or the water (2 microg/L), on tissue-specific Cd distribution and subsequent uptake of waterborne Cd in juvenile rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). These two exposure regimes resulted in a branchial Cd load that had been taken up across either apical gill membranes (waterborne Cd) or basolateral gill membranes (through the bloodstream for dietary Cd). The BLM characteristics of the gills (i.e., short-term Cd uptake kinetics) were altered: affinity (log K(Cd Gill) [95% confidence level]) decreased from 7.05 (6.75-8.76) for control to 6.54 (6.32-7.03) for waterborne Cd and 5.92 (5.83-6.51) for dietary Cd, whereas binding capacity (Bmax) increased from 3.12 (2.14-4.09) to 4.80 (3.16-6.43) and 5.50 (2.86-8.17) nmol x g(-1) for control, waterborne, and dietary Cd, respectively. Fish exposed to dietary Cd accumulated a much greater overall chronic Cd body burden relative to fish exposed to waterborne Cd or control fish. The carcass accumulated the greatest percentage of total body Cd in control and waterborne-exposed fish, whereas the intestinal tissue accumulated the greatest percentage in dietary-exposed fish. Tissue-specific Cd burdens were highest in the kidney in both dietary and waterborne treatments. We conclude that chronic Cd exposure alters Cd uptake dynamics, and that the route of Cd exposure, whether waterborne or dietary, results in differences of internal Cd accumulation and branchial Cd uptake characteristics. These factors should be considered in future BLM development.