Quantitative behavioral testing is necessary to establish a reproducible measure of differential functional blockade during regional anesthesia. Methods for assessment of the neurologic status (mental status, posture, gait, proprioception, motor function, autonomic function, and nociception) in veterinary neurology were adapted for the rat and used to monitor functional changes separately during a sciatic nerve block. Sprague-Dawley rats were acclimated to laboratory routine before the study so that lidocaine (0.1 ml, 1%) could be injected near the sciatic notch without any chemical restraint. The onset, duration, and magnitude of functional losses were monitored. Proprioceptive integrity was evaluated by assessing the response to tactile placing and the hopping response. Extensor postural thrust, a test for postural reactions in small animals, was assessed on a digital balance and found adequate for quantifying motor function. Analgesia was assessed by measuring withdrawal response latencies to noxious thermal stimulation (51 degrees C) and to superficial and deep noxious pinches. Autonomic function was monitored by measuring skin temperature. Contralateral limb function was used as an internal control, and injection of saline was used as an external control in separate, control animals. Onset of postural and gait abnormalities were observed as early as 40 s after injection. On each occasion proprioceptive impairment was detected first, followed by impairment of motor function and nociception. Complete absence of proprioception occurred from 10 to 30 min (n = 9) and of motor function at 30 min after injection (n = 10); both functions were fully recovered by 120 min. A unilateral increase in skin temperature on the foot was detected by 1 min; had reached its maximum change, 5.3 +/- 0.7 degrees C, at 10 min; and had returned to control levels at 60 min after injection (n = 12). Withdrawal response to cutaneous or superficial pain was absent in all ten animals from 5 to 30 min whereas the response to deep pain was absent in all ten animals at 20 min only. The response to noxious stimulation recovered at 90 min. Attention was paid to the temporal relation of the impairment of various functions. Quantitative observations of the onset, offset, and intensity of differential functional impairment or block over time will make it possible to establish the doses and conditions for local anesthetics that result in differential nerve block and will permit comparison of these changes among different drugs and "clinical" protocols.