We tested the ability of the slope (Emax) and the volume intercept (Vo) of the end-systolic pressure-volume relationship (ESPVR) to indicate contractility changes in conscious dogs instrumented with sonomicrometers measuring left ventricular diameter in three orthogonal axes and a left ventricular pressure microtransducer. ESPVRs were generated by inferior vena caval occlusion under control conditions (C1 and C2) and during enhanced (I+) and depressed (I-) inotropic states achieved by infusion of dobutamine and injection of propranolol, respectively. No significant difference between the first control (C1) and I+ or between the second control (C2) and I- were found for either Emax (C1, 5.31 +/- 1.68 mm Hg/ml, mean +/- SD; I+, 5.37 +/- 1.44; C2, 5.20 +/- 1.62; I-, 4.18 +/- 1.32) or Vo (C1, 10.3 +/- 9.6 ml; I+, 7.3 +/- 9.1; C2, 9.9 +/- 9.0; I-, 12.7 +/- 12.5), despite significant changes in other indexes of contractility. Comparison of changes in Emax in individual animals in response to I+ and I- revealed that 63% were nonsignificant, 28% were significant and expected, and 9% were significant and paradoxical. Within defined volume limits and irrespective of individual changes in Emax and Vo, in all animals I+ shifted the ESPVR above and to the left of C1 and I- shifted the ESPVR below and to the right of C2. We thus integrated the changes in Emax and Vo by measuring the area beneath each ESPVR between defined limits of end-systolic volume. The values for area were: C1, 612 +/- 150 mm Hg.ml; I+, 745 +/- 191 (p less than .001); C2, 520 +/- 198; I-, 420 +/- 139 (p less than .001). We conclude that (1) neither Emax nor Vo are individually reliable indexes of changed contractility, and (2) the area beneath the ESPVR between defined end-systolic volume limits is a consistent indicator of variations in inotropic state.