Mycobacterium avium complex infections occur in 30%-80% of patients with AIDS. Recent evidence supports the gastrointestinal tract as the source of M. avium. Although a reproducible animal model exists, a model more closely resembling the infection in AIDS patients is needed to answer pertinent questions regarding response to therapy and prophylaxis. Beige mice were infected orally (1 x 10(8) or 1 x 10(4) cfu, five doses), and consistent, reproducible disseminated infections after 4 and 8 weeks, respectively, were obtained. Bacteremia was observed in none to 70% of the animals depending on the strain used, and mortality ranged from none to 33%, also depending on the strain used. Concomitant ingestion of ethanol (4% of daily dietary calories) was associated with a significant increase in the number of viable bacteria recovered from liver, spleen, and appendix compared with animals not receiving ethanol. The orally infected animal model closely resembles M. avium infection in humans and may be important in investigating prophylaxis and therapy of this infection.