To assess the effects of subordinate social status on digestive function, metabolism, and enzyme activity in salmonid fish, juvenile rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss were paired with size-matched conspecifics (<1.5% difference in fork length) for 5 d. Fish that were fasted for 5 d and fish sampled directly from the holding tank were used as control groups. Both subordinate and fasted fish experienced significant decreases in intestine mass (P = 0.043), and the gall bladder showed marked and significant changes in both size (P = 0.004) and appearance. These findings suggest that the negative effect of social subordination on digestive function reflects in large part a lack of feeding. Hepatic phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase activity was significantly higher in subordinate fish relative to dominants, whereas subordinate hepatic pyruvate kinase activity was significantly lower; activities of both enzymes were significantly correlated with plasma cortisol concentrations and behavior scores. Dominant-subordinate differences in the activities of these enzymes were eliminated by administration of the glucocorticoid receptor antagonist RU486, underlining a role for circulating cortisol in eliciting the differences. Significant increases relative to control fish were also detected in red and white muscles from subordinate fish in the activities of protein catabolic enzymes (aspartate aminotransferase, alanine aminotransferase, glutamate dehydrogenase). These differences occurred in the absence of any change in plasma free amino acid or ammonia concentrations, supporting an enhanced turnover of amino acids in muscle in subordinate fish. The results support the hypothesis that changes in metabolism, beyond those elicited by low food consumption, may be responsible at least in part for the low growth rates typical of subordinate fish and that these changes may be related specifically to circulating cortisol levels in subordinate fish.