The histopathology of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is characterized by destruction of the mucosal layer in initial stages and by transmural necrosis of the intestinal wall in advanced stages of the disease. To test the hypothesis that enhanced epithelial apoptosis is an initial event underlying the gross histologic changes, we analyzed epithelial apoptosis and tissue morphology in an animal model of NEC and evaluated the effect of caspase inhibition on the incidence of experimental NEC in this model. Apoptosis was analyzed with terminal deoxynucleotidyltransferase-mediated dUTP-FITC nick end labeling (TUNEL) staining in intestinal sections and by measuring caspase 3 activity from intestinal lysates of neonatal rats subjected to formula feeding and cold/asphyxia stress (FFCAS) and from mother-fed (MF) controls. Morphologic evaluation was based on hematoxylin and eosin staining of intestinal sections. FFCAS resulted in histologic changes consistent with NEC, which were absent from MF animals. FFCAS was also associated with a significantly increased rate of nuclear DNA fragmentation in the small intestinal epithelium compared with MF. Elevated tissue caspase 3 activity confirmed the presence of apoptosis in samples with increased DNA fragmentation. Analysis of the coincidence of morphologic damage and apoptosis in corresponding tissue sections indicated that apoptosis precedes gross morphologic changes in this model. Furthermore, supplementation of formula with 8 boc-aspartyl(OMe)-fluoromethylketone, a pan-caspase inhibitor, significantly reduced the incidences of apoptosis and experimental NEC. These findings indicate that in neonatal rats FFCAS induces epithelial apoptosis that serves as an underlying cause for subsequent gross tissue necrosis.