The antithrombotic properties of bolus i.v. injections of heparin, of recombinant hirudin (r-hirudin) or of the synthetic competitive thrombin inhibitor Argatroban were investigated in a quantitative hamster femoral vein platelet-rich mural thrombosis model. Heparin at a dose of 100 U/kg prolonged the activated partial thromboplastin time from 26 +/- 15 to 177 +/- 45 sec (P = .001), but did not significantly inhibit platelet-rich thrombus formation (7 +/- 44% inhibition, P = NS vs. placebo). However, 400 U/kg of heparin produced total inhibition of thrombus formation (101 +/- 14+, P less than .06 vs. control). R-hirudin and argatroban inhibited thrombus formation in a dose-dependent manner: 50% inhibition was obtained with 1.4 mg/kg for r-hirudin and with 2.0 mg/kg for Argatroban. A linear correlation was observed between the percentage of inhibition of thrombus formation vs. Activated partial thromboplastin time (r = 0.57, P = .003 for r-hirudin and r = 0.66, P = .002 for Argatroban). These results suggest that thrombin plays a pivotal role in platelet-rich mural thrombus formation, that this small animal model may be useful for investigation of the pharmacodynamics of synthetic thrombin inhibitors and that platelet-rich thrombus formation is inhibited effectively by heparin, r-hirudin and Argatroban. However, r-hirudin and Argatroban cause less profound changes in the coagulant function at doses that inhibit platelet-rich thrombus formation than heparin.