Application of animal models of psychostimulant abuse for experimentation in mice is becoming increasingly important for studying the contribution of genetic differences, as well as the roles of selected (targeted) genes, in specific behaviors. The purpose of this study was to investigate strain differences in cocaine self-administration behavior between C57BL/6 x SJL hybrid mice and BALB/cByJ mice. These two strains were chosen because BALB/cByJ mice have a well-developed behavioral pharmacological profile, and hybrid strains on a C57BL/6 background are commonly used for generating transgenic expressing and knockout mutant mice. C57BL/6 x SJL mice dose-dependently acquired cocaine self-administration (1.0 mg/kg/injection but not 0.25 mg/kg/injection) by responding selectively in the active nose-poke hole and maintaining stable levels of daily drug intake; they also exhibited a characteristic inverted-U-shaped cocaine dose-effect function. BALB/cByJ mice failed to acquire cocaine self-administration at either dose under the same test conditions. The strain differences observed in self-administration did not seem to be attributed to other behavioral differences because the two strains exhibited similar amounts of spontaneous nose-poking in the absence of reinforcers, and BALB/cByJ mice responded more than C57BL/6 x SJL mice in a food-reinforced nose-poke operant task. Importantly, the dose-effect function for the motor stimulating effects of cocaine (3.8-30 mg/kg intraperitoneally) suggests enhanced sensitivity but reduced efficacy of cocaine in stimulating motor activity in BALB/cByJ mice relative to the C57BL/6 x SJL hybrid mice. These results indicate that the decreased liability of BALB/cByJ mice to acquire cocaine self-administration is not the result of differences in spontaneous activity or performance, but may reflect different sensitivities to the reinforcing, or rate-disrupting, properties of cocaine. The data support an influence of genetic background in the liability to self-administer cocaine. Thus, a hypothesis is proposed that the decreased liability of BALB/cByJ mice to acquire cocaine self-administration is related to differences in brain monoamine systems linked to the high "emotionality" profile of BALB/c mice in novel or fearful situations, including perhaps cocaine administration.