Selenium is essential for the normal life processes, and all animals, including fish, need this inorganic element. In order to research the pathology of selenium deficiency in common carp, Cyprinus carpio L., 360 juvenile carp were allocated to three treatments. Each treatment containing 120 fish was randomly divided into four groups, fed with purified diets containing selenium at 0, 0.15, 0.30 and 0.45 mg kg−1. The results indicated that the morbidity and mortality rates of the test groups were negatively correlated with the level of selenium in the diets. The morbidity and mortality rates were, respectively, 46.7%, 33.3%, 13.3%, 0 and 26.7% 16.7%, 6.7%, 0. The affected fish exhibited pathological changes, such as ‘thin back disease’ and lordosis. Histologically, there was no abnormality observed in muscles, liver and pancreas. Ultrastructurally, there was swelling of the mitochondria of the cardiac muscle cells, the liver cells and renal tubular epithelial cells, with disintegration and lysis of the cristae of the mitochondria which vesiculated. Serum glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase and glutamic pyruvic transaminase levels were increased and the activity of the serum glutathione peroxidase and the serum superoxide dismutase was decreased; in contrast, the serum malonaldehyde concentration was increased.