The isolated saline-perfused heart is used extensively to study cardiac physiology. Previous isolated heart studies have demonstrated lower tissue oxygenation compared with in vivo hearts based on myoglobin oxygenation and the mitochondrial redox state. These data, consistent with small anoxic regions, suggest that the homeostatic balance between work and oxygen delivery is impaired. We hypothesized that these anoxic regions are caused by inadequate local perfusion due to a paradoxical arteriole constriction generated by a disrupted vasoregulatory network. We tested this hypothesis by applying two exogenous vasodilatory agents, adenosine and cromakalim, to relax vascular tone in an isolated, saline-perfused, working rabbit heart. Oxygenation was monitored using differential optical transmission spectroscopy and full spectral fitting. Increases in coronary flow over control with adenosine (27 ± 4 ml/min) or cromakalim (44 ± 4 ml/min) were associated with proportional spectral changes indicative of myoglobin oxygenation and cytochrome oxidase (COX) oxidation, consistent with a decrease in tissue anoxia. Quantitatively, adenosine decreased deoxymyoglobin optical density (OD) across the wall by 0.053 ± 0.008 OD, whereas the reduced form of COX was decreased by 0.039 ± 0.005 OD. Cromakalim was more potent, decreasing deoxymyoglobin and reducing the level of COX by 0.070 ± 0.019 OD and 0.062 ± 0.019 OD, respectively. These effects were not species specific, as Langendorff-perfused mouse hearts treated with adenosine demonstrated similar changes. These data are consistent with paradoxical arteriole constriction as a major source of regional anoxia during saline heart perfusion. We suggest that the vasoregulatory network is disrupted by the washout of interstitial vasoactive metabolites in vitro. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Regional tissue anoxia is a common finding in the ubiquitous saline-perfused heart but is not found in vivo. Noninvasive optical techniques confirmed the presence of regional anoxia under control conditions and demonstrated that anoxia is diminished using exogenous vasodilators. These data are consistent with active arteriole constriction, occurring despite regional anoxia, generated by a disrupted vasoregulatory network. Washout of interstitial vasoactive metabolites may contribute to the disruption of normal vasoregulatory processes in vitro.