Background Bovine herpesvirus type 1 (BHV-1) is an important pathogen in cattle that is responsible for substantial economic losses. Previous studies suggest that BHV-1 may induce apoptosis in Madin-Darby bovine kidney (MDBK) cells via a mechanism only involving caspases and p53. However, the mechanism for BHV-1-induced MDBK cell apoptosis still requires more research. Methods MDBK was used as a model to study the precise signaling pathways of apoptosis induced by BHV-1 infection. Results BHV-1 infection activated a Fas/FasL-mediated apoptotic pathway, resulting in activation of caspase-8 and cleavage of Bid. In addition, BHV-1 infection down-regulated Bcl-2 and up-regulated Bax expression, thereby initiating the release of cytochrome c followed by caspase-9 activation. The combined activation of the extrinsic and intrinsic pathways resulted in activation of downstream effecter caspase-3 and poly ADP-ribose polymerase (PARP), leading to apoptosis. Furthermore, blocking apoptosis using caspase inhibitors improved BHV-1-infected MDBK cell viability to different extent. BHV-1 infection did not induce significant DNA fragmentation in MDBK cells pretreated with ammonium chloride (NH4Cl) or cells infected with UV-inactivated BHV-1. Blocking caspases activation increased BHV-1 replication. Conclusions BHV-1 induces apoptosis in MDBK cells through extrinsic and intrinsic pathways and there might be cross-talk between the two pathways. In addition, BHV-1 replication may be necessary for the induction of apoptosis in BHV-1-infected cells, and prolonged cell viability benefits BHV-1 replication.