Background: Pathological gambling is becoming an increasing problem in the United States as the number of legalized gambling establishments grows. To examine vulnerability to pathological gambling, we estimated the familial contributions (i.e. inherited factors and/or experiences shared by twin siblings during childhood) to DSM-III-R pathological gambling symptoms and disorder. Methods: Data were obtained from a telephone interview performed in 1991-92 utilizing the Diagnostic Interview Schedule Version III-Revised. Interviews were administered to 6718 members of the nationally distributed Vietnam Era Twin Registry of male-male monozygotic and dizygotic twin pairs who served in the military during the Vietnam era. Results. Inherited factors explain between 35% (95% CI: 28%, 42%) and 54% (95% CI: 39%, 67%) of the liability for the five individual symptoms of pathological gambling behavior that could be estimated statistically. In addition, familial factors explain 56% (95% CI: 36%, 71%) of the report of three or more symptoms of pathological gambling and 62% (95% CI: 40%, 79%) of the diagnosis of pathological gambling disorder (four or more symptoms). Conclusions. Familial factors have an important influence on risk for pathological gambling behavior. The increasing access to legalized gambling is likely to result in a higher prevalence of pathological gambling behavior among individuals who are more vulnerable because of familial factors.