The occurrence of several virulence traits (cytolysin, adhesins and hydrolytic enzymes) was investigated in a collection of 164 enterococci, including food and clinical isolates (from human and veterinary origin), as well as type and reference strains from 20 enterococcal species. Up to fifteen different cyl genotypes were found, as well as silent cyl genes. The occurrence of the cyl operon and haemolytic potential seems to be widespread in the genus. A significant association of this virulent trait with clinical isolates was found (p < 0.05). High levels of incidence were also observed for genes encoding surface adhesins (esp, efaA(fs), efaA(fm)), agg and gelE, irrespectively of species allocation and origin of strains. Although gelE behaves as silent in the majority of the strains, gelatinase activity predominates in clinical isolates, whereas lipase and DNase were mainly detected in food isolates pointing to their minor role as virulence determinants. No hyaluronidase activity was detected for all strains. Numerical hierarchic data analysis grouped the strains in three main clusters, two of them including a total of 50 strains with low number of virulence determinants (from 2 to 7) and the other with 114 strains with a high virulence potential (up to 12 determinants). No statistical association was found between virulence clusters and species allocation (p > 0.10), strongly suggesting that virulence determinants are a common trait in the genus Enterococcus. Clinical strains seem to be significantly associated with high virulence potential, whereas food, commensal and environmental strains harbour fewer virulence determinants (p < 0.01). A high level of relative diversity in virulence patterns was observed (Shannon's index varies from 0.95 to 1.0 among clusters), reinforcing the strain-specific nature of the association of virulence factors. Although a low risk seems to be associated with the use of enterococci in long-established artisanal cheeses, screening of virulence traits and their cross-synergies must be performed, particularly for commercial starters, probiotic strains and products to be used by high risk population groups.