From a prospective, cross-sectional survey of 402 patients who had a total hip (THR) or a total knee (TKR) replacement for idiopathic osteoarthritis (OA) at a major centre, we determined the prevalence of these replacements for idiopathic OA in their 1171 siblings and 376 spouses. Using spouses as controls, the relative risk of THR in siblings was 1.86 (95% CI 0.93 to 3.69). The relative risk for TKR in siblings v spouses was 4.8 (95 % CI 0.64 to 36.4) whereas the risk for the combined outcome measure of THR or TKR was 2.32 (95% CI 1.22 to 4.43) when siblings and spouses over 64 years of age were compared. Using a threshold liability model (Falconer), the heritability of end-stage OA of the hip was estimated at 27%. The increased risks of joint replacement for severe, idiopathic OA which we found in siblings suggest that genetic influences are important in end-stage OA of the hip and knee.