Homozygous Watanabe heritable hyperlipidemic (WHHL) rabbits are used widely to study atherosclerosis, but the WHHL heterozygous rabbit has received little attention. To study their potential as a model for atherosclerosis, heterozygous WHHL and New Zealand white (NZW) rabbits were fed diets containing 0%, 0.5% and 1.0% cholesterol. Plasma lipids were analyzed at 0, 4, 8, 12, 16 and 24 weeks, and animals were killed at 12 and 24 weeks. Plasma cholesterol levels were significantly higher in cholesterol-fed WHHL heterozygotes at 8 weeks compared with NZW rabbits, but no differences were apparent at other times. Atherosclerotic plaques in the aortas of cholesterol-fed WHHL heterozygous rabbits differed from those in NZW rabbits, in that the WHHL had complicated lesions with necrosis, cholesterol clefts, fibrous caps and calcification, similar to that found in humans and homozygous WHHL rabbits. In contrast, NZW rabbits had predominantly foam cell lesions. Heterozygous WHHL rabbits also had less extensive extravascular foam cell deposits. Our results suggest that the cholesterol-fed heterozygous WHHL rabbit may provide a promising model for studying the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis.