The number of Americans filing new applications for unemployment benefits rose less than expected last week, remaining at levels consistent with a fairly healthy labor market.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 259,000 for the week ended Oct. 17, the Labor Department said on Thursday. They remained not too far from levels last seen in late 1973.

It was the 33rd straight week that claims were below the 300,000 threshold, which is normally associated with a firming jobs market.

At current levels, there is not much scope for claims to fall further and the very low level of layoffs suggests the labor market remains in good shape, despite a recent abrupt slowdown in job growth.

Signs that employers are holding on to their workers even as global demand is slowing implies strong domestic economic fundamentals that could keep the door open to an interest rate increase from the Federal Reserve this year.

The dollar trimmed losses against the yen after the data, while prices for U.S. government debt rose.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims rising to265,000 last week. A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors influencing the data.

The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it strips out week-to-week volatility, slipped 2,000 to 263,250 last week, the lowest level since December 1973.

The claims report covered the period during which the government surveyed employers for the payrolls portion of October's unemployment report. The four-week moving average of claims fell 9,250 between the September and October survey periods. That suggested a pick-up in job gains this month.

Nonfarm payroll gains in August and September averaged 139,000, the weakest two-month rise since January last year.

The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid rose 6,000 to 2.17 million in the week ended Oct. 10.

The four-week moving average of continuing claims was the lowest since late 2000, suggesting further declines in the unemployment rate. 

By Lucia Mutikani - Reuters (Editing by Andrea Ricci)