The poor translational record of pain research has suggested to some observers that species differences in pain biology might be to blame. In this review, I consider the evidence for species similarity and differences in the pain research literature. Impressive feats of translation have been demonstrated in relation to certain genetic effects, social modulation of pain and pain memory. The degree to which pain biology in rodents predicts pain biology in humans has important implications both for evolutionary accounts of pain, but also the success of analgesic drug development going forward. This article is part of the Theo Murphy meeting issue 'Evolution of mechanisms and behaviour important for pain'.