Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a major global health problem and is predicted to become the third most common cause of death by 2020. Apart from the important preventive steps of smoking cessation, there are no other specific treatments for COPD that are as effective in reversing the condition, and therefore there is a need to understand the pathophysiological mechanisms that could lead to new therapeutic strategies. The development of experimental models will help to dissect these mechanisms at the cellular and molecular level. COPD is a disease characterized by progressive airflow obstruction of the peripheral airways, associated with lung inflammation, emphysema and mucus hypersecretion. Different approaches to mimic COPD have been developed but are limited in comparison to models of allergic asthma. COPD models usually do not mimic the major features of human COPD and are commonly based on the induction of COPD-like lesions in the lungs and airways using noxious inhalants such as tobacco smoke, nitrogen dioxide, or sulfur dioxide. Depending on the duration and intensity of exposure, these noxious stimuli induce signs of chronic inflammation and airway remodelling. Emphysema can be achieved by combining such exposure with instillation of tissue-degrading enzymes. Other approaches are based on genetically-targeted mice which develop COPD-like lesions with emphysema, and such mice provide deep insights into pathophysiological mechanisms. Future approaches should aim to mimic irreversible airflow obstruction, associated with cough and sputum production, with the possibility of inducing exacerbations.