The development of novel treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) requires the interplay between clinical observations and studies in animal models. Given the complex molecular pathogenesis and highly heterogeneous clinical picture of RA, there is an urgent need to dissect its multifactorial nature and to propose new strategies for preventive, early and curative treatments. Research on animal models has generated new knowledge on RA pathophysiology and aetiology and has provided highly successful paradigms for innovative drug development. Recent focus has shifted towards the discovery of novel biomarkers, with emphasis on presymptomatic and emerging stages of human RA, and towards addressing the pathophysiological mechanisms and subsequent efficacy of interventions that underlie different disease variants. Shifts in the current paradigms underlying RA pathogenesis have also led to increased demand for new (including humanised) animal models. There is therefore an urgent need to integrate the knowledge on human and animal models with the ultimate goal of creating a comprehensive 'pathogenesis map' that will guide alignment of existing and new animal models to the subset of disease they mimic. This requires full and standardised characterisation of all models at the genotypic, phenotypic and biomarker level, exploiting recent technological developments in 'omics' profiling and computational biology as well as state of the art bioimaging. Efficient integration and dissemination of information and resources as well as outreach to the public will be necessary to manage the plethora of data accumulated and to increase community awareness and support for innovative animal model research in rheumatology.