BACKGROUND: Pain of mild to moderate grade is difficult to detect in laboratory mice because mice are prey animals that attempt to elude predators or man by hiding signs of weakness, injury or pain. In this study, we investigated the use of telemetry to identify indicators of mild-to-moderate post-laparotomy pain. RESULTS: Adult mice were subjected to laparotomy, either combined with pain treatment (carprofen or flunixin, 5mg/kg s/c bid, for 1 day) or without pain relief. Controls received anesthesia and analgesics or vehicle only. Telemetrically measured locomotor activity was undisturbed in all animals, thus confirming that any pain experienced was of the intended mild level. No symptoms of pain were registered in any of the groups by scoring the animals' outer appearance or spontaneous and provoked behavior. In contrast, the group receiving no analgesic treatment after laparotomy demonstrated significant changes in telemetry electrocardiogram recordings: increased heart rate and decreased heart rate variability parameters pointed to sympathetic activation and pain lasting for 24 hours. In addition, core body temperature was elevated. Body weight and food intake were reduced for 3 and 2 days, respectively. Moreover, unstructured cage territory and destroyed nests appeared for 1-2 days in an increased number of animals in this group only. In controls these parameters were not affected. CONCLUSIONS: In conclusion, real-time telemetric recordings of heart rate and heart rate variability were indicative of mild-to-moderate post-laparotomy pain and could define its duration in our mouse model. This level of pain cannot easily be detected by direct observation.