The use of stochastic differential equations offers great advantages for statistical arbitrage pairs trading. In particular, it allows the selection of pairs with desirable properties, e.g., strong mean-reversion, and it renders traditional rules of thumb for trading unnecessary. This study provides an exhaustive survey dedicated to this field by systematically classifying the large body of literature and revealing potential gaps in research. From a total of more than 80 relevant references, five main strands of stochastic spread models are identified, covering the ‘Ornstein–Uhlenbeck model’, ‘extended Ornstein–Uhlenbeck models’, ‘advanced mean-reverting diffusion models’, ‘diffusion models with a non-stationary component’, and ‘other models’. Along these five main categories of stochastic models, we shed light on the underlying mathematics, hereby revealing advantages and limitations for pairs trading. Based on this, the works of each category are further surveyed along the employed statistical arbitrage frameworks, i.e., analytic and dynamic programming approaches. Finally, the main findings are summarized and promising directions for future research are indicated.