by Dr. T. E. Reed, ARBA Judge

A legible tattoo in the domestic rabbit's left ear is extremely important and mandated by ARBA show rules to exhibit a rabbit. If a legible tattoo is not present, the animal must be disqualified from the exhibit. In addition, a legible tattoo is extremely important in maintaining the integrity and credibility of the American Rabbit Breeders Association registration system and is of importance in identifying rabbits that may be lost or stolen.

Many judges and registrars complain about the increasing number of marginally legible tattoos. The common response is "bad ink". However, in most situations it can be related to a flaw in the tattooing procedure. The following is intended to enhance the quality of your tattoos.

The placement of a permanent legible tattoo in the inside of the left ear is the most accepted method of permanent identification of rabbits in the United States. Tattooing is a simple, safe and successful method of identifying animals IF the proper procedure is used. Tattoos are applied to the rabbit's ear by pliers (tattoo tongs), needle tattoo, or the automated tattooer.

The tong tattoos, or plier type, are probably the most common type of instrument used to apply permanent ear marks in the rabbit's ears. Most tong "tattooers" on the market today have the ability to hold five interchangeable digits or letters. The available digits, letters or numerals, are either 1/2 inch or 3/8 inch, and the 3/8 inch is most commonly used.

The advantage of the tong tattoo is that the procedure is relatively fast, and, can hold a versatile amount of letters and/or numbers. The disadvantage of this type of tattoo is that the equipment is relatively costly if one has only a few animals to tattoo; can cause injury to the animal if not properly applied; takes extra time to change the numbers and/or letters between animals and is limited to the numbers and letters that can be used in accordance to the availability of the digits and letters.

The needle type tattooing is an older method of tattooing that is used by many of the "old time breeders". This method of tattooing can be performed with a regular tattooing needle or can simply be done with a straight type sharp pin. The advantages of needle type tattooing is that it is very economical and a variety of type of numbers and/or letters can be placed in the animal's ear and it is rather simply performed. The disadvantage of this method of tattooing is that it usually takes more time as compared to the "tong" type of tattooing to place the tattoo in the ear.

The automated tattooer can either be battery or electrically operated and until recently has not been widely used in the U.S. The advantage of this type of tattooing is that one can place a variety of letters and digits in the animal's ear and it is faster than the hand needle tattooing method. The disadvantage of this method of tattooing is that the instrument is very costly and it takes considerable more time as compared to the tong type method of tattooing.

Physiological Principals Of Tattooing

The skin on the inside of the ear is penetrated with any of the above types of tattooing methods. Ink is incorporated into the puncture holes and it becomes permanently fixed in the area within the tissue of the skin as the puncture marks heal. If tattooed early in life before the ear acquires its permanent growth, the tattoo figure itself will enlarge as the ear enlarges. For the ink to become a permanent fixture within the tissue, it is imperative that the ink is rubbed into the puncture holes and that the ink is maintained in the puncture holes until the surrounding tissue has time to heal.

Position Of The Tattoo

The private tattoo, regardless of how applied, should be placed in the LEFT EAR. The tattooable surface of the right ear is reserved for the registration number. The site for placing the tattoo in the ear should be deep down on the inner surface of the ear where the skin is void of any hair. If one places the tattoo in the fringe area of the ear where there is a small amount of hair, it will interfere with the legibility of the tattoo.

After the exact site for the tattoo has been located, it is imperative that the skin surface be cleansed from all oil and dirt that may have accumulated in the ear. Any type of substance that will remove this oil and dirt may be used; however, alcohol swabs appear to be the material of choice.

When positioning the tattoo, take care that the tattoo is positioned where it will not incorporate any folds of skin and be placed in the ear so that it is readable when the ear is opened and looked at from the left side of the animal. It is quite easy for beginners to place the tattoo in the ear "upside down". The base of the tattoo letters should be toward the posterior (back) edge of the ear.

Restraint Of The Animal

In order to place a tattoo in the rabbit, regardless of method, it is imperative that the animal be restrained in a method that allows sufficient time for the tattoo to be placed in the ear and in a method that is save for the animal. Regardless of the method used, it is much easier and safer to tattoo young animals. The rabbit may be held in the arms with the left ear available, they may be restrained on a flat surface by another individual, by the individual doing the tattooing himself; or another method is the use of a tattooing box. The most prevalent danger in tattooing a rabbit is the possibility that the animal will thrust its back legs very rapidly which allows for the possibility of damage to the spinal cord, and which may cause permanent damage leaving the animal paralyzed. One should use caution when restraining the animal, so that the animal does not struggle and cause these severe injuries. Until one becomes experienced in tattooing, it is highly recommended that two individuals perform the tattooing process. One actually doing the tattooing and the other assisting with the restraint of the rabbit.


There are many types of commercial tattoo ink available on the market today that are very successful. One can either use one of these commercial type inks available or just use plain India ink. Black is the most preferred color of ink; but, some individuals (in dark pigmented animals) use green ink with success. The color of ink is entirely up to the individual's choice. More important than the type of ink is that the ink be of a consistency so that it is easily deposited into the puncture holes from the tattoo. One must use caution that the ink does not deteriorate so that it will readily "wash" from the tattoo punctures and cause illegible tattoos. After the ink has been vigorously rubbed into the tattoo punctures, one can prevent the "washing" or leaking of ink from the puncture marks by covering the tattoo with a light film of Vaseline after the excess ink has been removed from the ear.

The Tattoo Procedure

1. Prepare location for tattooing. One should prepare a site that is comfortable for the individual to tattoo the rabbit where there is plenty of room and ample light. The table should be covered with carpet so that the animal does not slip and become frightened. The height of your tattooing table should be so that it is comfortable for the operator and the assistant.

2. Select the necessary equipment. One should have a site to rest the tools and the ink that are going to be necessary for the tattooing procedures. It is important that the site be such that the equipment does not get knocked on the floor during the tattooing process as many types of "tongs" are fragile and if the digits are kicked on the floor, it is often very difficult to find them and they are very costly.

3. Select clean tattoo figures that are to be placed in the animal’s ear. All digits must be free of contaminants to prevent the transfer of various diseases.

4. Check the tattoo number to be sure that all digits are in the proper sequence and placed in the tattoo "tongs" properly. This may be done by practicing on a piece of paper.

5. Place the animal in the tattooing position.

6. Clean the ear thoroughly with an alcohol swab to remove oil and debris and allow time for the area to dry.

7. Place the tongs over the actual site where the tattoo will be placed. Remembering that the position of the tattoo should be deep in the ear where it will not be obscured by the fringe area of the fur and that there are no folds in the ear prior to the tattooing. The tattoo should be placed in the ear so that it is legible when observing the ear from the side of the animal. One should take caution to be sure that they do not place the tattoo upside down so that it is not legible when looking at the ear from the side.

8. After positioning the tattoo instrument properly, one should FIRMLY squeeze the tongs together. A common mistake is that the individual will squeeze a tong until the animal responds and then release the tongs before they have completely thrust through the inner skin of the ear. It is imperative that the tongs be completely closed and during this time, the individual doing the restraint must grasp the rabbit slightly firmer so it does not struggle.

9. The ink should then be vigorously forced into the puncture holes by rubbing the ink in with a soft surface. (Example: eraser of a lead pencil or a soft tooth brush).

10. After the ink has been "rubbed" into the puncture holes, the excess ink can be removed from the surface of the tattoo with a tissue or cotton. The new tattoo should be distinct and legible.

11. Apply a slight film of Vaseline over the legible tattoo so that the ink particles will not "wash" from the tattoo during the healing process.

12. Clean all the used digits and replace the equipment in proper fashion.

If one follows the above recommended procedure for tattooing, it should not be difficult to obtain good legible tattoos with a minimum of time and effort.

The Use Of The Tattoo Needle

The same procedure should be followed in the use of the tattooing needle as that described previously with the exception that one will not use the "tongs". The tattoo needle is a very valuable tool and one that all breeders should be aware of and be able to use if necessary. The procedure in using the tattoo needle is to puncture the inner layer of skin in the ear and then place ink in the tattoo puncture holes as described in the use of the tongs. Another very valuable use of the needle is to "retouch" tattoos so that they are legible. If one has placed a tattoo in the ear and a portion of the tattoo fails, they can be retouched with a tattoo needle so that they are legible.

Reasons For Illegible Tattoos

1. Tattooing animals that are old without cleansing the oil from the ear.

2. The use of poor quality or deteriorated tattoo ink.

3. Incomplete closure of the tongs. (Sometimes it is necessary to file down the "stops" so the closure will be more complete).

4. Failure to rub the ink into the punctures completely.

5. Allowing the ink to be "washed" from the punctures by the oozing of tissue fluid or hitting a blood vein.

It is important that if one has difficulty maintaining legible tattoos, that one examines their procedure and correct the problems immediately.

HLRSC Official Guidebook - 5th Edition 2002