(c) Gryph- if you repost this article, please post with a link back to my website.
Tattooing a rabbit is a way to give that rabbit an identity. Imagine a long row of New Zealand White rabbits. Will you be able to pick out an individual rabbit out of that line? With no identifying markers, it can be tough. Hence, the ear tattoo as a form of identity.
There are two primary tools for tattooing- clamps and pens. Some breeders prefer the clamp, and some prefer the pen. I prefer the pen, and my favorite pen is the MR Tatt. But I'm not going to go into detail about HOW to tattoo- there are plenty of resources on the Internet for that. Instead we are going to discuss WHY we tattoo, why it's important for record-keeping purposes, and how to choose a tattoo system of your own.
First of all, if you purchase a rabbit that is already tattooed (or even not tattooed but assigned an ear number on its pedigree), it is your responsibility to never, ever change the ear number. Ear numbers are assigned by the breeder. If you received a rabbit without a tattoo and with no ear number assigned on the pedigree, contact the rabbit's breeder to see what ear number they would like assigned.
Whether you show or not, it's important to keep very good records on your rabbitry and your individual rabbits. A good tattoo system compliments your record-keeping and helps you identify a rabbit easily and quickly. For show breeders or 4-H members, there are currently very few rules for tattoos set out by 4-H or ARBA (American Rabbit Breeders Association). (The rules set out by ARBA specify: SECTION 26. All animals must be permanently and legibly earmarked in the left ear. The tattoo is to only contain numerals 0-9 and/or letters A-Z. The tattoo is to contain no language of a profane or sexual nature.) Tattoos must be in the left ear (right is reserved for registration) and must be composed of letters and numbers. They should be legible, dark, and easy to read. Ideally, you should always use bold, black ink- it tends to stay readable longer. If you don't show, you can tattoo in whichever ear you want, but choosing one ear consistently makes it easier to know where to look on the first try.
When you are first starting out, purchasing tattoo equipment can be cost prohibitive. There are breeders who will tattoo at rabbit shows, and sometimes breeders will tattoo for you either at your rabbitry or at their rabbitry. There's usually a nominal fee involved to cover their time and supplies. I tattoo at my place for $2.00 per rabbit, and I'm usually willing to work a deal when you have a lot of rabbits to tattoo.
Every breeder has their own system that makes sense to them, but you can use these tips as guidelines to help you determine your own system. Your tattoo system should make duplication of ear numbers unlikely and should convey as much information about the rabbit as possible. Keep in mind the size of your breed's ear as well- the smaller the breed, the more conservative your system should be. Many clamp tattoo systems have a limited space to put numbers and letters, so if you use a clamp tattoo tool you might want to choose your tattoo system based on how many characters your clamp allows in one setting.
If you intend to show, then the tattoos shouldn't indicate your rabbitry in any way in order to keep judging anonymous (i.e., I don't put EdelweissRR1, EdelweissRR2, etc.). Otherwise, anything goes with letters and numbers. You can tattoo the rabbit's name, a combination of letters and numbers that indicate some sort of system, etc.
Your goal when developing your tattoo system is to identify each rabbit as being different from any other rabbit of the same color or breed in your rabbitry. The only necessity is that the tattoo on each rabbit is unique from any other tattoo in your rabbitry, and individual enough that it will not likely be duplicated by another breeder at a show.
Most rabbitries use some sort of identifier in their tattoo system. I use E as the first digit of mine and my rabbitry partner uses O for Oracle Rabbitry. A friend uses HW for Hopalong Warren Rabbitry, and another friend uses HQ for Heart's Quest Farm.
The last digit is USUALLY the rabbit's final identifier (sometimes it's inside the tattoo though), and most rabbitries use odd numbers for bucks and even numbers for does. There's no rule that makes this a mandatory part of your tattoo system though. This number can also identify where the rabbit falls in the litter, based on quality or weight or some other factor that the breeder determines. My favorite buck from every litter is "1" and my favorite doe is "2."
Whatever tattoo system you choose, it will be influenced by the breed of rabbits you raise, the size of their ears, what type of tool you prefer (clamp tattoos have a limit of characters), and what works best for your style of record keeping. There is no one system that works better than another universally, so it's up to you to choose the system that works best for your rabbitry.
Finally, make checking your rabbit's tattoo a part of your routine health checks. If the tattoo fades or becomes unreadable, be sure to touch it up. Your rabbit can be disqualified if the tattoo is not legible at a show. Even if you did not do the original tattoo, you may touch it up if you do not change it.
Complex or Random Sequences
Some breeders use a complex system of numbers for their rabbitry that only they can decipher. Some use random, meaningless numbers or letters. I don't like these systems because you may need to have your records on hand in order to decipher your rabbit's identity.
Using Rabbit Names
Some breeders use the rabbit's name as a tattoo. Barbara would be tattooed as BARBARA, Kendall would be tattooed as KENDALL, and so on. You can use nicknames- Stars Align might be just STAR or SA. Adding numbers to that name can make the sequence go even further. The problem if you sell rabbits is unless you name every rabbit before it leaves your rabbitry, you are limited. I know one particular breeder uses the rabbit's preassigned name as their tattoo (it makes things interesting- at least they are mini lops with very long ears!). So VT's Kick Some Asparagus' tattoo is KICKSOMEASPARAGUS.
One system is to number the rabbits based on their cage placement. A buck might in cage 1, and then does in cages 2, 3 and 4. When a breeder is replaced, they get the number of the rabbit they are replacing.
You could keep things very simple and tattoo your junior rabbits in the order they are kept. Using E for the rabbitry (for Edelweiss Ranch & Rabbitry), your rabbits would be E1, E2, and so on. Keep in mind this doesn't give you any identifiers beyond a number, though.
Using Sire and Dam Names
Many breeders use the first letter of the sire and dam's name in their tattoo system. This works well if you do NOT have rabbits with the same first letter in their name. Some breeders name (or even nickname) their rabbits according to the alphabet so that they do not double on letters. Having two does, for example, with the same first letter, could be nicknamed using different letters. Snow White might be called White (W) while Snowbell is called Snow (S).
Using Kendall as the sire and Barbara as the dam: A litter from that pairing might be KB1, KB2, KB3, KB4, KB5, KB6, KB7, KB8. The next litter by Kendall and Barbara would start at KB9, KB10, etc. You can further break this out. The first litter from Kendall and Barbara might be KBA1, KBA2, KBA3 or KB1A, KB2A, KB3A. The second litter might then be KBB1, KBB2, KBB3, or KB1B, KB2B, KB3B. You know that KBA1 should not be bred with KBB2 (unless you are intentionally inbreeding), because they are siblings.
This system can be handy to tell how closely related two rabbits are by their tattoo. If you breed Kendall to another doe- let's say Skipper- then it would be KS1, KS2, and so on. KB1 and KS2 are half siblings and so should not be bred together (unless you are intentionally line-breeding).
Some breeders choose to use only the dam's intitial in their tattoo. So Barbara's litter might be B1, B2, B3, etc.
Using Date of Birth
This is my preferred method. There are different ways to do this. I'll use my system as an example. I use the numeral of the month and the last numeral of the year in my tattoos. So a rabbit born in January 2017 would be 17. I then assign a litter letter starting from A for the beginning of the year. So the first litter of the year would be A. So 17A.
Using a Combination
I have a friend who uses a combination of date of birth and doe initial for her litters. She uses two letters for her rabbitry designation, for example WT- so a litter born in December of 2016 to Barbara would be WT126B1, WT126B2, and so on. While this can be useful and should prevent duplicate tattoos, it's rather long (up to 8 digits if you have more than 9 kits in a litter) and many clamps limit you to 5 or 7 digits.
My System, Broken Down
Aside from a very, very small handful of rabbits, all of my tattoos follow this system. I always use E as my rabbitry identifier, so all of my tattoos start with E. I then use the month and the year of birth, and a litter letter. I reset my tattoo letters every year, so the first litter of the year is the A litter. I have gone through the alphabet several times in a year. The last digit is the sex and order in the litter. Bucks will be 1, 3, 5 depending on quality (1 is the best at time of tattooing), and does will be 2, 4, 6, etc. A junior buck born in January 2017 in the first litter would be E17A1, his brother would be E17A3, and his sisters would be E17A2, E17A2. The next litter becomes E17B- E17B1, E17B3, E17B5 for bucks and E17B2, E17B4, E17B6 for does. When we get to the double digit months I stick with my system. A December litter might be E127X1, E127X2, etc. Without picking up a rabbit and/or flipping it over, I can tell age, sex, and which litter it belongs to.
When I do a co-breeding with another breeder, or when I purchase a bred doe and I am permitted to pedigree the litter under my rabbitry, I usually use the following system: E for my rabbitry, a letter to identify the other rabbitry, the month and year of birth, and the number assigned to the kit. So a co-breeding with Oracle rabbitry born January 2017 might be EO171, EO172, and so on. It's an easy way for me to keep track of rabbits I bred with others or litters that were bred by someone else that are pedigreed under my rabbitry.
I started this system in 2015, so in a decade (assuming I am still breeding rabbits), I will come across the "5" for the year designation again. IE a litter born in January 2025 would be E15A1, E15A2, etc. What I plan to do, again assuming I'm still breeding rabbits in a decade, is to move my rabbitry designation letter to the end of my tattoos. So instead of E15A1, I will use 15A1E. If I am still breeding in another decade, I'll decide then what change to make.
I was taught this system by a now-retired long-time breeder and I love it. It's simple, easy to use and assign, and keeps things organized for me.
UPDATE: I opted in 2020 to change my system to prevent any confusion, and instead of moving the letter to the end, I opted to move the letter to right after my rabbitry designation. So instead of E20A1, I have EA201. If I am still fortunate enough to still be breeding in 2030, I will change back to the older method.