Green Ears: The Art of Tattooing
Maxine Kinne

Tattooing is a messy chore that some people find easy to dodge. But if a goat isn't tattooed for individual identification, it won't record a show win, and it may not be returned if it is lost or stolen. Don't assume that sellers tattoo the goats you buy - check every one! 

Each goat should be tattooed, not just show prospects. It takes less time to tattoo than it does to complete registration applications. Sure, it hurts. But if you do it right the first time, it only hurts once and the goat is permanently identified. If you can't afford all components of a tattoo outfit at once, much of it can be purchased separately. Friends or clubs might pool resources to buy and share a tattoo outfit. Or, you can take the goats to someone you know does a good job of it. Charges, if any, are usually negligible and help the "tattoo artist" pay for ink, disinfectant and maybe even a tetanus antitoxin injection. If you share equipment with someone, disinfect it before use. If someone tattoos for you, make sure they disinfect the equipment before using it on your goats.

Could anyone identify your individual goats if something happened to you? What about identifying a lost or stolen animal? I recently asked my husband if he could identify each of our goats, and he said, "No." If something happened to both of us, no one could sort out the untattooed few.

If you want to test for certain diseases, especially for any type of disease-free certification or milk testing, each goat must carry a unique, permanent identifier. So, tattooing as a means of permanent identification is quite important.

Tattooing Systems

Each NPGA member can apply for a unique registered herd name which carries with it a unique tattoo prefix as a personal herd identifier. No one in a registry has exactly the same herd name or prefix as anyone else, though some are strikingly similar. Each herd prefix is a unique combination of up to four letters and/or numbers. Often, the choice of these is up to you when you register your herd name. However, if the one you choose is already in use, you have to pick a different set. It's nice if your tattoo letters correspond with your herd name for easy recognition, but it's not required and may not be possible. With a herd prefix having two or three of the same letter, like MKK or PPP, you will have to buy multiples of that letter - it can be very difficult to reposition a single letter to use it again. It's all right to use numbers with the letters in a herd prefix, like 3A instead of AAA. The main requirements are that you use your own registered prefix and that tattoos exactly match the registration papers. All goats born on your farm will carry your herd prefix if you owned the doe at the time of breeding. The tattoo prefix is customarily placed in the right ear or right half of the tailweb.

Tattoos in the left ear/tailweb vary each year, and each kid gets its own unique combination. Each year is designated by a letter. For example, 1995's letter is "H". Following the designated year letter is the sequential number of births for year. For instance, the first kid of 1995 is H1, second kid is H2, and so on. The letters G, I, O, Q and U are not utilized by some registries because they may be easily confused with other letters. The important concept of the left tattoos is that they are for your own identification purposes. The right tattoo is your herd identifier and is always the same.

An alternate method of assigning left tattoos is to use two digits to represent the year, followed by letters in sequence. I used this system for the llamas and now use it for the goats, too. Our 1995 births were 95A, 95B, 95C, etc. If you have more kids than there are letters in the alphabet, you can use double letters (95AA, 95AB, etc.). This approach eliminates guessing which letter was which year; you know a goat's age when you read its tattoo. With new scrapie prevention regulations in place, you're better off not to dream up your own tattoo or other marking system - go with the method your registry association supports.

According to NPGA show rules, kids don't need to be tattooed until they are six months old. If you keep the goat, you can wait until nearly six months old to reduce the chance of faded or outgrown tattoos. However, all goats that are sold should be tattooed before they leave as a courtesy to the buyers, especially if you have unusual combination(s) that might give them trouble. Buyers, be sure to look for a tattoo before starting to install one. That doesn't mean just asking the seller - it means getting into the ears and/or tail and reading the tattoo yourself. Seeing is believing. Wipe dirt from the ears with alcohol and look for tattoos in the daylight. If you don't find them, wait until dark and shine a strong flashlight behind the ears, one by one. Back-lighting does not work with tails.

Safety First

When you prepare to tattoo a goat of questionable or unknown vaccination history, consider giving tetanus antitoxin vaccine to protect against this disease. Consult your veterinarian for timing and dosage information.

Unless your herd has a CAE-negative status and is exceptionally healthy in every way, it's a good idea to disinfect tattoo letters between goats. This is especially important if you tattoo for others, just to be sure you don't unwittingly pass blood-borne diseases from goat to goat or herd to herd. If someone is tattooing for you, insist that all tattoo letters/numbers be disinfected, at least by immersion in alcohol, before being used on your animals.


Several types of tattoo pliers are available from $23 to over $100. I prefer simplicity and have a plain set (Stone .300) without an ear release or a rotary head. Such frills tend to get in my way during the job and are harder to clean. Tattoo letters and digits are purchased separately from the pliers. It's nice to buy a whole set of each, but they may be added piecemeal. Be sure to order double letters if you have them in your herd prefix. Test letters and digits on paper to make sure they are about equal in depth. It is a good idea to order two sets of digits if you plan to have more than ten kids per year, or plan to skip those that require two (11, 22, 33). Most tattoo pliers accept up to four letters/digits, and some accept five.

It is possible to engrave tattoos into the goat's right and left flanks using special equipment. I dislike flank tattooing as it can be very difficult to read. The goat usually has to be laid on its back and sometimes has to have be shaved to see the tattoo. Expensive equipment keeps most people from using this method.

A variety of inks are available, and I prefer green paste. Roll-on ink is drippy and can later be hard to read. Green shows up very well on all colors of goats.

The rest of the equipment is simple. Use alcohol on paper towels or cotton balls to clean the ears/tail. And, of course, it's a good idea to have the registration papers right there in front of you to make sure you get the right combinations. Don't rely on memory. If you goof up, you will have to return the papers to the registry for correction. If a tattoo fades and needs to be redone, use a different location (ears vs tail).

Assistant's Job

A capable assistant is needed to restrain the goat during the procedure. I start with a stanchion. From behind, an assistant holds the goat under the chin with one hand and over the top of the head with the other. For each ear, the assistant needs to switch sides of the goat and hold the chin and top of the head with opposite hands to give you room to operate from the front of the goat. Two or three helpers are needed if you have no stanchion - one to hold the head and one or more to hold the body.

Doing the Job

Get out the letters and numbers. The right tattoo goes into the goat's right ear or tailweb. If in doubt, face the same way as the goat. As you face the goat from the front, it's right ear will be on your left, and vice versa.

Wash inside both ears/tailweb with alcohol on a paper towel at least twice or until the area is very clean. Dry the area. Put one set of letters and/or numbers in the tattoo pliers and test it on a piece of paper to make sure they are not backward. (When the tattoo is correct, you may press it onto the border of the registration papers as a reminder that its tattoo has been done.)

Have the helper(s) restrain the goat. Flatten the ear the best you can to be able to see inside. Position the pliers in the center, away from ridges of hair and as close as possible to the outer eartip. Firmly squeeze the pliers to puncture the ear. I press quite hard as this is my only chance to get a good tattoo. If the ear sticks to the needles, gently peel it off the pliers.

One or more of the punctures may bleed. Gently pinch a paper towel over the bleeder until it slows substantially, about 10 or 15 seconds. Then, squirt a blob of green tattoo ink onto your finger. Make sure you get pigment out of the tube, not just oil. Open the ear to see where to put the ink and rub it on. Continue to rub and press the ink into the holes until all bleeding stops, as blood flow forces ink out of the holes. By this time, the ink feels pretty dry, so I dip my finger in alcohol and shake it so that not even a whole drop remains on the finger and rub that over the tattoo to slightly thin the ink and continue to rub it into the holes. If you can see that each hole is not completely filled with ink, add more ink and work it in. This is the only chance you have to get a great tattoo, so take your time and do it until you are satisfied with a good job.

For tailweb tattooing, use the same procedure. To position the pliers, pull the end of the tail upward and spread out the sides to get an idea of how much area you have to work with. A helper can either hold the end of the tail or help spread the sides. Position the pliers over the area with the most "skin room," toward the edge of the tail and almost in the middle, between the base and tip of the tail. You don't want the letters to be too close to the hair, yet it needs to be away from the tail bones. Press down firmly and release to pliers. Gently pull the skin away from the needles.

Between tattooing one ear and the other, I wipe the excess ink off my finger to keep my equipment clean. If you don't, this stuff just seems to grow, and you end up with ink all over everything.

Remember to change the letters/digits in the pliers before starting on the other side. Test this combination before using it, and apply it to the papers if you desire.

When you're done, wash all the equipment (pliers, letters, digits) in warm, soapy water and let air dry completely before putting them away. Green paste ink washes off of fingers and out of most clothing. When in doubt about getting it off clothing, wash immediately.

Let tattoo ink wear off of the goat on its own. Wetting dilutes the ink and may weaken the tattoo enough to make it unreadable later. Do not to bathe the head in preparation for a show.

Check Tattoos Later

Think you did a great job of tattooing? It's always a good idea to check each tattoo in the spring before your load up for the first show. You may need to clean the inside of the ears with alcohol to remove the build-up of oily dirt to see them.

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