Background: Ear tattooing is a routine procedure performed on laboratory, commercial and companion rabbits for the purpose of identification. Although this procedure is potentially painful, it is usually performed without the provision of analgesia, so compromising animal welfare. Furthermore, current means to assess pain in rabbits are poor and more reliable methods are required. The objectives of this study were to assess the physiological and behavioural effects of ear tattooing on rabbits, evaluate the analgesic efficacy of topical local anaesthetic cream application prior to this procedure, and to develop a scale to assess pain in rabbits based on changes in facial expression.
Methodology/principal findings: In a crossover study, eight New Zealand White rabbits each underwent four different treatments of actual or sham ear tattooing, with and without prior application of a topical local anaesthetic (lidocaine/prilocaine). Changes in immediate behaviour, heart rate, arterial blood pressure, serum corticosterone concentrations, facial expression and home pen behaviours were assessed. Changes in facial expression were examined to develop the Rabbit Grimace Scale in order to assess acute pain. Tattooing without EMLA cream resulted in significantly greater struggling behaviour and vocalisation, greater facial expression scores of pain, higher peak heart rate, as well as higher systolic and mean arterial blood pressure compared to all other treatments. Physiological and behavioural changes following tattooing with EMLA cream were similar to those in animals receiving sham tattoos with or without EMLA cream. Behavioural changes 1 hour post-treatment were minimal with no pain behaviours identifiable in any group. Serum corticosterone responses did not differ between sham and tattoo treatments.
Conclusions: Ear tattooing causes transient and potentially severe pain in rabbits, which is almost completely prevented by prior application of local anaesthetic cream. The Rabbit Grimace Scale developed appears to be a reliable and accurate way to assess acute pain in rabbits.