Most of the time rabbits don’t like to be held. It can be a real struggle to perform basic grooming tasks, such as clipping a rabbit’s nails. Some well-meaning caretakers resort to putting their rabbit in a “trance” to keep their rabbits from struggling. This is when rabbits are placed on their backs in a position that causes immobility. Essentially, it forces the rabbit to play dead.
Why do rabbits play dead? Researchers believe that rabbits are able to play dead and go into a state of tonic immobility as a last resort defense mechanism. It can trick predators into believing that their prey is no longer alive, causing them to be less wary and let go of their catch. It could potentially give the rabbit one last chance to escape.
Despite the convenience of this rabbit defense mechanism, I do not advise that you use this technique (commonly called trancing) when grooming your rabbit. Despite the relaxed appearance, it’s a body position that puts rabbits under extreme stress. To prevent undue strain and anxiety in your rabbit, it’s best to avoid trancing your rabbit.
What is a rabbit trance?
Rabbits are tranced when they are placed into a state of tonic immobility on their backs. Generally, the rabbits legs will be upright and their chin will be straight up or pushed back. In this position, the rabbit will still be aware of the world around them, but they’ll be paralysed and unable to move. The rabbit will usually have closed eyes, shallow breathing, and relaxed paws.
People will trance their rabbits by either flipping them over and placing the rabbit on their laps, or they will use a flat surface to hold the rabbit. There is the occasional story of rabbits accidentally flipping themselves over and putting themselves into a trance, but this is incredibly rare. A tranced state is almost always induced by an external force, such as a human flipping the rabbit over.
The episode of tonic immobility does not last forever. Eventually the rabbit will snap back to reality even if their position is not changed. This means that tranced rabbits run the risk of injuring themselves when they wake up if they are left unattended. In addition, not all rabbits can be tranced. It’s estimated that about one quarter of all rabbits are unable to be put into this trance position.
Can wild rabbits also be tranced?
In the wild, rabbits will only enter into this state of tonic immobility if they have been captured by a predator. It is not a self-induced behavior. If there is still the chance to run away and hide, the rabbit will try to do so.
It is believed that this behavior evolved as a way for rabbits to appear dead to predators. If a rabbit has been caught, they may enter this state of tonic immobility while being carried in the predator’s mouth. The predator may then put the rabbit down, believing they are dead, thus giving the rabbit one last chance to escape.
Similar behaviors are a defense mechanism of many different species of prey animals. It is usually a last resort behavior that is induced when there are no other routes of escape because it may or may not work in the end.
What is NOT trancing?
Trancing is a very specific position that you put your rabbit into. While it’s possible that you or your rabbit are accidentally inducing this state of immobility, it’s more likely that you have a comfortable or calm rabbit in your home.
Some new rabbit caretakers might be worried because their rabbit appears to be playing dead. While there are rare exceptions, if you are not inducing a trance in your rabbit yourself, then they are probably not playing dead. Instead, this is known as a rabbit flop.
A flop is when a rabbit lays down all the way on their side to sleep. To a new rabbit caretaker, this position can be a little scary to look at. Their eyes will usually be closed or have a creepy half-closed look. In addition, the rabbit will usually be breathing slowly and shallowly, making it easy to miss. To make matters even more confusing, rabbits will usually appear to fall over into a flop. It may look as if the rabbit just fainted or keeled over.
The good news is, despite the shock of seeing your rabbit in this position, it’s a positive rabbit behavior. Flopping over is one of the ways that rabbits sleep. However, they only sleep in this position when they feel safe and comfortable in their environment.
A flopped rabbit is in a very vulnerable position. They no longer have their feet under them to run and hide if danger comes along, and they are usually in a deep sleep and unaware of the environment around them. That means if your rabbit flops around you, they trust you very much. It’s a sign of love and friendship in rabbits.
Cradling a rabbit
Some people like to cradle their rabbit in their arms, almost like a baby. Some rabbits seem to be quite calm in this position and less likely to struggle in someone’s arms. It’s possible that this position can lead to tonic immobility in a rabbit, but in many cases it’s perfectly fine.
As long as you are keeping your rabbit’s head above their chest, cradling a rabbit should not result in a trance. If your rabbit seems especially calm in this position, it may be because they feel more stable and supported when you hold them in this way.
Why you should NOT trance your rabbit
However convenient it may be to trance your rabbit when you want to groom them and clip their nails, this is not a recommended practice. Studies have shown that this is a practice that puts an incredible amount of stress on a rabbit. Trancing and tonic immobility should not be a part of your rabbit’s regular grooming routine.
How does a rabbit feel while being tranced?
When a rabbit is tranced, they feel fear-related stress. Physiologically, we know that a tranced rabbit’s heart rate and respiratory rate rise. They also have higher plasma cortisone levels. All of these signs are indications that the rabbit is experiencing intense fear related stress. In essence, it means that tranced rabbits are afraid for their lives.
In this state rabbits are still awake and aware of the environment around them. They are still able to feel pain and hear loud sounds. They just cannot do anything about it.
All this stress on the rabbit’s body is not healthy for the rabbit either. A rabbit suffering from any kind of respiratory or heart disease could end up dying from the stress of tonic immobility. Even healthy rabbits can die from being put into a trance for extended periods of time.
What happens to a rabbit who is tranced frequently?
Rabbits that are tranced frequently often show more signs of stress in their daily lives. They will groom themselves excessively, which is one way that rabbits self-stimulate to calm themselves down. Rabbits who are tranced often are also more prone to hide away. They will likely be less interested in bonding with their human companions, and they will be less confident and curious about the environment around them.
In addition, rabbits who are tranced frequently will start to understand the pattern. They’ll begin to know when they are about to be put into a state of tonic immobility and get scared and stressed before they are even placed into a trance. It makes trancing a rabbit easier, but it causes a lot more stress for the rabbit.
What are the exceptions?
Despite the intense fear that rabbits feel when being placed into a trance, there are times when it may be necessary to use this rabbit defense mechanism. For the most part, this will only be when your rabbit requires medical attention.
Tonic immobility is less dangerous to a rabbit than anesthesia. Therefore, any time that a rabbit needs to be held still for an X-ray or radiography, they will likely be placed into a trance by your veterinarian. There are also some procedures that your vet can undertake that don’t cause rabbits pain, but require your rabbit to stay still. In these cases a rabbit’s ability to be put into a trance could literally save their lives, so it is an acceptable practice.
- McBride, A; Day, S., McAdie, T., Meredith, A., Barley. J., Hickman, J. and Lawes, L. “Trancing Rabbits : relaxed hypnosis or a state of fear?” Proceedings of the VDWE International Congress on Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare, University of Huddersfield. August 2011,http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/id/eprint/11361.
- “Trancing.” Rabbit Welfare Association And Fund. https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-health/trancing.
How do you clip a rabbit’s nails?
It’s easiest to clip a rabbit’s nails if you have two people to help. One person can hold the rabbit while the other uses the clippers. If you are trimming them on your own, you will need to keep your rabbit secure on a flat surface while you patiently trim one paw at a time.
How do you hold a rabbit?
When you hold a rabbit, you want to make sure the front and back half of their body is supported at all times. Place one hand under your rabbit’s chest and the other under their behind and lift with the rabbit close to your body.