I know you’ve heard that it’s possible for rabbits to be literally scared to death. I’ve even had someone ask me if it’s okay to touch a rabbit because they heard it could scare the rabbit so much that they would die. The story goes that the rabbit gets frightened by something, then immediately drops dead due to a heart attack.
Most of the time, I’m here to bust myths about rabbits, but this time there is actually some truth in it. Rabbits can be scared to death. That being said, it is a lot less common than people are led to believe.
It is highly unlikely for a domestic rabbit to die of fright unless there is a predator nearby that the rabbit is unable to hide from. In these cases, the rabbit’s heart rate may increase dramatically causing a heart attack immediately, or they may go into shock and die hours later.
How common is it for rabbits to die of fright?
Even though you might see a lot of warnings that your rabbit can get a heart attack and die from being too scared, it’s not a common occurrence. I’ve worked with hundreds of rabbits in a shelter setting where they are surrounded by strange sights, scents, and even predator animals (cats and dogs) and none of the rabbits have even come close to dying of fright.
If you keep your rabbit at home in a safe environment (generally indoors is better) with places they can hide, it is highly unlikely that they will get so scared that they will die. Don’t get me wrong, all rabbits will get a little frightened sometimes, but a small amount of fear is not going to kill a rabbit.
That being said, you don’t want to completely ignore the risk that your rabbit could get too scared. It’s unlikely for house rabbits to die of fright, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you have a highly anxious rabbit, a rabbit with known health risks, or a rabbit who is very old or young, they are at a higher risk of developing heart failure or going into shock when they get too scared.
In these cases, you’ll want to take some extra precautions. Make sure no predators come near your rabbit, and give your rabbit space to run away, hiding spots, and indoor living places. You also might want to help your rabbit become more confident and desensitize your rabbit to common scary sounds (such as fireworks) so that they’ll be less likely to be frightened enough to have a heart attack or go into shock.
- Learn more about how to help your rabbit overcome anxiety
Will rabbits die from a heart attack immediately?
Some rabbits who get too scared will have an immediate heart attack and die, but that’s actually not the most likely outcome. It’s more common for rabbits to go into shock, causing their body to shut down. They will start shaking, their muscles will become limp, while their blood pressure drops dramatically.
If you ever notice these symptoms, contact your vet immediately. In these cases, it can take hours or days before the rabbit dies. But it also means there is a chance you can help your rabbit recover before their body shuts down completely.
- Learn more about how to care for a rabbit who has gone into shock
Fear of predators can cause a rabbit heart attack
Personally, I have never known a rabbit who was so scared that they died. The only second-hand story that I know is from a staff member at a rescue center I volunteered with. She explained that she knew a very young rabbit who died of a heart attack after a dog barked right next to them.
This is the type of scenario that is most likely to lead to a sudden-fright heart attack in rabbits. It happens when a predator is nearby and the rabbit feels threatened and unable to escape. This can happen even if there is no way for the predator to get to the rabbit (if there is a secure fence or barrier between them). This is one of the reasons that it’s safer to keep rabbits indoors. Everything from racoons, snakes, neighborhood dogs, cats, foxes, and large birds can prey on rabbits.
If you have a dog or cat as part of your household, you may need to take some precautions to keep your rabbit from feeling too scared. This depends entirely on the personality of your rabbit. If they are a fairly confident rabbit, they might be fine sharing their home with your cat or dog. However, timid and anxious rabbits should have a room to themself where the other pets cannot come and scare them.
A trapped rabbit can die from being too scared
The other more documented cause of death-by-fear in rabbits is when they are chased and trapped. This is a phenomenon called capture myopathy, and it’s a condition that affects wild animals (including rabbits) almost exclusively. It’s highly uncommon for a domestic rabbit to suffer from capture myopathy, although it is possible.
Capture myopathy happens when the rabbit is chased and trapped in an enclosed space with nowhere to hide or run. The fight or flight response will be triggered, but there is nothing the rabbit can do in response, so their body continues to be stressed out. Sometimes it can cause the rabbit to die immediately, and sometimes it can take a number of hours or days.
Other causes of fright in rabbits that can potentially lead to death
The presence of predators and capture myopathy are the two most common ways that I’ve heard of rabbits dying of fright. However, anything that seriously scares a rabbit has the potential to cause a heart attack or push them into shock. These are some common scenarios where you may want to be particularly careful:
- Fireworks. Since fireworks are very loud bangs and unusual sounds that can continue for a couple of hours, this can pose a threat if there is a fireworks display near your home.
- Long car rides or airplanes. Rabbits can get severely stressed out when they are in vehicles due to the vibrations and unusual sounds. If you are taking a long car ride, make sure to take frequent stops to give your rabbit a chance to calm down.
- Too many children or people giving a timid rabbit unwanted attention. Many rabbits are very timid around people. If they are surrounded by people (children especially) with no way of escaping, it can be a scary situation for the rabbit.
I want to reiterate, it is rare for rabbits to get so scared that they have a heart attack or go into shock. This is not meant to scare you. Instead, I just want you to be aware of common dangers so you can be prepared and take precautions where necessary.
What will probably not cause a rabbit to die of fright
I don’t want to scare you too much. You don’t need to tiptoe around your rabbit all the time. Most of the time when a rabbit gets scared, they will recover fairly quickly. These are some scenarios that may scare your rabbit, but probably won’t cause them to go into shock:
- The vacuum or loud indoor noise. Most rabbits are afraid of the sound of a vacuum cleaner, but I’ve never even heard of a rabbit who went into shock because of it. It’s still best to avoid turning the vacuum on directly next to your rabbit and make sure they have a place to run and hide.
- A thunderstorm. Thunderstorms tend to be a lot less jarring than fireworks with the sounds happening much less frequently. The loudest parts of thunderstorms also don’t last nearly as long as a fireworks display, so it’s unlikely to scare your rabbit so much that they go into shock.
- A dog barking in a separate room in the house or outside. Generally, if there is a solid barrier (a door or a wall) between the rabbit and the predator, they are unlikely to get so scared that they go into shock.
Factors that make a rabbit more susceptible to being frightened to death
Healthy adult rabbits are not very likely to die of fright. But there are always factors to consider that can put your rabbit more at risk. Consider all of these factors to help you determine how at-risk your rabbit is.
- Elderly and young rabbits. Young rabbits are often not used to all the possible noises of the world and are more likely to feel scared faster. Elderly rabbits are more likely to have health issues that make them more susceptible to heart attacks.
- Rabbits living outside. Outdoor rabbits are much more likely to come into contact with predators on a regular basis.
- Rabbits with shy or anxious personalities. Timid rabbits will get scared at sounds and smells that a more confident rabbit will ignore.
- Rabbits who are frightened for long periods of time. The longer a rabbit is in a stressful or frightening scenario, the more likely that they will experience negative health consequences, especially if there is another sudden scare to push them over the edge.
- Wild rabbits. Wild rabbits have more fearful instincts than domestic rabbits, making them more susceptible to going into shock if they are held captive.
How to prevent your rabbit from getting too scared
If you are worried that your rabbit is at risk of going into shock or having a heart attack due to extreme fear, you can make some changes to their living environment to help prevent it.
- Keep your rabbit indoors. This will help your rabbit feel safer and more in control of their surroundings.
- Keep their home environment quiet and safe. A quiet and calm living space keeps your rabbit’s stress levels low.
- Help timid rabbits overcome anxiety and gain confidence. The more confident a rabbit is, the more resilient they’ll be in the face of sudden danger. They’ll be more willing to approach the world with curiosity instead of anxiety. (Learn more about how to help)
- Make sure your rabbit has places to hide. A rabbit who can hide will feel less exposed in dangerous situations.
- Do not make your rabbit feel trapped. Avoid chasing your rabbit, and always make sure your rabbit has the ability to use their fight or flight response by giving them a large living area.
- Keep car rides as short as possible. Take frequent stops if you need to travel more than a couple of hours.
- Make sure you have a close relationship with your rabbit. Befriending your rabbit means you’ll be able to sit with them and comfort them when they get scared. You can also find a friend for your rabbit to bond with. This can help significantly in reducing the chances of prolonged shock. Companionship also helps to keep a rabbit’s overall stress levels down. (Learn more about how to comfort a scared rabbit)
- “Outdoor and Indoor Hazards.” House Rabbit Society. March 2013. https://rabbit.org/care/habitat/outdoor-and-indoor-hazards/
- Breed D, Meyer LCR, Steyl JCA, Goddard A, Burroughs R, Kohn TA. “Conserving wildlife in a changing world: Understanding capture myopathy-a malignant outcome of stress during capture and translocation.” Conserv Physiol. 2019 Jul 5;7(1):coz027. doi: 10.1093/conphys/coz027. PMID: 31304016; PMCID: PMC6612673. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6612673/
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