Do Rabbits Play Dead When Attacked or Scared?

Few sights perplex and astonish more than witnessing a rabbit suddenly collapse, grow stiff as a statue, and seem to mimic the grim figure of death itself. Long has this bizarre phenomenon of “playing possum” captured the curiosities of rabbit owners and observers alike. Why do rabbits appear to spontaneously “play dead” in response to stress? Is this a brilliant act of deception or purely instinctual reaction? Delve into the mystifying realm of rabbit death-feigning behaviors as we unravel fact from fiction on their tricks of going limp, holding breath, and “fooling” foes. Discover whether rabbits truly use this strategy with predator-outsmarting intention, or if stillness simply signals an overwhelmed bunny brain hitting its survivalist reset button. The truths about “playing dead” may surprise even veteran rabbit lovers.

Rabbits do not actually play dead when they are scared. The behavior of a rabbit going still and appearing lifeless in response to fear is better described as "trancing." Trancing is an involuntary state that rabbits can enter when they feel threatened or are undergoing extreme stress.

In the wild, trancing may help rabbits avoid detection from predators. By remaining perfectly still and appearing dead, rabbits hope predators will lose interest. However, trancing is not a conscious behavior that domestic rabbits purposely engage in when scared. It is an involuntary, instinctual response.

Some signs that a rabbit is in a trance state due to fear include:

  • Lying down and remaining completely motionless
  • Eyes wide open and glazed over
  • No response to stimuli

A scared rabbit may be trembling slightly or breathing rapidly while trancing. But the lack of major movement gives the appearance that the rabbit is "playing dead." If your rabbit seems to play dead when scared, she is likely just entering a temporary catatonic state due to extreme stress rather than intentionally tricking predators.

What is Trancing a Rabbit?

Trancing refers to the involuntary, frozen state rabbits can enter when undergoing extreme stress or fear. It is also sometimes called tonic immobility. Trancing causes the rabbit's body to go rigid, muscles to tense, and breathing to slow. To predators, a tranced rabbit may appear dead.

There are a few ways trancing can be induced in rabbits:

  • As a fear response – Rabbits may trance when confronted by predators or perceiving extreme threats. Going still helps them avoid detection.

  • By being placed on their back – Rolling a rabbit onto their back and holding them in that position can cause them to enter a trance state. This is sometimes done during grooming or veterinary procedures to keep the rabbit calm and immobile.

  • By stroking the forehead – Lightly stroking between a rabbit's ears can induce a trance-like state. Again, this may be used to keep rabbits relaxed for medical procedures or examinations.

Trancing helps rabbits confront threats by decreasing stress. But sustaining a trance for too long via positioning on the back can be dangerous. Rabbits may struggle to breathe or even die if held on their backs too long, so this method should be avoided. Trancing that naturally occurs due to extreme fear will resolve on its own once the threat passes.

Do Rabbits Play Dead When Attacked by a Predator?

It is a common myth that rabbits will play dead when attacked by predators. In reality, rabbits do not intentionally pretend to be dead in order to trick or outsmart predators. However, they may appear dead to predators when entering a frozen, trance-like state out of extreme fear.

When confronted by a predator, rabbits rely on other instincts and behaviors to protect themselves:

  • Running away at high speeds – Rabbits are capable of running over 40 mph to escape threats. Outrunning predators is their first line of defense.

  • Freezing in place – If unable to flee initially, rabbits may freeze in place and rely on camouflage to avoid being detected by predators.

  • Thrashing/Kicking – Cornered rabbits may use their powerful hind legs to scratch, claw, or kick at predators to defend themselves.

  • Screaming/Squealing – Rabbits will vocalize loudly when seized to startle predators and alert other rabbits of danger.

So while playing dead is not a conscious tactic, a rabbit that has tranced completely still with fear may give the impression they are "playing possum." In reality, they have entered an uncontrollable, dormant state in response to extreme stress. They are not intentionally fooling the predator.

Do Baby Rabbits Play Dead?

Baby rabbits, also called kittens, do not intentionally play dead as a defensive mechanism. However, there are a couple reasons why people may get the impression that newborn rabbits play possum when threatened:

  • Lack of fleeing response – Baby rabbits under 3 weeks old cannot yet hop or run away from predators. Without this escape option, going still and silent may be their only chance of avoiding detection. But they do not choose to play dead.

  • Trancing – Like adult rabbits, baby rabbits may enter temporary paralysis from extreme fear. Their stillness in this trance state may resemble playing dead as a survival strategy, even though it is involuntary.

  • Parental independence – Wild baby rabbits are precocial, meaning they are born relatively mature and do not need constant parental care. If a predator finds unattended young, they may assume the kittens are orphaned or abandoned rather than strategically playing dead.

So while baby rabbits do not intentionally play dead, their instinctive stillness, early vulnerability, and independence from parents can give the appearance they are deliberately mimicking death when threatened. In reality, they are entering an involuntary, completely frozen state of fear or simply relying on camouflage due to inability to flee.

My Rabbit Plays Dead After Exercise

It can be alarming to have your rabbit suddenly collapse and play dead after exercise or stimulating play. However, generally this behavior is not cause for concern. Rabbits have a tendency to go into a trance-like state after physically exerting themselves.

Possible explanations for post-exercise trancing include:

  • Temperature regulation – Rabbits may sprawl out flat to maximize contact with cool surfaces, allowing heat dissipation after bursts of activity.

  • Fatigue – Exercise can be taxing and bunnies may simply need to rest and recharge after expending energy in play. The motionless trance mimics deep, restorative sleep.

  • Stress relief – Some rabbits seem to enter a tranquil post-play trance as a way to relieve excitement, stress or anxiety caused by stimulating activity. It allows them to calm down.

As long as your rabbit is healthy, trancing after exercise is simply an innate behavior and not harmful. Provide ample space and access to cool floors. Monitor for prolonged sluggishness or failure to awaken which could indicate a more serious health issue requiring veterinary attention.

Rabbit Playing Dead vs. Sleeping

It can be difficult to discern whether a rabbit is trancing/playing dead versus simply sleeping. Here are some ways to tell the difference:

Playing Dead:

  • Occurs suddenly, often after a frightening trigger
  • Wide open, fully dilated eyes
  • Lack of response to stimuli
  • Held rigidly in odd positions
  • Trembling or panting may still occur

Sleeping:

  • Happens gradually, rabbit assumes natural sleeping postures
  • Eyes closed or partially open if dreaming
  • May respond to sounds or touch when in lighter sleep
  • Relaxed body positioning with natural head/limb placement
  • Steady and even breathing

While trancing and sleeping both involve stillness and inactivity, trancing is characterized by tense paralysis and unresponsiveness indicating a fear reaction. Sleep is more relaxed with natural sleeping postures. If uncertain, speak softly or gently pet your bunny to see if it awakens. Arousal from sleep confirms your rabbit is simply resting.

References:

https://rabbitbreeders.us/questions-and-answers/do-rabbits-play-dead-when-attacked-or-scared/
https://www.rabbitsforsale.com/questions-and-answers/do-rabbits-play-dead/

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