PLEASE NOTE: The information here is the result of comprehensive and investigative research, thorough review of commonly published articles and the study of source documents to include scientific and/or academic studies, peer review commentary, reports and historical data used as the basis for popular conceptions. If you have a different perspective or disagree with information based on these source documents, please contact the biologists and/or zoologists, scientists or original researchers directly with your concerns about their work.
“Trancing…is the action of placing rabbits on their back to induce a paralysis known as tonic immobility, apparent death, or dorsal recumbency. The action is also known as the immobility response, hypnosis, or the freeze response”.61 Cited, WabbitWiki – March 30, 2016, (wabbitwiki.com/wiki/Trancing).
Steeped In Controversy And Misunderstandings
This article addresses rabbit trancing (tonic immobility). Though credible research does exist, rabbit trancing is still misunderstood among many rabbit owners. Because it is also misunderstood by some experts, the topic is somewhat controversial. One reason for the confusion is the lack of trained researchers publishing information about it.
Since trancing occurs because of a rabbit’s biology, it is critical to locate and review source information in addition to information that is easier to find. Some source information is not even accessible to the general public without paying a fee or making a special request to access certain academic studies. Even so, that is what comprehensive research requires. It is necessary to obtain those scientific studies, reports and academic papers. It is also necessary to study the peer reviews relating to them.
Tonic Immobility (TI)
First, let’s identify a widespread misunderstanding. Humans do not put rabbits into a hypnotic state or a trance. Rather, they place the animal into a physical position where inherent (natural) biological processes are triggered. In the case of rabbits, that physical position is laying the animal on its back with paws upward.
A rabbit that is placed on his back naturally enters a state called Tonic Immobility or TI. Tonic immobility (trancing) can induce a sort of paralysis. In this context, paralysis is somewhat synonymous with the terms apparent death and dorsal recumbency. It is a freeze response, meaning the rabbit suddenly appears to be frozen in place (as if dead). So, trancing = tonic immobility = paralytic state = freeze response which creates the appearance of death.
The ability to enter a state of tonic immobility (trance) is inherent in many small animals. It is not just specific to rabbits. Scientific studies support that tonic immobility is a defense mechanism which is completely motivated by fear. Rabbits experience immense fear when they believe death is imminent. Some rabbits will immediately go into tonic immobility when placed on their back. For some, it takes longer. Others violently thrash around, trying their best to get back to a position they consider to be safe which is all four paws down.
In a situation where the rabbit has run out of defense options, his system triggers what is called profound motor inhibition. When this occurs, automatic functions (such as respiration/breathing, heart rate/pulse and blood pressure) slow down considerably. Those functions are the life force of all living things – meaning, they are responsible for sustaining the rabbit’s life. It is also important to take note of the evidence proving elevated corticosterone (a hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex) which has been observed during tonic immobility. Elevated corticosterone is measurable when a rabbit is placed on his back. It is just another indicator that the rabbit is under a very high level of stress.
Some rabbit owners will say that their pet actually enjoys being tranced or placed on his back. This is a misunderstanding of what is actually occurring. In reality, a rabbit’s prey-like nature prevents him from complaining. With rabbits, silence does not mean enjoyment. This is a widely known fact. Additionally, when motor functions (life force) is biologically forced to slow down, the rabbit will appear calm and look like he is in a state of enjoyment. In actuality, the opposite is true.
Today, we know that rabbits will remain quiet even when they are enduring a high level of pain or have life-threatening illnesses. So, a quiet rabbit is no indication that he is okay. Prey animals respond to distress in this way. If nature had an awards ceremony for best actors, rabbits would win every time.
Profound Motor Inhibition
Profound motor inhibition occurs as a result of being in a trance-like state. Any living thing that enters a state of trance will, of course, appear settled and calm. As stated above, the rabbit’s life supporting systems have slowed down, which is the point of this biological process. Make no mistakes. Rabbits do this in response to immense fear. Reduced heart rate and slow breathing can give the appearance of death. Think about it. If a rabbit has been caught by a predator and plays dead, the predator may loosen his grip just long enough to allow for escape.
Observations documented in studies show that the slowing down of automatic functions (profound motor inhibition) occurs when the rabbit believes no more options for his survival exist. Since that is what trancing a rabbit does, we could simply say that a rabbit goes into a trance state so that he might live another day. That science is well understood and well documented. That being the case, one question comes to mind. Why would a pet owner believe that mimicking a last-resort-before-death is good for their animal?
It is also reported that less fortunate rabbits whose owners trance them have experienced rapid tonic immobility which has resulted in sudden heart failure. Even if spontaneous heart failure occurs rarely, the risk should be enough to convince rabbit owners to avoid trancing at all costs.
In addition to the risk of heart failure, there is a significant risk of spinal injury. The majority of these animals will thrash and try to get free when they are flipped over. A rabbit’s spine is very fragile and will break easily. Such injuries are totally unnecessary and often cause a painful end an otherwise viable life. There is no reason to place a rabbit in a position where he feels unsafe enough to wiggle and thrash (unsafe handling). Rabbits are ground animals. They feel safest with all four paws on the floor.
Rabbits Will Be Rabbits
Sometimes a rabbit will flip over while playing on the floor, or even temporarily lay on his back for a few seconds. This is quite common in rabbit kits and often observed to adulthood. At those times, the rabbit obviously feels safe doing so. Animals of all kinds feel safe if they are in control of their bodies. This is true of humans, too. If a giant were to come pick you up and stand you on your head, you would be very fearful. But if you stand yourself on your head, well, you get the point.
To further this point, rabbits also stand up on their hind legs to have a better look around. This is sometimes referred to as “periscoping’. They feel safe when they go up onto their hind legs. However, they do not much like it when a human forces them to stand in that position.
Nail (Claw) Care
Nail clipping is sometimes used to justify trancing a rabbit. In fact, some veterinarians still tell rabbit owners about this technique, though the practice is outdated and risky. Of importance, rabbit-specific specialty programs are still lacking, and most often non-existent, in veterinary schools. Rabbit science is studied as part of the very broad (too broad) category of exotic animals. Succinctly stated, it is still a problem today.
This is yet another reason why pet rabbit owners need to do their homework and find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian who is up-to-date on rabbit-specific science, medicine, proper care and safe handling. This means they go beyond their formal training by their own choice. Still, many rabbit owners who work consistently with these animals know much more about rabbits than most veterinarians. In other words, you probably won’t get accurate information about the dangers of trancing from your vet.
That aside, there are good videos on how to clip rabbit’s nails without placing a rabbit on its back and hence, risking injury. In most cases, trancing should not be a consideration for routine care and maintenance of a rabbit. A good video showing low-stress techniques for nail clipping can be viewed by CLICKING HERE. (Video will open in new tab so that you can return here after viewing).
Trancing Is Not Safe Practice
Based on scientific studies and in-depth research of this topic, it is clear that trancing should not be done. Not by rabbit owners. Not by veterinarians (except in extreme cases and only when absolutely necessary. Is it ever really necessary?). At the very least, tonic immobility (rabbit trancing) is risky because of potential spinal injuries. Worst case, the trancing process causes heart failure and the rabbit dies.
In addition to a long-term review of online publications, studies, blogs, commentary and widespread opinions about rabbit trancing, the following source information was used to document this article. In the interest of space, not all scientific source documents are listed below. However, there is a plethora of solid information to substantiate the dangers of rabbit trancing.
University of South Hampton: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/54860/ Trancing rabbits: Relaxed hypnosis or a state of fear? (Book, and study summation available) McBride, E.A., Day, S., McAdie, T., Meredith, A., Barley, J., Hickman, J. and Lawes, L. (2006/2007) Trancing rabbits: Relaxed hypnosis or a state of fear? In, Proceedings of the VDWE International Congress on Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare. VDWE International Congress on Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare Sint-Niklaas, Belgium, Vlaamse Dierenartsenvereniging v.z.w., 135-137.
Psych.NET: Hippocampal ablation prolongs immobility response in rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Woodruff, Michael L.; Hatton, Daniel C.; Meyer, Merle E., Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Vol 88(1), Jan 1975, 329-334.
Middlebury College, Department of Psychology: Tonic immobility As A Predator-Defense In The Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), Albert H. Ewell, Jr., John M. Cullen, Michael L. Woodruff.
Wikipedia: Tonic Immobility/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apparent_death#Tonic_immobility Apparent Death: Rabbits. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apparent_death#In_rabbits
Association of Pet Behavior Counselors: Rabbit ‘Whisperer’ Warning, Celia Haddon – April 2010. http://www.apbc.org.uk/blog/rabbit_whisperer_warning
University of Southampton: (Animal Welfare) – Dr Anne McBride. Animals In Trances: Peace of Mind Or Panic? DL PDF available at http://www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk/resources/content/ROWinter15-AnimalsinTrances.pdf
Iowa State University: (outdated / original study), Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior…Study of Animal Hypnotic Behavior (W. R. Klemm) January 1966. Baseline Summation (since corrected by more current studies, but relevant baseline information) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1338151/pdf/jeabehav00171-0065.pdf