Many rabbit owners will sometimes see their rabbit suddenly lie on their back, or pretend to be motionless, even when they are definitely awake. But do rabbits actually play dead?
Rabbits do play dead, and indeed are born with the instinct to behave like this. There are several reasons a rabbit may suddenly play dead, including that this is a natural defense against predators, and it is often a sign of fear. Sometimes over-handling can cause this reaction in a rabbit, and is a good indicator that it is time to take a step back.
So, to help better explain what’s happening here, we are going to look at different facts surrounding this particular act. It’s actually a whole lot more interesting than you may have first imagined.
We have 11 facts, oh, and a bonus one at the end.
Fact 1: It’s a Defense Thing
First, let’s get one thing straight, this act is purely linked to defense. The aim here is that the rabbit wants to trick its predator into thinking the act of killing it is all over and that they will then lose interest.
Of course, a rabbit is not the only animal that adopts this strategy. Countless others will also play dead in the hope of tricking whatever is attacking them to then leave them alone.
Also, it’s a natural tactic to employ that’s linked to the hope they will not attract the attention of a predator that hones in via movement. If they lie still, then the predator will just walk on by and leave them alone providing them with the opportunity to then pop up and escape when the going is good.
This entire ‘playing dead’ thing actually has a name, thanatosis. We know, it sounds pretty horrible, but it’s just a term and there’s nothing to be worried about.
But here’s the thing. Your pet rabbit will be aware, on most occasions, that there’s no predator around them. So, that does mean there will be other things contributing to them carrying out this particular action.
But that’s ok, we will examine it all later.
Fact 2: They Generally Do it When in Absolute Terror
As this is the last thing that your rabbit actually wants to be doing, it does then indicate they are in a state of absolute terror. [Source] Take this particular action as a warning that something is wrong, and you need to investigate what is happening to then correct it.
Look at what could be leaving them feeling terrified. A noise, an event, something new around them could all have played a part. Your rabbit can be pretty timid at times, and when they are used to their surroundings it does mean something untoward has spooked them.
Now, we cannot give you a complete list of what can scare your rabbit and cause them to play dead. But how about these kinds of ideas?
- A loud bang
- Unusual traffic noise
- Loud music
- DIY close to them
- Shouting or yelling close to them
We could go on for an eternity, but you get the picture. Basically, your rabbit can be spooked by almost anything, and then if the noise doesn’t subside it will lead to them becoming even more terrified.
It’s also scary on your part to suddenly see your rabbit not moving a muscle, but just remember it is something that they will naturally do, and it’s nothing to actually be worried about from a physical point of view.
Fact 3: Over Handling Could Cause this Reaction
Remember how we just said something will have triggered this particular reaction in your bunny? Well, aside from things scaring them, one other major reason is that you are handling them too much, and that’s starting to annoy them. [Source]
They will go ahead and play dead even when in your arms, and it’s because they do tend to love the feel of their four paws on the ground. Anything other than that will start to freak them out, and they will no longer have the same contentment as they did before.
When their paws are all off the ground, they lose confidence, and their vulnerability increases. Of course, it does mean that you then need to put them down carefully on the ground, and they will then quickly jump up and scuttle off into a corner where they feel a lot happier.
So, while you may very well want to pick up your rabbit, do keep in mind it’s more for your own enjoyment rather than something for them. If they keep on playing dead whenever you do this, then you know the reason why that’s the case.
Fact 4: They Will Often Lie on Their Back
So, what’s the kind of position your rabbit will adopt when playing dead? Well, they will often end up going onto their back and not moving even a single muscle. That’s how you know they are not merely flopping down due to them being quite content with the world.
They can adopt this position for either seconds or minutes. This would vary depending on whatever the event was that was scaring them.
Once more, think how this is a vulnerable position to be in. They cannot simply run away when on their back. That’s why it’s seen as a last resort and something that comes naturally in them. They would rather do anything else than adopt this pose.
Here a short youtube video of a rabbit lying on their back while playing with their owner:
Fact 5: We Often Confuse with Sleeping or Flopping
This is where things can get confusing as an owner may not even be aware of when their rabbit is playing dead, and it’s all because of either thinking they are sleeping or doing some strange flop.
Well, there is one way to go ahead and check as to what’s going on.
First, the position of playing dead does tend to be different to that when your rabbit is content and flopping down. With a flop, it’s more on their side with their legs sprawled out. Also, there’s some movement when your rabbit has performed a flop, and that movement is missing when playing dead.
For sleeping, you need to listen out for a clicking or purring sound that will indicate your rabbit is fast asleep. Of course, if a rabbit was playing dead then it would hardly be making a sound like that.
Fact 6: A Baby Rabbit Will Also Play Dead
So, if you thought that only an adult rabbit would indulge in this kind of behavior, then you would be wrong. A baby rabbit is also quite happy to go ahead and play dead if the situation arises.
The mother will teach the baby how to do all this while they are still young. It does mean it’s a natural instinct for the rabbit to adopt this pose, even if they never want to be in the type of situation. However, the mother won’t actually spend too much time teaching them anything, so the baby rabbit must figure out most things on their own.
Also, if it’s in the wild then a baby rabbit would play dead as a form of imitating the older rabbits. They see others doing it, so want to copy, and that’s kind of cute all in its own right.
In other words, don’t be surprised if your baby rabbit goes ahead and plays dead even more than an adult rabbit. Everything is scary to the rabbit at this age, and they have not yet developed an understanding of how to differentiate between scary new situations and those that they shouldn’t worry about.
But don’t worry, you will get used to them doing this.
Fact 7: Don’t Try Forcing Them Into this Position
OK, so this is a bit less of a fact and more of a plea.
Please do not think it’s cute to attempt to force your rabbit into this playing dead position. By doing this, and some people hold them there, you are trying to do something called trancing.
Putting your rabbit into this position will scare them senseless. It will send their heart-rate rocketing, and that’s not good for their health. In the cases of baby or older rabbits, it could be too much for their heart to deal with, and there is the possibility of them having a heartattack as a result.
It creates this reaction because it’s putting them in an extremely vulnerable position, and clearly those four paws are also off the ground. They will play dead, but only because of how scared they feel at that moment.
However, there are some rare moments where you could end up putting them in this pose. However, it must only be with an adult bunny, and for the shortest time possible.
These moments are when you see blood but cannot get them to lie still enough to determine where the injury is located. Putting them on their back, and effectively freezing them, will mean you can quickly scan their paws and underbelly to find out what’s going on.
The other moment is if you are trying to give them some kind of medication and are having no luck with other methods. At that moment, deliver the medication as quickly as you can before turning them over and letting them go on their way.
If you do have to put them in this position, make sure you shower them with affection after it or give them some kind of treat. This will help lessen the trauma they feel they have just experienced, and it may make it easier should you need to repeat the process in the future.
Fact 8: Playing Dead After Exercise is Usually Not Playing Dead
A number of owners may experience what they think is their rabbit playing dead after they have been exercising. Well, while something may have very well scared them to such a point that they do this, chances are that you are watching them flopping instead.
Remember, if they have been running around having fun, their anxiety levels are not going to be high, and there’s no reason why they should then feel terrified enough that they will play dead. Instead, the opposite is true.
So, if you think your rabbit is continuing to have some fun by playing dead, they are actually very happy at that moment and want to just relax. Either leave them where they are or pick them up and carry them to their favorite sleeping spot to allow them to have a long nap.
Fact 9: They Won’t Hurt Themselves
People worry constantly that their rabbit is doing something that is hurting them, but that’s certainly not the case here. Your rabbit is in complete control at all times.
They know what they are doing. Would a protection mechanism be something that could hurt the animal? That in itself wouldn’t make sense, so simply focus on finding out what has caused this kind of reaction rather than worrying about your rabbit.
This movement is all calculated in advance. If a rabbit was really playing dead to avoid a predator, then they actually realize it must come across as natural as possible. So, if they do this movement in the blink of an eye, it’s because they are trying to replicate this notion of effectively ‘dropping dead’.
Fact 10: They Do Prefer Other Lines of Defense Over Playing Dead
Remember how we said that this is the last line of defense for your rabbit at the outset? Well, we can explain why this is a last resort to make you feel better about them doing it in the first place.
A rabbit that is encountering some kind of danger in the wild will either try to run away (remember that they can run at a crazy speed for an animal of their size), or they will fight back. Yep, they have a strong fight or flight response.
A rabbit would rather bite or claw its way out of a corner than playing dead. This is often due to their ‘predator’ being animals such as foxes that are larger than them. Playing dead would mean they became even easier prey to catch.
They see this action as being the final thing they can do in order to even confuse a predator. However, they are fully aware of what’s going on to then allow them to react and get away if the opportunity presents itself to them.
Fact 11: They Will Be Up and Running Again
Finally, as soon as the perceived threat is past for your rabbit, they will be up and running again as if nothing has ever happened to them. Like we mentioned in a previous fact, this pose can be adopted for either seconds or minutes, and it all depends on what is going on around them.
Look at it from this perspective.
If your rabbit is playing dead because you have picked them up, what tends to happen when you then place them down carefully on the ground? The answer is they suddenly ‘come alive’ once again and get on with life.
But remember, don’t think that no harm has been done by them playing dead. Their anxiety is so high at this point, and they don’t want to actually be doing this. So, you need to address the situation and realize that something is not working out quite right around your rabbit.
If you don’t know what’s going on, then please do try to work it out. The health of your rabbit is at stake here, and that’s a good enough reason to explore what’s happening.
Bonus Fact – They Understand Everything That’s Going On Around Them
Finally, we need to clarify one thing, your rabbit knows everything that is going on around them even if you wonder how that’s possible.
They may lie there with their eyes closed, but all the other senses are supercharged at this point. They hear everything. They are aware of movement. They need to be like this because they have to be ready to get out of there.
Also, when your rabbit knows there are no actual predators around, they may play dead to get some attention from you. But we recommend not jumping up and checking out what’s going on. Instead, it’s more fun to wait and see how they lift their head or open their eyes to see where you are at that moment.
Basically, they will be trying to get you to do something, and know that them playing dead may pull you into this little game they are playing.
So, there you have it. Everything you have ever needed to know about your rabbit playing dead. This natural event and pose may be scary when you first encounter it, but chances are it will become very familiar as time passes.