Trancing a rabbit, sometimes also referred to as hypnotizing them, is a relatively common practice among rabbit owners. Basically, a rabbit is flipped over and laid or held on its back. Many rabbits will stay very still while in this position, almost as if in a trance, hence the name 'trancing'. Some owners trance their rabbits to make it easier to do things such as clip their nails, check their teeth, etc. I've seen it promoted as a way to help owners bond with their bunnies, especially since it is often assumed that tranced rabbits are in a state of extreme relaxation.
However, there are also many rabbit owners who speak out against trancing, stating that not only can it be dangerous, but that it's a very stressful, unpleasant experience for the rabbits involved.
What exactly is trancing? Why does putting some rabbits on their backs cause them to appear almost to be hypnotized, and is it really safe?
The scientific term for what is commonly referred to as trancing is tonic immobility, or apparent death. It's a fear motivated defense mechanism. Most people are familiar with the term 'playing possum'. That's pretty much what's going on when you trance a rabbit. Rabbits are a prey species. Tonic immobility most likely evolved as a last ditch effort for a rabbit caught by a predator to try to escape. The theory is that if they stay very still, predators might believe them to be dead and release their grip before injuring the rabbit further.
A 2007 study demonstrated that tonic immobility is accompanied by an increase in heart rate, respiration, and corticosterone (a stress hormone) levels. In addition, after experiencing tonic immobility rabbits were more likely to display stress related behaviors such as hiding more often, and exploring less. Many rabbit owners are aware that stress can be highly detrimental to our long eared friends - sometimes even proving fatal.
Kind of squashes the theory that trancing should be used as a bonding technique. Rabbits being 'hypnotized' by being held on their backs are not extremely relaxed, but quite the opposite. However, what about using it as a way to keep bunnies still for things like health exams or nail clips?
It all depends on the individual rabbit, and situation. Some rabbits will be highly stressed in certain situations no matter what. If you have to decide between trancing a rabbit and spending 5 minutes clipping its nails, or having it take much longer and cause even more prolonged stress, then perhaps trancing is more humane in that instance.
Some veterinarians will trance rabbits to preform medical procedures, such as taking xrays, without having to use anesthesia. Because of the risks that anesthesia can present, it can make sense to induce tonic immobility in these situations. Trancing a rabbit should not be taking lightly, nor done unnecessarily, but in some instances it does seem to be the lesser of two evils.
Rabbit owners sound off! What do you think? Do you ever trance your rabbit, and why? Let us know in the comments!