Tonic Immobility in Rabbits – To Trance or To Not Trance

Trancing a rabbit is the act of lying your rabbit down so that he goes into a sort of trance. In such a state, a rabbit does not usually move. I never used to understand trancing because I had never manage to do it with my rabbits before. I’ve seen dwarf rabbits tranced on youtube before and I just thought my two were too big to be tranced. If I ever flipped them over, they would flip back. Then, out of the blue, I discovered trancing by accident.

Nibbles had GI stasis over the weekend but because it was the first time he had ever had it, I was not too sure what it was. All I saw was him repeatedly lie down for a few seconds, get up and try and groom his behind and then lie down again. I had thought maybe there was something wrong with his behind, so I picked him up and turned him over. Usually, he would flip or kick but for some reason, he went slack, allowing me to quickly have a look. His behind looked fine. He went to the vets the next day and it was confirmed that he had GI stasis which fixed up after a night of hospitalisation.

Tonic immobility

I did not really know that he had tranced that night. It was only when we were clipping his nails yesterday that I mentioned to my sister, who had him on her lap (I was the clipper), that Nibbles was lying still on his back on the day he was ill. Curious, she carefully laid him down on her legs. At first, his head rolled back a bit and he did not move. Worried, she supported his head. But he still didn’t move. His eyes were shut and his nose was slowly twitching. I quickly trimmed all nails. We then did the same for Summer which was a miracle, since nail cutting is usually a stressful activity for Summer. What normally took fifteen to thirty minutes (dependent on luck and mood) was reduced to five. I even got to check their teeth for the first time. (If you want to know how to cut your own rabbit’s nails, I have an article on the topic)

Curious about what happened, I looked online and wow. Turns out trancing is one of those debates, like iphone or galaxy, like mayo or ketchup with your fries. The kind where some are convinced their rabbits love it and some are so wholly against it, they refused to even look at a tranced rabbit. So I did some research and this is what I found.

The Science

Tonic Immobility or TI is what the scientists refer trancing to. It is considered to be a fear motivated defense mechanism. TI is considered a last attempt for prey to escape being eaten by a predator. When a rabbit is in a TI state, it is playing dead. There are advantages to using this method when escape seems impossible.For example, if a fox has caught a rabbit, the rabbit might play dead. Thinking its prey is dead, the fox will stop attacking and may even let go of the rabbit or loosen its grip. In a split second, the rabbit might suddenly spring to life and escape.
In a study conducted by McBride et al. (Rabbits and tonic immobility PDF) the results suggested that rabbits show symptoms that are in line with being stressed after being in a TI state, such as a faster heart rate and breathing.

So… To trance or to not trance?

Some owners say their bunnies are so relaxed in this trance mode that when they wake up, they do not run off or panic but would happily sit in their owners laps. Others say that their rabbits would suddenly spring to life and are evidently stressed.

Many people would argue that it is stressful but in some cases necessary. For instance, if your bunny had an injury, needed grooming, had a dirty bum or needed nails clipped, TI can allow you to do all these things quickly. Perhaps it is stressful but most rabbits find having their nails clipped etc. stressful without TI. I suppose you could be weighing up which is the lesser of the two evils. Unless your rabbit is calm and easy going, he will probably be stressed with or without TI when you are doing any of those items. If its takes 30 minutes to clip nails without TI, you and your bunny are both frustrated, he is kicking at the same time and you are worried about cutting into the quick, perhaps TI could be useful and maybe less stressful since you could get the job done in 5 minutes.

You could always get your vet to do those tasks, but the drive to your vets can be stressful, as can being handled by a stranger at the clinic.

As I am new to this, I do not know what my bunnies think of trancing. The next time they are due for a clipping, I will find out. Its a personal thing, to trance or to not trance. I cannot justify scaring them in a car journey to go to the vets who I know will not handle them as lovingly as I do. Vets are practical and I know that one time one of my vets could not look into our rabbits mouth so he took them into a back room where a nurse helped. I wasn’t sure how much patience or care he took with checking their mouths. For all I know, he probably tranced them.

As long as owners do it responsibly and treat their rabbit with respect, I don’t see why trancing cannot be used for health checks and clipping nails. I did not get kicked in the face, the nails were trimmed nicely so I can give it a bit more time before I clip again, I did not have to skip Summer’s single wonky curved-in nail for fear of cutting it wrong and as an added bonus, they got their treat banana quicker because the job was done quicker.

If you do trance your bunny, do it for a good reason. It is not a party trick. Safe procedures are necessary to make sure you do not harm your bunny. Trancing should always be done close to the floor as rabbits can suddenly come of out of a trance and injure themselves. Anne Mcbride narrated a video created for Hopping Mad Bunny Magazine that is extremely useful for teaching you how to lift and handle your bunny properly. It covers how to trance safely.

Here is a bit of a mini story which makes me think that tranced rabbits are quite aware. My sister had Summer tranced on her lap as I clipped his nails and when we were done, she leant forward and kissed his nose a few times, commenting that she had never felt so close to Summer before.

The reason for that comment was because Summer and her NEVER really got on. The way how you might just not like someone, Summer was iffy towards her. So when we gently rolled him over, the first thing he did was start digging at her dress. I picked him up and he calmed down.

Conclusion? Summer must have felt violated that she had kissed him! When tranced, he had his eyes half open but he must have saw and felt something. He must have been thinking, ‘I might be still but that don’t make me blind!!’

Tonic immobility


  1. Safi April 7, 2016
  2. AnimalWhoop June 22, 2016
  3. Dave grainger March 23, 2018
  4. Ali September 17, 2018
  5. Phillip September 26, 2018

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