I have heard that you can trance a rabbit to help with tasks such as nail clipping and cleaning the underside. Is doing this safe for my rabbit? How do I do it? Are there other applications where this is effective?
Trancing or hypnotizing your bunny is possible and is often used as part of the grooming process. There are two opposing thoughts on trancing: The first being that it is calming and a good solution for many situations. The second being that the rabbit is in fear for its life, it enters a "play dead" natural response common to many prey animals, and this is stressful for the bunny.
There are several online and published references to trancing a rabbit to calm them after a fearful encounter, to promote bonding with a person, and even for performing semi invasive procedures such as neutering. That this is effective is self evident; the bunny is obviously not struggling, and when awakened will snuggle next to you, even if it had been struggling earlier.
Described in 1839 by Darwin as the 'death feint' this well known response in prey animals may more properly be referred to as Tonic immobility (TI). That TI causes a stress response in rabbits is well documented in 'Trancing rabbits: relaxed hypnosis or a state of fear?' Rabbits and many other prey animals will 'play dead' when attacked by a predator, often leading to decreased injury and offering a chance to escape. Verifiable chemical and behavioral fear responses have been documented with TI in rabbits. Stress can be very bad for your rabbit
Each animal will have a unique response in duration and difficulty of induction to TI. When positioned so that the rabbit may remain on their back many will stay in TI for several minutes. The eyes will be closed, breath shallow and limbs relaxed.
Place the rabbit on its back on a towel or positioning against the handlers body to provide stability. Pet the rabbit's chest and/or head for 2 or 3 minutes. When the rabbit remains motionless it is in TI.
There are several variables here. If you are going to be trimming nails, I find having the bunny on the lap made by my thighs touching, and my legs in front is most useful. For two person operations, the space between your arm and belly, as you might hold a human infant can be effective (Caution: do not let them fall from a standing height). For X-ray, a towel positioned on the table can be effective.
In all cases, ensure that rabbit is protected from falls. Table or human-waist-level falls can seriously injury your pet bunny.
The rabbit will be resistive to being turned upside down, but will quickly "calm" when held level or head slightly down on their back. Persons not used to handling the pet in the "right side up" position should not undertake handling in the "upside down" position. Begin with a calm rabbit being held in a position of comfort, and transition to upside down, maintaining a space of not more than a foot (30 cm) or so between the bunny and the ground or table at all times.
I personally position the bunny right side up, facing my stomach, on my lap with the all my grooming tools near me. I am sitting on the floor, with my back against the wall or on my bunny chair. When the bunny is relaxed, I slide my hands along it is sides, my thumbs going under its front arm pits. I lift up and swing the bunny's butt toward my stomach, bringing my elbows together behind its butt. I lay the rabbit on its back between my thighs. I find that best results are when the bunny's back and neck are straight and they are not tipping to one side or the other.
When returning the bunny to right side up, use caution. The rabbit may suddenly struggle, using the same firm grip used to get the bunny upside down, return them to an upright position. Give gentle caresses and allow a few moments or minutes for them to orientate before releasing.
Every person needs to make their own choice for what is in the best interest of the pet in their care. Some points to consider
- Given the available research, casual trancing for bonding or to decrease fear, would not seem to be the best choice.
- There is no indication of analgesia (pain relief) in TI, so use caution with any activity during TI.
- Trimming nails and grooming the stomach area when needed are activities that must be done. A bunny-burrito, sedation and TI are all options. There is insufficient research to show which is the least traumatic. But sedation is often referenced as higher risk.
Rabbits and Hares. Whittet Books Ltd. McBride, E.A., Day, 8., McAdie, T.M., et al., 2006. Trancing rabbits: relaxed hypnosis or a state of fear? In: Proceedings of the VDWE International Congress on Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare. Live link Jan 2014
Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, by Molly Varga, Publisher Elsevier Health Sciences, 2013 ISBN 0702054194, 9780702054198 Live link Jan 2014
Small Animal Dermatology (Saunders solutions in veterinary practice), by Anita Patel, Peter Forsythe, Publisher Elsevier Health Sciences, 2008 ISBN 0702028703, 9780702028700 Live link Jan 2014
Rabbit Medicine and Surgery for Veterinary Nurses, by Mary Fraser, Simon Girling, Publisher John Wiley & Sons, 2009, ISBN 1405147067, 9781405147064 Live link Jan 2014