Yes, rabbits do play dead as a last resort survival technique. This will usually be if the rabbit is terrified or shocked, and they instinctively lie still on their back and don’t move a muscle to try and fool the perceived danger that the rabbit is dead.
Rabbits won’t usually go for the play dead option when there’s a predator nearby – they’ll run instead as playing dead will make them a far easier target and almost guarantee their death.
Why Do Rabbits Play Dead?
The main reason why a rabbit will play dead is a defensive technique to protect themselves. Their options are to fight (kicking, scratching, or biting their way to safety), flee (using their tail as a distraction while they race to safety), and the third option is playing dead (to trick anyone around into not bothering with them).
The main cause of playing dead is usually:
- Fear: A loud noise, event, shouting, or even something new can scare your rabbit. If your rabbit is playing dead then it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong. Rabbits can actually die from fear, so try to make them feel safe for the good of their health.
Your rabbit might also have dropped to the ground:
- For fun: Your rabbit might flop next to you because they feel comfortable in your presence, or because they think it’s a game. This one depends on your rabbit’s personality more than anything.
- After exercise: If your rabbit has been busy exercising and burning energy, they might get so tired that they stop where they are. This is more commonly seen in younger rabbits.
- From exhaustion: A tried rabbit will reach their limit and flop where they’re standing. In deep sleep, they might look dead – not moving or making a sound.
- With too much handling: If your rabbit plays dead while you’re holding them, carefully put them down. They’ve let you know that they don’t like it, so try to reduce how much you’re handling them.
Rabbits in a Trance
Holding your rabbit on their back and stroking their legs to put them into a trance used to be thought of as a relaxing movement, but it’s actually your rabbit freezing in terror. This is another version of your rabbit playing dead, and one that should be avoided at all costs.
Why Won’t Rabbits Play Dead Around Predators?
You might expect a rabbit to use this defensive technique against a predator, but this isn’t the case. Rabbits have a higher chance of surviving the encounter by running than stopping and staying still. The chances are, the predator would pounce on the rabbit playing dead and they would quickly be really dead.
Instead, a healthy, fit rabbit will more likely fight or try to get away. The only time you’d see a rabbit playing dead in this situation would be if they’re old or too slow to run so their chance lies in quick thinking and good acting when they play dead. It’s possible that a predator might miss them when they aren’t moving (but their scent could give it away).
Is My Rabbit Playing Dead or Sleeping?
Something to consider is if your rabbit is playing dead or just sprawled out asleep. There are a few key differences that you can check to determine which one is happening.
In both cases, the rabbit will appear to be still but are still alert – ears straight and eyes usually open. You might notice their chest or ears minutely moving as they breathe and listen. They’ll also be lying on their backs – rabbits do sleep in other positions but when they’re flat out is the only time you might confuse them for playing dead.
Listen out for teeth chattering or purring – sounds a rabbit might make when they’re asleep. A rabbit playing dead will also remain still and not even move their eyes while a sleeping rabbit might twitch, move, or even run on the spot as they dream.
Do Baby Rabbits Play Dead?
Yes, baby rabbits do play dead. The survival instinct to play dead is both ingrained into them and also learned from their mother. For a baby rabbit, the world is scary – there’s a whole bunch of animals trying to eat them, sudden unfamiliar noises, and plenty of more triggers that can cause them to play dead.
It’s worth noting that baby wild rabbits are vulnerable and can quickly deteriorate. If the rabbit gets cold, they will struggle to warm up and might need intervention to survive. Baby rabbits will also cry when they’re hungry, but their mother is usually nearby to feed them – so you’d need to judge the situation and only act if they’ve been abandoned, orphaned, or are dying.
How to Avoid Your Rabbit Playing Dead
If your rabbit is frequently playing dead, there’s a possibility that they’re being repeatedly shocked or scared by something. There are a few things you can do at home to make them feel a little bit more secure and comfortable.
- Create a safe space for them to flee to if necessary: This could be a shop-bought or DIY job, but something small with an entrance only a rabbit could fit into would provide a sanctuary for your rabbit. In their cage you could put a tunnel or den they can retreat to when they’re scared.
- Separate your rabbits from other animals: Whether that’s separating them from other pets that haven’t bonded with your rabbit or securing a rabbit-only area in your yard to keep wild animals away, reducing the number of scary predators around will be appreciated by your rabbit.
- Limit fear factors: Though this is easier said than done, try to avoid noisy activities that scare your rabbits, or if you have no other choice, make your rabbit feel safe while the noise is happening.
- Make your rabbit cozy: By adding blankets around their cage, and filling it with hay and bedding your rabbit can hide away and feel safer than they would ordinarily.
- Comfort them: Your rabbit will be comforted if you’re there to pet them and speak softly. This is most effective if you’ve got a good bond and they feel safe in your company.
- Monitor your rabbit closely: Don’t leave them unattended and if you’re close you can find the cause of them playing dead and work out a solution.
Every rabbit is different, if you can identify the cause of them to play dead then you might be able to remove it from their life. You should follow your rabbit’s cues and comfort them however best you can.