Prey animals, including rabbits, have developed many different survival techniques and behaviors over time, in order to remain safe from predators and other potential threats. This means that there are certain behavioral things that are instinctive, and that might not make sense at first, but that are pretty effective when you realize the aim.
Some animals will play dead when scared or threatened, so how about rabbits? Do they ever play dead? And if so, why do they do it, and in what way? Does playing dead actually work for them?
We’ll answer all these questions and more so that you know everything important about a rabbit’s playing dead behavior. Ready? Then let’s get right into it!
Do rabbits play dead?
Rabbits do indeed play dead now and then, usually when they are scared or when they feel as though they are under direct threat. You can tell when they play dead if they really do look dead, as they will lay down very still, and won’t make a single sound. If they were sleeping you’d be able to maybe hear them breathing loudly, or fidgeting in their dreams, or clicking their teeth to show they are content.
However, unlike some other prey animals, rabbits will not play dead in order to avoid predators. Most of their predators are scavengers, such as foxes and coyotes, which would not be deterred by the rabbit being dead (if anything it makes their job easier).
So rabbits are very aware that playing dead will not save them from being eaten. If they spot a predator nearby, rabbits will bolt. They will run away or try to hide, but they will not play dead.
So instead, the kind of fear that makes rabbits play dead is tied to situations outside of their control. So playing dead, as a general rule, tends to be a rabbit’s last line of defense when they are in a state of absolute terror. Usually, in situations they do not understand, or when they perceive a threat that they feel they can do nothing against.
One of the most common reasons for rabbits playing dead is actually unwelcome handling. For example, rabbits need to feel the ground under their paws, as it makes them feel safe and somewhat in control.
So when someone picks them up unexpectedly, they can become incredibly frightened, and they might instantly start to play dead, going limp, staying absolutely still, and not making a single sound. The reasoning of the rabbit is that if they are dead, you will put them down, and as soon as you do that is when the rabbit will bolt, running away to hide.
Wild rabbits playing dead
Wild rabbits are unlikely to be handled unexpectedly by a human, so this will not be the cause of their playing dead behavior. Instead, playing dead will be a reaction of absolute terror, to a situation they are unfamiliar with.
It is worth mentioning that playing dead is actually quite rare for rabbits. They have a very strong sense of flight or fight, so when faced with a predator their first instinct is to run away as fast as they can and then to hide. And if they’re cornered, rabbits will actually try to fight back, as a last resort to staying alive. Usually, they will try to fight back enough so that they can find an opening to escape once again.
So playing dead really only ever happens in extreme situations, when they are quite literally out of options. In those scenarios, rabbits might play dead and then hope for the best. Or sometimes, they will play dead just long enough to come up with a plan or find a way out. So they might play dead to confuse the threat in question, and then use that confusion as a chance to make another run for it. (As you might have guessed, rabbits are pretty intelligent!)
Pet rabbits playing dead
Pet rabbits will usually live a far easier life than their friends out in the wild. If they’re in a good home, their life just focuses on eating, drinking, pooping, sleeping, and occasionally pestering the owners for attention. Not many threats or predators to worry about in the slightest!
So…does that mean that pet rabbits never play dead? After all, playing dead is something they do when scared out of their life, right? Well…not quite.
As we mentioned, rabbits are pretty intelligent, so they will sometimes use certain behavioral patterns in order to get something that they want from the owners. Kind of like manipulating them in order to get something.
Sometimes, if the rabbits feel neglected by their owners, or they desperately want some attention, they will dramatically fall to the ground and play dead! If they do this, they will first make sure that the owner is nearby, so that the great act can be noticed.
They will usually make sure to fall down noisily, and then you might notice that they look over to you now and then to check if you’ve realized or not. It’s quite impressive really, give those rabbits an Oscar!
If your rabbit does this, then the message is clear: give me attention. Or alternatively, “give me food”. If this happens every now and then, just a couple of times, then there’s nothing to worry about.
But if your rabbit begins to play dead on a regular basis, it might be some sort of behavioral problem or a sign of an underlying condition. It could also mean that your rabbit is in desperate need of some companionship, as they prefer to live in groups so that they are not alone.
So, in conclusion, rabbits do indeed sometimes play dead. Out in the wild, they will only ever do this when faced with an absolutely terrifying situation. If they see predators, they will choose to run, hide or fight.
But when faced with an unfamiliar threat, or no way out, they might play dead as a last resort. As pets, rabbits might sometimes play dead in order to get attention from their owners! They’re intelligent and know how to put on an act, so beware of this!