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Tranced rabbits display heightened fear state

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‘Trancing’ is a form of restraint by which veterinarians and pet owners – notably rabbit owners – immobilize the pet for minor procedures such as nail clippings. The procedure involves a particular method of placing the rabbit on his back; this results in temporary motor inhibition and immobility in the rabbit and in other preyed-upon species. It is believed that this state of induced immobility is a defence mechanism used by the preyed-upon species to reduce injury and provide one last chance for escape; should the predator believe that the motionless animal is already dead, it will no longer need to attack it. If the predator then relaxes its grip, the prey may have one last chance to escape.

Unfortunately, the term ‘trancing’ suggests that the animal is calm and relaxed and unaware of its surroundings; worse, some believe that these immobilized pets enjoy the process or that is helps them ‘bond’ with the pet. 'Tonic immobility' would be a more appropriate term.

Recent studies have now conclusively shown that rabbits in a state of tonic immobility (TI) display physiological responses similar to those shown after a stressful event, including elevated plasma corticosterone levels, elevated respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure. In addition, displays of subjective fearful responses such as laid-back ears, widened eyes and struggling were observed during the induction of the tonic immobility. After being released from TI, bunnies typically found places to hide.

The studies concluded that the responses by the rabbits were indicative of a fearful stress state, and not something that the rabbit finds enjoyable. While it can still be appropriate for veterinarians and experienced owners to use this technique for brief, minor procedures such as nail trimming, tonic immobility should only be used when absolutely necessary and only for a few minutes' duration.

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