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Rabbits And Shock

Do rabbits go into shock and die if you change their environment?

By Karen Rosenthal, DVM, DABVP
Posted: July 27, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT

Q: Is it true that if you take an outside bunny in or an inside bunny out that they can go into shock and die? What is shock, and how can I avoid it for my rabbit?

A: What you are describing about pet rabbits is an urban legend. Like all urban legends, there is just enough “truth” to this statement so that it sounds almost plausible.

Rabbits, like many small mammal pets, are prey animals. As such, they may be hesitant about new environments or new situations where they feel vulnerable to predators. Even though pet rabbits have been our companions for many thousands of generations of rabbits, they still have an innate fear of being attacked by an unforeseen predator.

In a new environment, this fear is heightened. Therefore, the urban legend grew that a rabbit taken out of its normal habitat (an indoor rabbit goes out or an outdoor rabbit is brought in) is so overcome with fear that it goes into shock and dies. This just does not happen, at least in healthy rabbits.

If you wish to change the environment of a rabbit, let’s say you have built a secure outside enclosure so your rabbit can enjoy some sunshine, slowly acclimate your rabbit to the new area. It is your responsibility to make sure the rabbit is protected from predators and environmental extremes. Once you have done that, the new enclosure is ready for your rabbit.

Put the rabbit into the new enclosure for a short time period. Make sure there is food and water that are contained in familiar bowls or bottles. It is very important that you provide adequate hiding areas. And watch your rabbit closely for any signs of anxiety or fear. If you notice any fear, remove your rabbit immediately and place your rabbit back into its familiar surroundings.

If you have an older or chronically sick rabbit, you must be extra cautious about placing the rabbit into a new environment. Chronically sick rabbits may have less capacity to adapt to a new environment, and the stress of the change along with damage that the long-term illness may have done to the immune system of the rabbit could predispose the rabbit to even more stress and cause respiratory and circulatory problems. For those reasons, we tend to avoid putting rabbits with long-term illness into new, scary environments.

See all of Dr. Rosenthal's Critter Q&A articles>>

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