How do animals eat cactus? Do desert animals eat cactus?

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How do animals eat cactus?

Not all animals can eat cactus. There only a few species present in the dry and drought locations that have adapted themselves to feed on thorny cactus plants.

Yes, they use their mouths to feed on cactus. They do so very easily as if they are eating any other soft plant or food items.

So, How do animals eat cactus?

Animals have hard skin tissues inside their mouth that help them chew the thorny cactus in a unique fashion so that the thorns don’t hurt their mouth.

Some animals like camels do have cone-shaped hard palates and tough tongue papillae tissues that help them chew the cactus just like grinding seeds in a mortar and pestle.

You will often see the animals that feed on the cactus to perform a rotating chewing motion.

This rotating chew distributes pressure from the cactus throughout the whole mouth and as a result, the animal gets rid of the thorny prick by the crushed cactus.


As the cactus gets crushed by the rotational grinding of the teeth against the hard papillae and palates, the crushed (chewed) cactus along with the thorns slide vertically down the throat.

Such a chewing action and hard tissue availability inside the mouth of the cactus eating animals strategically help them to feed on spiny cacti without getting pricked by the pointed thorns.

It is also to be noted that as the cactus and the thorns enter the animal’s stomach, their stomach starts to digest the cellulose contents very fast and so this better protects the animals from injuring its own stomach by the cactus thorns.

The animals like camels being ruminants have rumen which is the first compartment of their stomach where ingested food containing cellulose is stored temporarily and later brought up again to the mouth to chew their partly digested food.

They are able to digest cellulose because of the presence of bacteria and enzymes in the rumen where anaerobic bacterial digestion occurs.

In very simple words, their multi-chambered stomach harbors millions to billions of bacteria. The bacteria help in cellulose digestion of the succulent plants like cactus they eat.

Some species of animals like a few desert rabbits have also been noticed to feed on toxic cactus too. Although the toxic cactus can cause negative effects, but they still consume them because of the plant’s nutritional quality, palatability, availability, or addictive chemical properties.

So, to get rid of the toxin they conduct some behavioural strategies, physiological strategies, and detoxification mechanisms before, after, or while feeding on the toxic cactus plants.

Alpaca eating cactus
Alpaca Animal eating cactus

Do desert animals eat cactus?

Yes, a majority of the desert animals eat cactus. They do so to fulfill their water requirements, food requirements, and keep themselves fit and healthy during the harsh and dry desert conditions.

Cacti occur in a wide range of shapes and sizes and they mostly occur in the dry desert and drought areas where’s there’s little to no water present. These plants flourish well and green in the deserts.

Cacti show many adaptations to conserve water and nutritions even in dry conditions which can’t be usually available in other plants of the desert.

So, eating the cactus plants is one of the top priorities of the majority of the desert animals like camels, hares, a few rabbits species, etc.

Even some reptiles and some birds of the dry regions can also eat away at cacti and the fruits they bear with ease.

They get the water, food, the nutrition they need very easily by chewing the cacti.

However, some animals are there that won’t eat the cactus with thorns but will eat the other parts of the cactus plant by avoiding the thorns to avoid any kind of injury.

Animals such as deers, squirrels, birds, beetles, tortoises, pack rats, javelinas, antelopes, and jackrabbits, etc. all can eat cactus fruits.

Some will eat the base of the cactus, the fruits and seeds of the cactus, and a few are there that will only suck the water out of the cactus and go away.

Which animals can eat cactus?

Some of the animals that can eat cactus are Camels, Ground Squirrel, Jackrabbits, Gophers, Prairie dogs, Galapagos Land Iguana, Horses, Packrats, Woodpecker, Eastern Cottontail, Collared Peccary, some cows and horses, Alpaca, etc.

Camels: Camels can feed on the entire cactus plant including its fruits and thorns. The camel’s rotational chewing and grinding motion crushes the cactus and ingest it along with the thorns.

Ground Squirrel: They don’t eat the whole cactus and so will avoid eating thorny parts. They eat fruits and seeds of the cactus. For some gardeners, their feeding on the cactus has become a serious problem.

Jackrabbits: They are also known to eat on the juicy base of the cactus where there are no thorns. They also eat the fruits and help in seed dispersal through their faeces.

Gophers: They are rodents that live underground. They eat the cactus and other succulents to get water and they avoid contact with the thorny portion.

Prairie dogs: They are only known to feed on cactus when they do not get any other food. They are seen only feeding on the base of the cactus and its flowers and fruits,

Galapagos Land Iguana: Like camels, they are well adapted to eating the whole cactus. They are mostly seen eating the Prickly pear cactus. It suffers no adverse effects from eating cactus spines, which pass easily through its digestive system.

Packrats: They are quick to note the sections that are thorny and eat selectively avoiding the thorny part. They suck the cactus juice and feed on the fruits mainly.

Gila Woodpecker: Gila Woodpeckers eat mainly insects, but they will also eat cactus fruits as well. They avoid contact with the thorns while eating. In fact, in the Sonoran Desert, it has been seen that they often make their nest cavities in Saguaro cactus. The inside of a cactus provides a safe, cool place for the woodpeckers to raise their young.

Eastern Cottontail: Just like the Jackrabbits, they are also known to eat on the juicy base of the cactus where there are no thorns. They also eat the fruits and help in seed dispersal.

Collared Peccary(A Musk-hog): They are seen to feed on all kinds of cactus found in their surroundings, mostly feeding on the Prickly Pear Cactus. They can be frequently seen in the desert eating cacti, spines, and all.

Why do animals not eat cactus?

Yes, not all animals will eat cactus. Those animals like camels will eat the whole cactus because they have adapted themselves to do so.

Others will feed on the fruits, flowers, and the juicy base of the cactus. Some will only avoid the thorns and will just come to suck the juice out of the cactus.

Animals that don’t eat the cactus don’t have that physical and anatomical characteristics in their body to get rid of the piercy thorns of the cactus and chew it in its mouth.

Animals that don’t eat the cactus also don’t have any kind of a biochemical mechanism to get rid of the toxins that are present in the cactus, and also they can’t even digest the cellulose contents of the cactus including the thorns if ingested.

The animals like rabbits, birds, etc. that have thin skin surface and no hard plated inside their mouth or beaks often avoid contact with the thorns and only eat the non-thorny parts of the cactus.

A thorny cactus spine puncture can go deep into the skin and even get to the collagen and muscles. The spine can also have bacteria and fungi on its surface that may cause infections.

So, animals that don’t feed on cactus haven’t develop any behavioral strategies for the reduction or elimination of the cactus toxins and the injury from the spines.

They also do not know how to undertake the ejection procedure of the toxins, or the other detoxification mechanisms of the toxins that get inside their body after ingesting the cactus. So, they better avoid eating cacti.

How animals have adapted themselves to eat cactus?

Those few animals on earth that feed on cactus and its parts have adversely adapted themselves to learn and facilitate themselves easily to feed on cactus without getting any injury from the thorns and toxicity from the cacti toxins.

They have adapted various anatomical features, behavioral strategies, and physiological strategies to get rid of the cacti harmful effects when they feed on it.

Some of the behavioral strategies that have adapted like they use their smell and taste to detect and avoid toxic cacti.

Another behavioral straegiy like they may also eat a mix variety of plants along with the cactus to safe themselves from the toxins of cactus due to the nutritional contents of the other plant that they have ingested before or after eating the cactus.

They may also avoid toxicities by limiting or varying the consumption of a specific toxic plant each day or until toxins cause any negative feedback.

They also show various physiological strategies like they better know how to detoxify the toxins biochemically after they have eaten the cactus.

They can also show tolerance to toxic compounds to diminish the risk of food poisoning.

The animals have also adapted many of the anatomical features like having hard-cone shaped palates and other tough tongue papillae inside their mouth just like in camels to get rid of the cactus thorns and chew it while ingesting the whole cactus.

Another anatomical feature is like that of the Gila Woodpecker that use their pointed beaks to create cavities in the Saguaro cactus plant both to make their nest and also for getting food.

Another very awesome anatomical adaptation is seen in Galapagos Land Iguanas that feed on the cactus piece as a whole with the small thorns. You will often see them using their front feet pads to remove the larger thorns and then perfectly gulping down a cactus piece in just a few swallows.

Why do camels eat cactus?

Camels are the most popular and well-known cactus eaters found in the dry deserts. Due to the less availability of water, food contents, and proper nutrition camels have adapted themselves to eating the thorny cacti.

The cactus are very best source of water, food contents, and nutrition in the dry arid deserts. So, eating a cactus is the top best choice to fulfill hunger by the camels.

Other than cactus, they can also feed on dry bushes and thorny plants without any issue. But, cactus is the very best nutrition they can have.

Their mouths are lined with hard papillae that help prevent any damage by the thorns of the cactus while eating and ingesting it the whole.

Also, they being ruminants, are able to ingest the chewed cactus along with the thorns in their multi-chambered stomach. Millions of bacteria help in proper cellulose digestion of the cactus.

This answer can also be explained how the camels are also able to sometimes eat cactus or other plants known to be poisonous to other animals without any ill effect.

Thus, they do this by following their mixing pattern of diets, meaning that they eat more than one plant in each meal. Thus, small amounts of ingested poisonous plants are diluted by the larger amounts of ingested non-poisonous plants.

However, this should also be mentioned that not all poisonous plants are safe for eating by the camels.

And, camels know what they should eat and shouldn’t eat. So, they better avoid eating the very poisonous ones.

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