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11 Animals That Eat Cactus

11 Animals That Eat Cactus

Imagine you’re thirsty and hungry through the desert, and the only thing in sight is a cactus. Would you eat it?  

Well, desert animals would because, believe it or not, cacti are a vital part of their diet. In this article, we’ll explore how these animals eat cacti without getting poked by their thorns. 

Read on to see our list of animals who feast on cacti and how they enjoy these prickly feasts!

1. Camels

Image: Quora

Camels are herbivores that are attracted to these green cacti. But this doesn’t mean camels don’t get hurt since they’ve just adapted to the desert vegetation so they can eat cacti despite their thorns.

Camels in the desert eat cacti using their flexible lips, tough palate, and multi-chambered stomach. They usually grab the cactus with their lips and chew in a rotating motion with the help of their tough tongues.

2. Javelinas

Image: National Park Service

Javelinas are pig-like animals that eat the cactus’s fruits, stems and spines. They first target cacti with fewer spines and then devour the heavily spined ones.

They have hoofs and sharp tusks, which help them crush cactus stems and dig for their roots to feed themselves. They also get rehydrated from the juicy fruits of the cacti. 

3. Rabbits

Image: Passport To Texas

Rabbits also feed on the cactus, and even if they don’t have tough structures to endure its thorns, they still feed on cactus stems and simply avoid the spines. 

They eat cacti carefully, navigating the spines and consuming only the fleshy pads. They even developed teeth that chew through the tough cactus flesh.

4. Desert Tortoises

Desert Tortoises
Image: AZPM

Desert tortoises feed on cactus by nibbling on the fibrous succulent stem on the base of the cactus. Like rabbits, they also avoid the spines and eat only those parts where they won’t get hurt. 

These tortoises love the opuntia cactus pad because it has scattered spines where they can quickly grab the flesh. They also love the cacti fruits that fall on the ground.

5. Deers

Image: Texas Hunting Forum

Deers, with their sharp antlers and solid horns, benefit when hunting for cactus. Since they cannot withstand the sharp spikes of the cactus, they first break open the cactus stem with their antlers and horns to get into the fleshy stalk. 

They usually target the younger, softer cacti pads, which are easier to chew. They also have broad and flat molars that help break down the tough cellulose fibers in cactus flesh.

6. Squirrels

Image: Alexisb

Squirrels love to eat cactus stems, fruits and seeds but avoid the spines. They are more active during the day and love feeding on prickly pear cactus. 

They also have excellent dexterity and a keen sense of touch, which they use to identify and manipulate cactus pads, navigating around the thorns with remarkable precision.

7. Birds

Image: Daily Mail UK

Birds feed on the fleshy stems and soft fruits of cacti. They use their long, slender beaks to extract the nectar from flowers, open the fruits, and consume the juicy pulp and seeds. 

For instance, the woodpecker and gilded flicker eat the Saguaro cactus’s fruits and flesh by cherry-picking with their pointed sharp beaks. After that, the hole they made serves as a nesting place for their offspring.

8. Iguanas

Image: Marko Dimitrijevic Photography

Iguanas have also adapted to eating the pads and fruit cacti without hassle. They first remove the long spines using their front feet and let the cactus glide easily through their digestive tract.

Iguanas also have a unique digestive system that allows them to break down the tough cellulose in cactus flesh. They have gut bacteria and a long digestive tract to help break down cacti quickly. 

9. Prairie Dogs

Prairie Dogs
Image: Maryland Zoo

Prairie dogs are herbivorous rodents that use the thick skin on their lips and mouths to protect themselves from the spines and strong teeth to chew through tough plant matter.

They usually target younger cactus pads because they have fewer and smaller spines. Then, these prairie dogs grind down the tough outer layer of the cactus and access the fleshy interior, rich in nutrients and water.

10. Pack Rats

Pack Rats
Image: Opuntiads

Pack rats are rodents that enjoy eating cacti flesh but are careful not to eat the spiky parts. Succulent plants such as cacti also keep these pack rats hydrated in deserts. 

These rodents have powerful jaws and molars specifically adapted for chewing their fleshy interior. They also have specialized gut bacteria that help break down the cellulose and oxalic found in cactus flesh, which allows them to extract more nutrients.

11. Coyotes

Image: Opuntiads

Coyotes, being opportunistic feeders, also incorporate cacti into their diet, especially where food and water sources are scarce. They use their powerful jaws and molars to chew through the tough outer layer of the cactus pads and feed on their fleshy interior.

Coyotes also possess a flexible digestive system to extract nutrients from the cactus flesh. The succulent pads provide them with essential minerals, such as calcium and potassium, and necessary hydration to survive in dry periods.

Are all cacti safe and edible?

Are all cacti safe and edible
Image: PBS

Not all cacti are safe and edible. Some cactus species are tasty and nutritious, while others produce poisonous milk.

On the brighter side, here are some cactus species that are safe and edible.

1. Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus
Image: Gardenia
Scientific NameOpuntia spp.
Common NamePrickly pear cactus, Tunas

The fruit of this cactus grows on flat prick pads, which are also edible. Their fruits can be green, pink, or red, depending on the level of ripeness. 

They have a sweet, refreshing flavor and are rich in antioxidants, carotenoids, and fatty acids. The fruits can be eaten fresh, juiced, made into jams, jellies, and candies or cooked and eaten like vegetables.

2. Saguaro Cactus

Saguaro Cactus
Image: Desert Botanical Garden
Scientific NameCarnegiea gigantea
Common NameSaguaro

The fruits of this giant cacti develop from the flowers and ripen from green to orange, then red. It contains Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, and soluble fiber.

It has a sweet, tart flavor and is a good source of vitamins and minerals. The fruit can be fresh and dried, while the seeds can be eaten raw or turned into flour.

3. Apple Cactus

Apple Cactus
Image: World of Succulents
Scientific NameCereus repandus
Common NamePeruvian apple cactus, Kadushi, Kanawar, Pitahaya Peruana, Queen of the Night

Apple cactus can grow to a height of eight feet and produce fleshy fruits, a good vitamin A source. It has a flavor similar to a kiwi or dragon fruit, with a slightly sweet and tangy taste. 

The fruit can be eaten fresh, juiced, or used in jams and jellies. On the other hand, the fruit seeds are also edible and can be added to yogurt or granola.

5. Barrel Cactus

Barrel Cactus
Image: Complete Landscaping
Scientific NameFerocactus cylindraceus
Common NameBarrel cactus, Fishhook cactus, Compass cactus

The roots, fruits, and flowers of the barrel cactus are edible. Like lemons, their fruits taste tart, while the flower buds taste sour.

It has a sweet, tart flavor and is a good source of vitamins and minerals. The fruit can be eaten fresh, dried, or made into syrup and jam, while the seeds can be eaten raw or dried and ground into flour.


How does a cactus avoid being eaten by animals?

Cactus spines protect the plant from animals and predators that would eat the cactus to obtain food and water.

Why do animals not eat cactus?

Animals do not eat cacti because they get injured from their thorns and spines. 

How are cactus leaves eaten?

Edible cactus leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, simmered, boiled, sautéed, deep fried, or grilled. They are best served with a tender, crunchy texture. 

What are the benefits of eating cactus?

Edible cacti like the prickly pear cactus have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties and help treat diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, and hangovers. 

Who should not eat cactus?

Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should not eat cacti as it can affect their blood sugar.

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