If you’ve ever heard before that some cacti are actually edible, you might’ve paused for a moment and wondered about what animals are actually capable of eating the spiny things.
Cacti can be ridiculously tricky to even keep in your garden due to all their spines.
Picking them up, moving them around, re-potting them, making cuttings from pretty much any part of a cactus can be incredibly difficult – so how anything manages to eat these things can feel pretty darn incredible.
A number of animals can and do eat cactus in the wild. I’m not 100% sure, but I feel like the most commonly eaten cactus is likely a Prickly Pear cactus.
These interesting plants not only grow to be incredibly big, even without much water, but they also bear fruit – meaning they’re one of the only plants out there that’s both a vegetable and a fruit (the pads being the vegetable and the fruit being the fruit)! Super cool if you ask me.
Before we get into the animals that eat cacti, and touch on how they go about doing it, did you know humans can eat some cactus plants & fruits, too?
The Cacti Even Humans Can Eat!
I’ve spoken about how cactus tastes to humans before, because it’s possible for humans to eat some cacti – definitely not all, and certainly not most, so be sure you know what you’re eating is actually edible before you consider taking a bite!
The most commonly eaten cactus fruit is dragon fruit, which you may have already tried without ever realizing it comes from a cactus.
The cactus dragon fruit comes from is called a hylocereus cactus, and it’s fruit supposedly tastes something like a kiwi because of it’s seeds.
If you’ve ever tried one, let me know in the comments what it tasted like to you!
Then there’s the Prickly Pear cactus we were talking about, which yes, is edible to humans as well as animals.
Its pads can be eaten if you remove the spines, and it’s fruit supposedly tastes like a dry watermelon in terms of texture.
To my knowledge, you can even make it into a juice!
Camels Eat Cactus Pads, Spines & All
When it comes to eating Prickly Pear cactus, camels are pretty much experts. Check out this video by National Geographic of a camel eating Prickly Pear cactus pads, spines and all!
How do they eat it? As Elaina Zachos for the National Geographic points out,
Camels have a hard palate at the tops of their mouths, says Alex Warnock, the Arizonian who owns the camels in the video. Their teeth grind food against this palate. […]
The camel’s rotating chew distributes pressure from the cactus and the papillae slide the needles vertically down the throat. This way, the sharp ends don’t poke the camel as it ingests them.
Doesn’t it hurt to eat the spines, even if you have a body that’s capable of doing it?
Apparently the answer is yes, it is uncomfortable:
Although camels can physically eat cactus, munching on the spikey plants can hurt them. Still, they often choose to tolerate the discomfort and potential pain in order to enjoy the fleshy green parts.
That’s how tasty these cacti are to camels!
Other Animals That Eat Cacti
Please correct me if you think any of the information in this article is incorrect – I haven’t been able to find a reputable source with a huge list of animals that can eat cacti.
Still, it’s possible to find pictures of animals eating cactus pads and fruits online, and there are a lot of first-person testimonials of people who have seen this, or researched it themselves.
Based on what I found online..
Peccaries (also known as javelinas) seem to be able to eat prickly pear cactus pads, spines and all.
Jackrabbits eat Prickly Pear cactus, and do so near the base where there are no large spines.
Pack rats eat Prickly Pear as well, and also avoid large spines, eating around them.
Many animals will eat Prickly Pear cactus fruit.
There are pictures of mule deer, land iguana, desert squirrel, cactus mouse, desert tortoise, African blue tit birds, desert cottontail rabbits, as well as many other animals eating Prickly Pear fruit in the wild.
Apparently woodrat, pocket mouse, Nelson’s kangaroo rat, northern pocket gopher, and ground squirrels eat Prickly Pear as well.
So a slew of animals – some mammals, some reptiles, some birds – and not just larger animals, eat away at cacti and the fruits they bear.
How do those who can’t eat the spines get to the cactus fruit?
My guess is they do their best to carefully avoid the spines, walking around to spots where the prickly pear fruit is on the edges of the plant instead of in the middle, and if they’re small enough, climb around the spines as much as possible to stay safe.
Your Thoughts on Animals Eating Cacti?
Did I get any of the details in this article wrong?
Do you know anything more about which animals eat cacti or cactus fruits, or what other types of cactus (besides Prickly Pear) are frequently eaten in the wild?
Did you know or even imagine that some animals, like camels, can actually eat through those crazy spines on a Prickly Pear cactus pad?
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on this topic in the comments below!
Diana kohler says
Something has been eating our nopales. We think it is squirrels, so I was glad to find your article. We can take a picture if you want.
Elise Xavier says
Oh wow, I wonder if it is squirrels, that would make a lot of sense! Maybe you could spray Neem oil on or around them to act as a repellent if you want to keep whatever’s nibbling at bay? I’ve heard it acts as a natural repellent. It’s also used to get rid of scale and other pests on cactus, so should be perfectly safe for your nopales.
We have stag Horn Cactus in our front yard and something has been digging pretty good sized holes and eating the cactus down to the roots do you have any idea what could be causing this?
Tami Ray says
We have seen plenty of barrel cactus along some trails that we hike being eaten by Cotton Tail, and Javalinas.
Cattle here in AZ eat prickly pear cactus and bears come down to eat the fruit. Almost all birds eat cactus fruit, and saguaro fruit is eaten by people, as is prickly pear fruit. We hold the fruit over a fire to burn the stickers off or peel it with a knife while holding it with sticks (trickier!). Cactus fruit is delicious and around here you can get prickly pear jelly at a lot of little shops.
Elise Xavier says
I want to try prickly pear jelly! That sounds amazing.