What Animal Eat Cactus In The Deserts?

Cactus is eaten by various animals that live in the deserts like woodrats, iguanas, birds, turtles, camels, jackrabbits, beetles, and humans as well. These animals have evolved mechanisms to protect themselves from the thorns as well as from the cacti poisons; they eat cactus plants to fulfill their water needs and some of them live among these thorny and densely populated plants. 

Let’s delve into the details about what animals eat cactus in deserts:

Rats, mice, gophers, and ground squirrels also eat Prickly Pear cactus seeds, fruits, or pads. 

Prickly Pear seeds are distributed by rodents who release them in their excreta after eating the fruits.

Prickly Pear cactus plants and Saguaro are most favoured by animals than other species of cacti plants.

animals that eat cacti

Animals That Eat Cactus in Deserts Are:

  • Ground Squirrels
  • Camels
  • Packrats
  • Rats
  • Mice
  • Chipmunks
  • Jackrabbits
  • Prairie dogs
  • Galapagos Desert Iguana
  • Gila woodpecker
  • Eastern CottonTail,
  • Bats
  • Collared Peccary (A Musk-hog)

Ground Squirrel

Ground squirrels are grey-brown rodents with thin or full tails, living in ground burrows. Smaller species are similar to chipmunks in appearance and big ground squirrels have heavy bodies with fluffy tails. Spotted ground squirrels found in Utah relish the fruits and seeds of the Prickly Pear. They don’t eat the entire cactus and avoid the thorny parts.  They are one of those animals that climbs cactus to eat flowers.


Camels live in the deserts and hence love to eat desert plants. Camels can eat the whole cactus plant, including the fruits and thorns since they have evolved to do so.  The cactus is crushed and ingested including the thorns by the camel’s rotational chomping and grinding process. 

Their multi-chambered gut is home to countless bacteria. These bacteria aid in the digestion of cellulose in the succulent plants they eat, such as cactus. 


Woodrats, also popular as pack rats or trade rats, are about 13″ long with long hairy tails. These rodents feed on the stems and fruits of  Prickly Pears.

These are fast to notice prickly portions and eat selectively, avoiding the thorny sections. They eat the leaves and drink the cactus nectar. These rats don’t require water when they feed on Prickly Pear. 


Mice relish Prickly Pear young seedlings and fruits. The Cactus mouse, Nelson’s kangaroo rat, and Pocket mouse gorge on Prickly Pear Seedlings. Some mice like Merriam’s kangaroo rats and the brush mouse also feast on Prickly Pear fruits and seeds.


Chipmunks have fluffy tails and black-and-white stripes on their faces. They store food in their cheek pouches to move it from the grazing area to the nest.  Cliff chipmunk and the Uinta chipmunk found in Utah eat fruits and seeds of the Prickly Pear cactus.


They also are known to eat the cactus’ succulent base, which is free of spines. They also devour the fruits and, through their feces, aid in seed distribution. It has long ears that aid in keeping the body cool in deserts and they can detect any danger from a long distance.


Gophers are underground-dwelling rodents. Pocket gophers live in burrows and their cheeks have large pouches for storing and transporting food. These gophers feast on Prickly Pear cactus and other succulents to get sufficient water from it, keeping away from thorny parts.

Prairie dogs

Prairie dogs live in burrows and are only designed to feed cactus after they have run out of other options. They are exclusively seen nibbling on the cactus’s base, flowers, and fruits. 

Galapagos Desert Iguana

They, like camels, have evolved to devour the entire cactus. Prickly pear cactus is what they eat the most. It has no negative effects from consuming cactus spines because they pass through its digestive tract readily. 

Gila Woodpecker

Gila Woodpeckers feed on insects primarily, although they will also consume cactus fruits. While feeding, they stay away from the thorns. In fact, they have been observed making nest chambers in the Saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert. Woodpeckers can raise their young within a cactus because it has a safe and cool environment. 

Eastern Cottontail

Like Jackrabbits, Eastern Cottontails consume the succulent base of the cactus in which there are no thorns. They also help disperse seeds by eating the fruits. 


Bats reside inside the holes and cavities left by other birds on the cactus plants. They gorge on the ripe fruits of cacti for their water needs. The nectar of the Saguaro cactus is also relished by certain bats.

Collared Peccary (A Musk-hog)

They are known to eat a variety of cacti in their environment, with a preference for the Prickly Pear Cactus. They can be found in a lot of places.

How Do Desert Animals Survive Eating Cactus Plants?

Let’s know in detail how these desert animals survive eating the spiny cactus plants.

Cacti come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they’re mainly found in dry deserts and drought areas with little to no water. 

Cactus cladodes are rich in sugar, vitamin A, and C in abundance and contain little fibre and nitrogen.   Feeding more cladodes to animals can lead to diarrhea, so mix them with nitrogen-rich grass.

Although certain kinds generate dangerous cactus milk, the majority of cacti are pleasant and healthful. Almost all of the fruits of various cacti can be consumed. It’s merely a matter of taste. Some are bitter, while others are delicious. 

When feeding on the deadly cactus plants, animals use behavioral, physiological, and detoxifying techniques to get clear of the toxin.

Cacti have a number of adaptations to store water and nutrients even in arid environments, which are commonly absent in other desert plants. 

As a result, the bulk of desert animals, such as camels, hares, and a few bird species, prioritize eating cactus plants. 

Cacti as well as the fruits they yield are also easily eaten by various mammals and birds native to the deserts. Chewing the cacti provides them with easy access to water, food, and nutrients. However, there are some animals that will not eat thorny cactus but will eat other portions of a cactus plant while evading the spines to avoid injury. 

Some may devour the cactus’ base, fruits, and seeds, while others will simply suck the cactus’ water and flee.

The animals that feast on the cactus will frequently rotate their chewing activity. This rotational chew spreads cactus pressure throughout the entire mouth, allowing the animal to avoid the thorny prick caused by the fragmented cactus. 

The crushed (chewed) cactus, together with the thorns, slide vertically down its throat as the cactus is crushed by rotating grinding of the teeth mostly on hard papillae and palates.

Cactus-eating animals’ chewing activity and the hard tissue inside their mouths let them feed on thorny cacti escaping the pointed thorns. 

When the cactus and thorns enter the animal’s stomach, the cellulose is fragmented fast in the stomach, shielding the stomach of the animal from cactus thorns. 

Some behavioural methods have evolved, such as using their senses of taste and aroma to identify and avoid deadly cactus.

Another behavioural strategy is that they may eat a range of plants in addition to the cactus to protect themselves from the poisons of the cactus by ingesting the nutritional elements of the other plants before or after consuming the cactus. 

To get rid of the cactus thorns and chew it while consuming the full cactus, the animals have acquired several anatomical traits such as hard-cone-shaped palates as well as other tough tongue papillae inside their mouth, similar to camels. 

Some other physical feature is the pointed beaks of Gila Woodpeckers, which use their pointy beaks to form cavities in Saguaro cactus plants for both nesting and food.

Animals that do not eat the cactus lack the morphological and anatomical traits necessary to remove the cactus’ piercing thorns and chew them in their mouth.

Animals that do not eat cactus have no biochemical process to get clear of the toxins contained in the cactus, and they are unable to metabolize the cellulose content of the cactus, such as the thorns if consumed. 

Animals with thin skin and no hard plates inside their mouths or beaks, such as rabbits and birds, avoid contact with both the thorns but only consume the non-thorny sections of the cacti. 

A puncture from a spiny cactus spine could go deep through the skin, potentially reaching the collagen as well as muscles. Bacteria and fungi can grow on the surface of the spine, causing infections.

Animals who do not eat cactus have not developed any behavioral methods for reducing or eliminating cactus toxins and spine injury. 

They also have no idea how to carry out the toxin-releasing technique or other detoxifying mechanisms for the toxins that enter their bodies after swallowing the cactus. So, they should avoid eating cacti.


Nikita is a Succulent lover. She really enjoys planting and nourishing them. She loves to share information about various Succulents on this blog to aware people more about these awesome plants.

Recent Posts