Do Deer Eat Rabbits? You May Be Surprised!

Some videos have been circulating on the internet lately of deer eating rabbits and other animals.

Do deer eat rabbits? If so, when and why would these supposed herbivores develop a craving for meat?

You might be surprised to learn that sometimes deer do eat rabbits and other small animals. Find out when and why.

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Do Deer Actually Eat Rabbits?

Although very rare, deer have been observed eating rabbits, birds, mice, and other small animals, but the whole story is not so straightforward. This type of behavior is an anomaly and not the norm.

Deer are typically considered herbivores, but they are not strict herbivores. In fact, there are relatively few animals that are strict herbivores. Instead, deer will munch on meat when given the opportunity and under certain circumstances.

That said, deer don’t hunt. They have evolved to be excellent at eating and digesting plants but not so good at hunting, killing, or consuming animals.

Do Deer Eat Rabbits

They lack incisors for tearing at flesh and their ruminant digestive system is very good at getting nutrients out of plants. Even their eyes have evolved to help them scan for predators, not prey. 

Deer are ruminants, a suborder of mammals that have multiple stomachs and chew on regurgitated cud from their rumen (a part of their stomach).

This allows them to further break down the plant matter so the nutrients are more bioavailable. Cows are probably the most common example of another ruminant. 

Why Would a Deer Eat a Rabbit?

If deer are so bad at hunting and so well-developed for eating plants, why would they eat meat at all?

As mentioned above, deer are opportunistic. If they stumble on a rabbit carcass or a vulnerable hatchling, they jump on the opportunity to get a nutrient boost.

When you’re trying to survive, you take what you can get. Meat is very high in nutrients and can provide a great source of vitamins and minerals that are more difficult to absorb from plants.

Research has shown that the palatability of a food source depends on nutrient content as well as taste, and other factors like digestibility or “post-ingestive effects”.

So, for example, if a deer needs calcium, it might be more inclined to chew on some bones since calcium is hard to find in plants.

Wild rabbit

How Do Deer Eat Rabbits?

This may seem like a strange question. You might think, “they chew and swallow them, duh.”

But for an animal that has not evolved to eat meat, it’s not as easy as you might expect, and to answer this question accurately, it gets a little gruesome.

First, deer don’t hunt, so they only really eat meat when they stumble upon a carcass or an easy target like an unguarded bird’s nest. 

In the case that they find a rabbit carcass, deer are limited in what they can eat since their teeth aren’t sharp enough to tear through the rabbit’s thick skin.

Instead, deer are more likely to try to get at the contents of the rabbit’s guts to feast on the fruits and plants that the rabbit ate. 

However, deer have also been observed eating the legs and ears off of a rabbit carcass, and if a deer stumbles upon a really small animal, they will likely just consume the whole thing.

The next thing to consider is how deer can digest meat if their digestive systems are designed for rumination–that whole rechewing on regurgitated cud thing.

It seems that when deer (and other ruminants) eat meat, they can actually digest it without regurgitating it, breaking it down more similarly to how humans do.

When Do Deer Eat Rabbits?

The final question on our journey of understanding deer’s habit of eating rabbits is tackling when they are likely to do so. 

Deer are more likely to eat rabbit and other meat when plant material is more scarce, like in the winter. Deer will likely also seek out meat when they require certain nutrients. 

Keeping with the example of deer chewing on bones for calcium. Deer need to ingest more calcium when they are producing milk for their young and when they are growing antlers.

Rabbit Carcass

During these times, deer might be more likely to seek out calcium-rich foods, like bones and meat.

While deer have been observed eating meat, we should reiterate that this is not a major component of their diet, in fact, it’s very rare to witness which is why the behavior is so puzzling.

If an herbivore, like a deer, were to consume too much meat, it could cause organ disease, growth abnormalities, or even death.

Deer are far more likely to seek their natural food sources like browse, forbs, grass, leaves, bark, and sometimes fruit such as pumpkins.

Final Thoughts

Deer do eat rabbits, but the truth is a bit more complex.

They only eat rabbits and other small animals when the opportunity arises, and they are more likely to try to consume the rabbit’s guts, which contain digested plant material.