The Truth About Sloths, Understanding Their Behavior and Potential Risks
Sloths, are small, cute looking animals with gentle features, docile movement and a slow approach to life. Their reclusive nature, solitary preference and ability to spend the vast majority of their time up in the tree canopies might make them of little threat to humans and other animals. But that doesn’t mean they can’t cause serious harm.
In this post we look at answering are sloths dangerous by nature? As well as when and why they might be considered dangerous.
Are Sloths Dangerous?
Sloths are not considered to be dangerous or inherently aggressive animals by nature. But they can become aggressive if agitated or feel threatened. They are gentle creatures that are more likely to flee than fight when confronted by a potential predator. They are such slow movers, that they often go un-noticed by some of their most dangerous nearby predators. They also very rarely come to ground, often only around once per week to relieve themselves.
They are all mostly herbivorous, though some are considered omnivores. The Sloths diet consists mainly of leaves and twigs so they don’t have the aggressive nature that is often present in carnivorous animals.
Although they are not dangerous or aggressive when left alone, if they do feel threatened they have some impressive tools to defend themselves with. An attack can cause significant harm. If left alone in the wild, attacks are unlikely. But if provoked or handled incorrectly they are more than capable of lashing out.
How Quick Are Sloths?
Sloths are very slow on land, and are not built for walking or running. They spend the vast majority of their time hanging in the trees, and very little time on the ground. Quick movement burns more energy and they are not built for that, so they would make pretty poor hunters.
What Makes A Sloth Dangerous?
One of the dangers a sloth possesses, is that you might not know one is close by. They are slow movers and spend most of their time in the trees. If an animal or human gets close without realising it, a sloth may naturally lash out unexpectedly to defend itself.
They can be very sensitive to smell and unfamiliar sound. Any unfamiliar scent may startle them, causing a reaction.
Sloths are also solitary by nature, other than mating or rearing their young. They don’t like to share territory and they are not particularly fond of others. That can make handling sloth a bit of a challenge, and mishandling can result in a defensive attack.
What Defences Do They Have?
Sloths have sharp claws that they can use to defend themselves if they feel threatened. Their claws are both long and sharp. If they do land a swipe, a slash of the claws can create large lacerations through flesh.
Sloths also have very sharp teeth, and a bite can be just as nasty. Attacks by either claws or bite can become infected easily. While rare, Sloths do carry Phleboviruses which can cause disease in humans. So besides physical damage and risk of infection, there is also the risk of disease to humans.
They also have a strong grip and can hang onto branches for a long period of time. A sloths grip is so strong, they have even been known to be found gripping onto branches long after they have died. A sloth’s clinging in the trees is actually a reflex action. This grip can prevent a predator from easily snatching and grabbing them.
Many Sloths are also proficient swimmers and can use this to their advantage if they are being chased by a predator. They are much faster in the water than they are on land. Using their upper body strength to their advantage.
Are Sloths Dangerous To Humans?
There have been rare reports of people being injured by sloths, but this is usually due to the animal being provoked or mishandled. Overall, sloths are not considered to be a significant danger to humans, because they try to stay away from us. If left alone, they will not go out of their way to intentionally cause or inflict harm. But if we annoy them, they will let us know about it.
The two toed sloth species are more aggressive than the three toed sloths, but neither of them like to be handled and this is where they are most likely to be a danger to humans. Not in the wild, doing their own thing, but when handled poorly. This is most likely to happen with poachers or hunters than those handled for science and research, as the latter are more likely to apply careful thought to their approach.
When Will A Sloth Attack?
A sloth will attack when it senses danger, feels threatened or becomes agitated. They are more likely to attack when they are at their most vulnerable, which is when they are on the ground. If they encounter a predator this is where it is more likely to happen. In the trees they are very hard to spot, but on the ground, the sharp eye of a jaguar can spot them more easily.
Sloth have poor sight and hearing, but great smell and good spatial memory. They might not see a person or animal approach during the brightness of day, but they will smell an approach. If you get too close for comfort they will attack.
Do Sloths Attack Each Other?
Sloths are not known to attack each other, other than during mating. When a female sloth is ready to mate, all the male sloths in the vicinity will catch the scent, or hear her high pitched vocalizations. As they approach any that come into close contact may fight for mating rights. The aim here, it would appear, is to knock the other male out of the tree canopy.
This is the only time you are likely to see a group of sloths, other than a mother rearing her child. They really don’t like to be too close together.
These fights can be surprisingly vicious. The losing male will let out a cry, but the winning male will be allowed to mate.
How To Prevent A Sloth Attacking
It’s unlikely that you will ever experience a sloth attack, even if you are travelling through their natural habitats in South America. But if you do ever find yourself in that situation:
- Do not approach them or handle them unnecessarily
- If you must handle them, do so carefully
- Don’t wear strong scented lotions, perfumes or oils if moving through their environment
- Pay attention to the trees as you walk through their territory
- In captivity, leave any handling to their carers
- No sudden movements
- Just step away. Sloths are incredibly slow at walking.
Would A Sloth Make A Good Pet?
The short answer to this is no. They are not social animals. They don’t like being handled and they barely tolerate each other let alone other animals or humans. Even light petting is enough to make them feel uncomfortable.
This is one animal that is best left to its own devices and in its own habitat. They prefer to be high up in the trees, alone and out of sight. Their physical build makes them suited to hanging, and they are not built to live on the ground or in a cage. They also prefer to be slow moving. These are not preferences that make for a very good pet.
What Predators Do Sloths Have?
The main predators of sloths are the jaguar, the harpy eagle and humans. Though anacondas, ocelot and margays are also known to be significant predators. The majority of sloth deaths in Costa Rica are from contact with electrical lines and from poachers.
Humans are not a common predator of sloths, but there have been cases of people hunting the animals for their meat.