Do Deer Eat Meat? The Answer May Surprise You

Written By John VanDerLaan 

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Do deer eat meat? Contrary to their herbivore label, deer have been known to consume meat on rare occasions. This article examines the fascinating instances of carnivorous behavior in deer, the ecological factors contributing to these anomalies, and the broader perspective it brings to our understanding of their diet.

Whitetail Deer Scavenging Human Remains

Whitetail Deer Scavenging Human Remains. Story Below. Photo courtesy of Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University

Key Takeaways

  • Deer aren’t just herbivores; they occasionally eat meat, such as carrion and small animals, demonstrating adaptability in their diet.
  • Deer anatomy, including their digestive system and teeth, is designed for a plant-based diet, but they can process meat, which highlights their evolutionary flexibility.
  • Changes to their habitat, like encroachment from human development, can result in deer adapting their diet and turning to meat as an alternative food source during times of scarcity.

The Herbivore's Dilemma: Occasional Meat Consumption by Deer

It’s not a typographical error, folks. Deer, primarily herbivores, do occasionally eat meat. And no, we’re not talking about a whitetail deer accidentally swallowing a bug while grazing. We mean deliberate, purposeful meat consumption. Documented cases of deer eating meat, from carrion to small mammals, have been reported, challenging the standard classification of deer as strict herbivores.

So what’s going on? Let’s dig a bit deeper.

Documented Cases of Deer Eating Meat

Deer have displayed an unexpected dietary adaptability, including:

  • Consuming bird eggs and baby birds
  • Munching on carrion
  • Scavenging rabbit and dead squirrel carcasses
  • Dining on carrion left by other animals
  • Scavenging dead fish washed ashore

These instances of meat consumption are rare but real, even among those animals that exhibit meat eating behavior.

These instances highlight that deer, while mostly plant-eaters, can and do eat meat.

Understanding Opportunistic Feeding

Opportunistic feeding is often the key to survival, especially during lean times when plant-based food is scarce. Deer are no exception. Their dietary flexibility, an evolutionary survival trait, allows them to adapt to varying food availability.

Herbivores like deer can deviate from their usual diet and consume meat when driven by the instinctual need for survival. This carnivorous behavior may be infrequent, but it’s a testament to their adaptability and resilience.

Implications for Deer Behavior

The occasional carnivory of deer blurs the lines of dietary classifications, challenging our understanding of herbivores and carnivores. This shows us that nature isn’t as black-and-white as our textbooks might have us believe.

Deer’s ability to consume meat under specific circumstances demonstrates a dietary flexibility that’s both unexpected and intriguing. It’s a reminder that nature continually evolves, often in ways that surprise us.

Check out this video of a deer eating a snake! Perhaps it was revenge for the snake that ate a deer!

The Anatomy of a Plant-Eater: Deer Digestive and Dental Adaptations

Despite these instances of carnivory, deer’s anatomy is undeniably designed for a plant-based diet. Their digestive systems, including specialized organs and gut structures, are optimized for processing plant materials. Even their teeth are adapted for grinding down fibrous plant tissues.

But nature loves to throw us curveballs, and despite their herbivore-friendly design, deer can process meat in rare circumstances.

Four-Chambered Stomachs of Ruminants

Like cows and other animals called ruminants, deer have a unique four-chambered stomach designed for efficient breakdown of plant material. Each chamber plays a crucial role in the digestion process, including:

  1. The rumen’s fermentation vat function
  2. The reticulum’s role in regurgitation and re-chewing
  3. The omasum’s absorption of water and nutrients
  4. The abomasum’s production of digestive enzymes

This complex system, coupled with a long intestinal tract, allows deer to extract maximum nutrients from their primarily plant-based diet.

RELATED: Do Deer Chew Cud? Digestive System Facts

Teeth Structure and Function

A look inside a deer’s mouth reveals another adaptation to a herbivorous lifestyle. Deer have no upper incisors, just a hard dental pad against which the lower incisors clip and sever vegetation. Their molars, with wide, flat surfaces and high crowns, are ideal for grinding down fibrous plant tissues.

These dental adaptations ensure efficient processing of plant matter throughout their life.

Rare Adaptations for Meat Digestion

Despite their plant-focused adaptations, deer can process meat, albeit not as efficiently. Their stomachs host a variety of microorganisms that aid in breaking down cellulose, suggesting a potential for assisting in the digestion of animal proteins. Young deer even have a reticular groove that allows milk to bypass the rumen, hinting at a design that can evolve to process solid food, including meat, as the animal matures.

Eating meat is not just limited to white tailed deer, all types of deer will eat meat occasionally. Here is a video of an elk eating a rabbit!

The Impact of Habitat on Dietary Choices

Habitat plays a crucial role in determining a deer’s diet. As humans encroach upon and fragment deer habitats, the availability of natural forage decreases, forcing deer to find alternative food sources. This change not only affects the deer’s diet but also increases human-wildlife conflicts.

Understanding the deer’s capacity to adapt their diet in response to changing environments is key to developing effective wildlife management strategies.

Loss of Natural Forage

The loss of natural forage due to habitat encroachment and fragmentation poses a significant challenge for deer. The destruction of plants, insects, and microbes, which form part of the deer’s natural forage base, leads to a decrease in the availability of diverse and continuous food sources. This loss is exacerbated by deer overpopulation, which results in the destruction of the understory tree and shrub layer, further reducing food availability.

Scavenging as a Result of Human Activity

Human activities have led to increased instances of deer scavenging meat from dead animals. From agricultural landscapes to urban environments, deer have been observed scavenging in areas heavily influenced by human activity. The most extraordinary case? A deer feeding on human remains at Texas State University.

Forensic Findings from Texas State University

In 2015, a trail camera at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University captured a deer holding a human rib bone in its mouth. This marked the first documented instance of a deer feeding on human remains, which include human flesh. The observation, published in the Journal of Forensic Scientists, is not just a fascinating anecdote but also has implications for understanding animal activity in the decomposition of human bodies.

Whitetail Deer Scavenging Human Remains

Whitetail Deer Eating Human Remains. Photo courtesy of Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University

It is believed that this whitetail deer was not eating meat, but was gnawing on the bones. Bones can be a good source of minerals, which deer need to survive and flourish.

Seasonal Shifts and Survival Strategies

Seasons change, and so does the deer’s diet. From lush summer greens to woody winter browse, deer adapt their diet according to the season and available food sources. Meat eating is a part of this adaptability, particularly during times of food scarcity.

This dietary flexibility is a key survival strategy, helping deer thrive in diverse environments.

Winter Scarcity and Dietary Flexibility

When the snow blankets the ground, and the temperatures plummet, plant-based food becomes scarce. During these harsh winter months, deer alter their diet to include more accessible food sources. They may even resort to opportunistic feeding habits, including scavenging for meat. This adaptive behavior provides a survival advantage, helping deer weather the winter cold.

RELATED: Where, When And How Do Deer Sleep

It's not just meat, deer will eat fish too! Here is a video of a deer eating a perch in the winter.

Examples of Seasonal Diet Variation

Deer’s diet varies with the seasons. From herbaceous plants in summer to apples, acorns, and beechnuts in fall, and relying on browse during the winter, deer exhibit a remarkable ability to adapt their diet.

This adaptability extends to their ability to eat carrion, particularly during winter months when plant food is less accessible.

Debunking Myths: Clarifying Misconceptions About Deer Diets

It’s time to debunk some myths. Contrary to popular belief, deer are not exclusive herbivores. They have been documented consuming animal matter, albeit infrequently, leading to their classification as ‘opportunistic omnivores.’

Let’s dive deeper into these misconceptions and clarify the reality of deer diets.

The Myth of Exclusive Herbivory

The notion that deer are exclusive herbivores has been challenged by numerous observations of deer eating meat. This unexpected dietary behavior prompts us to reconsider the strict herbivore categorization of deer and similar species.

Indeed, these rare instances of meat consumption shatter the misconception of deer as strict herbivores.

Here is a video of key deer eating a dove.

The Reality of Omnivorous Behavior

The reality is that deer, while predominantly herbivorous, do exhibit omnivorous behavior. The consumption of meat in the wild, although rare, is a natural behavior driven by the need for nutrition. This adaptability is a testament to the deer’s survival instincts, enabling them to make the most of available food sources.

Observations of Predatory Actions

While deer are not known to exhibit predatory behavior, their opportunistic feeding habits can lead them to consume small animals. However, it’s essential to note that this behavior is not typical for deer and occurs under specific circumstances. Their primary diet is plant-based, and instances of meat eating are exceptions rather than the rule.


Deer consuming meat? As surprising as it sounds, it’s a reality. While deer are primarily herbivores, they have demonstrated remarkable dietary adaptability. They can, and do, consume meat, especially during times of scarcity. This behavior challenges our understanding of dietary classifications and highlights the complex dynamics of nature. So, the next time you see a deer, remember, it might not be as strictly herbivorous as you think!

RELATED: Are Deer Nocturnal

Frequently Asked Questions

Do deer eat snakes?

Deers generally don't eat snakes, as reptiles are not a significant part of their natural diet. While there have been occasional reports of deer consuming small reptiles or amphibians, it's not a common behavior.

Are deer actually omnivores?

No, deer are not omnivores. They are specialized herbivores, primarily feeding on plant matter. Studies show they are highly selective in their diet, mainly consuming plants with specific nutritional content and properties.

Do deer eat any other animals?

Yes, deer may eat small animals like squirrels or rabbits, and in some cases, they have been observed consuming larger animals, including other deer.

Will a deer ever eat meat?

Yes, deer do eat meat, including fish, squirrel, and goose meat, and even human flesh in some cases. So, they are not strictly herbivorous.

Are deer herbivores or carnivores?

Deer are primarily herbivores, but they may show omnivorous behavior in specific situations.

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John VanDerLaan

John VanDerLaan is the managing editor here at He oversees a team of editors, writers and pro staff that are subject matter experts in hunting and hunting gear. John's expertise includes thoroughly testing all types of hunting gear, as well as hunting all over the U.S. and Canada. While his hunting expertise includes game birds, small game and large game, his favorite game animal is the whitetail deer and he loves to share the knowledge that he has gained over 40 years of chasing the wily whitetail with both archery gear and firearms. John is an active member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

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