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Are Deer Herbivores (Do They Eat Meat?)




Most deer are herbivores, which means that their diet consists mostly of plants. Deer will eat a variety of different plant types, including leaves, grasses, flowers, and fruits. In some cases, deer may also eat nuts or seeds and even smaller animals.

The short answer is yes – deer are herbivores because they primarily eat plants. However, they will occasionally eat other smaller animals, including insects and even smaller rodents if they are starving, but meat constitutes only a minute part of their diet!

Some experts say that the dear eat meat occasionally to make up for a lack of nutrients in their diet, others insist that it is just random behavior – like a house cat playing with a dead bird!

Are Deer Herbivores?

So, deer mainly eat plants and they do eat a variety of different types of plants, including leaves, twigs, fruits, and nuts. Even your backyard vegetables like tomatoes will be eaten by deer if you are not careful!  

During the winter months when food is scarce, deer will often eat bark from trees to help them survive. Deer have even been known to eat poisonous plants when there is nothing else available to them.

Deer play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to disperse seeds and keeping plant populations healthy. If you’re lucky enough to see a deer in the wild, be sure to admire it from a distance so as not to disturb its natural habitat.

Deer are smaller than true ruminants such as cattle, but larger than chevrotains, which resemble deer.

Deer will search the ground for nuts, sprouts, and occasionally worms and insects.

Deer have a specialized set of teeth that are adapted for browsing on vegetation. They have incisors at the front of their mouths for biting and tearing off plant material, and they also possess molars and premolars for grinding and chewing the food. Their long, mobile tongues help them grasp and pull leaves and buds into their mouths.

The digestive system of deer is designed to break down and extract nutrients from cellulose-rich plant material. Their stomach has four chambers: the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum.

The rumen and reticulum are responsible for the initial fermentation and breakdown of plant matter, while the omasum and abomasum further digest and absorb nutrients from the processed food.

The plant-based diet of deer provides them with the necessary nutrients, including carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, and vitamins, to sustain their growth and survival. They have evolved to efficiently extract nutrients from low-quality vegetation, enabling them to thrive in various habitats, from forests and meadows to mountains and grasslands.

While it is rare, there have been reported instances of deer displaying omnivorous behavior, including the consumption of small amounts of meat. These cases are usually associated with extreme environmental conditions or nutritional deficiencies. In certain situations, deer may resort to opportunistic feeding and consume carrion, small rodents, or birds.

Such behavior is believed to be a survival mechanism during periods of limited food availability or to compensate for certain nutrient deficiencies. However, it is important to emphasize that these instances are exceptions rather than the norm, and they do not indicate that deer are naturally inclined to be carnivorous.

In conclusion, deer are herbivorous animals that primarily feed on plant material. Their specialized anatomy and digestive system are perfectly adapted to process and derive nutrition from a plant-based diet. While there have been rare instances of deer consuming small amounts of meat, these occurrences are not representative of their natural feeding behavior.

Deer Can also act as Carnivores!

The deer eats mostly plants but will also, although rarely, eat other animals. Therefore the deer can be considered an omnivore to the extent that other hoofed mammals are.

Most herbivores cannot completely avoid eating other animals, as insects are present in the grass, bark, and leaves that they feed on.

a deer eating a rodent
A deer eating a rodent (see video at the end of this post!)

It is important to understand that most herbivores will also eat a small amount of meat in their lifetime, but this does not make the carnivores as their main mode of feeding is vegetarian!

Deer are only omnivores when they feed on the occasional insect or two as a supplement to their main vegetarian diet. However, the deer family as a whole is not omnivorous – they are herbivores.

They prefer eating plants, but do not restrict themselves to a vegetarian diet if the opportunity for eating other animals like insects arises and that makes deer omnivores. That is, as omnivores, deer can act as both herbivores and carnivores.

Deer can act as carnivores, but do so very rarely. Deer have been known to eat meat on occasion when plant food is scarce or if they happen to encounter a weak animal or a fresh carcass.

However, it is clear from the anatomy of the deer, that they are herbivores 99% of the time!

Deer have specialized in the way they eat, and their teeth are specially designed to break down plant matter.

Their back teeth are large and have rough surfaces, while their front teeth are small and are designed to cut wood and other objects.

What happens if a deer eats meat?

The stomach of deer is the ruminant type that is also found in cows, so it is not particularly optimized to eat meat.

Deer are ruminant animals, which means that they have a four-chamber stomach that ferments food before it is digested. This allows deer to digest tough plant material and convert it into nutrients that they can use.

If a deer was to eat exclusively meat, it would likely be malnourished and contract bacterial and parasitic diseases that it’s body cannot easily fight off.

That being said, it does not harm the deer to eat an occasional insect or two. This is because meat is generally easier to process than plant material, so a plant eater will not have trouble breaking down the proteins in meat.

However, a meat-eater like a lion or a catfish, will not survive long on a vegetarian diet as their intestines are too short and they lack the fermenting gut system to break down fibrous plant material.  

Do deer eat bugs?

Deer primarily have a herbivorous diet, consisting of various plant materials such as leaves, grasses, twigs, fruits, and nuts. However, while their main focus is on plant matter, deer are known to occasionally consume insects and other small invertebrates as part of their feeding behavior. This behavior, known as insectivory, is observed in several deer species worldwide.

Insects may supplement a deer’s diet during specific times of the year or in certain environmental conditions. For example, during the summer months when insect populations are abundant, deer may opportunistically feed on insects to acquire additional protein and nutrients. This behavior is particularly observed in fawns and lactating does, as they have higher nutritional requirements compared to adult males.

Deer are known to consume a wide range of insects, including beetles, flies, grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, and spiders. They may also eat insect larvae found in decaying wood or under tree bark. This insectivorous behavior has been observed in various deer species, including white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), red deer (Cervus elaphus), and others.

Insect consumption by deer serves several purposes. Firstly, insects provide deer with an additional source of protein, which is important for growth, tissue repair, and reproduction. Secondly, insects can contribute to the deer’s nutrient intake, supplying essential vitamins and minerals that may be lacking in their primary plant-based diet. Lastly, feeding on insects can help deer manage internal parasites. Certain insects, such as botflies, can be parasitic to deer. By consuming these insects, deer can minimize their parasite load and maintain better overall health.

It’s important to note that while deer do eat insects, their primary food source remains plant material. The proportion of insects in their diet is relatively small compared to the bulk of vegetation they consume. Insects are more likely to be consumed when they are readily available and easily accessible, such as during times of high insect abundance or when deer are browsing in areas with insect-rich habitats, such as meadows or near water bodies.

In conclusion, deer do exhibit insectivorous behavior, incorporating insects and other small invertebrates into their diet. While insects provide additional protein, nutrients, and help manage parasites, they are not a significant or primary component of a deer’s diet. Their feeding behavior is primarily focused on plant materials, and insect consumption is opportunistic and supplemental.

Why are Deer Important for the Ecosystem?

Deer are important for the ecosystem because they help to control plant growth. By eating plants, deer prevent them from becoming overgrown and taking over an area. This helps to create a balance in nature and allows other animals to have access to food and shelter.

Deer also help to spread seeds around as they travel. This helps new plants to grow in different areas, which can eventually lead to a more diverse ecosystem. A diverse ecosystem is healthier and can better withstand environmental changes or disasters.

Deer are important primary consumers in the ecosystem.

As primary consumers, deer sit near the bottom of the food chain. The energy they transfer to other animals comes from the plants they eat. When predators eat deer, they are getting energy from the plants that the deer ate.

This is why it is important for ecosystems to have a variety of different animals; each animal plays a role in transferring energy and nutrients between different parts of the ecosystem.

Deer do not generally scavenge or decompose matter, but their feces does help to fertilize the soil with nutrients from the plants they have eaten.

Can Deer act as Scavengers or Decomposers?

Deer do not generally eat dead or decaying matter and are therefore not scavengers.

They may eat ensilage, a type of fermented grass, that farmers often feed to ruminants over the winter months. Deer like this type of hay, as the fermentation process has already partially digested the grass material for them!

The bacteria in the gut of the deer play a very important role in their digestion and these microorganisms are not optimized for the digestion of meat or carcasses but are much better at digesting plant material.

Deer will gladly eat “dead” plant material such as dried hay.

However, they do sometimes eat dead plants in the form of fruit and leaves. This helps reuse the nutrients of plants that would otherwise have to go through the slow process of decomposition by microorganisms on their own.

By eating dead plants, a deer speeds up this process and offers some of the raw nutrients back to the environment when leaving its feces.

Where are Deer in the Food Chain?

Deer are fairly low in the food chain because they only eat plants. Animals that only eat plants are primary consumers and are placed on the second trophic level in the energy pyramid.

The energy transferred by the deer is the energy from the fruit, leaves, or other plants that they eat.

Herbivores like deer, cows, sheep, and rhinos are on the 2nd trophic level in the food chain.

This energy is transferred to the animals that might eat the deer, for example, a lion or a leopard.

Food chains simply demonstrate how energy moves from one organism to the next, in a straight line.

Deer are important for the transfer of energy because they help to control the populations of other plants and therefore, indirectly, other animals. They absorb plant-based energy and transfer that on to the carnivores, like wolfs, that would eat the deer.

If there were no deer then the populations of some plants would explode, as there would be no natural predators to keep them in check.

Do deer have any natural predators?

Yes, deer do have some predators, including lions, leopards, and wolves that eat deer by chasing them and biting their throats.

Other natural predators of deer are coyotes, foxes, and mountain lions. These smaller predators would generally go for the smaller, younger, deer.

However, the biggest threat to a large deer is often other deer as they will fight for mates and dominance in the internal social hierarchy.

The biggest natural predator of deer worldwide is generally believed the be humans as we have hunted and eaten deer since the beginning of our species!


Deer are ruminant mammals belonging to the family Cervidae. Deer are widely distributed, with species being found on every continent except Antarctica, and on every major land mass except Australia.

In this post we have looked into the diet of deer, the organisms (predators and prey) that make up a deer’s diet and how energy and nutrients are exchanged in ecosystems.

Deer can sometimes eat larger animals like rabbits, but this is extremely rare in the wild!

The deer diet consists of a mixture of plants, nuts, fruits, and seeds. Only very rarely do they eat meat.

The diet of deer is seasonal and their diet is supplemented with items from the animal kingdom occasionally but it is not essential for their survival.

The transfer of energy and nutrients is not random, as deer have specific dietary needs and make the choice to eat or ignore them.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it and I hope that I have given you an insight to this fascinating group of animals.

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