Rodents adore cactus plants and several species are known to eat the pads, fruits and seeds of cacti. Rats, mice, gophers, chipmunks and ground squirrels all find cacti irresistible, so how can you protect your plants from attack?
What rodents eat prickly pear cacti, and why?
All kinds of rodents are attracted to prickly pear cacti, including rats, mice, gophers, chipmunks, and ground squirrels. All of these animals will nibble around spines to get at the pads, fruits and seeds of cacti, especially in the dry season when there is generally less food around.
Some critters even rely on the water content of cactus plants as a source of fluids during periods of drought. Some rodents may also use prickly pear cacti as a source of shelter and protection from predators.
Wood rats (AKA pack rats) are especially fond of prickly pears, and will often nest near cactus clumps. In desert areas, wood rats may get all of their fluids from eating prickly pears, though they don’t like the spiky bits and will selectively eat around those.
Several mouse species (like the pocket mouse, the cactus mouse and Nelson’s Kangaroo rat) are all known to eat prickly pear seedlings, and may also snack on the fruits and seeds of adult cacti.
These burrowing rodents often live in dry areas and, like wood rats, can get all the water they need from a diet of prickly pear cactus.
Chipmunks and ground squirrels
Both chipmunks and ground squirrels include prickly pear into their diets, and will feast on the fruits and seeds of cacti.
What other animals eat cacti?
We know that rodents love cacti, but what other animals eat prickly pear plants? As it turns out, plenty of animals dine on prickly pear cacti, including:
All kinds of desert birds eat cactus fruits and cactus-dwelling insects, including the Gila Woodpecker, the Greater Roadrunner and the Elf Owl.
Peccaries are pig-like animals found in the southwestern states of North America, as well as Central and South America. They eat all parts of the entire cactus, spines and all.
Reptiles such as iguanas and tortoises are also known to eat the fruits and pads of prickly pears. Rattlesnakes may not eat the cacti, but they may use the plants for shelter.
Cacti make suitable hosts for a wide variety of insects including cactus bugs, scale insects, mealybugs, spider mites and cactus longhorn beetles.
How to protect your cacti from rodents
Keeping rodents away from your cacti can be tricky, and it may not be possible to protect them completely. However, there are measures you can take to reduce rodent access and minimize damage to your prickly pears.
Cover your cacti
Many rodent species (such as wood rats) are predominantly active at night. If your cacti are falling prey to nocturnal nibbling, cover them up each evening before the sun sets. Metal garbage cats and buckets are especially effective as rodent shields.
Protect your prickly pears with fencing
Surrounding your cacti with wire fencing can also help to keep rodents off them. If you try this, be sure to bury the fencing at least 6 inches into the soil to prevent rats from burrowing underneath.
Spray them with pepper
Many rodents hate spicy food, so applying hot pepper to your plants could help to discourage them from taking a bite. A homemade pepper spray is quick and easy to whip up: simply combine cayenne or another spicy kind of pepper with water and spray it over your cacti. You should repeat this every few days and after every rainfall.
Plant mint nearby
Rodents are also thought to dislike the smell of mint, so planting this herb near your cacti could help to keep rats and mice away. Alternatively, you could try leaving cotton balls soaked in peppermint essential oil nearby, or create a mint-and-water spray to spritz over your cacti.
Set up traps
If your cacti are being ravaged by rodents, it could be that you have a large number of rats on your property. This is bad news for your prickly pears and your house, as rodents can easily make their way indoors.
Once inside, they can chew through items in your house and contaminate food stores.
Setting up traps near your cacti can reduce rodent numbers on your property, which can minimize the damage to your plants and help to prevent a home invasion.
Make your backyard less attractive to rodents
Rodents like places with plenty of food and shelter so, if your backyard has both, you may be encouraging them in. Overgrown shrubs, long grasses, boxes, firewood stacks and outdoor structures (like sheds) all make ideal harborage sites and insecure trash cans are a perfect food source.
De-clutter your backyard and keep trash in secured containers to reduce the rodent population around your home and protect your cacti from attack.
Rodents such as rats, mice, squirrels, gophers and chipmunks all love to dine on cactus plants, especially in the dry season. This is partly due to the lack of other food sources, but is also because cacti provide rodents with fluids when there is little water around. Finally, cacti can provide shelter and protection to a wide range of animals.
Other animal species that eat cacti include birds, peccaries, iguanas, tortoises and a variety of insects. If you want to protect your cacti from damage, try covering them or fencing them in to create a physical barrier between them and the local wildlife. You could also try planting mint nearby, as rodents are reported to dislike the smell.