Are sloths dangerous?

It’s never a good idea to categorize all cute animals as “innocuous species” and try to interact with them by stroking and hugging, at least not for wild animals. Many people have had to learn this the hard way with animals like swans, raccoons, hippos and slow loris, to mention a few.

The animal kingdom is a very strange space, and those little creatures that look the most endearing and adorable may actually prove to be the deadliest of them all.

When it’s your first time coming across an animal in the wild or even in a domestic setting, it’s better to regard the animal as a potential threat and try as much as possible to keep a distance away from it, unless you fully know what you’re doing or you know something about its characteristic temperament.

In this article, we turn our attention to one of social media’s most popular slay queens — the sloths. We explore their defensive behavior and temperament and find out exactly how dangerous these species can be under certain situations (if any).

Are sloths dangerous?

Sloths are not dangerous animals. They are peaceful, solitary creatures that are preyed upon by harpy eagles and wild cats. They defend themselves by action of clawing and biting when attacked by these predators, and also when “harassed” by other animals including human beings.

All sloths are primarily folivorous, meaning that they subsist on a low calorie diet made up entirely of tropical leaves and foliage. They sometimes feed on fruits, flowers and animal matter attached to the leaves and shoots that they consume.

Sloths unlike other animals rely mostly on their sense of smell to navigate their environment and find food. No sloth species have been observed to predate on smaller animals such as birds, rodents or small snakes and lizards like some literatures suggest. Sloths instead, are prey animals that are hunted down by harpy eagles and wild cats.

Sloths possess predatory-like features (long claws and sharp teeth) that they use to defend themselves against their predators. Their claws are long, curved and strongly built while their teeth are large, sharp and caniniform in nature. They can instill deep scratches on the body of their aggressor by deliberately swiping their foreclaws on them or inflict deep, painful wounds by savagely biting with their teeth.

Clawing and biting are two of the four secondary defense mechanisms within a sloth’s defensive repertoire. The remaining two being arm stretching and hissing. A sloth’s primary survival strategy is to adopt a sedentary lifestyle at the top of the rainforest canopy while camouflaging itself by growing myriad green algae on its grooved shaggy coating.

When sloths attack, they attack very hard

Sloths despite having a docile personality and seeming to always wear a perpetual smile on their face do not like being handled by humans. There is a significant reduction in the number and complexity of the muscles on their face which renders it mostly immobile (with the exception of the lip area which is used for feeding).

They appear to be having an expressive face all the time but in reality, the expression represents a fixed image rather than that caused through movement of muscles. Additionally, the sloths docile nature has alot to do with its defensive instinct than it ever concerns “excitement”.

Smiling sloth
Three toed sloths with a perpetual smile on its face.

Sloths are naturally reclusive, which means they do not like the company of other animals including their own individuals. Many research and documentaries have shown that adult sloths prefer to live alone, sedentarily, at the top of the rainforest canopies, and would only share their range with other individuals when mating or nurturing their young. Some research, however, have reported to observe female sloths congregate into smaller groups of two’s and three’s and adopt a lifestyle on a particular tree.

According to a research conducted by the World Animal Protection (which investigated the Impact of selfie tourism on the behavior and welfare of brown-throated three-toed sloths), individuals that were isolated from their natural habitat and taken for wildlife tourism may have being negatively impacted in their health and mental wellbeing.

The animals adopted behaviors that were considered abnormal for their species when subjected to direct physical contacts with humans. They became more vigilant; an indication of fear, stress and anxiety and slept less, an average of 1.4% of their time compared to the 56% observed in the wild.

Again, this research isn’t the first to observe the potential negative impact of wild life tourism on the welfare of animals. One researched showed that non-captive barbary macaques developed fear and increased in stress and anxiety just from the mere presense of tourists, and another research published in 2015 related how the presence of visitors increased the frequency of alert, fear, stress and aggression in the Sri Lanka species of asian elephants.

Three toed sloths are generally more delicate and vulnerable in comparison with their two fingered cousins. Where a two toed sloth would only suffer physical pain and physiological distress of fear, stress and anxiety when exposed to human contacts, three toed sloth in addition to this, can also have their immune system compromised.

Sloths exposed to direct physical contacts with humans experience great fear and anxiety and are likely to develop a reduced lifespan compared to those in the wild.

Furthermore, when a person directly handles a sloth, they do not only threaten and compromise the general welfare of the animal but also expose themselves to great risk of injury and harm.

Because sloths, unlike many animals, do not show any obvious external signs of stress when manipulated, it becomes very complicated on the part of the human to identify when the animal is unhappy or distressed. Instead, many people mistake the sloths constant arm stretching, claw-clasping and perpetual smiling expression with those of joy, happiness and excitement. And this is where the real danger can occur.

Sloths do not hesitate to claw or savagely bite the body of their aggressors when they feel threatened. This means that when a person constantly tries to interact with a sloth whilst failing to realize how much distress he/she is causing the animal (something they will inevitably fail to do), they run the risk of getting bitten or clawed.

Two toed sloths are generally tagged as the ‘more aggressive’ of the two family. A two fingered sloth (generally faster and bigger than its cousin) would not hesitate to lash out on its aggressor upon the slightest provocation. The natural response of a three toed sloth when threatened is to transition into a freeze and act paralyzed — a defensive strategy that they use to fool and ward off their predators. They, too, will not hesitate to attack when the harassment proves too much to handle.

Sloths grab and they grab very hard. Their arms and legs are strongly built for supporting their weight on tree branches and so when they attach themselves to objects they can be very difficult to separate. Sloths despite being slow and lethargic can move very fast when they feel threatened.

When sloths bite, their large sharp teeth is capable of inflicting deep holes that are large enough to be seen through. Same thing for their claws, they can easily pierce through and cause serious damage to delicate organs like the skin and eyes!

How to handle a sloth

The unnecessary handling of wild sloths as outlined above is destructive to the animal and is not something that anyone should recommended, but there are times when the need to pick up a sloth may warrant, for example, when you find a sloth trying to cross over a major road in search for a new habitat — something they occasionally do and often get run over by cars in the process.

In this situation, you can assist the sloth by lifting it up from its dorsal hairs (or back hairs) using your dominant hand, i.e. by wrapping your fingers tightly around it and gripping as much fur or body as you can, while keeping the sloth at a reasonable distance away from you.

This will ensure that you don’t get injured by its claws or bitten savagely by its teeth.

When you crossover and reach the other side of the road, gently drop the animal on its stomach and allow it to settle with the tree of its preference. Do not go overboard with kindness and attach the animal to any tree of your choice. If the sloth doesn’t like the chosen tree, it’ll make its way downwards for another tree which would have cost it additional energy.

You can also create a road block impression (with you car) to allow the sloth to safely cross the road on its own — only do this if you can afford the luxury to wait for the slowest mammal to crossover from Earth to Jupiter!

If you find a sloth wounded up on a wire or stuck on a tree branch (something that rarely often occurs), do not hesitate to offer help to the sloth. Just make sure to be on the qui vive for its claws and teeth (and also for possible electrical hazards) as it can respond aggressively to the rescue attempt.

Watch below to see how to safely assists a wild sloth to crossover a major road.

Sloth vs Sloth: Are sloths territorial?

Sloths are solitary species for most part of their lives and they hardly interfere with one another — except when mating or nurturing for their young. In these situations, the two sloths can be seen inhabiting the same tree for a certain period of time, after which they separate and return back to their modal tree or find a new range for themselves.

Three toed sloths, especially the males, are known to be very territorial and would not hesitate to defend their range against any foreign intruder. (Green, 1989) observed a territorial behavior between two male three toed sloths in Costa Rica. He recounted a male ascending a cecropia tree and attacking the resident by striking with his fore-claws. The resident responded back from the attack with high pitched screams and the intruder withdrew.

Here is another interesting documentary (video) showing two-male three toed sloths fighting.

Do sloths transmit diseases?

Sloths are often thought, through tales and superstitions passed down from generations, to be terrifying species because they transmit a certain type of flesh eating disease called leishmaniasis. Leishmaniasis is a disease that can cause certain types of ulcers in human and can reduce the total number of red blood cells in the body.

These tales and superstitions are wrong, however, because the only known vectors of the leishmania parasite are infected female phlebotomine sandflies, and sloths, just like many other mammals including we human beings, are only reservoirs of these parasites and are not capable of transmitting it to other individuals.

Sloth attacks

Up until this point, the reader is only aware of how terrifyingly scary sloths can be when they get mad, but haven’t really seen or come across any documented real life sloth attack. So in order to give the full picture of sloths and their defensive instinct, we have compiled a short list of documented attacks that have happened in real life. Enjoy!

1) Sloth attacks man in the wild (video):

In this video, a man is seen isolating a sloth from its natural habitat to “show off” to his YouTube audience. What happens next is quite funny and sad at the same time. The animal, after paralyzing itself and acting as though it has surrendered and all, grabbed the man from his arm and bit a sizable chunk of ‘disrespect’ out of him.

Watch video below

Update: It seems the video has been taken down from youtube by the creator. Too bad you couldn’t witness the horror.

2) Durrell’s encounter with an extremely angry two toed sloth

Gerald Durrell was a British naturalist and zookeeper who founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo on the Channel Island of Jersey in 1959. In one of his books titled “Three Singles to Adventure, Chapter Three: The Monstrous Animal and Sloth Songs”, Durrell recounted how he and his friend were attacked by a large and extremely angry two toed sloth; one of the specimens they retrieved during their animal collection expedition in British Guiana.

According to Durrell, the sloth was able to rip off his pyjama trousers from knee to ankle with one effortless slash. Apparently, the sloth had escaped from a wooden cage that was constructed for it in the animal house few hours earlier after Durrell secured it from local.

The sloth had ripped off the wooden spats that were nailed across the front of the cage to contain it and was roaming aimless on the ground making scrunching sounds and hisses. The strange noises from the animal house woke Durrell up from his sleep and prompted him to lunge straight into the animal room to find out what was happening.

In Durrell’s own words:

I glanced around in the dim light and saw Cuthbert sitting on a tier of cages, managing to look mentally defective and indignant at the same time. As I stepped further into the room something long and thin whipped out from behind the door and ripped my pyjama trousers from knee to ankle with one effortless slash.
(Durrell, 1954)

His friend had barely escaped the fore-claws of the sloth by a fraction of an inch when he came striding majestically into the room trying to inquire why Durrell was hammering loudly at two o’clock in the morning. (Durrell was reconstructing the ruptured caged so as to fit the sloth back into it for the rest of the night).

It took the two grown men a few awkward moments to get a hold of the sloth and put it back into the newly reconstructed cage.

3) A flying and biting sloth

During an interview, Boing Boing had with Dr. Donald E. Moore, a sloth biologist at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Washington, D.C, Moore narrated an experience that was both shocking and fascinating at the same time.

Moore claimed to be the only biologist at that time to be bitten by a sloth. He harked back to an incident where a female individual on one faithful day, for no apparent reason, came rushing towards him upside down along a vine, pulled his hand into her mouth and bit savagely.

You can find more stories and documentaries of real life sloth attacks with just a quick search on google.

In Conclusion: Are sloths dangerous to humans?

Sloths, like many other animals, are unique creatures in their own right. They are not predators that would try to sneak up on humans and other animals to make a meal off their shoulder bones and flesh. They are prey animals that are hunted by a declining set of natural predators and will only defend themselves when threatened and harassed.

Sloth attacks can be very fatal because these animals possess a sophisticated set of defensive tools they use to inflict serious injuries on their aggressors.

The handling of sloths in the wild and sanctuaries (for no genuine reason) is discouraged for an additional reason that it compromises their general welfare.

Unless you want to get mauled and develop scratches you want to remember for the rest of your life, it’s never a good idea to try and test the patience of an adult sloth!

More interesting articles sloth:

Obsessed with sloths? Check out our sloth category to learn more about them:

Cite this Article (APA Format)

Bunu. M. (2020, March 4). Are sloths dangerous?. Retrieved from

Leave a Comment