Do Animals Eat Spicy Chili Peppers?


For most animals, eating capsaicin is a no-no. It causes their mucous membranes to get inflamed and irritated, and this burning sensation could spread to the skin, too. Interestingly, some animals seem to enjoy eating spicy chili peppers, and their heat doesn’t seem to bother them at all.

Most mammals, except for humans and the Chinese tree shrew, don’t eat chili peppers, because the capsaicin present in them can upset their digestive system, causing stomachaches, vomiting, and loose stool. However, some reptiles and birds do eat chilis and seem to suffer no harmful side effects.

In this article, you will find out why most animals stay away from chili peppers. You will also discover which animal species enjoy eating hot peppers and whether these peppers are harmful to them. Let’s dive in!

Photo of two birds multicolored birds (green, yellow, and blue) snuggling
Photo by Nolan Evans

Which Types of Animals Eat Chili Peppers?

Chili peppers contain capsaicin—the chemical responsible for their spicy, hot taste—which deters most mammals from eating them, since they are sensitive to it. The main reason plants have this deterrent is for propagation purposes.

Unlike mammals, most birds and reptiles can eat chili peppers, because they are not affected by the presence of capsaicin. Fruit-eating birds, such as parrots, do not feel the pepper heat at all. They possess natural immunity to capsaicin’s irritating effects because their mouths don’t have the kind of taste receptors mammals have. Thus, they can’t detect the heat.

As a result, birds are able to eat pepper fruits, and actually help with pepper pollination by scattering the seeds around. 

Other than birds, a number of reptiles, slugs, worms, and insects, such as grasshoppers, also eat chili peppers.

Do Any Mammals, Other Than Humans, Eat Spicy Peppers?

According to a study by the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, tree shrews eat spicy peppers. As far as we know, Chinese tree shrews are the only mammals, apart from human beings, known for their love for spicy food. Remarkably, when they were given additional capsaicinoids, the daring tree shrews increased their food intake.

Due to a mutation in their pain receptors, tree shrew mouths are less sensitive to capsaicin. The researchers also believe the mutation is an evolutionary adaptation that allows tree shrews to tolerate capsaicinoids by lowering their sensitivity to them. This results in a widening of the tree shrews’ diet range and boosts their survival.

While that may be so, most mammals, including dogs and elephants, do not like spicy food at all. They prefer to stick to bland meals. On the other hand, some humans enjoy the uniquely perverse pleasure of consuming hot, spicy, and tear-eliciting foods—despite having almost 10,000 taste buds with pain receptors on them!

Still, their hot, intense flavor aside, spicy chili peppers have considerable health benefits to offer humans. Also, it’s interesting to note that only the fruits of the pepper plant contain capsaicin. The rest of the pepper plant doesn’t.

What Happens When Animals Eat Spicy Peppers?

Did you know that a popular solution to pesky squirrels is to use pepper juice? Soaking bird seeds in pepper juice helps prevent the squirrels from stealing the bird food. When most animals eat spicy peppers, they suffer gastrointestinal and digestive issues, including an upset stomach, diarrhea, gas, or vomiting.

This kind of reaction is common for most mammals, with the exception of humans and the Chinese tree schrew. Capsaicin can lead to internal damage if taken in large quantities. Capsaicin gives out a hot, bitter taste when ingested. What’s more, almost every animal finds it extremely irritating to the skin and eyes.

Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)
Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)

If your cat or dog eats food containing very hot chili peppers, their eyes will start streaming while their nose runs. Swallowing the food will result in diarrhea and vomiting because capsaicin irritates the stomach lining, and they might feel nauseous after.

In general, it’s best to avoid giving your pets spicy peppers as they might be harmful. While some pets might be more spice-tolerant, spicy foods could still cause discomfort, stomach pain, or diarrhea. In the case of dogs, spicy chili peppers could also cause excessive thirst, which could lead to vomiting.

For humans, capsaicin does create some discomfort, which is why we all feel the burning sensation in our mouths when we consume it or feel the burn in our eyes and hands if we get pepper juice on them. However, many humans enjoy the pain and the flavor that peppers bring, which is why they are often added to meals, no matter what cuisine.

Do Reptiles Eat Chili Peppers?

Like birds, reptiles are also able to ingest capsaicin without any issues.

Lizards

Most types of lizards, such as the bearded dragon and iguanas, can eat chili peppers. They seem to enjoy them, too. However, eating too many chili peppers might cause them to have an upset stomach.

If you have a pet lizard, you can try out milder peppers like Jalapeños. These contain less capsaicin than the spicier Habanero or Scotch bonnets. You might want to remove the ribs and seeds from the Jalapeños before you give them to your pet lizard, since they contain the most heat.

Turtles

Many turtle keepers avoid feeding their pets spicy chili peppers for fear that they might harm them. They instead go for bell peppers which do not contain capsaicin.

However, this fear is unfounded as turtles can eat spicy chili peppers, too. Just like birds, turtles do not have pain receptors and can consume the peppers without feeling the burning heat or suffering adverse effects.

Snakes

All snakes are carnivores, so they don’t care much for plants. They are more interested in rabbits, mice, rats, insects, other reptiles, and birds. Despite their preferred diet, snakes have a significant impact on plant life in a given habitat and can help or severely hamper plant life since they affect seed dispersal. While they may not snack on peppers themselves, they do consume other animals and birds that do.

These reptiles swallow their food whole, so if a snake swallows a bird that had eaten chili peppers, the seeds can survive the journey through the snake’s digestive tract. At times, some of these seeds even start germinating while still inside the snake’s colon. This means that the pepper plant, more often than not, starts growing as soon as they get deposited on the ground. 

However, snakes can also impede seed dispersal. For instance, in the 1940s, newly introduced brown tree snakes destroyed native bird species in Guam. Sadly, this continues to date, and 10 out of 12 native bird species have been completely wiped out. This has led to a significant change in the local ecosystem as the local chili pepper plants have also disappeared.

You might think that the snakes would actually lead to more chili pepper plants on the island, as there would be fewer birds eating the pepper fruits. However, birds are also great pollinators, since they usually poop out the pepper seeds in new locations, thus helping in spreading them. These peppers are often spicier than the ones raised on regular farms. Guam’s pepper plants have been decimated due to the snakes’ impact on the local bird populations.

Closing Thoughts

Most mammals, apart from humans and Chinese tree shrews, do not eat or enjoy eating hot peppers because of the presence of capsaicin. Birds and reptiles, however, can feed on hot peppers without any issues, since they do not have the same pain receptors that detect the heat from capsaicin that mammals do.

Supriya

Hi! I'm Supriya. I'm a home cook, bulldog mom, spicy food lover, and founder of The Spicy Trio. I have been a home cook for about 15 years and have been growing plants for the past six years.

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