Are Sloths Dangerous to Humans?

We love sloths!  When we look at them we can’t help but think of how adorable they are. But some cute animals can also be dangerous. Just look at these guys:

What could be cuter than this family of hippos?  But are hippos dangerous?  Yes, they very much are!

Hippos live in the waters of Africa’s savannah, running into lions, hyenas, and crocodiles—some of the fiercest hunters on the planet. Thus, the hippo needs to be prepared to defend itself. The hippopotamus protects itself and its young from other wild animals with it’s large sharp teeth and its sheer size (they can weigh 4,000 lbs) by aggressively attacking anything they see as a threat. Of course, one of the most threatening animals to the hippo are humans like us, so we are not safe from their belligerent behavior. In fact, as you can see in this chart below, humans are attacked and killed by hippos almost as often as they are by any other animals:

Can we expect the same type of behavior from sloths? After all, they also live in jungles filled with big cats and deadly reptiles in Central and South America. Don’t sloths need some powerful defenses to ward off those predators?  Well, not quite. The sloth spends almost all of its time up in the trees, away from some of the bigger predators. Although there are certain dangerous animals that can reach our buddies up in the trees (ocelots, anacondas, and Harpy eagles), but sloths have a special defense, the trait they are most known for:

Sloths are so slow

Taking an entire day to move about 100 feet, sloths are so sloth that the eyes of those tropical predators, which are trained to spot sudden movements, do not usually detect sloths hanging up in a tree. Their laziness is their main defense!

Okay, you say, that makes sense. But what about these bad boys?

 Don’t these claws look like they can do some damage? These claws are actually for helping the sloth climb and hang in trees, but they can do some damage to your face if need be. Although a sloth will generally shy away from any other creature, if confronted, it will use these claws and their teeth to defend themselves. So, while sloths are not aggressive, if confronted they can attack. 

Unlike hippos and a lot of other animals, there are no registered incidents of anyone being killed by a sloth, and any other type of attack is rare and not known to have been very serious. So, as far as physical attacks go, it’s safe to say that sloths are not dangerous to humans.

What about other dangers? 

Although we saw that crocodiles are the animal responsible for the most fatal attacks on humans, the creature most responsible for human deaths is actually the mosquito.  People who get bitten by mosquitos can get diseases like dengue fever or malaria. Can we get diseases from sloths?

Zoonotic diseases are illnesses that pass from animals to humans, and are dangerous because both populations (the animal and the human) can spread the disease, and can mutate in either population to become more contagious and/or deadlier. Rats helped spread the bubonic plague, passing it to humans, and bird flu and swine flu eventually infected humans after first being found in (you guessed it!) birds and pigs. So, have you ever heard of sloth fever?  No?  That’s because it doesn’t exist. Since sloths generally are so isolated from humans, none of the illnesses that spread among them have even become contagious to humans.

But what about that algae in their fur?  Is that something that can make us sick?  Sloth have unique types of algae (a species of plant) and also fungi growing in their fur. This is a very particular type of symbiotic relationship where the plants and fungi get a place to live, and the sloths get camouflage and a source of food (yes, the sloths will eat the algae that grows in their fur!)  This may seem a tiny bit gross, but if you were to get close to a sloth the lifeforms growing in their fur are not known to be a threat to your health.

So, it looks like sloths aren’t dangerous, but there are a few things to remember:

  1. Sloths are not pets! (Read our article about buying sloths here!)
  2. While sloths are not dangerous to humans, people are a big threat to sloths! :(

Humans are a major threat to the existence of sloths. Although you might want to have your own sloth at home to take care of, in order to ensure the survival of that sloth and the species as a whole, it is much better that you to simply visit them in their natural habitat, and to support organizations that work to save sloths.

To learn more about helping sloth, please check out this article:

How can I help sloths?

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