How do tigers eat their food?

I’m referring to tigers in the wild eating their recently deceased prey animals. Clearly this is different to captive tigers being fed by a zookeeper. For large prey animals tigers employ a suffocating throat bite which is positioned just below the junction of the jaw and neck. It crushes the animal’s trachea. Tigers hold the neck close to the ground so the prey cannot right itself or stand. The bite is often maintained beyond the moment of death.

Tiger. I can’t show the bloodied carcass of tiger prey or the bloodied face of a feeding tiger as advertisers don’t like it. Sorry. You’ll have to imagine it. Photo: National Geographic (believed) or in the public domain.
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Tigers take their prey into a safe and covered area before feeding. They will often start by feeding on the rump or on the buttocks. Afterwards they open the body cavity. They remove the stomach and leave it aside. They then drag the carcass a short distance before continuing to feed. Tigers eat in the prone position while they rest on their elbows.

They use their shearing molar teeth which are called carnassials to open up carcasses and to slice off chunks of meat (flesh). The use their tongues, which as for of all cat species (and spotted hyenas) have keratin spikes or papillae pointing backwards, to rasp off flesh from the bones.

Sometimes tigers hold onto bones between their paws to steady it while they eat. Or they might place a paw on top of a chunk of flesh while tearing off pieces. Sometimes they use their paws to handle their food. They usually eat and then rest and then eat again in stages. During resting they lie close to the animal’s carcass. They do this until most of the edible parts have been consumed.

A report recounts a Chitwan tiger spending three days on average with each large animal kill. She consumed an average of 46 kilograms of flesh over these three days. Tigers cover the carcass if they want to go for a drink or find another place to rest. They use dirt, leaves grass and even rocks to cover the carcass.

After feeding on a carcass for several days, if it’s a large prey item, the carcass may be dismembered and the bones scattered over a small area. Small prey items are eaten quickly and animals weighing about 20 kg are often eaten at a single sitting. This will include for example a barking deer or young chital.

Work by a scientist called Schaller indicates that an adult tiger consumes 18 to 27 kg of food during a night. Another scientist recorded a large male tiger eating 35 kg of flesh in one night. Larger kills provide enough food for a tiger for more than a week. However, if the meal is shared the duration between meals is much shorter. Another report tells us that a large domestic buffalo plus an adult cow were eaten in six days by four tigers.

It is reported that the maximum amount of flesh that a tiger can eat in 24 hours is about 1/5 of its own bodyweight. This translates to 45 kg for a large male tiger. At the end of their feeding the carcass will have decomposed and therefore during half the time of their feeding they are eating decomposing meat.

Tigers live in hot climates and in hot weather the flesh of dead animals putrefies in a couple of days but tigers, as mentioned, can feed on the same carcass for up to 5 days. The flesh is often liquefying and covered in maggots while they feed on it.

A tiger’s strength is legendary as I have mentioned in a previous article. There are many stories of tigers dragging huge carcasses several times their weight over considerable distances. On one occasion a tiger in Myanmar dragged away a gaur bull weighing 770 kg. Thirteen men were unable to move the carcass even a yard. There are many records of tigers moving similar carcasses such as one tiger reportedly carrying a full grown horse for 500 m and another tiger carried an adult heifer up a 12 foot high embankment.

Tigers prefer to take their kills to a quiet shaded spot to feed. This provides them with cover. It depends upon the individual tiger as to whether they eat the kill on the spot or take them into cover.

One account is revealing:

Yesterday the tiger had covered up his kill at the spot where he had done his killing, but today it appeared to be his intention to remove his kill to as distant a place as possible from the scene of the killing. For 2 miles or more I followed the drag up the steep face of the densely wooded hill to where the tiger, when he had conveyed his heavy burden to within a few hundred yards of the crest, had got one of the cow’s hind legs fixed between two oak saplings. With a mighty jerk uphill the tiger tore the leg off a little below the hock and leaving that fixed between the saplings went on with his kill. The crest of the hill at the point where the tiger arrived with his kill was flat and overgrown with oak saplings a foot or 2 feet in girth. Under these trees, where there were no bushes or cover of any kind, the Tiger left his kill without making any attempt to cover it up.

That account comes from E.S. Dierenfeld from his work entitled, “Nutritional considerations in captive tiger management” published in “Tigers of the world: the biology, biopolitics, management, and conservation of an endangered species”.

For all other references that I have used to write this page please contact me in a comment or by email and I’ll provide full references. Thanks in advance.

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