Wolves are often portrayed as vicious pack animals with no qualms about attacking and eating their own kind. But is there any truth to the idea that wolves are cannibals? Read on as we dive deep into wolf behavior to find out.

Defining Cannibalism

What is cannibalism?

Cannibalism refers to when an animal eats members of its own species. It can take different forms – from eating relatives to eating non-relatives of the same species. Cannibalism may occur due to extreme hunger, as part of a funeral ritual, or even as a dominance behavior.

For example, some praying mantis females are known to eat their mates after copulation. Whatever the cause, consuming one’s own kind goes against most animals’ instincts.

Types of cannibalism

There are different types of cannibalism seen in the animal kingdom. Sexual cannibalism refers to cases where one animal eats its mate before, during, or after copulation. For example, black widow spiders are well-known for sometimes consuming their partners.

Another type is filial cannibalism, where an animal eats some or all of its offspring, like when hamster mothers may eat their own pups. Then there is nonspecific cannibalism, which refers to eating non-relatives from one’s own species just for sustenance.

For example, chickens in commercial farms may peck and kill weaker chickens and consume them to survive.

Documented Cases of Wolf Cannibalism


Wolf packs generally only have one breeding pair, known as the alpha male and female. When new potential alpha wolves emerge, they may kill the pups of the existing alpha pair in order to bring the female into estrous so they can breed with her.

This ensures the new alpha wolves’ genes are passed on rather than those of the previous alpha male. Though brutal, this behavior does have an evolutionary advantage for the new alpha wolves.

Predation Among Rivals

Wolves are highly territorial, and packs have been known to kill rival wolves that encroach on their domain. Wolves may also prey on lone wolves they encounter, especially if the lone wolf appears old, injured or weakened in some way.

Attacks by one pack on another are rare, but have been documented on occasion when packs run into each other while hunting or traveling. These attacks seem to be opportunistic rather than territorial in nature.

Starvation and Desperate Times

Perhaps the most tragic cases of wolf cannibalism occur when food is extremely scarce. Under normal conditions, wolves tend to avoid eating other wolves. However, during especially harsh winters when prey is nowhere to be found, some packs have resorted to killing and eating the old, young or injured wolves in their group to avoid starvation.

There are a few accounts of mothers eating their own pups under these desperate conditions. While heartbreaking, this behavior shows the strong drive wolves have to survive during times of extreme hardship.

Why Wolves Sometimes Resort to Cannibalism

Wolves are highly social animals that usually live in packs and display complex group behaviors and social hierarchy. However, there are times when wolves resort to behaviors like cannibalism for survival, establishing dominance or due to competition for resources.

Understanding the triggers behind such aberrant wolf behavior provides fascinating insights into wolf ethology and ecological adaptations.

Establishing dominance in the pack

The wolf pack has a clearly defined social structure and hierarchy that is critical for its functioning and health. The alpha pair (male and female) at the apex enjoys breeding rights and gets priority access to food resources.

Young adolescent wolves may sometimes challenge alpha wolves in an attempt to ascend ranks. Such challenges can turn violent and often result in the death of a subordinate wolf. In some instances, wolves kill the subordinate from a competing pack.

They may then proceed to consume parts of the carcass as an exhibition of dominance.

Competition for limited resources

Wolves require vast territories with adequate prey availability to sustain packs. However, climate change and human expansion increasingly lead to loss and fragmentation of wolf habitats. The resulting scarcity of prey forces wolf packs to venture into neighboring rival territories resulting in clashes.

In such cases of turf warfare, wolves may kill pups or injured rivals while defending access to food resources. There are also known instances of wolves preying on smaller carnivores like Coyotes in lean seasons, displaying opportunistic subsistence behavior in times of famine.

Survival in times of famine

Being highly mobile apex predators, wolf packs require up to 20 pounds of meat per wolf on a daily basis to meet their substantial caloric needs. The remote frontier areas inhabited by gray wolves experience harsh winters when prey availability drops severely.

Under such extreme conditions, wolf packs are known to turn to cannibalism as a desperate survival measure. In the early 1980s, shortage of food led to disappearances of two wolf packs in Alaska’s Denali National Park within a week.

Researchers concluded that hunger and starvation had likely forced them to prey on each other.

Thus, while aberrant, such acts of cannibalism manifest a remarkable behavioral plasticity that enables wolves to persist through periods of adversity. Conservation efforts need to focus on preserving the integrity of wolf habitats to minimize human pressures that could push stressed wolf packs towards the brink.

The survival of this iconic predator remains inexorably linked to striking an ecological balance with competing land use priorities.



Is Cannibalism Common in Wolf Packs?

Cannibalism among wolves is actually quite rare. Healthy wolf packs have strong social bonds and complex social hierarchies that serve to minimize violent behavior between pack members. However, there are a few exceptions where wolves may turn to cannibalism:


During times of extreme food shortage, some wolf packs may turn to cannibalism as a last resort. Consuming the flesh of deceased pack members or pups can temporarily allow the remaining wolves to survive until they can find other food sources.

However, biologists emphasize that starvation-driven cannibalism is very uncommon among wolf packs.

Diseases and Injuries

In some cases, sick or severely injured wolves may be killed and consumed by their pack members. It is thought this may be an instinctual behavior to protect the health of the overall pack by removing contagious individuals.

One study in Yellowstone National Park found evidence of wolves consuming pack members displaying symptoms of mange, rabies and arthritis. But such incidents still appear to be quite rare.

Conflicts Over Mates or Resources

Violent struggles can occasionally occur between wolves competing for breeding rights or access to limited resources like food or den sites. These conflicts may, in a few cases, lead to the death of a rival wolf that is then consumed.

But biologists emphasize such conflicts are anomalies and not common occurrences in a normal pack environment.

So while acts of cannibalism have been observed in wild wolf packs, research suggests it is extremely atypical behavior and tends to only occur under certain environmental stressors. The strong family unit and complex social structure of healthy wolf packs seem to render cannibalism very uncommon.

The Verdict: Are Wolves Cannibals?

After examining the available research on wolf behavior, the verdict is clear – wolves do sometimes engage in cannibalism. However, it is relatively rare and only occurs under certain conditions.

Scavenging vs Active Hunting

The most common form of cannibalism seen in wolves is when they scavenge on wolf carcasses they come across. Studies have shown wolves scavenging on other dead wolves, especially in times of scarce food resources. Actively hunting and killing other wolves to eat is much less common.

Reasons for Cannibalism

There are a few key reasons wolves may turn to cannibalism:

  • Shortage of their usual prey – When facing famine, wolves may turn on each other for survival
  • Old age or sickness – Elderly or unwell wolves may be targeted by the rest of the pack
  • Surplus pups – Some evidence suggests wolves may kill extra pups when litters are unusually large

Myths and Exaggerations

While wolf cannibalism does occur, some myths and tall tales exaggerate its frequency. Stories of wolf packs routinely hunting each other down or parents eating their young are mostly sensationalized. These events are rare exceptions, not the norm.

Comparison to Other Species

Species Rate of Cannibalism
Wolves Relatively low – only during famine or scarcity
Bears Moderate – males may eat cubs to mate with mothers
Hamsters Common – mothers may quickly eat unhealthy young

As the table shows, while a number of species practice cannibalism, wolves do so relatively rarely compared to some other carnivores or rodents.

The Bottom Line


While wolves eating their own kind does occur, it is relatively rare and situational rather than the norm. By understanding the contexts around cannibalism in wolves, we gain better insight into wolf behavior and pack dynamics.

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