Why are sloths one of the cutest animals in the world?

Why are sloths one of the cutest animals in the world?

Why are sloths so darn cute? Is it the little button eyes, the round, fuzzy head, or perhaps the adorable pink tongue? Whatever it is, there’s no denying it: sloths are so cute they just make your heart melt.




“Cute” is a word that means different things to different people. Scientists who study such things have shown lots of pictures to people to see what kind of faces ranked highest on the cuteness scale, and it turns out that we like faces that have big round heads, large eyes, and small chins. Other features might be called beautiful, lovely, or pretty, but it is usually these traits that make someone cute.



Why are sloths cute?

We find other animals besides baby humans quite adorable also. Many mammals share these features, and none more so than our domesticated friends, especially kittens and puppies. It’s possible that domesticated cats and dogs evolved especially cute offspring so that any nearby humans would be more likely to take care of them. After all, who can resist those woeful puppy-dog eyes?


Sloths, however, are not domesticated animals, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to why we find them so adorable. Perhaps they evolved to look cute to other sloths, and we humans just happen to agree!



It might also be that humans like to anthropomorphize animals we come in contact with, and project our own interpretations onto sloths. The color of the fur around the three-fingered sloths’ faces makes it look like they have a permanent smile, which looks very endearing! They don’t have huge eyes, but they do have very round eyes, and their round faces make it look like they have big foreheads with receding chins, which is spot-on for scientifically cute.



We seem biologically programed to seek out cute things

The internet is full of pictures and videos of animals (and humans) being cute, illustrations are specifically drawn with the features mentioned above, and even Mickey Mouse has gotten cuter over the years.

We send each other GIFs of creatures being cute, download wallpapers and backgrounds for our computer of adorable things that cheer us up, and stamp clipart of cartoon smiley faces on social media.


We make fan art, illustrations, and drawings, and Japanese even has the word “kawaii”, usually used in anime, that refers to an entire culture of things that are lovely, cute, and vulnerable. Does this make us happy? It must, or else why would we put it across so much of our daily life?

A  study conducted by the University of Leeds, suggests that watching cute animals may reduce stress and anxiety.


Cuddling and hugging are cuteness

It’s not just looks that we are attracted to. Actions can make us feel just as warm and fuzzy and sensitive as a cute face. Soft snuggles, cuddles, and hugs elicit that same feeling of tenderness that we get when we look at babies and baby animals.



Perhaps this is where sloths really excel on the cuteness scale: those furry arms just seem made for hugging! The way they sit on the trunks of trees like they are just cuddling right in for a nap makes it seem like they would be so much fun to snuggle.

Yes, sloths are cute, but we can’t hug them

It’s important to remember that just because a sloth likes to snuggle a tree does not mean they want to snuggle us! Except for raising their young, sloths are solitary, wild animals, and they don’t need humans to go around trying to hold them. Never touch a wild sloth, and don’t patronize organizations that allow sloths to be held by humans.

Let sloths be cute as nature intended them to be: from high up in the trees in their native jungle, and if you want to help them out, don’t hold their hand, just make sure they continue to have a home to be cute in.



Sloth versus Red Panda

Sloth versus Red Panda

Not to be confused with the giant panda, the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is a small, furry mammal slightly larger than a house cat and completely unrelated to sloths. Red pandas are slightly more related to giant pandas than they are to sloths: the giant and red pandas parted ways just over 30 million years ago… about the time two- and three-fingered sloths diverged.


sloth versus red panda
Red Pandas have also been called the “firefox”, “lesser panda”, and “red-cat-bear”. “First panda” and “Original panda” seem more appropriate nicknames because western scientists described them 50 years before the giant panda. Source: Red Panda Network. /Photo: Suzi Eszterhas


Convergent evolution

In fact, red pandas and giant pandas, like two-fingered sloths and three-fingered sloths, are examples of convergent evolution. Both species of sloths have evolved to look and act very similar in order to occupy the same ecological niche, whereas the bamboo-eating habits of red and giant pandas have given both animals “false thumbs” in order to better grasp bamboo shoots.


red panda versus sloth
Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Family of their own

Sloths are members of the order Xenarthra, related to armadillos and anteaters; whereas the red panda is in the superfamily Musteloidea, related to skunks and weasels.  (The giant panda, which we’ll stop talking about now, is actually a kind of bear.) Most recent genetic research, however, places red pandas in their own, independent family: Ailuridae. 



Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are

Although all Musteloidea are in the order Carnivora, red pandas are not particularly carnivorous, which brings us to our first similarity: like sloths, they eat mostly plants!


Sloths of course eat only tropical leaves, whereas the red pandas eat primarily bamboo, but they might find some food groups in common if only they lived on the same continent. Or at the same elevation. Or had any overlapping territories at all, really.


sloth versus red panda
Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Tropical rainforest and cold Himalayas

Sloths live in the tropics of the Americas, whereas red pandas live around the borders of the eastern Himalayas, preferably at elevations of 2,000 to 4,300 meters (6,600 to 14,100 feet).

Unfortunately for both of them, deforestation and habitat fragmentation are a worldwide problem, and red pandas are endangered and fighting for their survival due to human-caused threats, currently the poaching and illegal trade of their pelt has emerged as a biggest threat.


Red Panda
Red pandas live in the Himalayas in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), and southern China. Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Cute and solo

Another similarity between these furry would-be friends is that neither of them really has many friends. As in, the kind of friends you hang out with socially. Maybe they maintain some long-distance friendships, but sloths and red pandas are both solitary animals whose adults don’t socialize much except for the necessity of mating.


Unlike sloths, red pandas are territorial and don’t even invite other red pandas over at all—so perhaps sloths and red pandas should just respect each other’s space and agree to be pen pals.


sloth versus red panda
Red pandas are most active in the early morning and late afternoon, and just like sloths, they spend most of the day resting in trees conserving their energy./ Photo: Suzi Eszterhas


Red pandas in captivity can live for 14 years—as opposed to sloths, which can exceed 50 years in the case of two-fingered sloths. Both animals have primarily been studied in captivity, and scientists are still learning about how the behavior of wild populations differs from captive ones.

Red Pandas and Sloths in popular culture

Sloths and red pandas make excellent movie stars… in animated films, anyway. From Sid in Ice Age or Pricilla Trippletoe in Zootopia, these iconic creatures are fun to imagine onscreen. Like sloths, red pandas possess an irresistible appeal—just look at those ringed tails, and red and white faces!


turning red


Mei in Turning Red takes it to a whole new level in Disney Pixar’s latest film, succeeding such red panda icons as Master Shifu, in Kung Fu Panda, and Retsuko of the series Aggretsuko. So long as people’s takeaway from these movies is to respect these creatures in their wild homes and raise awareness of the threats they face (as opposed to thinking they need a sloth or red panda as a pet) this can only be a good thing.

Red Pandas are an endangered species

Wild red pandas, like wild sloths, face many threats to their survival. Conservation of habitat is key, but red pandas face illegal trafficking in greater numbers than sloths. Whereas no one really envies the sloths, their lovely algae-green fur, the thick fluffy tails and skin of the red pandas are considered luxury items by some unscrupulous humans.


Red Panda
The global red panda population has declined by 50% in 20 years and there may be as few as 2,500 remaining in the wild. Source: Red Panda Network / Photo: Suzi Eszterhas


Last but not least, if you’d like to be a scrupulous human, make all your adoptions of sloths and red pandas virtual ones! Both animals are adorable, but neither makes good pets. Red pandas are mostly nocturnal, not very social, have specialized diets, and (in case that’s not enough) they poop out the equivalent of their own body weight every week! So let’s leave sloths, red pandas, and their respective toilets where they belong—out in the wild.


The Red Panda Network and The Sloth Conservation Foundation are leading the fight to protect these incredible animals in Nepal and Costa Rica, and you can support their work by making a donation, adopting a Red Panda, or adopting a sloth!