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Turtle And Tortoise Diet

Once you adopt any pet you are the source of nearly everything they need to survive, and food is one of the most vital. With Chelonia and their slow growth rate and relatively small food requirements a good quality diet is the most important. Poor diet can lead to malformed bones, including their shell, eye sight loss, organ damage and failure, and death. Dietary related disorders are the main cause of mortality in hatchlings and juveniles in captive bred circumstances. However with a bit of research and prior planning it’s not that hard to provide them with a good diet that will help them to live a long and healthy life.

Turtles and tortoises have been evolving for 200 million years, so many of them have evolved to feed in a particular niche. Your first port of call for your animal’s diet should be to see what they would have access to in the wild. Tortoises and semi aquatic turtles will have access to various plants and fruits, as well as molluscs, insects, worms and for odd species carrion. Aquatic and semi aquatic turtles will have access to aquatic molluscs, aquatic plants and weeds, fish, larvae and fruit that may fall in the water, some turtles hunt birds and small mammals they have access to.

Commercial Food

There are a variety of commercially prepared foods available for your shelled friend. For both turtles and tortoises there is a vast difference in the quality of the various food available. Avoid the turtle food that is fully of shrimp, and ask around to find the best brand available. For most tortoises it is not always necessary to have an additional pellet food.

Turtles as well as a suitable pellet food with the appropriate protein for the species and the age, can benefit from the addition of koi wheat germ in their diet, and a number of species enjoy cat or dog food biscuits although there is debate as to the suitability of these.

Vegetable Matter

As well as the obvious fibre and other macronutrients available from vegetables, greens can be the main source of calcium for some species. For this calcium to be of benefit then the calcium:phosphorous ratio has to be appropriate. This is why you often find a number of foods being dismissed as inappropriate.

Personally as a keeper of numerous aquatic and semi aquatic species I find variety is the key. Greens can be divided into aquatic and terrestrial.

Aquatic plants can be painfully expensive if they are only going to be a small snack in your turtle’s day. Added to this resent changes in the import laws mean that most plants have been treated to remove snails. For these reasons most keepers grow duck weed and elodea species in a separate tub and add these to the turtle enclosure leaving some to grow on.

Terrestrial greens can be grown in the enclosure for species that have a land area with a soil substrate, or cut and placed in with species that don’t.

  • Dandelions are one of the ideal species, again these can be grown outside of the enclosure and put as and when needed. It can be worth growing them in an alkaline soil and use a mineral dressing of calcified seaweed to add the extra minerals that are often lacking from their diets.
  • Clovers are rapid growing and you can plant various species that will do well in the British climate
  • Sow thistle
  • Plantains
  • Vetches
  • Trefoils
  • Mallows
  • Bindweed: just be aware that it is incredibly invasive.
  • Sedums
  • Honeysuckle
  • Chickweed
  • Bramble but stick to the shoots, tender leaves and the fruit can also be offered.

For grass eating species you can grow this in their enclosure and provide hay when this is not available.

For all plants make sure you’re collecting them from areas well away from roads as they may absorb toxins from the car fumes. Also ensure that there is no chemical sprays being used. Local Authorities often use weed killers, fungicides and pesticides that can leave the plants looking healthy for weeks until the poisons work their way to the roots of the plant.

Live food  

Insects : there are a great selection of live insects that can be purchased at a number of pet shops, however they can be made a lot more beneficial as a food source if they are fed a healthy diet before being offered. Known as gut loading you can buy foods for gut loading insects and worms.

Worms : there are a number of larvae that are sold under the name of worms. These can be gut loaded and feed to any species with a carnivorous or partly carnivorous diet. Earth worms can be purchased either as a live food, or as fishing bait, compost worms or even dug up from the garden. If you can add these to a wormery and feed good foods they will also breed and give you a consistent source of food.

Fish : Whilst there are a variety of turtles that would eat fish in the wild my only advice is don’t. Yes there is the odd turtle where it’s a choice between feeding live fish and the turtle starving to death, in which case I change my advice, but for the most feeding live fish is legally and morally a grey area. Goldfish especially contain substances that can build up in the predator, in this case the turtle, and cause some serious problems.

Fruit and vegetables

Most species of turtle and tortoise cannot digest the sugars in fruit and certain vegetables, so unless the species you have is one of the particular ones that can eat fruit avoid altogether or as a very occasional treat.

Forest floor dwelling species in tropical areas will have access throughout the year to fallen fruit and berries, therefore they can be fed fruit in moderation. Be aware that bananas and squash can have a laxative effect on certain species.

Overall research your specific species diet in the wild, and try to recreate this as close as possible. As reptiles they do not need to be feed as often as a similar mammal for example most turtles need enough food to fill their head if it were hollow three times a week. 


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