Shells and All: A Nutrition Guide for Pet Turtles and Tortoises
There are literally hundreds of different turtle and tortoise species available at various pet stores and reptile expos. With such variety, it is can be difficult to find recommendations that would cover the nutritional needs of all turtles. To help you get started, we’ve created the following basic nutritional guidelines for your, organized by herbivores (plant eaters) and omnivores (plant and meat eaters).
Herbivorous reptiles require dark leafy greens in their diet; however, greens that are high in oxalates should be limited. Oxalates bind calcium in the intestines, which makes it harder for your pet to get the proper amount of calcium. Examples of high oxalate greens that you should limit in your turtle’s diet include parsley, chives, and spinach.
Many of these animals relish fruits, but avoid the temptation to overdo it! Excessive amounts of these sugary foods can promote the growth of disease-causing bacteria. Fruits should be a part of your turtle’s diet but kept to a minimum.
Herbivorous tortoises, such as the Sulcata Tortoise or Leopard Tortoise, generally require a high-fiber diet. Leafy weeds and grasses should make up more of their diet than store-bought greens. Your best bet is to keep timothy, alfalfa, or hay, plus dandelion greens and clover, available throughout the day. A chopped mixture of vegetables and a very small amount of fruit will help supply essential vitamins and minerals. Chopping the veggies prevents your pet from eating only their favorite bits. The better vegetables for their diet include squash, red peppers, sweet potatoes, parsnips, green beans, peas in the pod, and leafy greens. A small amount of banana, citrus or berries can be added periodically.
Also, be aware that herbivore reptiles need vitamin and mineral supplements! This is because the exact nutrient requirements for every species have not been determined, and the food you provide will not meet all of your pet’s nutritional needs. You can sprinkle a multivitamin supplement on their food approximately once a week. A sprinkle of a multivitamin on their food once a week and a sprinkle of calcium supplement three times a week is recommended.
Remember, most reptiles and amphibians require UVB light to absorb calcium from their intestines. The best source for UVB is unfiltered sunlight as glass and plastics filter out UVB. For indoor pets, UVB producing lights can be found at most local pet stores.
Omnivores eat both vegetable matter and meat. The old adage “you are what you eat” applies to pets as well as people. Therefore, if you feed your turtle insects, rodents or other animal protein sources, ensure the feeder animals are healthy and well fed. Crickets, mealworms, and other insects should be gut-loaded prior to feeding, which means they are fed a healthy, vitamin-rich food 1 to 2 days before being consumed by your pet, who will reap the benefits of the good nutrients fed to the insects. Most adult turtles can be fed 3-4 times a week, but frequency may vary based on species, breeding, and age.
Different species of omnivorous turtles eat different proportions of plants to animal matter. For instance, the eastern box turtle eats approximately 50/50 plant and animal matter, while the ornate box turtle eats about 10% plant and 90% animal matter. The age of the turtle affects diet needs too. Generally, young turtles require more insects and animal proteins to support growth and development.
Omnivores turtles also need chopped vegetable salads that are rich in Vitamin A, such as winter squash, sweet potatoes, red peppers, and parsnips. These veggies can be added to dark leafy greens for a good balance. Animal protein sources include mealworms, crickets, earthworms, and an occasional pinkie mouse (depending on the turtle’s size). In a pinch, high-quality dog food can be used, and commercial turtle pellets are also available, but fresh veggies and protein sources, as described above, should be diet staples. Turtle pellets are available commercially at most pet stores and can make up a portion of your turtle’s diet, but some vegetables and insects should also be included in their diet. Adult turtles can usually be fed 3-4 times a week, but this varies based on species, breeding, and age.
Aquatic omnivorous turtles can be fed whole, small fish or shrimp, in addition to the other foods listed above. Feeder fish should be live or fresh to provide the best nutrients. Aquatic turtles should be moved to a separate container of water when feeding, which will reduce the risk of contaminating their home environment.
Bear in mind that omnivorous turtles need supplemental vitamins and UVB light, just like their herbivorous cousins, so don’t forget the multivitamin sprinkles (once per week) and calcium supplements (three times per week). Also, make sure your turtle gets unfiltered sunlight or UVB light.
While the internet is a great resource for diet recommendations and information on your pet’s normal diet and habitat, it also contains a fair amount of questionable information, so make sure your information sources are reputable. If you have questions about your turtle’s health or nutrition, contact us to set up a consultation or appointment.
CEDARCREST Animal Clinic provides medical and surgical care for every stage of your pet’s life including preventive wellness care exams and vaccines, spays/neuters, and a variety of specialized care for your dog, cat, avian, or exotic. We are home to the only veterinarian practitioner in Virginia to be double Boarded in Avian and Canine/Feline care and provide care for birds, small mammals, and reptiles of all sorts! Plus, we are home to Virginia’s most exclusive dog boarding resort that includes heated floors, an expansive play area, and even webcams so you can watch your pet while you’re away. We’re located in Fishersville, Virginia, and serve Augusta County and surrounding areas including Waynesboro, Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Charlottesville.