Getting a tortoise for the first time comes with a lot of emotion and uncertainty. Even learning as much as you can about the species beforehand won’t do much to calm the rushing mind. Is your tortoise healthy, why is it behaving the way it does, why is it not eating all of a sudden? Fortunately, I have all the right answers for you.
Today, we will discuss the tortoise’s diet and why it may refuse food in some cases. Let’s get to it!
Understand Your Tortoise’s Needs
To understand why your tortoise isn’t eating well or at all, you must first acknowledge the 3 basic facts about the animal:
Different Dietary Requirements Based on Age
Tortoises have changing nutritional needs as they grow older. This is typical for reptiles in general but seems to be more prominent among tortoises. In short, many people, including tortoise keepers, believe that these animals are herbivorous because that’s all they see them eating.
In reality, most tortoise species are omnivorous. So, tortoises also consume animal-sourced protein and fat, albeit not as much as other reptiles. An interesting aspect about tortoises is that they prefer a lot more animal protein during their juvenile time (up to 2 years of age). The reptile’s dietary preferences change as the animal ages.
Mature and old tortoises have an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, although they will occasionally consume some insects, larvae, crustaceans, and protein-rich tortoise pellets. The need for excess protein during the juvenile years is warranted by the young tortoise’s higher metabolism. The protein is necessary to boost the animal’s growth rate and ensure the right nutrients along the way.
So, you need to learn your specific tortoise’s nutritional requirements based on these natural changes in the animal’s feeding preferences.
Daily Feeding Habits
Unlike most reptiles, tortoises eat pretty much daily. This is because of their food’s low caloric output; tortoises need to make up for that by eating more and more often. However, these are reptiles, after all, so they’re bound to come with a relatively slow metabolism. The standard recommendation is to feed tortoises up to 6 days per week and provide them with an off day.
This gives their digestive system time to process the food properly and prevents digestive issues like constipation or overfeeding-related problems. Keep in mind that the tortoise’s behavior may not always be indicative of its hunger level.
Tortoises can be greedy, which can convince you to overfeed them without even realizing it. Speak to your reptile-specialized vet for more insight into your pet’s nutritional needs and the adequate feeding schedule.
Best Food for Your Tortoise
The best dietary plan for tortoises is one with diversity as the central idea. Tortoises need a varied and nutritious diet with a multitude of different food items. Leafy greens are a must, along with veggies, some fruits, tortoise pellets, and whatever your reptile may need extra for supplementation and added nutritional value.
So, there’s no single best food for tortoises, but there are several best general ideas regarding feeding itself. For instance:
- Fruits should be served as treats due to the high sugar content
- Veggies should also be served as treats due to the excess fibers
- Some foods are straight-up toxic to tortoises, such as avocado, rhubarb, iceberg lettuce, cherries, plums, peaches, dairy products, etc.
- High-protein meals are forbidden in adult turtles
The exact quantities to consider and the pinpoint accurate feeding schedule depends from one species to the next, but the base guidelines stay the same.
Common Causes of Poor Appetite in Tortoises
Now that you know what and how tortoises prefer to eat, let’s see why they don’t prefer to eat. The following are the most common causes for low appetite (or lack thereof) in tortoises:
Stress and Anxiety
Stress is a recurrent theme in the reptile world because these animals are easily stressed. This is due to their predilection for a life of solitude and their largely antisocial behavior. Reptiles don’t play well with others, as they prefer to keep to themselves and avoid the company. This defining trait makes reptiles more prone to stress than any other animal.
Your tortoise may become stressed for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Insufficient food leads to starvation and nutritional deficiencies
- Inadequate food also leads to nutritional deficiencies
- Being placed in a new home (the new-home stress will wear off eventually, but it may take a week or 2)
- Frequent or rough handling, given that reptiles aren’t fond of petting
- Improper terrarium layout
- Improper or fluctuating environmental parameters
- Incompatible tankmates
- Insufficient space, etc.
The list can go on, especially if you include factors like poor terrarium positioning, loud noises in the room, etc. If this makes tortoises look like hypersensitive, that’s because they are. You need specific conditions to keep one healthy and happy for decades. It can be done so long as you work on all areas that could cause your reptile to become stressed and anxious over the years.
That’s because stress is a real killer. It won’t only cause your tortoise to eat less but will also affect its immune system, making it more vulnerable to infections and parasites.
Poor Nutrition or Improper Diet Plan
There’s no doubt that snakes and many lizard species are easier to feed and satisfy nutritionally than tortoises. Tortoises are not only omnivorous reptiles, but they also require more frequent feedings with carefully-portioned meals. They also require nutritional strategizing to make sure your tortoise is getting all of the necessary vitamins and minerals.
These nutrients can come from different food sources and you need to portion them wisely to obtain the best results. Tortoises can suffer from insufficient feeding, small meals, inadequate food items, and even overfeeding. Your tortoise’s meal plan requires precision and a deeper understanding of the animal’s nutritional needs based on species, age, size, and preferences.
Illness or Injury
Tortoises are subjected to the same illnesses that plague most reptiles. These include respiratory and skin infections, mites, bacterial and fungal infections, digestive issues, etc.
Fortunately, the most common triggers are poor husbandry practices, improper diet, stress, inadequate environmental parameters, outside contamination, etc. You can control all these to prevent many of the health disorders that your reptile pet may face.
The situation is slightly different when it comes to injuries. The most common injuries in tortoises relate to 2 sources:
- Improper terrarium layout and
- Improper break trimming
The first one is rather obvious. Tortoises need a safe habitat layout with open space, a soft substrate, a hiding spot, and not much else. Adding rocks or other rugged or dangerous materials or decorations in the animal’s habitat is a clear recipe for disaster.
The situation is complicated even further when discussing beak trimming. Tortoises have ever-growing keratin beaks that require trimming occasionally. The problem is that many tortoise keepers prefer to do it themselves, not realizing how delicate the operation actually is.
The beak itself is made of bone, blood vessels, and nerve endings and the outer keratin layer is the only part that grows and requires trimming.
Not being versed in the beak’s anatomy means that you have all the chances in the world to screw the trimming process up. And your tortoise in the process. A misplaced cut with the scissors can cause bleeding, subjecting the tortoise to an open wound prone to infection.
Improper beak trimming can also render your tortoise unable to eat properly or at all. You can easily avoid this problem by allowing the vet to take care of the trimming instead.
Especially since most tortoises only require trimming once or twice per year.
Changes in Environment or Living Conditions
Tortoises need specific living conditions and parameters, depending on the species. The ideal temperature values revolve around 70-80 F with a 90-100 F basking spot. UVB lighting is also necessary to ensure proper calcium and vitamin D production, while humidity sits best between 50 and 60%.
These values may vary slightly, depending on the species, but they revolve around the same numbers. However, the keywords here are consistency and stability. Your tortoise’s environmental parameters shouldn’t fluctuate outside of the normal range too much or too often. Otherwise, the reptile may become stressed and stop eating.
Malnutrition and Dehydration Risk Factors in Tortoises
Reptiles are notoriously prone to malnutrition and dehydration compared to other species. Several factors are worth mentioning here:
- Improper diet – We’ve already discussed this point in more detail previously. Nutritional deficiencies are a clear threat to your tortoise’s wellbeing and quality of life.
- Lack of freshwater – Tortoises need to drink regularly, and their water source should always be clean and fresh. If not, the tortoise may refuse to drink, which can lead to dehydration fast.
- Improper temperature and humidity – Temperature and humidity are the most important environmental parameters for tortoises and reptiles in general. If the temperature is too high or the humidity too low, the tortoise may experience dehydration, respiratory problems, and skin infections.
- Stress – Stress leads to low appetite, which can cause malnutrition faster than you would expect it.
These risk factors show that tortoises require personalized care and good dietary planning to stay on top of their game.
Tips for Encouraging Your Tortoise to Eat Again
So, you’ve determined that your tortoise isn’t eating as often or as well as it once did. Or maybe it stopped eating altogether. What can you do? Consider the following tips:
- Dietary changes and supplements – Maybe your tortoise has become bored with its current meal plan. Tortoises have extremely varied diets in the wild since they have to work with whatever they can find. Forcing them to eat the same food can grow old fast. If your tortoise refuses the food, try different things; throw in some supplements in the mix too.
- Stimulate appetite through changes in the environment – Maybe the temperature or humidity is too high. Or maybe they are too low. Maybe there’s too much light, so your tortoise cannot rest properly. Or the basking spot is too small/large. Consider all these factors if your tortoise displays a poor appetite and adjust them accordingly. If by doing so, your tortoise’s appetite stays the same, then the problem is elsewhere.
- Change the feeding schedule – If your tortoise isn’t eating enough at its usual hours, try to play with the feeding time a bit. Maybe the tortoise isn’t hungry enough during its designated meal hours and prefers to eat earlier or later.
- Have at least one hiding spot – If your tortoise doesn’t have a hiding spot available, then that’s most likely the reason for its low appetite. Tortoises should have at least one hiding zone to rest or hide when rattled or stressed.
- Contact a vet – If nothing works, you should contact a vet to figure out the situation. You shouldn’t wait it out for too long because tortoises are sensitive to nutritional deficiencies, and they need pretty much daily meals to stay in good shape.
These strategies should correct the problem, but you need to act with the first signs of low appetite. You never know the severity of the underlying cause or how fast the problem can progress.
Signs of Food Refusal You Should Never Ignore
The lack of appetite is usually a symptom of a more encompassing health problem in most cases. So, your tortoise will showcase a variety of signs that malnutrition is underway. These include:
- Lack of appetite – Your tortoise will simply ignore the food or only eat a small portion, compared to its natural behavior.
- Weight loss – You should always weigh your tortoise to identify signs of weight loss, which aren’t normal in reptiles. At least, not for an understandable reason, as is the case during the mating season.
- Lethargy – A tortoise that isn’t eating properly or at all exhibits low activity levels. Your pet may hide and rest a lot more than usual and won’t move around the enclosure as much. The tortoise may also appear uninterested in what happens in the room or its immediate vicinity.
- Abnormal pooping pattern – A healthy tortoise with a fitting appetite may produce fecal matter daily. You know something is not right if your tortoise produces small or infrequent droppings, as this is a sign of improper eating.
If you cannot determine the underlying cause for all these changes, rely on a vet’s input for a clearer picture of what’s going on.
When Should You Contact a Veterinarian?
I advise contacting a veterinarian at the first sign of appetite change. If your tortoise isn’t eating properly, you’re pretty much in a race against time. Reptiles don’t have problems abstaining from food for weeks or even months, in some cases without any significant health issues because of it.
But the situation is different for tortoises. These reptiles require food pretty much daily, so it’s not normal or ideal for them to refrain from eating for days in a row. Especially when there’s plenty of food available.
A vet’s input is necessary to detect the problem soon and take action before it aggravates. Nutritional deficiencies are deadly for reptiles.
Tortoises tend to have a healthy appetite, especially due to their meals’ low caloric value. It’s very rare for a mature and healthy tortoise to refuse a meal unless there’s something nefarious going on.
Whether it’s stress, internal parasites, an innocuous injury, environmental discomfort, or any other problem, the vet’s assistance is priceless for containing and rectifying the situation.
Also, monitor your tortoise’s eating behavior and maybe have a journal in this sense. It will help you keep track of its eating pattern and identify any abnormal behavior in time.