If you’re accustomed to reptiles, you already know more than you know about tortoises. These unique animals are reptiles, even if their appearance would qualify them as an entirely different species.
Today, we will discuss tortoises, their favorite diets, and nutritional requirements so you know what to feed your shelled pet in captivity. Let’s get straight in!
Nutritional Needs of Tortoises
Tortoises consume a variety of foods, as most species qualify as omnivorous. Then you have some herbivorous species and a handful of carnivorous-only species like the snapping turtle.
When it comes to feeding your tortoise properly, you need to consider the following aspects:
Vitamin & Mineral Requirements
Tortoises have a wildly varied diet and require several vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. These are staple nutrients for most omnivorous animals. The only thing that varies with tortoises it’s the amount of each nutrient necessary.
Here are some examples:
- Vitamin A – This vitamin is key for improved vision and skin and a solid immune system. It also helps keep the shell strong and in good health over the years. Leafy greens, carrots, and sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A. Keep in mind that this vitamin can easily turn into poison in high-enough quantities. You should only feed vitamin A-rich foods to your tortoise in moderation, based on your vet’s recommendations.
- Calcium – Calcium is a must when talking about any species of reptiles thanks to its benefits in bone and shell strengthening. Reptiles are particularly prone to calcium deficiency, so they should consume foods rich in this nutrient. Dandelion greens, kale, and collard greens are calcium-rich foods. Herbivorous tortoises may require calcium supplementation, but omnivorous ones, not so much. It’s best to discuss this issue with your vet. Keep in mind that calcium deficiency can degenerate into Metabolic Bone Disease, which can lead to paralysis and death.
- Vitamin D3 – Vitamin D is a core component of any reptile’s diet, but it doesn’t necessarily need to come from food. Reptiles get their vitamin D3 from daily exposure to UVB lighting, which allows their bodies to synthesize it more easily. Vitamin D3 is responsible for proper calcium absorption; without vitamin D, the reptile’s body cannot assimilate the calcium in the food, no matter how much it is available.
- Vitamin E – Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that prevents cellular degeneration and improves the immune system’s functionality.
- Protein and fat – Tortoises aren’t big protein and fat eats, as their diet consists mostly of plants and veggies. But they may still require some animal-based protein and fats occasionally, especially during their first few years of life. Depending on the species, tortoises may consume various insects, worms, and even fish on occasion.
A variety of other vitamins and minerals could’ve been named here, such as phosphorus, iron, magnesium, vitamin K, etc.
However, these are only necessary for small amounts, and your tortoise will get them anyway from their food with ease.
Caloric Intake Necessary for Growth and Sustenance
Tortoises require a specific caloric intake to ensure proper growth and good development.
The standard rule is to go for 30-50 calories per pound of body weight, but this can vary wildly depending on numerous factors. These include the animal’s species, size, dietary preferences, health, and activity level.
As another general rule, the food quantity may differ dramatically from one tortoise to another. Omnivorous tortoises may require less food, quantitatively speaking, because animal-sourced products have a higher caloric content.
Ideally, tortoises should consume approximately 5-6 meals per day, although this also depends on your pet.
Juveniles also have a different caloric need, as they have higher metabolic rates and eat more and more frequently than adults.
It’s best to speak to a tortoise nutritionist to make sure you understand the animal’s nutritional and caloric necessities.
Staple Meals: Grass, Flowers, Hay, and Alfalfa Pellets
That’s right, these are staple meals for tortoises not only because these reptiles enjoy them the most but because they’re also highly nutritious.
Hay and alfalfa pellets deliver sufficient calcium to satisfy the reptile’s needs, and the same can be said about the fibers. Tortoises need fiber-rich foods to aid in digestion, especially since they tend to eat a lot and more frequently than other reptiles.
This is an interesting aspect because most reptiles (especially carnivorous ones) have slow metabolisms. Snakes, for instance, have one meal every several days, weeks, or even months.
However, tortoises eat almost daily because their preferred foods are low in calories. So, they make up for it by consuming more of it more often.
Wild-Caught Protein Sources: Insects and Worms
Part of the fun of owning a tortoise is feeding it live food like insects and worms. Tortoises don’t need them too often, but it helps to have a regular protein snake available for them several times per week.
However, I recommend staying away from wild-caught prey. These are often contaminated with various environmental chemicals, including herbicides or various pollutants.
If that doesn’t apply, then parasites and bacteria will. Most wild-caught insects and worms contain bacteria and parasites that will infect your tortoise. Then, you might say, how do wild tortoises survive?
The difference is that wild-born and raised tortoises have different immune responses compared to their captive-bred counterparts.
In short, wild tortoises tend to be more resilient to various pathogens that they’ve built targeted immunity against.
Captive-bred tortoises haven’t had any contact with such microorganisms, so they’re more vulnerable to their activities.
I recommend setting up a feeder terrarium if your tortoises require more frequent protein-based meals.
Commercial Tortoise Food Products
Your tortoise doesn’t necessarily need to eat all-fresh veggies and plant matter at all times. Commercial foods are also available in large quantities and variations, depending on your tortoise species and its dietary preferences.
Keep in mind that commercial tortoise foods are highly personalized, depending on what your reptile needs.
So, you need to discuss the issue with your veterinarian first. Consider your tortoise’s nutritional requirements and get the products that meet your pet’s needs.
Feeding Your Pet Tortoise
Now that you got your pet tortoise and you know the basic nutritional requirements to consider, how exactly do you go about feeding the animal?
Consider the following tips:
- Organize the tortoise’s diet – Most species of tortoises are omnivorous, but most of their diets are herbivorous. So, you need to set up a feeding schedule that would match your pet’s nutritional profile. Prioritize fresh greens like mustard greens, collard greens, and dandelion greens for the plus of calcium and essential vitamins and minerals. Next in line come fruits and veggies, depending on your reptile’s preferences. Feed them in moderation because they usually contain a lot of sugar. Last but not least, commercial foods and protein-based meals. Commercial foods are great for targeted nutrient intake, while protein meals should be rather scarce, complementing your tortoise’s diet in all the right places.
- Establish a strict feeding schedule – Only you know your tortoise’s appetite based on the species, size, and preferences. Try to feed the animal around the same time of day and have a strict meal plan in writing. This allows you to track your animal’s diet and eating habits, so you can detect any abnormalities along the way.
- Supplementation – Supplementation isn’t always necessary, but sometimes it is. I recommend speaking to your reptile-specialized vet about your tortoise’s nutritional requirements and health status to understand which minerals or vitamins are lacking if any.
The recommended feeding rule is to provide your turtle with as much food in one sitting as it would fit its shell.
But I would say this is a rather confusing metric. Instead, feed your turtle as much as the animal can eat with a healthy appetite. The moment it slows down is when you know it’s had its fill.
Don’t feed your tortoise more than necessary because this can lead to obesity and a variety of other health issues stemming from that.
Toxic Foods for Tortoises
This is a must-know because there are several food items that your tortoises should never consume.
- Avocado – Avocados are particularly toxic due to their persin content. This substance is responsible for a variety of nefarious effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, and respiratory difficulties.
- Rhubarb – Rhubarb is rich in oxalic acid, which is known to cause kidney damage in turtles.
- Potatoes and tomatoes – These standard foods are unsafe for tortoises due to the added solanine, which can actually cause paralysis and death. It also makes sense too because tortoises don’t share the same environment as potatoes and tomatoes, so they cannot consume them in the wild.
- Citrus fruits – Citric acid is unfit for tortoises, as it can cause digestive problems. Especially diarrhea.
- Highly processed foods – Avoid junk food or any other type of highly processed food, including regular bread. These foods contain a variety of additives and artificial components that the reptile’s body isn’t accustomed to. They are also likely high in sugar and can lead to obesity in most cases.
Also, stay away from foods that aren’t meant for tortoises or reptiles in general. No cat food, dog food, or any other treats that are meant for other species.
Tortoises are rather sensitive to vast changes in their diets because these are pretty much feral animals.
Their digestive system is only adapted to their natural foods that exist in the wild in their ecosystem.
Tortoises aren’t particularly difficult to keep, but they require a personalized diet, depending on the specimen and its dietary requirements.
Learn your tortoise pet’s dietary preferences and needs and stick to the plan.