TURTLES

Feeding Your “Terrestrial Turtles”

Because turtles are found in a wide variety of habitats, ranging from the open sea to arid deserts, their food preferences are wide ranging. Some turtles are entirely carnivorous; others are largely herbivorous and thrive on plant material.

In general, terrestrial tortoises tend to have different food preferences than aquatic turtles, and in any case the process of feeding a captive land turtle is very different from that of feeding aquatic turtles. For this reason, both types of turtle will be discussed separately.

Terrestrial Turtles

In the wild, African, European, and Asian tortoises are entirely herbivorous, and graze on grasses, succulents, and other plants. Captive tortoises, such as Sulcatas and Russian tortoises, can be fed a variety of high-fiber, high-calcium plant foods, including grass, hay, and flowers. All captive tortoises enjoy the opportunity to wander around the yard and graze on grass, flowers, and other plants.

South American Redfoot and Yellowfoot tortoises, who come from a wetter and more humid habitat than arid-adapted African tortoises, are a bit more omnivorous, and prefer more fruit and some animal foods in their meals.

Box turtles, in contrast to all tortoises, usually prefer much more meat in their diets. In the wild, they will eat plant food such as berries, mushrooms, and fruits, but a large portion of their diet consists of invertebrates and small animals, including earthworms, snails, and salamanders.

Most Box turtles will eagerly accept fresh earthworms, either whole or chopped, and many will also take goldfish or snails. Ornate Box turtles, who are native to the dry prairie, consume a lot of beetles and bugs in the wild, and will often accept crickets in captivity, hunting them down one by one and eating them.

Most Box turtles will eagerly accept fresh earthworms, either whole or chopped, and many will also take goldfish or snails. Ornate Box turtles, who are native to the dry prairie, consume a lot of beetles and bugs in the wild, and will often accept crickets in captivity, hunting them down one by one and eating them.

Supplements

Tortoises, especially youngsters with growing shells, are susceptible to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, so dietary supplements should be regularly added to the tortoise’s food. Calcium and vitamin D3 are especially important, because most tortoises are kept indoors, where they cannot get unfiltered exposure to the sunlight that would help them synthesize these essential nutrients. They should therefore be provided with a pinch of phosphorus-free calcium powder (such as RepCal) with every other meal. Another option is to place a piece of cuttlebone (used for birds) in the tortoise’s enclosure. The tortoise will nibble on it for the calcium content.

Some keepers also like to provide an occasional multivitamin tablet (crushed and sprinkled over the food) to help prevent vitamin deficiencies.

Eating Schedules

Like all reptiles, tortoises are capable of incredibly long fasts, and can go a long time between feedings. Most tortoises, however, should be fed daily. If you will be going on vacation for two or three weeks, your tortoise will be fine as long as you give her as much as she will eat before you leave and one good meal when you get back.

In the wild, tortoises tend to be grazers and nibblers. They eat a little bit here and a little bit there as they wander from plant to plant. In captivity, they may also prefer to nibble a little from their food dish, wander around a bit, and then return to nibble some more. Some individual tortoises, though, may prefer to remain at their food dish and eat their fill at one sitting.

In either case, you want to prevent the tortoise’s fruits and vegetables from spoiling. One way to do this is to feed small amounts of food throughout the day, instead of one big meal, allowing the tortoise to completely finish each small meal before providing another one. If this is impractical for you, then be sure to leave your tortoise no more food at once than she can eat during the day, to prevent uneaten food from spoiling. Any uneaten food must be removed at the end of the day to prevent pests and parasites from contaminating it.

Many tortoises, even if they don’t hibernate in the winter, will reduce their food intake and become inactive through the cooler months. This will do no harm, as long as the tortoise has been eating properly throughout the summer and fall, but you should still offer her food throughout the winter.

Water for Your Tortoise

All turtles, even terrestrial tortoises from hot, dry regions, should have access to clean drinking water at all times. Aquatic turtles drink regularly by swallowing a small amount of water with their food. Terrestrial turtles must have access to a water dish, particularly after they have been fed. Turtles drink by submerging their heads and using pumping motions in the throat to draw in water.

Any bowl shallow enough for the turtle to reach into and heavy enough not to be tipped over is a suitable water bowl. Many terrestrial turtles also like to soak occasionally, so the water dish should be large enough for the turtle to climb inside. Since many terrestrial turtles cannot swim, the water level should be just barely high enough to cover the turtle’s legs.

It is important to replace the water daily. Dirty or polluted water makes a perfect breeding ground for salmonella and other disease organisms.

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