Reptiles are known for their strange eating habits. They’ll eat one giant meal which then seems to sustain them for a significant period of time. Ball pythons, for instance, can go half a year between meals, but what about turtles?
It’s not like they can dislocate their jaw and eat whole large animals. They can’t take down and chomp on large beasts as crocodiles and alligators do, so how long can they get by on an empty stomach?
So, How Long Can Turtles Survive With No Food?
Unfortunately, there’s no one cut and dry answer to this question. There are 356 species of turtle plodding and swimming about our planet at the minute, each with their own behaviors, habitats, and instincts.
Age also plays a huge role in how long a turtle can go between meals. Generally speaking, a well-fed turtle in the prime of its life can survive for months before it absolutely needs to start snacking again.
Mature sea turtles are known to be able to go a full six months without so much as a morsel. A young turtle, however, will need consistent meals full of protein and calcium to build up its strength.
How long a turtle can fend off that rumbling tum is indeed to do with behavior from species to species, but what influences that behavior is the temperature of their environment. In the wild when temperatures drop to around 7°C (45°F), a turtle will prepare to go into brumation.
Brumation is similar to hibernation but instead refers to the long period of inactivity exhibited by cold-blooded animals. They’re not technically sleeping, they’re just hyper-slowed, and when they feel the temperature rise, they spark back to life full speed ahead.
It’s not just a turtle’s movements that slow down during this period, their biological processes do too, including their metabolism. It’s unlikely a turtle entering this chilly phase will eat anything until temperatures rise, and even if they wanted to, there aren’t as many options on the menu in the colder months.
During brumation, some turtles fast between 2-4 months depending on the climate. In some situations, they’ve even been known to challenge snake hunger strikes, staying in brumation for upward of 6 months.
It’s documented that in northern climates, many water turtle young don’t hatch until the very tail end of summer, so instead of going out on the hunt for some tasty mollusks and hydrozoans, it’s straight to bed without supper for a month or two.
Turtles caught in the fiery throws of the summer months also need to take drastic diet-altering measures to survive. Prolonged escape from extreme heat is known as estivation, and while it probably won’t last as long as a brumation period, the same rules apply.
Turtles have to find a cooling shelter, commonly digging into burrows or searching for dense piles of leaves. Once safely ensconced, they fall into the same state of torpor as they do in brumation, only during this dormancy, the top priority is to preserve fluids.
Turtles in captivity have a completely different set of biological rules because they’re cared for year-round. They’re given the correct amount of healthy foods, basking and water temperatures are kept in their respective sweet spots 24/7, and they have no predators to worry about.
All this coddling is obviously a good thing. It means you’re a good turtle parent, but it also means that they’re not used to the rigors of the natural world that their fellow Chelonia and Testudines perish and survive in year after year.
Unless something’s gone incredibly wrong with your tank’s temperatures, they’ll never go into any form of dormant state.
The average adult pet turtle, so long as other conditions remain optimal, could probably survive a number of weeks with no food without it being all that detrimental to their health.
It will definitely have an effect on your little green child: fat stores will be completely depleted, growth spurts will be put on hold, and they may have started to show signs of stress, but other than that, they’d recover after a few good meals.
Fresh water and proper temperatures allowing, a strong and healthy pet turtle could perhaps even live for a couple of months without food, but with a stark decline in health and stature.
Turtles younger than 6 months old certainly won’t last this long as their developing bodies and brains need reliable sources of sustenance to keep them going strong.
What Happens to Turtles When They Don’t Eat?
If a turtle, for whatever reason, can’t quite make it to food, their bodies react almost exactly how ours would but far slower. If they’re not fully grown, not eating will stunt any further growth, they’ll grow weaker and weaker, and eventually, begin to lose body mass.
As their natural growth slows to a halt, so would then everything associated with it. Their legs and neck would never shed, nor would the scutes on the carapace or plastron. If they’re fully grown, their energy and body will slowly dissipate until they finally die of starvation.
They can, however, stave off starvation by eating very little. Catching the odd bug or two a day is enough to keep them alive for perhaps even years. They certainly won’t be the healthiest of specimens, but alive nonetheless!
How Often Should You Feed Your Turtle?
Being cold-blooded, turtles simply don’t need to consume as much as we or other warm-blooded animals do to get by. Hatchlings and junior turtles under the age of 1 should be fed once every day.
They should get plenty of calcium and protein. Once they’re beyond 6 months old, you should halve their protein intake to prevent unnatural growth. Other snacks include bone meal pellets, dried fish, and leafy greens.
Young adults can be fed every other day or at most 5 times a week, but protein supplements should be reduced to 3-4 times a week. At this stage, you should still be pushing those veggies too.
When you have a fully mature turtle around the ripe old age of 7, it needs to feast even less. 3 times a week is plenty. Older turtles adore hunting live fish. It stimulates both body and mind and provides oodles of calcium.
How to Keep Your Turtle Fed When You’re on Vacation
Just because your water or box turtle can survive without food, doesn’t mean you should ever put it to the test and leave it unattended while you go on vacation.
Food aside, someone needs to be there to provide fresh water and to ensure optimal tank temperatures and conditions are maintained. So, how can you care for your tank-bound turtle while you hit the road?
Ask a Friend or Family Member
Your first option is to ask a trusted friend or family member to keep up the turtle care rituals you’ve developed over your tenure as a turtle parent. If they yes, fantastic! But your responsibilities don’t end there.
Pet turtles are still a rarity, and not many people know how to look after them. You’ll need to leave detailed instructions to ensure your turtle-sitter knows what they’re doing. The list should contain feeding regimens, tank check protocol, and a list of warning signs to look out for.
Ask Someone Else
If you can’t rope one of your friends or family members in for a week plus of turtle care, try and outsource help.
If there are any exotic pet stores nearby, ask the staff if they know anyone that knows what they’re doing and might lend a hand.
Automatic feeders are great but only cover one aspect of care. If you’re only leaving town for, say, a week, an automatic feeder is perfect. Any longer than that and you’ll need someone to come and give your turtle some TLC.
There are also a few issues with automatic feeders I think it’s well worth mentioning. Firstly, they tend to have a fairly basic design incapable of being precise with the amount of food they deliver.
Secondly, they don’t allow for a truly custom feeding rota. They only work with 24-hour slots, which is great for hatchlings, but for the senior crowd, that’s far too much. They’ll either eat the excess and make themselves ill, or it will collect and dirty the water.
Before you go gallivanting it makes sense to refresh your turtle’s water and make sure it’s at a decent level, for as it slowly evaporates below the basking surface, your turtle’s going to struggle to clamber up to dry off and soak up some of the essential UV light.
You should also check your filters are doing their job removing impurities from the tank.
Why isn’t Your Turtle Eating?
If your turtle stops chowing down, I recommend taking it straight to the vet, but before you do that, it’s a good idea to contemplate what the problem could be.
If your turtle's habitat temperature is too cold, it might trigger that biological slow down protocol and ruin its appetite. The same thing will happen if your turtle is too hot.
If you’re not sure what temperature your turtle’s environment should be kept, you’ll need to do some research as it varies from species to species.
For example, an adult box turtle requires a cool area between 70-80°F during the day time and a minimum of 60°F at night, and it needs a basking temperature between 80-90°F.
On the other hand, a red-eared slider turtle needs a swimming area kept at 75-80°F and a basking temperature of 85-90F in the day, and in the evening, the heat lamp shouldn’t even be turned on.
This is true of most animals. If they’re stressed, they won’t want to eat.
If your turtle isn’t used to their environment or if you’re handling them too often, their mental health will suffer.
If your UV is too weak or too strong it can affect your turtle's diet.
The vitamin D they get from the light helps them to utilize the calcium in their food, so if they’re not getting enough, they can’t process the calcium and will become lethargic.
Bored of Their Diet
Just like humans, turtles need variety in their diet. Offering them the same things day in day out will reduce their eagerness to eat. You should try mixing things up a bit.
They should be eating plenty of leafy greens, the odd bit of fresh fruit, fish (dried or live), or turtle pellets soaked in fruit juice as a treat. My friend swears by dandelions for keeping her turtle hungry and healthy.
If your turtle isn’t getting the calcium it requires from a diet, it may start to lose interest in full portions.
You can boost their calcium intake with live fish or calcium pellets.
You should always try to feed turtles early in the day or late in the afternoon as these are their most active periods and when they’re naturally predisposed to snacking.
How Long Can a Turtle Live Without Water?
Like most living beings, turtles need water far more urgently than they need food. Without a clean source of fresh water, a turtle can die of dehydration within a week.
They’re never supposed to go without water for over 12 hours. If they’re a water turtle, they shouldn’t even be outside of water for more than 8.
Unlike the ninja turtles - those guys can’t go two seconds without scarfing down a pizza - most adult non-ninja turtles can survive a jaw-dropping 6 months plus without food, but without water, they’ll fade fast.
iI’s really not as simple as that, though. With contributing factors such as age, species, temperature, and environment, there is no one answer to the question, how long can turtles survive without food?
If you have any other queries about turtle dietary requirements and health, I recommend noting some down and visiting your local veterinarian.