Tortoises tend to be found in a lot of areas of the world. These include southern North America and South America, in the Mediterranean basin, in Eurasia, Southeastern Asia, Madagascar, some of the Pacific Islands, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Their natural habitat varies widely. It could be anything from deserts to mountains, from near sea level to wet evergreen forest. Largely though, they are found in semi-arid environments.
What is a tortoise’s natural diet?
Their natural diet tends to be centered around flowers and weeds. The environment they originate from is dependent on what their natural diet would be.
Tortoises from arid and dry climates will eat predominantly stems and leaves of desert grasses and flowers. Species that follow this diet are Hermann’s tortoise, Horsfield’s tortoise, African Sulcata, Leopard tortoise, and Indian Star tortoises.
Tortoises that would naturally live in forested areas will need a higher quantity of fresh fruit in their diets. These are species such as the red-footed tortoise, the yellow-footed tortoise, and elongated tortoises. They eat predominantly fleshy succulents, legumes, and grasses.
Generally speaking, tortoises are predominantly herbivores. Some species will occasionally be known to eat worms or insects in the wild. It is rarely necessary to supplement your tortoise’s diet with animal proteins as they get sufficient nutrition from a variety of vegetation.
Overfeeding your tortoise with protein can cause shell deformities and other serious medical issues.
How often and how much should a tortoise be fed?
Tortoises should be fed once a day for 5 days of the week. There are 2 days without food as tortoises have a very slow operating digestive system.
These days allow their digestion time to catch up with their food intake. This then removes the need for the self-starvation period tortoises undergo during the summer months.
You should feed your tortoise an equivalent volume of food to the size of their shell. They are not animals that eat in one go, preferring instead to graze throughout the day. If you are concerned about the amount they are eating, we recommend feeding them 2 smaller portions of food across the day.
In the wild, the tortoise’s diet would vary according to the seasons. It is a nice idea to attempt to replicate this as far as possible.
The best way to evaluate the quantity of food you are giving your tortoise is to track their weight loss or gain over time. If they are gaining weight at the weight of more than 1-3g per month, consult a veterinarian.
Does their diet need supplementation?
Yes. It is wise to ensure your tortoise is getting a sufficient amount of Vitamins D and A as well as calcium. There are many supplementation powders available specifically for tortoises. These should be sprinkled on top of your tortoise’s food 2 or 3 times per week.
Calcium is important for tortoises as it is used to keep their shell and body healthy and strong. It also helps with their digestive processes. It is important to check that the supplement you are using does not contain high levels of phosphorus. Phosphorus in large amounts can prevent the absorption of calcium in the tortoise’s body.
Calcium is particularly important for young and female tortoises. This is particularly true if the female is having babies as calcium is needed to create the eggshells.
An easy way to incorporate calcium into their diets is to sprinkle calcium carbonate powder that contains Vitamin D over their food. YOu could also offer your tortoise cuttlefish bones or a tortoise block.
As with anything concerning living beings, please consult a qualified veterinarian for advice before you change your pet’s diet.
What can tortoises eat?
Some of the foods tortoises eat include cat’s ears, sow thistle, hawk bits, hawks-beard, plantain weed, and pansies. They can also eat hibiscus, musk mallow, malope mallow, mulberry, lambs lettuce, and prickly pear.
They can also have dandelions, sowthistle, chicory, coleus, and Shepherd’s purse. Field bindweed, hedge mustard, clover, and vetch are also suitable.
As a treat, you can give your tortoise aloe, oregano, parsley, strawberry leaves, artichokes, raspberry leaves, and blackberry leaves.
All of these can be grown from seeds. This is safer for your tortoise as you will be sure they do not contain pesticides that could be harmful. Where possible, avoid feeding your tortoise foods that have been grown using chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
You can also feed your tortoise small quantities of carrots and Brussel sprouts to Mediterranean and Red-footed tortoises.
Tortoises tend to get bored of their food, much like humans. For this reason, it is important to keep a level of variety in their diet to ensure they will still be motivated to eat.
You should give your tortoise a variety of textures. Do not just feed soft leaves as this will mean their beak becomes overgrown.
Cabbage and mushrooms can be fed to your tortoise in moderation. We recommend feeding them red cabbage as the green varieties have less nutrients. If you are feeding your tortoise store-bought vegetables, we recommend sticking to dark green and leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, and collard greens.
It is vital to offer your tortoise fresh food daily. Anything left uneaten should be removed and disposed of daily. They should be supplied with a constant stream of fresh water too.
Can tortoises eat fruit?
Yes, some species can. Fruit should not be fed to Mediterranean tortoises such as Spur Thighed, Hermanns, Marginated, and Horsefield tortoises.
Other species can have melon, blackberries, grapes, mango, and sliced sweet apples. You can also give your tortoise bananas and cherries with the stones removed.
Any fruit that is given should be cut into manageable-sized pieces for the tortoise’s mouth and should not be given in excess. Too much fruit in their diet can cause loose stools and diarrhea.
What can’t tortoises eat?
Tortoises cannot eat a number of foods. Generally speaking, they will avoid foods that would cause them harm in the wild. If you feed them harmful substances, it is less likely they will avoid eating them.
Foods that should definitely be avoided include daffodils, azaleas, foxgloves, buttercups, hydrangeas, and irises. You should not feed your tortoise avocado, auricula, bean sprouts, citrus, morning glory, and wood anemone.
You should also avoid feeding your tortoise peas and beans. They have a lot of protein compared to the other foods tortoises eat and can cause liver or kidney damage.
Commercial tortoise foods
As a general rule, you should not feed your tortoise exclusively commercially manufactured pet food. This is because it is not a complete source of nutrients and can lead to malnutrition.
They are hugely convenient and work well as a supplementary food source. It is important to check the labels of foods to see what is actually contained within them.
We recommend talking to other tortoise keepers (such as in online forums) or consulting with a veterinarian to see what foods they like.
Different species have different needs
When it comes to tortoises, there is not a one size fits all diet recommendation. Each species has adapted and evolved to have different dietary requirements. This means that what works for one may cause ill health and malnutrition in another.
It is absolutely vital to do proper research into the care of tortoises prior to purchasing one. They are a huge responsibility and require a great deal of care to keep healthy and well.
Diet composition for Sulcata tortoises
This diet should be predominantly weeds and grasses, such as hay. They will respond well to different types of grass in different locations around their enclosure. This will allow them to wander and graze as they do.
Green grasses and dandelions are good suggestions for these tortoises. They also enjoy hibiscus leaves and prickly pear. Their diet should include regular vegetables and calcium powder supplementation.
Diet composition for Aldabra, Leopard, and Galapagos tortoises
These tortoises have a mainly grass-based diet too. This should make up anywhere up to 75% of their diet.
The remaining 25% should be weeds, greens, and flowers.
Diet composition for Russian tortoises
These tortoises need less grass in their diet - only making up about 10%.
They require more greens and vegetables to form the basis of their dietary intake.
What if my tortoise is not eating?
If your tortoise has emerged from its period of hibernation and is reluctant to eat, there may be a more serious issue present. A few minutes of exposure to temperatures below zero can cause the lenses to freeze solid and the retinas to hemorrhage.
This can cause severely impaired vision in tortoises. This is one of the main reasons a tortoise is reluctant to eat. If this is the case, your tortoise is likely to walk in circles and seem disoriented.
It is absolutely vital to take your tortoise to a veterinarian if they cease eating. You should not attempt to refeed them yourself, only offer water until they have been assessed by a professional.
This is because tortoises have very sensitive renal systems. A harsh and rapid refeeding process could put further strain on the tortoise’s body and cause further issues.
Your tortoise could also be reluctant to eat due to a bacterial or viral infection. In any case, if your pet is not eating you should seek relevant advice as it is often a symptom of a much larger problem.
What if my tortoise is eating too much?
Turtles are opportunistic feeders due to their evolutionary history. In the wild they did not have a certain time of their next meal and so they would eat as much as they could when they could.
It is hard to tell when your tortoise is putting on weight, as most of their body is concealed by their large shell. For this reason, many tortoises seen by vets are clinically overweight.
This is as damaging to their health as obesity is to humans. Fat deposits on their legs can restrict movement and cause issues with the fit and positioning of their shell. When tortoises feel threatened, they retract their limbs into their shell for protection.
If they have large fat deposits outside the holes in their shell, they will not be able to retract these limbs. This means that they are much more exposed to danger and injuries.
Even when not in danger, some tortoises will do this for comfort. They will not be able to understand why they cannot and are likely to continue to try, resulting in injuries.
While these injuries may start off as fairly minor, if they get infected this can quickly escalate and become very serious. As with humans, obesity reduces the effectiveness and increases the risk of most medications and surgical procedures.
Additional weight puts a lot of strain on the circulatory and cardiovascular systems inside the tortoise’s body. It can also lead to joint pain and a reduction in lifespan.
This is also known as metabolic bone disease and is often caused by insufficient ratios of calcium to phosphorus in the diet. In humans, this disease is often referred to as rickets.
This is almost always caused by a poor diet, and so is generally fairly easy to prevent. Symptoms of fibrous osteodystrophy include bowed, swollen, or bumpy legs. The jaw may have softened and swollen, and the lower jaw may have receded slightly.
Your tortoise’s shell is likely to have softened. You may also notice muscle tremors or twitches, limping, and a lack of appetite. If your tortoise appears lethargic, weak, or in serious pain when moving, it is time to contact a certified veterinarian.
The diagnosis will be confirmed with x-rays and blood tests. In severe cases, you are likely to need to leave your tortoise with the veterinarian for UVB therapy and extreme supplementation.
As a general rule, do not feed your tortoise any foods that are considered harmful to mammals.
They are likely to avoid them outdoors but may eat harmful foods if presented with them, particularly when indoors.