New tortoise owners are often curious about what they can and can’t feed their tortoises. One thing that seems quite natural to wonder about is milk. Can a tortoise safely consume cow’s milk and if so, is it good for them?
Can a tortoise drink milk? No, tortoises should not drink milk. A tortoise simply doesn’t have the right digestive system to get any nutrients from milk. While it wouldn’t be dangerous for a tortoise to drink a little milk, it won’t do them any good either. There are other sources of calcium that a tortoise needs instead.
So, let’s take a look at why a tortoise can’t drink milk, what tortoises should drink, the important of hydration, then how tortoises get enough calcium and vitamin D3 in their lives, and finally, whether your tortoise might need supplements to keep them healthy.
Can A Tortoise Drink Milk?
A tortoise is a reptile and a pretty solitary reptile at that. Reptiles, unlike mammals, never lactate and breast feed their offspring. In the case of a tortoise, a female has barely hatched her young before she’s moving on with her life.
Even if she could produce milk, the baby tortoises would have no idea where to find her to get some from.
So, tortoises are not raised on milk and their bodies are not designed to drink milk. In particular, they lack the enzymes to break down lactose (rather like some human populations do) and thus, they can’t access any of the nutrients in milk.
We should point out, however, that a tortoise can drink milk because tortoises can drink fluids. They just won’t benefit from doing so and as such, they shouldn’t drink milk. Research shows that tiny amounts of milk probably does not pose any health risks, but large quantities definitely might.
What we know for sure is that tortoises have notoriously sensitive digestive systems and you don’t want to interfere with them for risk of harming your pet.
What Should A Tortoise Drink?
There appears to be some silliness around a tortoise’s ability to drink on the internet. We’d like to clear this up once and for all. Not only can tortoises drink but they also need to drink.
You should always provide a fresh bowl of water for your tortoises and they should be able to access it at all times. The water should be changed at least daily to keep it fresh. We change it twice a day because the bowl can get dusty, but at least once a day should be enough.
This doesn’t mean that you’re going to see your tortoise drink gallons of water a day. By and large, most tortoises are not heavy consumers of water. They’re only going to sip occasionally but those occasional sips are absolutely vital!
Whether big or small, and no matter the species, all tortoises need to drink water. They can’t swim like turtles can so make sure that your pet tortoises’ access to water is safe!
Related article: Turtles swim but tortoises don’t. Here’s why!
Why Hydration Matters In Tortoises
Tortoises hang out in burrows a lot of the time and the reason for this is that it allows them to survive in some of the harshest conditions around the world.
Just like human beings, tortoises need to consume and retain water to survive. It is true that they get the vast majority of the water that they need form the food that they eat – so that they can often appear not to drink water, but they do need access to drinking water.
It can also help to give your tortoise a gentle soak in water which is kept at room temperature. You don’t want to drown your tortoise so this should never be deeper than the animal’s chin height. When you soak a tortoise, they should always be able to put their head above it.
Related article: How to bathe a tortoise safely and properly
Importantly, you don’t want them to get any skin infections, either. So if they poop in the bath – you need to change the water as soon as possible.
We’d recommend about 10 minutes of soaking for each bath and that you bathe them twice a week. Don’t use any cleaning agents etc. just room temperature water.
Do Tortoises Need Calcium In Their Food?
Calcium is a vital mineral for the tortoise. As you might expect for a creature that, essentially, lives in a house made of bone – your tortoise needs quite a bit of calcium to stay healthy. In addition, to helping out with the construction of shell and the bones and cartilage of your tortoise – calcium is also an important factor in the nervous system.
Without calcium your tortoise’s nerves wouldn’t be able to effectively send messages through the body to the brain. As you can imagine, this would be very bad for your pet.
When a female lays eggs, she also needs calcium to help form the eggshells and that means that females may often need more calcium in their diets than male tortoises do. Depending on the species, turtles and tortoises can lay soft or hard eggs, but calcium is essential regardless.
If Not Milk, Where Do Tortoises Get Their Calcium From?
In the wild, tortoises will normally get their calcium from plant sources. Dandelions are a very common choice for the tortoise seeking a calcium hit and they eat both the leaves and the flowers. They can also find some calcium in milk thistle which is fairly common in the garden.
If your tortoise can’t get access to plants like these, then it’s normal to add calcium to their diet and most tortoise owners in this position will buy in cuttlebone for calcium (it’s commonly sold in pet stores as bird food) and they grind it up into smaller pieces to enable easy digestion for the animal.
If a tortoise has access to chalky soil, they may start to dig up the chalk and munch on small bits of It – that’s OK. It’s just getting some calcium and there’s nothing wrong with your tortoise. It’s quite amazing how well programmed a tortoise is to seek out calcium without any written guide to calcium sources.
What About Vitamin D3?
Vitamin D3 is a vitamin that tortoise’s bodies use to extract the calcium from their diet and an absorb it into their bodies. It is an absolutely essential ingredient for a healthy life in tortoises and a shortage of Vitamin D3 will make a tortoise sick.
The Importance Of Basking For Tortoises
The good news is that tortoises make their own Vitamin D3 and the only ingredient that they require to do so is sunlight. A wild tortoise is never short of Vitamin D3 because they’re always out and about in the sun.
A pet tortoise, however, may not always be in sunlight, particularly if it is being kept indoors, and thus you may need to help it generate some Vitamin D3. We’d recommend that you use a UVB (Ultraviolet B – the “active” ingredient in sunlight) generating fluorescent bulb in their vivarium with a reflector to ensure that they get the UVB that they need.
Can Tortoises Take Dietary Supplements?
Yes, you can give a tortoise a dietary supplement of calcium and/or vitamin D3 as needed. The current recommendation for tortoises that are short on dietary calcium is that you offer them calcium carbonate supplements in conjunction with magnesium carbonate.
This is said to make it easiest for the tortoise’s body to absorb the calcium.
In addition, you can buy a general vitamin and nutrient supplement powder for tortoises that you can give your pet. You need to ensure that you read the instructions of this carefully to make sure they don’t overdose on vitamins.
We use this supplement but only as a treat. It’s an all-inclusive reptile food made of cereals and vegetables, with added vitamins. Simply soak it in water and let your tortoises indulge.
Supplements must never replace a healthy, varied diet of fresh vegetables, flowers, and occasional fruit. This is the best way to ensure your pet will stay healthy.
Related article: Can tortoises get fat? The problem with overfeeding
Speak to your vet first!
You should always speak to your tortoise’s vet before giving them any kind of supplement. It is possible that a nutritional deficiency is not due to diet but is being caused by an underlying condition and thus, it’s vital that your tortoise get a bit of a checkup at this stage.
Your vet will then be able to recommend, if your tortoise does need supplements, what supplements to buy and what schedule that you should give them to your tortoise. It’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to the health of your pet.
So can a tortoise drink milk? While it is technically possible for a tortoise to consume milk, they shouldn’t. As a reptile they simply aren’t designed to drink milk and it’s possible that milk might be dangerous in large quantities.
This doesn’t mean that tortoises don’t drink – they do – and they need access to fresh water. And it doesn’t mean they don’t need calcium in their diet either – but they get it from other sources. So while tortoises could drink milk if it was presented to them, there are no real benefits from doing so.