If you’ve just got a tortoise or you’re thinking of getting one, you’re probably wondering how to go about feeding it and whether your tortoise needs regular meals or not. The good news is that you should be able to fit a tortoise’s feeding schedule into even the busiest of lives without much hassle.
Should a tortoise eat every day? Healthy tortoises do eat every day but can easily skip a meal or two. On the colder months they do not necessarily eat every day. When tortoises hibernate, they do not eat for weeks as their metabolism slows down significantly.
So, let’s take a look at how often your tortoise should eat, and when it is OK that they skip a meal!
How Often Should A Tortoise Eat?
There is some debate on this matter because there is no hard and fast rule.
A baby or a young tortoise should eat every day to help them manage their growth spurt effectively, but older tortoises don’t need to eat that often. There are healthy tortoises that eat every day and there are others that skip a day every now and then. Tortoises are picky eaters too and they don’t mind waiting for their favorite snack to show up!
So a lot will of your tortoises’ feeding schedule depends on their species, their age, what food you’re providing, the current season, and a myriad of other factors. As long as you are providing food on a regular basis, and they eat fairly regularly, you should be OK.
Always err on the side of caution: If a tortoise doesn’t eat for more than a few days, a visit to the vet is ideal just to rule out any illnesses.
Should Your Tortoise Eat Every Day?
As we said, it is not important for a pet tortoise to eat on a daily basis. While the jury is out on the perfect feeding schedule for an adult tortoise, skipping a day or two a week is perfectly normal.
As grazing animals, wild tortoises tend to only eat when they’re hungry and that process seems to be very well regulated. You don’t see many fat tortoises out there in the real world. The price for being a fat tortoise is probably to make yourself more attractive to predators, so there’s a strong incentive for them to stay at their peak.
Unfortunately, things can become a bit more complicated, as we’ll see, when we talk about pet tortoises which seem to lack this instinct. Almost certainly because your average pet tortoise doesn’t have to deal with any predators. It’s the “perk of the job” for living with you.
Should Your Tortoise Eat Every Night?
It’s not a good idea for a tortoise to eat at night. While a midnight snack every now and then won’t do any harm, tortoises have notoriously problematic digestive systems and they regularly run the risk of becoming “impacted”. This is where a sort of plug forms in the digestive system and the tortoise can no longer poop. This is pretty serious and needs a veterinary operation to remove the plug.
The theory goes that tortoise digestion is dependent on their body temperature. The higher the temperature, the faster the flow of food through the animal’s body. But as reptiles, tortoises don’t create their own body temperature – they rely on their surroundings to do that for them.
That means, overnight – a tortoise is going to be cooler than during the day and that will slow their digestion down, potentially causing blockages.
Can Your Tortoise REALLY Skip A Meal?
A tortoise can definitely skip a meal and it won’t cause any health issues. Rather like human beings can skip a meal, your tortoise will not waste away if they find themselves going a few extra hours between meals.
However, tortoises are much smaller than human beings and, assuming they’re eating well and healthy, they won’t be carrying large fat stores on their bodies to dip in and out of in times of hunger.
That means you really should feed a tortoise on a regular schedule and if you fall behind on that schedule, you should feed them a little extra at the next meal to help them regain any weight that they’ve lost.
How Much Should A Tortoise Eat?
The rule of thumb is to feed them an amount of food equivalent to the size of their shell. You should mostly be providing dark leafy greens (though there are exceptions such as spinach – please see the linked article below about feeding a tortoise), some occasional fruit, and other veggies sporadically (such as a bit of shredded carrots).
Vegetables that are a little tough to chew (such as kale) are fine too. This might help the tortoise gently grind down their beak, which is a natural and essential process.
How Do You Tell If A Tortoise Is Full?
Unfortunately, telling if your tortoise is full is not the easiest of tasks. Your tortoise can’t tell you that it’s full and because the means of feeding above, while perfectly reasonable from a human perspective, does not mimic the way that a tortoise feeds in the wild.
In the wild, as we said earlier, the tortoise eats what the tortoise wants, when it wants to, it has an incentive to stay relatively healthy (in the form of predators) and thus, when it’s full – it stops eating.
So, the only real way to monitor if your tortoise is getting enough to eat is to weigh it on a regular basis – during the growth phase, of course, it should be gaining weight but a mature tortoise should stay fairly constant in its weight.
If you find that an adult tortoise is packing on the pounds, you may want to slow down on the amount of food that you’re giving it.
Can You Overfeed A Tortoise?
Yes you can over feed a tortoise.
Related article: Can tortoises get fat? The problem with overfeeding
In short, tortoises in captivity are rather like human beings. Without a natural cycle of life to adhere to – eventually a tortoise becomes conditioned to eat when food is put in front of it. It no longer listens to the part of its brain that tells it that it has had enough and that it might be a good idea to stop and go for a long, slow walk, instead.
Now, it’s fair to say that thanks to the shell, a tortoise is not likely to become so fat that its weight endangers its health, unlike many other animals this is a handy circuit breaker for extreme overfeeding in tortoises.
However, there is at least one potential health complication from overfeeding a tortoise.
Pyramiding In Tortoises
A tortoise which eats too much and, in particular, eats a diet with too much protein in it is often subject to a condition called “pyramiding”. This is where the individual scutes (the plates of the shell) become engorged and enlarged and end up looking like little pyramids.
When this happens, the pyramiding cannot be reversed.
The good news is that a tortoise suffering form pyramiding doesn’t appear to suffer any negative health effects from it. The bad news is that if she’s a lady tortoise, male tortoises may find it impossible to climb up on her and make baby tortoises.
Tortoise Food And Research Needed
One thing that might shock you is that compared to most pets, little research has gone into the idea of a “healthy tortoise diet”. It’s best to stick to the known safe foods and products rather than expand their feeding regime.
Should a tortoise eat every day? Can she skip a meal? Adult tortoises don’t have to eat every day, but baby tortoises definitely should. You can allow a tortoise to skip a meal but you should ensure that they get the lost calories back when they next eat.
Working out the right feeding routine for a tortoise takes a little time and patience but you should easily be able to get it right as long as you keep an eye on their weight.