Since our tortoises (and other pets) don’t have the luxury to run to the kitchen and grab a snack, we have to be careful about what to feed them. The nutritional needs between tortoises varies between species so in this article we’ll delve deep into the subject. We look at what they can eat, how much, how often and what foods they should avoid.
What Do Tortoises Eat in the Wild?
Tortoises live in so many types of environments with different sources of foods available to them, it’s hard to give a general rule for what they can eat as a whole. Because of the wide variety of species and natural environments (and age-related needs, too), there’s some research involved in making sure your tortoise gets the right diet at the right stage of life.
Generally speaking, a tortoise’s diet is going to be made up of mostly leaves and various plants. Yet, contrary to popular belief, some tortoises are actually omnivorous in the wild and not just vegetarians. But before you hand your tortoise some tasty insects, be sure you know which species he is and if he even needs this added protein. To help, this article will divide tortoises into two groups:
Mediterranean tortoises, whose scientific Latin names all begin with testudo. These tortoises take up a large percentage of the tortoise population.
Tropical tortoises, whose scientific Latin names generally start with geochelone. These tropical tortoises have been documented as having eaten things like carrion, slugs, and some insects or worms. Please keep in mind that this is in very small quantities and you are unlikely to see a tortoise go out of its way to eat these things.
It’s All About Location!
Desert-dwelling tortoises, or tortoises who come from more arid and dry biomes in the wild, can use the same diet as Mediterranean tortoises. Whether this is the perfect diet or not is still heavily dependent on species and life stage. Always check to see what species your tortoise is before giving them certain foods. In captivity, for example, the omnivorous tropical tortoises can happily live off a diet of plant mater. But if you try to feed a strictly vegetarian tortoise any kind of meat or insect matter, they can become extremely ill.
An example of a Mediterranean tortoise is the Greek tortoise. A species of tropical tortoise would be the star tortoise. There are a lot more species of tortoises though. We only mention these two to show how similar, yet very different tortoise species can be.
Honestly, their classifications get a little crazy. Just keep in mind that all tortoises can happily and healthily live on a diet of greens, vegetables, and flowers. It’s better to err on the side of caution here, opting for the herbivore route if in doubt! They will likely enjoy it anyway, especially if they are captive bred. As captive torts, their food sources should be frequent and stable enough that they don’t have to eat things like slugs and bugs.
What can pet tortoises eat?
All species of tortoises need to eat a variety of plants, though exactly what each species needs for a healthy life in captivity varies widely. To show this variety, we’ve selected a few popular or well-known breeds below and given a brief overview.
A giant sulcata tortoise, for example, will have a diet that consists of mainly grasses and weeds. That’s great, considering their size and weight make them an outdoor kind of tortoise instead of one that lives inside with you. Think of them like slow lawnmowers. Hay and grass work well for the sulcata, as they will eat and play with it, too. Expand their diet with grazing areas of different green grasses and maybe the occasional weeds like dandelions. The sulcata will also enjoy hibiscus leaves and the Opuntia, otherwise known as the prickly pear cactus. Be sure to add the occasional veggies and dust their food now and again with calcium powder.
Aldabra, Leopard, and Galapagos
Like the sulcata, the leopard tortoise, Aldabra tortoises, and Galapagos tortoises have evolved to eat various grasses. Their diet would consist of two thirds or three quarters in grasses or hay. The rest of their diet should be flowers, weeds, and greens. What fun to put your pet tortoise in the backyard for her meals and play time! Just be sure whatever is growing in your yard is not toxic to torts.
When it comes to other tortoises, like the Russian tortoise, they aren’t that picky, but they do have some special needs compared to our lawnmower buddies at the top of the list. A Russian tortoise will have less grass in its diet, which means you shouldn’t depend on your backyard to feed this fella. It needs about one to ten percent of the diet to consist of grass, so a little is okay. This breed does better with more greens, like lettuce and other vegetables, taking up the majority of what the tortoise eats.
As you can see, what a tortoise needs will depend on where it came from. Not your specific tortoise, but the species itself. This is why research is so important. Plus, getting your pet tortoise from a reputable breeder will help you know exactly what to feed your little tanky friend.
Additional pet tortoise food ideas
While it’s important to stick to a healthy diet for your tortoise species, variety is nice. After all, you’d hate eating the same kind of salad every single day, too. A few other things that your pet tortoise may enjoy as part of their meal would be mulberry leaves, aloe, parsley, oregano, artichoke, strawberry leaves, raspberry leaves, and blackberry leaves.
Notice we’re specifying the leaves here. It’s not that torties shouldn’t eat berries, but they really need to stick with greens for most of their diets. You can always offer a berry or two as an occasional treat.
If given in moderation you can feed your tortoise some vegetables in the brassica family, meaning plants like kale, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts and so on.
Commercial Tortoise Food
There are many pre-made tortoise foods out there. These are convenient and readily available. Most of these are actually more like fast food and have no nutritional, though. Check the labels, ask your breeder, and talk to your vet to find the right kind of pre-made tort food.
Zoo-med brand tortoise food is actually one of the good ones. Mazuri tortoise food is pretty decent, too. These should still be offered as part of a varied diet for your tortoise, however, and not the complete meal forever.
In the wild, a tortoise may eat over two hundred different plants. Be sure to vary the items given to your tortoise to keep her happy, healthy, and interested in dinner time.
What foods are NOT safe for tortoises?
Tortoises, with all their tough outer bits, are actually quite sensitive on the inside. They need a balanced diet with a wide variety of vegetation. But there are some things no tortoise should ever eat.
Foods like peas and beans should never be given to your tortoise. These are higher in protein and not good for the tortoise’s liver or kidneys. Remember, these reptiles are predominantly vegetarians and therefore don’t need a lot of protein.
There are a variety of common plants found in yards and houses that can kill a tortoise. These include:
- Asparagus Fern
- Avocado (leaves, seeds)
- Calla Lily
- Castor Bean
- Nightshade Family
This is not a complete list of common toxic plants. Be sure to ask a nursery specialist to help identify plants in your yard or home. When in doubt, keep your tortoise away from anything you’re not sure of.
Some other things to avoid would be grass-heavy diets for tortoises that are not the sulcata, leopard tortoise, aldabra tortoise, or the Galapagos tortoise. These species of tortoise evolved to eat grasses. Their stomachs can handle the high amounts of silica found in many grasses and hay, while other species cannot
When it comes to fruit in a tortoise’s diet, it should be very limited or not at all in the case of Mediterranean tortoises. Tortoises who live in areas that are more tropical, where fruit would fall to the ground, can have some. Just be sure not to feed your tortoise too much fruit or they could become obese.
What’s the deal with calcium in tortoise diets?
Adding calcium to your tortoise’s diet is just as important as paying attention to the rest of their food. For your pet tortoise, added calcium is necessary. It helps in growing that gorgeous protective shell and keeping her body healthy.
Tortoises need this added calcium in their diets, along with all that UVB and natural sunlight. It keeps their bodies strong and healthy while helping them digest food. Just make sure that the calcium you are giving your tortoise does not include high amounts of phosphorus. This can block the absorption of vital calcium.
A female tortoise and young tortoises need even more calcium. If your female tortoise is going to have babies, she needs this extra calcium not only for herself, but to help her eggs develop nice and healthy.
Calcium powders are the best way to get a tortoise its necessary nutrients, and they have many options available. One popular kind is by the name of Repti-cal. You can also add cuttlebone. It has high calcium and your tortoise may enjoy chewing on it. Keep in mind, not all tortoises will enjoy the cuttlebone, so don’t take it personally if your tortoise wants nothing to do with it.
If calcium made and packaged specifically for your tortoise is not available to you, or if it is too pricey to ship, then you can take some calcium powder from your local pharmacy, just be sure it is safe. Not all calcium powders for human are safe for torts.
Go for calcium carbonate powder. It is fairly cheap and easy to find. You just need to make sure your calcium powder contains some vitamin D, as it is also important to your tortoise’s health.
So, in short, get a phosphorus-free calcium powder that has vitamin D mixed in. A tortoise can synthesize vitamin D from the sun, but not everywhere in the world is super sunny, so making sure they get some in their diet is best.
How often should your tortoise eat?
This is a big subject that is always up for debate with tortoise owners. The general rule seems to be feeding at least once a day for babies and younger torts. You can also feed your tortoise every other day or even three times a week, but this all depends on your particular tortoise and the amount of nutrients in their meals.
The size of the meal is also important, but there is no set rule on how much to give a tortoise. They are grazing animals in the wild, which makes “meal time” a little tricky in captivity.
Many keepers of tortoises like to give them several small, nutrient-dense meals every couple of days and let the tortoise graze as it wishes. They remove any old or nasty bits of vegetation from the enclosure or yard as needed.
If feeding wet foods, like fruits, then you should use a shallow dish that the tortoise can climb in and out of with ease. This is to reduce any bedding that may get stuck to the food and ingested, causing impaction and health issues.
Whether or not your tortoise has an outdoor enclosure will also change how often you should feed it and if you have tortoise-safe grazing plants in the outdoor pen. Make sure to read over the list of toxic plants above, and also check with your vet and breeder for other lists, too. You can’t be too careful with grazing torts.
Feeding torts can be fun, but you need to do so with great care. Make sure you know the species of your tortoise and get a wide variety of foods it can eat. Make sure you provide calcium in the form of a non-phosphorus powder with added vitamin D.
If your tortoise can eat fruits, then make sure you add them sparingly and give them in a shallow dish your tortoise can get in and out of easily. If your tortoise is not a fruit-eating breed, resist the temptation to offer this dangerous treat!
You can feed your tortoise every day, every other day, or three days every week. It varies on their living arrangements and if they have an outdoor pen where they graze freely.
Whatever you decide for feeding your tortoise, take joy in knowing that he appreciates what you do for him. Spend some time just watching him eat, talking softly to him, and bonding over a great salad.