‘What and how do I feed my
tortoise?’ is one of the top questions people have. It does not take
much research to become completely confused about this. Part of the
problem is that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ tortoise diet- for
that matter, we really don’t have a ‘perfect’ diet for dogs, babies, or
humans in general!
Our starting point are the guidelines that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Nutrition Advisory Group came up with. They suggest offering a diet that …
Natural tortoise diets
tortoise species follow a few basic rules in the wild. They generally
live in places that are amazingly low in nutritious foods- even peak
growth rain forests that look so lush have amazingly little usable foods
most of the year.
are designed to live in places like this- they take food most other
animals ignore or cannot live on, eat it slowly, digest it slowly, and
spend most of their time sleeping so they can live on the small amount
of nutrition they took in. They may roam an area the size of several
football fields to find enough nutrition for the day. When the do
find a pile of something tasty- fallen fruit, yummy flowers, carrion-
they will gorge, then sleep (sometimes for weeks), then gorge again
until it is all gone.
play a big role as well. During the dry season, they live on tough
grasses, leaves, stems, and other drier foods that tend to be low in
calories but high in calcium and fiber. During these lean times, they
add very thin growth rings to the shell. When the rainy or wet seasons
roll in, they splurge on flowers, fruits, and fungi- bursting with
carbohydrates, nutrients, and flavor. These periods spur growth and this
is reflected in wide growth rings. This pattern of feast and famine
probably plays a major role in overall health and shell development,
preventing pyramiding, etc.
this to captivity where we generally offer meals that are already high
in calories and fats, and low in calcium and fiber; offer the same
nutritional profile all year along with a similar climate all year; and
greatly restrict their ability to exercise. It is no wonder that so many
captive tortoises do so badly.
Most tortoises eat about the same things overall, but there are two general categories:
eat almost entirely plants, and not even all plants equally since most
eat few if any fruits. Most of these tortoises live in grassland or arid
habitats, and many of them live in places where they often need to
brumate in the cold season. They get about 75% of their calories from
carbohydrates (sugars found in the plants), 20% from proteins, and the
remaining 5% from fats (note- too much fat in their diet causes stomach
disorders!) Most of the calories will come from plant matter although
almost all tortoises will relish the occasional piece of meat. (Mader)
tortoises get much of their needed metabolic water from the plants and
the digestive processes- but they should still have access to drinking
typical diet profile would be roughly 95% vegetation and vegetables-
grasses, hays, leaves, stems, flowers, ‘weeds’, fungi, etc.; less than
5% fruits or vegetables with seeds, and very little meat. (Mader)
Forest dwelling omnivores (red- and yellow-footed tortoises, Kinixys, Indotestudo and Manouria species, American box turtles, and most terrestrial turtles)
tend to eat a wider variety of foods, usually including fruits and
meats. Much of this is probably due to the lower availability of
calories and nutrients in the wild foods. (The frequent heavy rains tend
to wash the nutrients out of the soil and in response the plants tend
to concentrate what little they can get in the fruits.) Most of these
tortoises do not brumate, although they may aestivate in hotter or drier
weather. They should get about 50% of their calories from
carbohydrates, and 25% each from fats and proteins. (Mader)
omnivores drink more freely, or at least eat foods with higher water
contents. Again, clean water should always be provided.
typical omnivore tortoise diet would be 75% vegetation and vegetables,
20% fruits or vegetables with seeds, and 5% meats or high-protein foods.
can get chows and other prepared foods for tortoises just as you can
for dogs or yourself (think cereals and other processed meals). While
there are several options that work nicely, the three
most consistently recommended brands in the US are:
are a lot of varying opinions about using prepared diets, from those
who use them most of the time, to those who never do. The arguments for prepared chows include:
Arguments against chows include:
Interestingly enough, there are also arguments against fresh food diets!
Natural or prepared diets?
Most people fall into one of these categories:
How much to feed?
is another tricky area. Some people feel that the tortoise can regulate
its own intake and cannot really be over-fed, others worry about
obesity and limit the intake. Either way, the key goal is to help ensure
healthy growth and natural behaviors.
One way to determine this
Another, more convenient, solution is to roughly mimic the natural diet-
Revised 5-29-2012. (C) Mark Adkins