Herbivore Diet

There are many ways to put the basic nutrition ideas into place for herbivorous tortoises (and you should probably read that section before this one). Some typical plans will be listed here but be sure to check the ‘Notes for Various Species’ section below to see how to adjust the plans to your species.

The most commonly recommended plans for herbivorous tortoise species are the ‘Weed Diet’ and a basic green salad approach. The biggest difference between these two is that the weed diet tends to have a lower moisture content, higher fiber levels, and more calcium than the salad approach. 

The general categories of things the keeper can choose from include:
  • Lettuces- Dandelion, Endive, Escarole, green or red leaf, chicory, radicchio, arugula (rocket), watercress, and Romaine. Spinach is often avoided because of the high oxalates level (0.97gr/100gr of food), but many keepers seem to successfully use it as part of a rotation to take advantage of its many good qualities. Iceberg can be a good ‘filler’ in some cases but may be too high in moisture for some. Avoid purslane and parsley.
    • Bagged salad mixes can be a helpful tool for many of us. They generally combine several good ingredients and are ready to eat as-is. if you use these, try to rotate which ones you buy, and avoid those that depend too heavily on Iceberg or Romaine lettuces. The general rule of thumb is that the more different leaf shapes and colors you see, the better!
  • Brassicas– ‘Greens’ (turnip, mustard, collards, etc.) and kale. Cabbage is another good ‘filler’. Cauliflower and broccoli can be used occasionally. Bok choy, Swiss chard, and other relatives of the cabbage can be used once in a while, if at all.
  • Hays and grasses– Timothy hay, wheatgrass, yard grasses, orchard grass, Bermuda grass. Alfalfa hay is high in proteins, but can be used as a small part of the diet.
  • Common yard plants– Dandelion, plantain, thistle, clover, chickweed, lawn grasses, hens and chicks, mulberry, henbit, and a wide range of edible flowers (see the safe foods links here)
  • Vegetables– Cactus pads or fruits, edible succulents, and mushrooms. These items should only be a small part of the overall diet- shredded or lightly steamed carrots, shredded or lightly cooked sweet potatoes, bell peppers, pumpkin, squash. Vegetables to use even less often would include 
  • Proteins– Wild many wild herbivores eat meat when it is available- some even going so far as to hunt, kill, and consume small animals- it is not a good idea to offer meat to captive herbivores. Occasional treats of invertebrates (snails, worms, crickets, Phoenix worms, slugs, etc.) can offer some variety and beneficial nutrients, but even that is generally not needed if a healthy, balanced, varied diet is followed. Outdoor tortoises will often find and eat their own prey.
  • Fruits– ‘Fruits’ actually includes any vegetable with seeds in it, including things like cucumbers and bell peppers. What they call fruits in the grocery store, however, are the wetter, sweeter things. Too much of this moisture and sugar will make most tortoises ill. The ‘dryer’, less sweet traditional fruits, like figs, cherries, etc. are OK occasionally. 
  • Prepared foods– Discussed in more depth here. Crushed rabbit or guinea pig chow can also be used as a supplement to increase fiber, especially if the diet is heavy in lettuces.
Exactly what you choose to feed will depend on many things:
  • Species of tortoise- Some are more tolerant of high-moisture lettuces than others, and so on.
  • Local availability- Many of us are limited in what we can find, especially in the winter time. A thrifty and smart keeper, however, can feed their tortoises almost forever and for almost nothing by knowing how to find foods in lots and overgrown areas that have not been sprayed with anything.
  • Indoors or outdoors?- An outdoor tortoise can thrive on foods planted in the pen, while we need to provide the entire diet of an indoor tortoise.
  • Time and money- We may not always want to admit it, but our pet care often is limited by available resources. We may wish to provide just the top foods from the best market, but our cash and time availability often cannot support it.
Interesting sources of foods you can consider to reduce costs and improve variety…
  • Learn to forage in local lots, neighbor’s yards, etc., as long as they have not been sprayed.
  • Ask for blemished or day-old produce at the grocery store, farmer’s market, or restaurant with a good salad bar. Locally owned/operated places are your best bet.
  • Pay (or offer work share or barter) a neighbor with a green thumb and a good garden to grow stuff for you.
  • Growing plants in containers or other indoor gardening options.
  • Preserving plants from season to season by freezing or drying them.
  • Join a community garden or a Community Supported Agriculture group.
  • Buddy up with other keepers with similar needs to bring group buying power to the above ideas.
Diet plans

Having said all that, how do I feed the tortoise in ways that fit the AZA guidelines?

The Tortoise Library plan- The two-bowl method
We just use two imaginary bowls to fulfill the ‘How Much To Feed’ part of the Basic Tortoise Nutrition 1- Overviewpage-

  • The Shell Bowl is about the size of the tortoise’s shell, offered every day, and is filled with greens, grasses, hays, leaves, flowers, etc.
  • The Head Bowl is about the size of the head, offered less often, and is fulled with the items from the ‘Vegetables’ section above.
  • Pinch of ‘Tortoise Library Nutrient Mix‘ (below). 
Then, rotate the offerings. Buy as many greens as your tortoise(s) will eat in a week. If they would polish off three bunches of stuff, buy three different bunches. If your little guy would barely finish off one bunch, offer him things from selections you buy for your family.

Next time you go to the store, you buy different stuff, and repeat. This slow rotation helps ensure that any bad foods are only a small part of the overall diet and also helps ensure the widest selection of nutrients. 

“Rotating days” plans
Many sites suggest some plan of rotating days, such as ‘greens, greens, veggies, greens, greens, veggies’, etc. with occasional fasting, snack, or ‘heavy’ days thrown in for variety. This is fine as long as you roughly follow healthy ratios of foods. Mix it together, serve it on different days, or serve it in different bowls if you want- whatever works for you!

Half and half plan 
Even easier than the Tortoise Library Plan above! Besides being easy to prepare, it also offers a good range of nutrition and flexibility, and follows the Improper Diet Cascade recommendations. 

  • About 1/2 fresh Mazuri Tortoise Diet or another good ‘tortoise chow’. (See “Prepared Foods or Natural Diet” for more on this topic.) NOTE: This should only be about 2-4% of the total weight of the tortoise!
  • About 1/2 mixed green salad with a little vegetables, varying the ingredients over time.
  • No special preparation needed.

The Tortoise Library nutrient mix
There are several good supplements available, such as the excellent TNT (Total Nutrition for Tortoises), but you can make up an easy-to-use mix of fiber, calcium, and vitamins if you would rather not buy it.

  1. Chop or grind up dried, cubed, or pelleted hay (Timothy hay, etc.), until it is like parsley. The easiest way to break down the cubes is to tap them with a hammer and they will break apart into thin layers, then just crumple a layer up, tossing out any hard bits left over.
  2. Add about a heaping teaspoon of calcium powder per cup of hay.
  3. Add about 1/8th teaspoon, or one crushed human vitamin tablet, to the mix.
  4. Toss or stir and store in an air-tight container.
  5. If possible, add vitamin D as well when the tortoises are kept indoors. Liquid vitamin D is somewhat better than dry forms.
Notes for various species
There are many good articles linked in the Helpful Links section, but I cannot seem to locate anything specific for various species, other than a general rule of thumb that suggests that tortoises from more arid regions (or being fed during dry seasons) should be offered dryer foods in general. 

Developing theories…
Tortoise diets are still developing and new research and ideas are popping up all around. Two thoughts that are being widely discussed are:
  • Hatchling or juvenile forest tortoises may be heavily carnivorous. The idea here is that these young tortoises keep very hidden in the wild, and hide in places where there are lots of insects and other invertebrates. Even nesting sites are often filled with worms and other potential food items. Another aspect to this theory points to many other reptiles that are well-documented to be insectivores or carnivores when young- Red-ear Slider turtles, Bearded Dragons, and more. 
  • Diets should probably vary in captivity to reflect seasonal selection and abundance. Tortoises naturally have varying access to things like fruit, flowers, etc. as rainy and dry seasons affect their options. This pattern of abundance and scarcity, nutrient-rich and nutrient-poor affects the growth and may play an important roll in proper development. The ‘slow growth periods’ may allow the slower growing structures to catch up with the faster growing ones as well as offering other benefits to the tortoise and the keeper.

Created 5-23-2012. (C) Mark Adkins