Feeding Recommendations for Turtles and Tortoises
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith

When a turtle or tortoise owner brings their sick animal to the veterinarian, the cause of illness can almost always be traced back to one of two causes; improper housing and/or improper nutrition. While there are a wide variety of commercial prepared foods available as well as many 'homemade diets,' they are often inadequate for many species.

There are a wide variety of species of turtles and tortoises and the following recommendations are rough guidelines for maintaining good health in your pet. Every turtle or tortoise owner should purchase a professionally written reference book about their specific species of turtle/tortoise and follow the specific feeding/housing guidelines closely.

Common sense approach

When it comes to nutrition, the common sense approach is always the best. Many people translate feeding their dog or cat to feeding their pet turtle or tortoise, and that is a huge mistake. Dogs and cats have been domesticated for tens of thousands of years. They have been bred and selected for specific traits and tolerances. Millions of dollars have been spent studying and formulating balanced, nutritionally complete dog and cat foods. There is more money spent on the research and development of commercial dog food in a single day, than all the research done for turtle food in a single year. And all of this is for just the two species: canine and feline. There are hundreds of different species of turtles and tortoises, each with a different set of nutritional requirements.

Tortoises and turtles are wild creatures. They are not domesticated. They are wild animals living in captivity. What this means is that if we are going to be successful in providing them with good basic nutrition, we need to mimic their natural diet and living conditions as close to their natural environment as we can. To do this, we have to know as much as we can about their eating habits, preferences, and nutritional requirements.

Herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore?

One of the most important things we need to know about our turtle or tortoise is whether or not they are a herbivore, an omnivore, or a carnivore. Feeding meat to a vegetarian tortoise is as unnatural and unhealthy, as feeding steak and chicken to a cow. At the same time, feeding fruits and alfalfa to a carnivorous aquatic turtle is like trying to raise a cat on salad and vegetables.

Species Diet
Tortoises Tortoises are almost always exclusively herbivores. Their diets usually consist of 100% plant origin. While some feeding programs call for the addition of some animal protein to their diet, this is controversial, and not necessary if a good balanced plant diet is fed.
Aquatic Turtles Most aquatic turtles are primarily carnivores, and depending on the species and age, require a diet that contains from 65% to 90% meat. The remaining 10% to 35% is vegetable-based.
Semi Aquatic Turtles Most semi aquatic turtles are omnivores, and their nutritional requirements are usually met with a diet that is 50% meat and 50% vegetable-based. Depending on the species, age, and their habitat, these percentages will be altered slightly.

It is essential that you know what your turtle’s individual nutritional needs are. By learning what your turtle's or tortoise's normal diet is in the wild, you can tailor the following recipes to even more closely simulate their normal diet.

Sample diets:
Herbivore Diet
Mixed Green Leaf Vegetable Base (85-90%)
  • Coarse mixed grasses and hays
  • Dandelion, mustard, and collard greens
  • Cabbage*
  • Clover
  • Kale*
  • Endive
  • Parsley*
  • Carrot toppings
  • Flower heads and other natural fodder plants
Vegetables (10-15%) - Fruit should be given very sparingly because overconsumption can lead to high levels of sugar in the gut (intestine) and result in colic.
  • Cantaloupe
  • Winter squash
  • Mango (no pits)
  • Peas
  • Parsnips
  • Apple (no seeds)
  • Grapes
  • Red and green sweet peppers
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Green beans
*These contain high amounts of oxalates and should only be fed in limited quantities.
Carnivore Diet
Meat Components (65%-90%*)
  • Live feeder fish
  • Earthworms
  • Frozen pinkie mice
  • Snails and mollusks
  • Dried commercial trout pellets or commercial turtle food (no more than 25% of diet)
Vegetable Components (Approximately 35% or less depending upon the species*)
  • Mustard, dandelion, or collard greens
  • Grated carrot
  • Clover
  • Small quantity of fruit and other items listed in the herbivore diet
*Not all aquatic turtles are carnivores. Some species of aquatic tropical turtles require a diet rich in fruit, while others are almost completely herbivorous, so check on your individual species. Also, juveniles require more than adults.
Omnivore Diet
Vegetable and Fruit Components (50-90%*)
  • Berries and strawberries
  • Endive
  • Grated carrot
  • Dandelion, mustard, or collard greens
  • Green beans
  • Winter squash
  • Cantaloupe
  • Flower heads
Meat Components (10-50%*)
  • Live crickets
  • Earthworms
  • Freshly molted mealworms
  • Slugs and snails
  • Small pinkie mice
  • Trout pellets and commercial turtle foods
*Proportions depend upon species. Also, in general, juvenile turtles require more meat than adults.

These diets should always be fresh and supplemented with a good vitamin-calcium supplement approved for use in turtles and tortoises. Clean, fresh water and a stress-free environment are also critical to ensure adequate consumption. The above diet suggestions are nutritionally sound, but the most important thing to stress is that different tortoises and turtles will demonstrate different preferences for certain foods. Provided that these preferences do not turn into addictions and they are healthy, there is no harm in catering to their preferences to some extent. However, the diet should be rotated and varied as much as possible to avoid monotony and unbalanced nutrition.

Remember that nutrition is one of the most important aspects in maintaining a healthy and happy turtle or tortoise. By following these guidelines and researching your individual turtle's needs, you can provide an excellent diet for your turtle or tortoise.

References and Further Reading

Highfield, A.C. Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Carapace Press, London; 1996.

Jenkins, Jeffery. The Veterinary Clinics of North America Exotic Animal Practice. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA; 1999. 

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Reprinted from PetEducation.com.