How to Feed a Tortoise

How to Feed a Tortoise: The Guide to Tortoise Diet, Food & Nutritional Needs

Tortoises are a low maintenance pet that requires relatively little care in comparison to other pets. They do, however, require a few things to make sure their health is maintained and they have the best life possible. One of these crucial components is food.

This post is about how to feed your pet tortoise and set up the perfect diet plan for your tortoise. We will not go into what foods a tortoise can and cannot eat as this is where many people go wrong. The two things are very different indeed and you need to learn about your tortoise nutrition requirements before moving onto the actual food list. 

Sadly, I have seen over my many years in the tortoise community that people do not understand their tortoise dietary needs. Which leads to an unhealthy tortoise and sometimes worse. 

What Do Tortoises Eat in the Wild?

The first part of learning how to feed a tortoise is recognizing that tortoises are not all made equally. What one species can eat will be slightly different from another species and these little differences matter. 

What food tortoises have available to them in the wild is what will be the best food choice for them. However, offering clear advice can be difficult due to the different species people keep. 

A tortoise’s diet will change as they get older and they will naturally adapt to this in the wild. While in captivity this is our job of responsible tortoise owners. 

There is some research involved in getting the diet right at the different stages of your tortoise life. Also, not forgetting to learn the foods your tortoise will eat in the wild. 

Generally, a tortoise diet will consist of leafy greens and plants that make up the bulk of their diet. Many people believe tortoises are vegetarians while in the wild some species are omnivorous. Before you jump into feeding your tortoise insects the general rule is not to try and replicate this with captive-bred tortoises. 

There are two main groups of tortoises that we keep in captivity Mediterranean and Tropical tortoises. 

The tropical tortoise species are the ones that have been known to cross into eating an omnivorous diet. However, this could be down to necessary due to not having any other food available. In captivity, we can offer our tortoise the perfect diet and there will be no need to offer anything other than a vegetarian diet. 

It’s All About Location!

So, we need to find out what part of the world our tortoise has originated from. If your tortoise has come from a more arid and dry biome the food choice will be greatly different from a tortoise that originates from a wetter climate. 

This does not mean that the two different species can not live off the same diet. Tropical tortoises that sway into an omnivorous diet in the wild will live a happy healthy life as a vegetarian. Eating an occasional snail in the garden will cause them no problems even though we should avoid it. 

Mediterranean tortoises on the other hand will need to be exclusively vegetarian. Eating anything other than this like a snail could cause them to become ill. 

There are many different species and subspecies of tortoise and truth be told it can all get a little confusing. The best bet would be to feed your tortoise a vegetarian diet of leafy greens and flowers. Feeding them with as many natural foods that originate from their native country. 

A captive-bred tropical tortoise will have a perfectly well-balanced diet that there will be no need for them to eat slugs or insects. 

Your Tortoise Nutrition Requirements

Ok, so it’s a common question from people “how do I feed my tortoise” with so much information around it is to become confused. The biggest part of this is what we discussed above about different species and the fact there is no “perfect diet”. Is there even a perfect diet for humans? 

However, following some simple principles will allow you to offer your tortoise as close to the perfect diet as you possibly can.

  • A nutritionally balanced diet. Offering your tortoise a diet that is hitting all their calories, proteins, carbs, vitamins needs.
  • Following natural feeding behaviors. You should offer your tortoise the food they get in the wild or as close as possible. You will also want to follow natural eating habits. If your tortoise is a grazer don’t force them to eat in one sitting. 
  • Consume easily. Feed food that your tortoise naturally eats and you don’t need to force them to eat. This will also help any poor eating habits to creep in.
  • Practical and Costs. The diet you set up for your tortoise should be easy to prepare and not impact too greatly on your pocket. When the diet does this is when bad food choices happen and can lead to problems for your tortoise.

Back To The Wild

Tortoise in the wild

Well, we are back in the wild again. Your tortoise in the wild will follow basic principles. Tortoises live in many places around the world but they all have low nutrition foods in common. Even forest-dwelling tortoises have little food available during peak rain season. 

The tortoise has outlived many species including the dinosaur they are built to deal with these conditions. They take on food that most other animals ignore or would fail to survive eating.  

Tortoise in the wild eat slowly, digest slowly and move slowly. Spending most of their time sleeping allowing their body to digest the little nutrition that the food they have taken on gives them. 

Within the wild, your tortoise will roam slowly until they find food. Once they stumble upon a food sauce. They will gorge themselves until they have the right amount of nutrients for the day before sleeping to digest it.

The seasons will also have an impact on the food in the wild a tortoise will eat. During the dry season, tortoises will eat drier foods (grasses, leaves) that are low in calories but high in calcium and fiber. During this time a tortoise will do very little growing.

When things get wet the food on offer will be much more varied and will be rich in carbohydrates, nutrients, and flavor. Flowers are a tortoise favorite and during this wet season are when a tortoise does their growing.

When food is sparse the growth rings will be small and tight. In the wet season when food is plentiful the growth rings will be much more spaced out. 

Learning From The Wild

Many experts believe this feast and famine is what plays a major part in a tortoise’s overall shell health. 

Captive-bred tortoises have a constant supply high in calories and fats foods that are low in calcium and fiber. Feeding on the same thing all year round and offering the same climate year-round. A captive-bred tortoise will also have dramatically reduced exercise. 

It will come as no surprise that many captive-bred tortoises suffer shell pyramid problems. Trying to replicate the wild as closely as possible is what you want to achieve. 

Generally, tortoise eat pretty much the same things but there are some slight differences in the two categories:

Herbivorous Tortoises

Herbivorous Tortoise
Horsfield’s Tortoise

A herbivorous tortoise generally lives in a part of the world that is grassland or arid habitats and lives in parts of the world that they need to brumate (hibernate) during the colder part of the year. They will eat virtually an all plant-based diet with very little if any fruit in their diet.

Herbivorous Tortoises Nutrition Breakdown:

  • 75% Carbohydrates
  • 20% Proteins
  • 5% Fats 

The biggest part of their diet is carbohydrates which they will get from the natural sugars that are within the grass they eat. Too much fat for herbivorous tortoises can lead to stomach problems. Almost all herbivorous tortoise diets will come from plant matter however they do like to eat meat in the form of a snail occasionally. 

Herbivorous tortoises are not big drinkers and get much of their metabolic water from the food they eat. With this said you still should supply your tortoise with fresh clean water every day. 

An ideal food profile will be made up of 95% vegetation like grasses, weeds, and flowers. With only 5% coming from fruit and vegetables.

Common herbivore tortoise species

Horsfield’s Tortoise (Russian Tortoise), Hermann’s Tortoise, Egyptian Tortoise, Marginated Tortoise, Radiated Tortoise, Sulcata (African Spurred), Leopard Tortoise, Indian Star Tortoise, Spur-thighed Tortoise

Omnivorous Tortoises

Omnivorous tortoises
Red-footed tortoise

Tortoises that are omnivores are often found on the floors of forests and have a much more varied diet than herbivorous tortoises. Foods including fruit and meat are part of an omnivorous tortoises diet but mainly down to necessity rather than choice. 

The heavy rain you find in the forest washes away lots of the goodness from the forest floor leaving available food with fewer nutrients. The tortoise will then have to turn to alternative methods to get the necessary intake of nutrients (fruit and meat).

Omnivorous tortoises more generally live in hotter parts of the world and don’t need to brumate (hibernate).

Omnivorous Tortoises Nutrition Breakdown:

  • 50% Carbohydrates
  • 25% Fats
  • 25% Proteins

You will find that omnivores tend to drink much more freely than herbivores or eat food rich in water. It is a must to supply your omnivores tortoise with fresh clean drinking water every day.

An ideal food profile will be made up of 75% vegetation like grasses, weeds, and flowers. 20% should come from fruit and vegetables. With the final 5% from high-protein foods.

Common omnivore tortoise species 

Red-footed tortoises, Yellow-footed tortoises, Kinixys, Indotestudo, Manouria, Elongate Tortoise, Hinge-back Tortoises

Prepared Tortoise Diets

How to Feed a Tortoise

It is common to visit the local pet store and pick up a prepared cat or dog food. When I first started keeping tortoises there was no option available for prepared foods for my shelly friends. However, things have changed and you can now readily get prepared foods. Here are some of the best available:

  • Zoo Med Natural Tortoise Food
  • Fluker’s Land Turtle Formula Tortoise Diet
  • Mazuri Tortoise Diet

The debate on whether or not to feed tortoise prepared tortoise food is hotly debated. I believe they have their place within an overall healthy balanced diet. I have some all the time and use it when I’m short on time. I don’t think I would ever switch exclusively to prepared foods and would never suggest you do too. 

Arguments in favor of prepared tortoise foods:

  • Many years of research trials making them safe
  • Well rounded and perfectly balanced food 
  • A little cost to fulfill tortoises needs
  • The quick and easy feeding process

Arguments in favor of prepared tortoise foods:

  • The use of cereal grains which is not a natural food to a tortoise
  • Added sweeteners that can lead to poor eating habits
  • Lacking the correct nutrition people argue there is no way to replace real food

Arguments against fresh foods:

Ok, now this may sound strange but there are arguments by people (not manufacturers of prepared foods) against fresh food diets. 

The main argument is that you will be buying your fresh food from a store and the nutritional value will be lost after transport and storage. The second argument against fresh food is that it will be covered in chemicals. 

The last part of people’s thoughts who argue against fresh food is the owner’s lack of understanding of a correct diet. Not fully understanding your tortoise diet will lead to underfeeding or overfeeding the needed nutrients. 

I personally after owning tortoise for over 20 years feel the last part is valid somewhat. When I see people having problems with their tortoise it normally revolves around incorrect diet. 

That’s not an argument in favor of a fully prepared diet. I feel tortoise sellers must do more to educate. A single generic diet sheet just doesn’t cut it and give people a full understanding. 

I hope this guide helps you get the perfect balanced diet for your tortoise. 

Natural or Prepared Tortoise Diets?

Most people fall within one of the following categories:

  • Just Prepared Foods – People who trust all the claims by the food manufactures and are willing to pay the extra cost for the convenience the prepared food offers.
  • Mainly Prepared Foods – Again people who trust the manufacturer’s claims but want to add a little variety to their tortoise diet.
  • 50/50 Split – Recommended by some tortoise experts who believe that the mix gives a perfect balance. Allowing you to supply your tortoise with fresh food but prepared food when fresh is not readily available. 
  • Mainly Fresh Foods – For people who have their tortoise diet dialed in. However, there are times when getting fresh produce is not always easy. Having some prepared food is the perfect quick option.  (This is my personal choice)
  • Just Fresh Foods – This category is for people who don’t believe in prepared foods. It is always the hardest to get right without some proper research. 

How Much to Feed Your Tortoise?

One of the tricky parts of getting your tortoise diet correct is knowing how much food your tortoise needs. While the food choice is relatively easy once you know the species. People often believe that a tortoise can self-regulate their food intake while a tortoise does a good job they can still be overfed. 

Just like humans that can base a diet on calories, we can do this with tortoises. To calculate your tortoise daily calorie requirements we need to work out the BMR (base metabolic rate) which gives us the daily calories required.  

While this may sound a little complicated it is a simple bit of math (WTkg^.75×32=BMR) let’s break this down to simplify it.

  • WTkg^ = Your tortoises weight in kilograms
  • .75 = to the 0.75th power
  • X32 = times 32

TOP TIP: Allow Google to do the math for you WTkg^.75×32=.  Replace the WTkg with your tortoise weight. 

So for example our tortoise is one kilogram 1^.75×32=32 our tortoise requires 32 calories per day. 

This method works well but it is based on a tortoise in a small enclosure that gets little exercise. If your tortoise is more active or mating then upping the calories a little and lowering when your tortoise slows down during winter times. 

Alternative Feeding Methods

While I much prefer to get an idea of my tortoise ideal calories intake. There are other methods people successfully follow.

  • Offer an unlimited amount of food in the enclosure that is low in moisture and calories but high in calcium and fiber
  • Limit foods high in calories, fats, and proteins

This approach is thought to mimic the wild environment. Allowing the tortoise to regulate their own food intake.

While there is some merit in this system a tortoise can still overfeed. Which will lead to them growing in ways that can be unhealthy and damaging. A captive-bred tortoise is going to do much less moving than a wild tortoise. So it is so much easier for a captive-bred tortoise to overeat. 

Healthy Weight and Size

I like the BMR method and it will stand you in good stead with getting your tortoise diet nailed down. However, you need to make sure that your tortoise weight and size are correct.

If your tortoise weight is too high or too low then the BMR will not be accurate. To determine if your tortoise weight is in a healthy range then see our full guide on “how much should my tortoise weigh”. 

Tortoise Supplements

Many are now taking supplements as modern diets lack what bodies need. Tortoise is no different; they need vital vitamins and minerals to keep them healthy. There are three main supplements that store-bought foods lack vitamin D, calcium, iron, and fiber.

Tortoise Calcium Dosage

The calcium ratio for tortoises is 1.3 to 8mg x Kcal. So for every calorie of food, you should give your tortoise 1.3 to 8mg of calcium.

Tortoise Vitamin D Dosage

To get the right amount of vitamin D the widely agreed formula is 5-10IU/kg of body weight a day. People often worry about giving too much Vitamin D but it is rare to overdose unless you are giving 50x too much over a period of a week. 

Tortoise Vitamin A, D, and E Ratios

The widely agreed formula is the ratio of A:D: E of 100:10:1.

Nutritional Guidelines

Below we will give you some examples of the perfect nutritional setup for tortoises using all the information above. 

Vit. A
Vit. D
Vit. E
50gr/2oz 6.4cm/2.5in6 caloriesh- 0.3
h- 1.2
h- 4.5
11-19 mg2.5 – 5 IU0.25 – 0.5 IU0.025 – 0.05 IU
500gr/1lb14cm/5.5in32 caloriesh- 1.5
o- 8
h- 6.5
o- 8
h- 24
o- 16
57-96 mg25 – 50 IU2.5 – 5 IU0.25 – 0.5 IU
1kg/2lb17.5cm/7in64 caloriesh- 3
o- 16
h- 13
o- 16
h- 48
o- 32
115-192 mg50 – 100 IU5 – 10 IU0.5 – 1 IU
5kg/11lb30cm/11.75in214 caloriesh- 10
o- 54
h- 43
o- 54
h- 162
o- 108
385-642 mg250 – 500 IU25 – 50 IU2.5 – 5 IU
10kg/22lb37.5cm/14.75in360 caloriesh- 18
o- 90
h- 72
o- 90
h- 270
o- 180
648-1080 mg500 – 1000 IU50 – 100 IU5 – 10 IU

h- Herbivorous Tortoise
o- Omnivorous Tortoise

I weigh my tortoise every couple of months to see if my figures need adjusting up or down. Younger tortoises may need to be weighted and numbers adjusted more often as they are actively growing. 

Wrapping Up

While all these may seem a little overwhelming at first don’t let that put you off setting up the perfect diet for your tortoise.

How to feed your tortoise is often skipped but following these steps will allow you to keep your tortoise happy and healthy.

Follow the following process:

  • Discover if your tortoise is Herbivorous or Omnivorous
  • Make sure your tortoise is within a healthy weight range
  • Determine your tortoise BMR
  • Discover your tortoise nutritional setup

At first, you may see all the calculations and run a mile. However, if you want to achieve the right diet for your tortoise it’s something worth learning. I have also added some handy tips to make things easy.

Often people stress about giving their tortoise that extra calorie or one or two calories too little. Don’t stress about it, your tortoise will be fine. I just try to get close as often as possible and know I am doing the best for my tortoise. 

If you do the same you will be treating your tortoise much better than a lot of people who are trying to follow a single sheet of paper from their supplier.