What Foods a Tortoise Can and Cannot Eat

What Foods a Tortoise Can and Cannot Eat

Knowing what foods a tortoise can and cannot eat is a big part of keeping your tortoise healthy. The first part of your tortoise diet is to know how to feed your tortoise before moving into the good and bad foods. It is so easy to find a good food list for your tortoise but are you feeding them too much or too little? If you know the right ratios to feed your tortoise you’re good to go if not jump over to the how to feed your tortoise before moving on.

Turtle and Tortoise Diets Knowing The Differences In Diets

Here in the USA, the word turtle is commonly used in a blanket fashion to describe a shelled reptile, and there is no distinction between the two.

In most instances, this can be harmless when describing the reptile however, when you transfer this into the diet it can be disastrous. Mistaking the terminology of your reptile can lead to feeding the wrong food and for many years can lead to ill health and potential death. 

A turtle diet is vastly different from a tortoise diet in that they generally require much more protein in their diet than a tortoise. They will eat insects and fish and commercially produced turtle food that is high in protein. 

There are a few exceptions to this which I will cover below but the general rule to follow is that tortoises are strictly herbivorous. A diet is mainly made up of leafy greens and a very small amount of fruit. These foods still contain protein just in much smaller amounts than any other. Allowing the tortoise to slowly digest it into their system at just the right amount of levels.

Also, the differences between the two are that turtles can swim but tortoises can not, which is also very important to remember. 

The Subtropical and Mediterranean Tortoise Diet

Over my many years of keeping and helping others keep tortoises the most popular pets fall within the ‘subtropical’ species bracket. Species include: 

  • Mediterranean Spur Thigh Tortoises (Commonly known as the Greek Tortoises)
  • Hermann’s Tortoise
  • Marginated Tortoise
  • Russian Tortoises (Commonly known as the Horsfield’s tortoise)
  • North American Desert Tortoise

The natural habitat of these species of tortoise semi-arid grasslands mainly offers shrubs, weeds, and succulents as food. Hence the reason that this is what makes up the bulk of these species of tortoise’s diet.  

Food can be hard to come by within the wild and it is not unheard of these species eating slugs. While this may be the case in the wild you should raise your tortoise on a stick herbivorous diet. It is believed they may eat a slug in the wild out of desperation for food rather than choice. 

The Subtropical and Mediterranean Bulk Foods

The bulk of the subtropical and Mediterranean diet can be made up of store-bought salads. You are able to buy mixed bags that contain kale, rocket, and baby leaf mixtures that can offer excellent nutrition to your tortoises. Beware of salad mixes that have a large amount of iceberg lettuce as this lacks nutrients and is mainly water. 

While you can get a great deal of food for your tortoise from the supermarket it is also good to include wild leaves. Dandelion flowers and leaves, clover, sow thistle, and bramble leaves are things we don’t want in our manicured lawn. However, these are great additions to store-purchased salads. There are many other weeds that tortoises can eat but these are some of the most common found in your backyard. 

The subtropical and Mediterranean diet should consist of around 75 to 80% of leafy greens. Which can be a mixture of store-bought salads and weeds from your backyard.  

The prickly pear is often seen as a superfood for subtropical and Mediterranean tortoises. It offers your tortoise excellent nutrition and hydration. The problem with the prickly pear is they are not available in every store. So, you will need to grow them yourself or look online for online sellers. 

Occasional Additions For Subtropical and Mediterranean Tortoises

While our tortoises would be very happy on just leafy greens they do like something a little more solid at times. Peppers, cauliflower, and broccoli are excellent choices. 

While these are ok for your tortoise to eat you should be sparing with your portion. Offer your tortoise a little only once or twice a week will be fine in small amounts. 

I have seen butternut squash put in the occasional category and I’m a little torn on it. While it may be safe in small amounts it does have a laxative effect. Possible leading to a loss of water so go easy with butternut squash. 

Rare Treats For Subtropical and Mediterranean Tortoises 

My tortoise loves fruit but I know they are like sweets to me, not good unless in moderation. Fruit should be the one food that is supplied scarcely and never citrus varieties. Here are some fruits that are ok in moderation: 

  • Melon
  • Grapes
  • Strawberries
  • Mango
  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Cherries

Small amounts of fruit every other week should be fine. It’s such a joy seeing your tortoise run for a piece of fruit but resist the urge to do it too often. The sweetness of the fruit is just like a bag of sugary sweets are to humans (hard to resist) but your tortoise does not have the system to process it correctly. Having too much fruit can lead to many problems, one of the most common being parasitic infections.

Fluid Intake For Subtropical and Mediterranean Tortoises

Your tortoise fluid intake is of course one of the most important aspects of your tortoise diet. You should be offering your tortoise fresh clean drinking water within their enclosure every day. 

You may not see a tortoise drinking as you would other animals however, they do drink and water should always be supplied for when they want to drink. 

Tortoises are known for taking in water from both ends and you will often find your tortoise sitting in their water dish. So, you need to make sure that you get a water dish designed for tortoises that will be shallow. 

Soaking your tortoise in a shallow bath once a week when they are young and every other once they become an adult is recommended. This will encourage your tortoise to drink and it allows them to empty their bowels.  

Tropical Tortoise Diet

As you may expect, a tropical tortoise diet is going to be different from subtropical and Mediterranean tortoises. Tropical species are native to the tropical jungles of Africa and South Africa. They can also be found within the arid grasslands in sub-Saharan Africa.

You may be thinking that those tortoises that are native to sub-Saharan Africa arid grasslands are going to have different diets to those native to the jungle regions. While this is true and the diets are different they are very similar to each other which we will discuss below.

Jungles and Rainforests Tortoise Diet

As you may expect, tortoises native to the jungles and rainforests have a greater food sauce and are much more varied than many other species. The forests offer plentiful amounts of green leafy vegetation to fruit and small insects. 

With this, the tortoises native to the jungles and rainforests have evolved to eat a wider range of foods and become omnivorous within that process. 

Jungle & Tropical Tortoise Breeds include:

  • Red & Yellow foot tortoises – which are native to the rainforests of South America
  • Burmese brown tortoise – which is native to the forests of southeast Asia

The Jungle & Tropical Bulk Foods

While many feel that a jungle and tropical tortoises can eat a vast amount of foods that they can offer their tortoise within captivity the same.

Yes, they can eat a much-varied diet than their subtropical counterparts however you should follow the same principles. The 80% leafy green approach should be adopted within captivity. 

Occasional Additions For Jungle & Tropical Tortoises

Tropical and jungle tortoises have the ability to digest fruit as they have evolved to do so. You can offer your tortoise fruit as you would offer subtropical tortoise vegetables. 

Don’t overdo it on the fruit small pieces once or twice a week should be fine. Fruit can still offer tropical and jungle tortoise problems when eaten in access. 

Additional Protein Sources Jungle & Tropical

It was long believed that all tortoises were strict vegetarians however, jungle and tropical tortoises debunked that belief not so long ago. With many small animals in the jungles, they ultimately die and it is not uncommon to see a tortoise eating them.

While other spices may in the wild eat small amounts of meat it is more out of desperation. Where jungle and tropical tortoises differ is that they have evolved to correctly digest the meat.

Within captivity, it is recommended that you keep protein down to a minimum due to how easy it is to overfeed. Some items you can introduce include:

  • Low-fat cat or dog foods
  • Earthworms
  • Chicken
  • Organ meats
  • Canned fish

Tropical Arid Grasslands and Dry Forests

Tortoises that are native to arid grassland and dry forests have a mixed diet that combines both the subtropical and jungle tortoises. Basing their diet as completely herbivorous you will not have any problems. However,  there are a couple of additions that you can add to their diet.

Arid Grassland/Dry Jungle Tropical Tortoise Species

  • African Spur Tortoises
  • Sulcata Tortoises
  • Leopard Tortoise
  • Indian Star Tortoise

Tip: The Mediterranean spur thigh tortoises are not the same as the African spur tortoise both have very different dietary needs and size differences. 

Both the Sulcata and Leopard tortoises are very similar and have been compared to sheep in that they constantly graze on grass all day. If you have large outdoor areas with plenty of grass it is best practice to offer them this when kept in captivity. You will also want to supply them with the leafy greens that you would with any other species. 

Indian star tortoises are very much the same as jungle tortoises and they need a little more protein in their diet but not quite as much as their jungle counterparts. A weekly offering of extra protein is recommended to keep them healthy.

When supplying protein it is easy to overdo it so keep it to a minimum and make sure they are not high in fat. You also want to make sure there are no added ingredients often found in canned foods. 

Natural Homegrown Foods Are Best

Within the tortoise communities, there is an argument that natural food for tortoises purchased in stores is not all that natural. While there is a little truth in that due to the transport it is overly played and not that big of an issue. Washed and organic if possible and it is as good as homegrown in my option.  

However, with that said there is nothing better than actually growing your own food for your tortoise at home. As we can tailor their diets perfectly by growing to things they would find in the wild whereas supermarket food may not find them naturally within the wild. 

The ideal situation for any tortoise owner is to supply their tortoise with the food they would naturally forage on in the wild. Using the mantra that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. 

The grasses and flowers that are found in the natural habitats of tortoises in all areas of the world are always going to be the best for any tortoise. Many yards have them growing naturally which can cut down on the growing processes.

Many of the grasses, flowers, and weeds can be grown in small pots and offer an abundance of food for your tortoise. 

Commercially Available Tortoise Food Products

Looking to add a little variety to your tortoise but keep it as natural and healthy as possible then commercially available could be the answer. There was a lot of controversy around these products but it is widely agreed they are safe. Make sure you purchase a dedicated tortoise mix and not a turtle mix. A turtle mix will be much higher in protein and not be good for your tortoise. 

If you are not growing foods your tortoise would naturally be found in the wild or have them growing in your yard. Then these commercially available tortoise foods can be an excellent alternative. 

These mixes have many plants, flowers, and weeds I don’t have growing in my yard or have grown. So, these mixes can offer my tortoise plants they would have in the wild that I don’t have or have not grown.  

While these products are great to offer your tortoise a little variety in their diet you should offer them sparingly. They are dried and some of that natural goodness will be lost in the process. If you overdo them also they can lead to your tortoise not eating properly as they want that tasty item you can not grow. 

Tortoise Foods to Avoid Altogether

As with everything with tortoise and food, there seems to be a great debate. With people saying you should never feed a tortoise store-bought leaves and definitely not commercially produced foods. I disagree with these points of view and over my 20 plus years of caring for my own and helping others. My advice is always to offer a variety of best practices. 

With protein even with a tortoise such as the Red and Yellow foot tortoises who can have higher protein is to tread carefully. While they can eat meat as we listed above it is so easy to overfeed. Feed small amounts and make sure you know the true nutritional values that it considers off.

All citrus fruits are off the menu and this is for all tortoises, the excess sugars and the acids are going to cause your tortoise to have stomach problems. 

Here are some foods that you should avoid giving a tortoise:

  • Hot peppers
  • Citrus fruits
  • Fatty foods
  • Milk & cheese
  • Processed foods
  • Olives
  • Avocados
  • Tofu
  • Root vegetables

Foods that are Poisonous/Toxic To Tortoises

While the above foods should be avoided as they cause an upset stomach there are things that we should avoid as they are poisonous or toxic to tortoises. 

Common things that are found within many yards are buttercups, daffodils, and foxgloves which are all toxic to a tortoise. If consumed in high enough doses they could become deadly. 

Tortoises are well adapted to avoiding poisonous and toxic plants as they roam outside and will often leave them alone. I personally would take care if you leave your tortoise roam in your yard when these are present. 

The biggest problem is when unknowing owners feed them to their tortoise in their enclosure and they have no other choice than to eat them.

Here are other items that are suspected to be dangerous to tortoises:

  • Heaths, azaleas, laurel, rhododendron
  • Yews and ground hemlock
  • Lilies
  • Fruit seeds
  • Holly & mistletoe
  • Oleander & foxglove
  • Ivy
  • Oak (all part of the tree)

Tortoise Supplements

Ok, so apart from the obvious food and water needs of a tortoise there are supplements that can keep your tortoise healthy. I can hear it from here “tortoises are not taking supplements in the wild” and this is true. We are talking calcium which is an important part of a tortoise diet that encourages healthy shell and bone growth. 

Foods (some more than others) do contain calcium and do offer your tortoise some calcium but often not in the quantities that are required. For people who have problems with their tortoise it generally stems from a lack of calcium. 

There are many ways to add extra calcium to your tortoise diet but the top three methods many people use is as followed:

  • Cuttlefish bone 
  • Tortoise block
  • Calcium powder 

Tortoise block is often used and while it can work you need to be careful of the other ingredients it contains. Phosphorus is also in the tortoise block and while your tortoise needs it within their diet. It can potentially push the levels into an unhealthy range when they eat other food containing phosphorus.

Many including myself prefer cuttlefish bone and calcium powder as this is the most natural form. Calcium powder can have a bitter taste so build up the doses over time to allow your tortoise to get used to it.  

How Much and When To Feed A Tortoise

When to feed your tortoise has many moving parts but I have found that setting a routine is best. Once per day at a set time is what I choose and I lower the food on offer if my tortoise has been outside chomping at my lawn. 

While when to feed your tortoise may warrant a whole post of its own how much to feed your tortoise definitely does.

Knowing how much to feed your tortoise is crucial for keeping your tortoise healthy and it takes a little time the first time round to work out. While it may seem a little overwhelming it is worth doing to really dial in your tortoise diet. 

Tortoises Grazing Outdoors Benefits

The benefits of allowing your tortoise outside in a safe yard have many benefits. A tortoise outside is able to take in the fresh air and soak in the natural UV from the sunlight while stretching their legs.  

If you are able to grow tortoise food within your garden you can allow your tortoise to expel the natural grazing behaviors.

If you are able to or live in an area your tortoise can live outside permanently you can plant up a garden. That allows your tortoise to naturally graze at their own pace and not have to overly worry about their diet. You will have to make sure that your yard has all the plants on offer to sustain your tortoise. 

Even if you don’t feel comfortable or can’t have your tortoise permanently grazing outside. The cost of doing it for large parts of the year can be a great cost-saving exercise.