Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate
American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
Chief of Staff, Safari Veterinary Care Centers

Chelonian (turtle/tortoise) Nutrition

Tortoises are mainly herbivorous (plant eaters) They will eat leaves, flowers, and fruits of plants, and 90% of the diet should consist of a salad made up of a combination of the following greens: alfalfa sprouts, bean sprouts, beet greens, broccoli leaves, cabbage (outer green leaves), mustard greens, tofu, turnip greens, dandelion leaves, romaine lettuce (not iceberg), Chinese cabbage, kale and collard greens. You can mix in some fruits as a treat: bananas, figs, apples, strawberries, sweet potatoes, peas, beans.
The last 10% of the diet should consist of animal-based foods: pinkie mice, crickets, meal worms and wax worms. Soaked alfalfa pellets (rabbit chow) provides an excellent source of protein, calcium and fiber . The soaked pellets can be crumbled over the salad. Two to three times a week, sprinkle the “salad” with a calcium supplement. The supplement should contain calcium +/- Vitamin D3. Supplements with phosphorus should not be given.

Box turtles: Feed a mixed diet. Experiment with a good mix of food items and find out, what your turtle likes more. Don’t just feed one kind of food. In the wild, turtles eat a very varied diet.

Good food: earthworms, nightcrawlers, redworms, mealworms, whole feeder goldfish and other live feeder fish, snails, crickets, snails with the shell, slugs and grub worms, should make up at least 50% of the diet. The remaining 50% of the diet should be composed of kale, melon, cantaloupe, fresh leafy greens, legumes, tofu, boiled egg, cooked yam, corn on the cob, tomatoes, chopped and steamed broccoli. He may enjoy strawberries, tomatoes, peaches, and apricots. Everything said about tortoise food is true for box turtles, except that box turtles require half of their diet to be protein sources. Your turtle should be fed daily. Water should be provided in a shallow bowl to allow the turtle to enter easily to soak and drink.

Water Turtles Diet: Water turtles are predominantly carnivores, however chopped greens should be offered on a regular basis. Feeder fish, trout chow, Reptomin(tm) pellets and insects can be given. Water turtles need to be in the water to feed. Most will not eat on dry land. Many owners choose to maintain a smaller feeding tank to use when feeding to reduce the soiling of the water in the primary tank. Live feeder fish can be kept in the primary tank with the water turtles to allow feeding in a more natural state.

Calcium and Phosphorus: The food that you give your chelonian, on average, should contain about twice as much calcium as phosphorus.

Oxalic Acid: Oxalic acid, a chemical found in many plants of the genus Oxalis, binds with calcium to form calcium oxalate, an insoluble salt. When your chelonians eat a diet primarily of foods high in oxalic acid such as spinach, rhubarb, beets, celery stalk or Swiss chard, the oxalic acid binds with the calcium in these vegetables, rendering it unusable.

Goitrogenic Cabbages: Like oxalic acid-rich vegetables, many vegetables in the genus Brassica (the “cabbage-like” vegetables) should not be fed in excess. Cabbage, kale, bok-choi (Chinese cabbage) broccoli, turnips, rutabaga, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts can all cause thyroid problems. In short, do not feed any of the eight aforementioned vegetables in excess. Not all members of the Brassica family are harmful. Collard greens and mustard greens are good.

Dog, Cat and Monkey Chow: Commercial dog, cat or monkey chows contain excessive levels of protein, minerals and vitamin D. When fed to reptiles over time these animals will develop mineralization of soft tissues such as kidney, vessel walls and heart muscle. These changes are ultimately fatal.

Commercial Diets: The manufacturers of commercial diets claim that their products contain all of the nutrients essential to the survival of chelonians however, extensive research into the actual nutritional requirements is lacking. These diets are convenient and can be fed in addition to a balanced diet as described below.

Home Prepared Diet: A good basic diet for a tortoise consists of collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, parsley, dandelion greens, green beans, figs (raw or dried), green peppers, escarole, raspberries, leeks, snow peas, blackberries, grapes, radish, okra, pears, pricklypears. Other fruits include apples, pears, peaches, apricots, bananas, grapes, papayas, cantaloupe, watermelon and other melons. Additional vegetables include corn on the cob, romaine lettuce, other lettuce types, squash, tomatoes, chard and carrot (cooked or grated). These items should be chopped into bite size portions (a food processor works well), mixed well, top dressed with softened rabbit pellets and fed fresh daily.

Vitamin and Calcium Supplementation: Commercial reptile vitamin supplement which contains beta carotene rather than vitamin A is preferred because vitamin A can cause problems in excess while beta carotene is converted to vitamin A as needed. The calcium supplement should contain only calcium and vitamin D3. A supplement containing phosphorus should not be used. Such a supplement does little to counter balance the high levels of phosphorus present in most vegetables.


Adult Crickets– Crickets are readily available at most pet shops. When fed a vegetable-based diet with ground dog kibble, they are nutritious. Crickets, however have a low Calcium/phosphorus ratio; therefore, additional calcium supplementation should be included with every meal of crickets.
Pinhead Crickets– Very small crickets which can be used to feed newly hatched hatchlings.
Mealworms– Mealworms are inexpensive and, like crickets, easy to load with valuable nutrition by feeding them a quality diet of fruits, vegetables and dry dog kibble.
Superworms– Superworms look very much like mealworms but much bigger and are a slightly different color. Like crickets and mealworms they should be fed a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables prior to feeding them to your turtles.
Waxworms– Waxworms are sometime called grubs. They are nutritious, full of moisture, and easy to store. They are difficult to nutrient-load prior to feeding. They are also high in fat, so they should only be a small part of your turtles diet.
Wild-caught Insects– Grasshoppers, crickets, earthworms, pillbugs, and grubs are all suitable for your turtle. It is important, however, that the insects be collected from areas where insecticides are not used.
Pinkie Mice– Adult turtles can be fed newborn mice.
Do not feed raw hamburger, chicken or other meats as a large portion of the diet. These products have a greater than 40 parts phosphorous to 1 part calcium and can result in severe dietary imbalances.

Turtle Nutritional Deficiencies

Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)– Tremors, paralysis, other neurologic signs. Frozen fish contains thiaminase, an enzyme that destroys thiamin.
Vitamin C– Increased incidence of infection.
Vitamin K– Bleeding problems.
Vitamin D– Low Vitamin D causes a lack of absorption of calcium in the intestine. High Vitamin D causes calcification of soft tissues leading to organ failure.
Protein– Too little causes poor growth and poor immune function i.e. lowered disease resistance. Too much contributes to early kidney disease.

Metabolic Bone Disease: Metabolic Bone Disease (MDB) is the loss or lack of normal bone density resulting from one or a combination of the following factors: low dietary calcium, high dietary phosphorus, low Vitamin D3, and/or kidney disease. Vitamin D3 is required for normal absorption of calcium from the digestive tract. Deficiency of Vitamin D3 is caused by lack of exposure to natural sunlight. The body constantly tries to balance calcium with phosphorus in the blood in order to provide appropriate calcium for vital cellular functions. If calcium is not readily available in the diet, then the body pulls calcium from the bones. In growing animals, this results in deformity of bones and shell, soft bones and shell, stunting and if severe, death. In adults, the bones are brittle and easily broken, shell may become soft, intestinal motility may be reduced and egg binding is more common. Prevention by feeding a proper diet is apporpriate. Foods with a normal calcium balance (2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus) include: zucchini, fig, endive, alfalfa hay/pellets, pinkie mice, earth worms, meal worms, crickets and slugs. Many zoos feed rabbit or guinea pig pellets. These alfalfa pellets are good sources of calcium, protein and fiber/roughage.

Swollen eyes: Swelling of the area around the eyes can be caused by lack of vitamin A, sinus infection, trauma, eye infection or irritation to the eyes from ammonia or other fumes. Sterile saline solution made for use with contact lens is safe to use to flush the eyes. This may ease the symptoms, and make the turtle more comfortable, but you need to determine the cause and treat it specifically.

Constipation: Constipation can be caused by wrong diet, parasites, lack of exercise, or ingestion of sand, dirt, gravel or other foreign objects. If your turtle does not eliminate, or becomes hard and impacted this can signal a severe problem. Constant straining can result in prolapse of the rectum and/or intestine. If this happens, coat the swollen tissue with K-Y jelly to prevent drying and call your veterinarian immediately.