If you’re considering getting a pet turtle or have recently become a proud turtle owner, one of the first things you’ll need to learn about is their dietary needs. Turtles, just like any other pet, require a specific diet to stay healthy and thrive. So what does a pet turtle eat? Read on for a complete guide to feeding your turtle.
As ectothermic creatures, a turtle’s metabolism is heavily impacted by temperature. This means the frequency and size of feedings will depend on things like the turtle’s size, age, species, and the water temperature they live in. Still, there are some general rules of thumb to follow when figuring out what a pet turtle eats.
The Basics Of Turtle Nutrition
Turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat both plant and animal matter. In the wild, turtles enjoy a diverse diet of insects, fish, aquatic plants, fallen fruit, carrion, and more. As pets though, turtles can’t hunt down live prey or forage for food. That means we need to recreate their varied diet through store-bought foods, pellets, supplements, treats, and the occasional snack from your fridge or garden.
In general, most pet turtle diets should consist of:
- 30-50% high-quality pellets or kibble
- 30-50% chopped vegetables
- 10-30% live feeder insects and fish (for carnivorous species)
- 10-20% fruit 1-2 times a week
To stay healthy, all turtles also need calcium and vitamin D3 supplements added 1-3 times a week. These help them properly absorb nutrients and keep their shell strong. More on that later!
Finally, clean, fresh water should always be available. While some turtles drink very little, others need to submerge regularly to stay hydrated.
Common Pet Turtle Species And Their Diets
Now that you know the basics, let’s go over some common pet turtle species and what a pet turtle-like them eats. We’ll also touch on any unique dietary needs per breed.
Probably the most popular pet turtle, red-eared sliders are semi-aquatic turtles native to the southeastern USA. These omnivores feed on plants, insects, fish, tadpoles, and even small mammals as opportunities allow.
As pets though, red-eared sliders enjoy a mix of pellets, greens, veggies, fruits, live feeders, and the occasional pinky mouse. Staples often include romaine lettuce, kale, carrots, berries, and bioactive pellets. Due to their popularity, it’s easy to find fortified slider-specific foods.
Like sliders, painted turtles are omnivorous pond turtles native to North America. Their natural diet consists of aquatic plants, slugs, snails, tadpoles, small fishes, and fallen fruit.
In captivity, they thrive on pellets, commercial turtle diets, greens, vegetables, live feeders, fruits, and the occasional mealworm or superworm. Favorites include kale, carrots, strawberries, bioactive turtle pellets, crickets, and guppies.
As a primarily terrestrial turtle, the North American box turtle has a more varied, opportunistic diet than aquatic breeds. They eat slugs, snails, worms, beetles, berries, fallen fruit, eggs, carrion, mushrooms, flowers, and even small mammals.
Pet box turtles, offer a diverse menu of live insects, chopped greens/veggies, berries, and bioactive pellets. Crickets, earthworms, strawberries, mixed greens, and high-quality turtle kibble tend to be winners.
Despite the name “red-footed tortoise,” this South American breed is actually a semi-terrestrial turtle. As juveniles, they become more carnivorous, eating insects, snails, worms, and fallen fruit. As herbivorous adults, they graze primarily on greens, vegetables, flowers, and some fruits.
These unique needs make red-footed tortoises slightly trickier to feed as pets. Offer a mix of quality pellets, greens, veggies, edible flowers, and occasional fruits. Rotate different produce for variety. Despite juvenile tendencies, limit protein as adults.
While specifics vary, most aquatic turtles like map turtles, musk turtles, mud turtles, and softshells have similar dietary staples. As primarily carnivorous turtles, offer appropriate-sized feeder fish, ghost shrimp, earthworms, and insect larvae. Supplement with commercial aquatic turtle diets, pellets, treats, and occasional fruits/greens.
Turtle Staple Foods And Supplements
Now you know a bit more about what a pet turtle eats per their species. But beyond feeder insects and the odd produce chunk, there are a few turtle diet staples commonly used by keepers. Here’s a quick overview:
Commercial Turtle Food & Pellets
Just like cat and dog kibble, there are a variety of fortified turtle-specific formulas sold. These provide balanced nutrition and come in sinking aquatic and floating terrestrial pellets. Popular options include ZooMed’s Natural Aquatic Turtle Food and Fluker’s Aquatic Turtle Diet.
Prepared Turtle Jelly/Gel Foods
These readymade, gel-based foods are a great supplemental feed. Simply freeze into cubes and thaw to serve. They typically contain fruits, veggies, protein, and vitamins blended into a delicious turtle “jello!” Some brands are Zilla’s Jelly Food for Aquatic Turtles and Exo Terra’s Turtle Jelly.
A turtle favorite! Red leaf, green leaf, butterhead, and romaine lettuce are classic choices. Kale, swiss chard, bok choy, collard, and turnip greens are also excellent. Feed 2-3 times a week.
Favorites include carrots, yellow squash, zucchini squash, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes. Feed chopped fresh veggies 2-3 times a week.
Live Feeder Insects
Great protein boosters! Mealworms, superworms, crickets, grasshoppers, earthworms, feeder fish, and ghost shrimp are common. Use appropriate-sized feeders and gut load before feeding for added nutrition.
Treat fruits as occasional snacks, not everyday fare. Turtles love strawberries, melon, mango, grapes, banana, tomato, and more. Chop, limit to 1-2 times weekly, and remove uneaten portions daily.
Calcium + Vitamin D3 Powder
Even with a good diet, turtles need supplemental calcium and D3 for healthy bones/shells. Dust food items 1-3 times weekly or use all-in-one supplements like Rep-Cal’s Herptivite.
Change and refresh clean water daily, even for semi-aquatic turtles. A filled habitat or small turtle pool is great for soaking too. Proper water parameters are also crucial for aquatic breeds.
How Much And How Often To Feed Your Turtle
So by now, you’ve likely got a good grasp on what a pet turtle eats. But how much and how often should you feed them? Use these tips as a general guide:
- Up to 2 years old.
- Feed daily, as much as they’ll eat in a 10-15 minute period, 1-2 times per day.
- Protein sources like insects are especially important for healthy growth.
- 2+ years old
- 3-4 times a week is often enough.
- The feed amount depends on the size. An adult red-eared slider would eat pellets equal to the size of their head, for example.
- May need to feed more or less depending on temperature/metabolism.
- Only feed amount they can consume within 5 minutes to avoid dirty water.
Keep in mind that factors like a turtle’s size, age, and even the seasons can impact appetite and feeding frequency. Gauge your own turtle’s needs and adjust amounts accordingly if they become overweight or seem underweight.
Signs Of A Healthy Turtle Diet
Wondering how to tell if your turtle’s diet is on point? Healthy, well-fed turtles display the following signs:
- Active, alert, and energetic
- Smooth, evenly shaped shell and skin
- Clear, alert eyes
- Strong, even legs/limbs
- Good muscle tone/definition
- Regular bowel movements
If their shell develops pyramiding (raised scutes), it likely indicates metabolic bone disease from poor nutrition. Schedule a vet visit to address diet issues right away if you notice this or any other abnormalities.
Transitioning Turtles To A New Diet
When bringing a new turtle home or changing up their existing diet, take care to transition them slowly. Sudden large changes can cause gastrointestinal issues. Follow these tips:
- Make changes over 2-3 weeks
- Mix a little of the new food in with the old
- Gradually increase the new while decreasing the old
- Offer the new items first while still providing standbys
- Try different textures & multiple feedings to encourage interest
Avoid abrupt fasts or fluctuations when transitioning. If they refuse all foods for over 2 weeks it’s time to reassess. Some finicky turtles may need flavored foods, hand feeding, or hides to feel secure while adjusting. Get creative and try different textures, temperatures, and even movement styles to spark appetite.
Common Turtle Diet Concerns
Even with proper research into their nutritional needs, turtle keeping still brings some common diet dilemmas. Here’s how to handle a few standard issues:
It’s easy to go overboard when our pets beg! But an obese turtle is an unhealthy turtle. Feed measured amounts only the allotted frequently per their age and size.
Lack of appetite stresses keepers out! Double check husbandry like temps and enclosure size first. Try different live foods, plants, or recipes. Consider a vet visit if under-eating lasts over 2 weeks to check for underlying issues.
Choosing favorites is common, but turtles still need balanced nutrition. Avoid catering to “picky” behavior by only offering one preferred food item. Instead, provide their full, healthy diet and let hunger motivate them.
Don’t feed wild insects without vet approval, as pesticides are unsafe. Carefully wash stored produce to avoid chemicals. Don’t feed old or spoiled foods. Remove uneaten items within 24 hours to avoid bacteria or mold.
Common Turtle Treats And Snacks
Beyond daily diet staples, turtles enjoy a variety of snacks and treat too. Here are some common options:
A key protein source, turtles go nuts for live wigglers! For tiny hatchlings, try phoenix worms instead. Only feed recommended amounts.
A rare “candy bar” for carnivorous turtles! Feed pre-killed pinky mice once monthly or less. Never leave live rodents unattended in an enclosure.
Mazuri Tortoise Treats
These appropriately sized goodies are made for turtles and tortoises! Fortified with vitamins and minerals for supplemental nutrition.
ZooMed Aquatic Turtle Banquet Block
Resembling a cube-shaped jello mold, these colorful treats have frozen fruits, veggies, greens, and more suspended inside.
Mealworm Tortoise/Turtle Pops
Freeze gut-loaded mealworms inside juice, gel cubes, or broths for a cool, enrichment-based foraging activity. Get creative with molds!
Roses, hibiscus, dandelions, nasturtiums, and pansies make pretty, antioxidant-rich occasional nibbles. Only offer pesticide-free flowers.
Fruits As Snacks
Chop into chunks and feed melon, mango, berries, and other fruits 1-2 times weekly for a sweet snack turtles love. Always remove uneaten fruit.
Some Unexpected Foods Turtles Can Eat
Now that you’ve got the basics down for what a pet turtle eats, let’s explore some unexpected edible options you can offer for diversity. From fridge leftovers your turtle can share to produce from the garden, read on for inspiration:
Most fresh herbs like basil, cilantro, and dill are fair game for herbivorous turtles. Just avoid onion or garlic, which are toxic.
Homegrown Garden Goodies
Offer plant starts like wheatgrass for baby turtles to graze. Dandelion greens, pansies, and other pesticide-free plants are OK too.
Nasturtiums, pansies, hibiscus and roses provide novel snacks that are completely turtle-safe. Just double-check flower toxicity before feeding.
Vegetable Leftovers And Skins
Scrape leftover potato or squash skins and feed. Remove any seasonings first. Stale salad greens or veggie bits get a turtle thumbs up too.
Fruit Peels And Rinds
Wash thoroughly and offer leftover fruit scraps – even from citrus-like oranges. Just avoid avocado peels and remove uneaten leftovers promptly.
Hard Boiled Or Scrambled Eggs
A rare protein-packed delight! Offer tiny portions of cooked egg no more than once monthly to carnivorous species like map turtles.
Plain Cooked Rice Or Pasta
For a very occasional carb-loaded treat, offer a few cooked pasta pieces or spoonfuls of plain rice once monthly or less.
Crushed Unsalted Chips Or Crackers
Crush a few plain tortilla chips or crackers into a powder topping for variety once or twice monthly. A 1⁄4 inch squared “chip” per small turtle is plenty.
Important Do’s And Don’ts Of Turtle Diets
To wrap up your full guide to turtle dining, follow these key do’s and don’ts for menu planning:
- Research your specific turtle species’ needs
- Buy the highest quality feeder insects possible
- Gut load feeders 24 hours before feeding out
- Dust foods with calcium + D3 1-3 times weekly
- Refer to our staples/frequency guidelines per age
- Wash hands before and after handling turtle food
- Have fresh, dechlorinated water always available
- Overfeed protein or fatty foods
- Give avocado, onion, chocolate, or rhubarb – these are toxic!
- Feed exclusively one food item long-term
- Allow uneaten fresh foods to remain over 24 hours
- Feed wild-caught insects or pinkies without vet approval
- Free-feed constantly (leads to selective/poor nutrition)
- Let turtle habitats double as ant or roach farms!
Now You Know: What Does A Pet Turtle Eat?
There you have it – a head-to-tail guide on deciphering that key question: what does a pet turtle eat? Proper nutrition forms the foundation of captive turtle health and lifespan. Luckily with some research into their unique needs as omnivores/herbivores/carnivores, building a balanced menu is totally doable.
Pair these staple food items, fresh treats, and wise feeding tips with ideal lighting and heating and your shelled friend will thrive for decades to come! Just remember variety is crucial. Feed appropriate amounts according to age, access clean water 24/7, and offer an array of live, commercial, fresh, and supplemental foods and your turtle will have a palate-pleasing, nutritionally sound captive diet in no time.