Tortoise food and diet advice

One of the characteristics that sets tortoises apart from turtles is the fact they they feed almost entirely on plant matter. Yet the type of food that tortoises eat varies significantly, being influenced by the environment where they are to be found in the wild.


Your tortoise's diet in the wild

In practical terms, tortoises can be divided into two broad groups, and their diet varies accordingly:

Those that live in relatively arid areas of the world, such as the:

  • Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
  • Horsfield’s tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii)
  • African Sulcata
  • Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys [Geochelone] pardalis) and
  • Indian Star (Geochelone Elegans) tortoise.  

These feed mainly on herbage.

Then there are those that tend to be found in forested areas. These include the:

  • Red-Footed tortoise (Chelonoidis [Geochelone] carbonaria)
  • Yellow Footed tortoise and
  • Elongated tortoises (Indotestudo elongata). 

These tend to have a higher percentage of fruit in their diet.

It is worth emphasising that pet tortoises generally do not eat grass – although the African Sulcata (Geochelone sulcata) is an exception, being a true grazer.

Your tortoise's diet forms an essential part of the overall care requirements, that also include heating, lighting and UV requirements. 

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What kind of diet should you feed your tortoise?

Food suitable for your tortoise

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) 
Sowthistle (Sinchus species)
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides)
Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)
Hawkbit (Leontodon species)
Mallow (Malva species)
Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale)
Clover (Trifolium species) 
Vetch (Vicia species)
Plaintain (Plantago species) 

These foods can generally all be grown from seed. Avoid using shop-bought plants such as coleus as these may contain potentially harmful pesticides. Also remember that variety is the key to feeding tortoises. Food should also include a source of Calcium and Vitamin D3, for healthy bones.

Mediterranean Tortoises

A mixed weed-based diet is best for Mediterranean species of tortoise, but you need to be able to identify the plants, and avoid potentially harmful ones such as buttercups (Ranunculus repens).  

Mediterreanean tortoises include:

  • Spur Thighed (Testudo Graeca)
  • Hermanns tortoise (Testudo Hermanni)
  • Marginated Tortoise (Testudo Marginata) and the
  • Horsefield (Testudo Horsefieldi)

Other food advice:

You can buy a number of different vegetables for your tortoise too of course. It is always better, however, to use food that has been grown without the use of chemicals, especially as tortoises are long-lived. Find out about the worlds oldest tortoise.

Try to avoid offering just soft leaves in any case, as these will not encourage any wear on the tortoise's jaws, and could lead to its so-called 'beak' at the front of the mouth becoming overgrown.

Through the winter, several forms of cabbage can be used in moderation on occasions, but avoid lettuce, unless it is one of the red-leaf varieties, as the green forms are of little nutritional value.

Mushrooms make a useful stand-by for various species, including the Red-Footed and Hingebacks (Kinixys species) that eat this type of food in the wild.

Fresh food should always be supplied to tortoises – remove any that is uneaten at the end of the day, before it could become a health hazard.

You should also provide your tortoise with clean, fresh water. A shallow dish is best for this.

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 Photo courtesy blewulis/www.shutterstock.com 

Fruit and your tortoise

The fruit below can be fed to fruit eating tortoises: 

Melon 
Strawberries
Raspberries
Blackberries
Grapes

These should only be offered in moderation as part of a mixed diet to rainforest species such as the Red footed tortoise and Yellow footed tortoise. Any excess can easily result in diarrhoea.  

You should avoid citrus such as oranges and lemons. You should also remember that Mediterranean tortoises should not be fed fruit. 

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Unsafe food for your tortoise

Tortoises will usually avoid eating plants that could harm them when free-ranging in a garden, but it is particularly important to avoid offering them harmful plants when you are feeding them indoors.  

This list of toxic food below is by no means comprehensive.

Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus)
Azalea (Rhododendron species)
Foxglove (Digitalis species)
Avocado (Persea species)
Buttercup (Ranunculus species)
Auricula (Primula auricula)
Bean sprouts (various)
Citrus fruit (Citrus species)
Hydrangea (Hydrangea species)
Iris (Iris species)
Morning glory (Ipomoea species)
Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

You should remember that:

  • There has been very little specific research carried out into plants that could be toxic to tortoises if they eat them.
  • The general advice in this area is to avoid those that are harmful to mammals.
  • The risk of any related health issues is greatest for tortoises indoors, where they are being supplied with food.
  • In garden surroundings, they will avoid plants that are likely to be poisonous to them. Bulbs of any type, including tulips, as well as foxgloves (Digitalis) feature on this list.
  • You should also avoid giving citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons .
  • You shouldn't feed Mediterranean and Grazing species fruit.

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Your tortoise and strawberries

You should protect any strawberries growing in your garden, as they are a particular favourite of Mediterranean tortoises.

While the occasional piece of strawberry as a treat will do no harm, a tortoise is likely to suffer from diarrhoea if they eat large amounts of this fruit, with its relatively high sugar content.

Grow your own tortoise food

It is now possible to buy special seed mixes for tortoises, which you can grow easily on a windowsill at home, and simply put these containers in your pet's housing, allowing it to browse as it would normally.

Better still, these containers can be left in place, simply being taken out as required to be watered, and will allow the tortoise to browse whenever it is hungry.

With smaller individuals, do ensure that the sides of the tray are low so that your pet can gain access without difficulty, and is unlikely to topple over in the process.

Growing your own dandelions for your tortoise

A way to guarantee a constant supply of dandelions is to dig up the long root of an existing plant. Cut this into sections about 2.5cm (1in) long, and set these individually in containers; clean, empty yoghurt pots with a hole in the base are ideal.

Position the cut roots so that the upper section of each is just protruding above the surface of the soil. Water them, and then put the pots in a clear plastic bag in a light position for a week or so. Depending on the temperature, they should soon start sprouting. It will then be a matter of taking off the bag, keeping the soil moist, and waiting until the leaves are big enough to pick.

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Food quantities

“Offer small quantities twice a day”

The other thing to remember, when it comes to feeding tortoises, relates to their behaviour. They are browsing creatures, nibbling food as they wander along, rather than eating set meals.

Outdoors of course, they can easily engage in this behaviour, but when housed in the home this is not possible. Rather than offering a large plate of food therefore, aim to provide smaller quantities twice a day, so they have fresh food accessible for longer.

In the wild, tortoises are likely to have a varied diet, and one that may differ seasonally as well, so try to replicate this variety as far as possible with your pet. It is important, however, to bear in mind the nutritional breakdown of the foods that you are offering.

Disclaimer:

Should you choose to follow any advice provided in this article, you do so at your own risk. The advice should not be used as a substitute for professional advice from your vet.