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The right diet is essential for your tortoise. All tortoises need the correct balance of food, water, vitamins and minerals comined with the correct lighting, to thrive in the cool temperate environment of the UK.
This page explores the do's and don'ts of feeding your tortoises and explains all of the basic elements of managing your tortoises diet.
Along with correct hibernation and accommodation, the right diet is essential for your tortoise. Whilst interacting with your tortoises is one of the reasons for keeping them, and feeding is a good opportunity to get to know your tortoise better, overfeeding or incorrectly feeding your tortoise will ultimately only cause problems. Unfortunately, a desire to make things more interesting for your tortoise and to interact with it is also a reason why many inexperienced tortoise owners overfeed or incorrectly feed their tortoise. Giving your tortoise a 'treat' which would not form a part of the tortoise's natural diet is not a kindness, and if repeated frequently can lead to over rapid growth, illness, deformity and even death. Tortoises have strict dietary requirements and these need to be adhered to if your tortoise is to thrive, and to potentially outlive its owner! This page outlines the correct diet for a Mediterranean tortoise, and also addresses the needs of grassland and arid tropical species of tortoise.
A tortoise needs a good balance of food and water, calcium, vitamins and UVb light. Without each of these elements in the diet your tortoise will be unable to grow correctly and to produce healthy bone, shell and tissue. In the wild, tortoises choose their own food, or it is dictated by the surroundings into which they were born and they get their UVb light from the large amounts of sunshine available in their natural habitat. In the UK, the food offered to tortoises cannot be guaranteed to contain enough calcium and vitamins, or the correct ratios of vitamins and minerals and so supplementation of your tortoises diet is essential. Also, in the UK sunlight is in rather shorter supply than in the Mediterranean or the tropics and so artificial UVb light must be provided in order for your tortoise to be able to make vitamin D3 which is essential for your tortoise to be able to absorb the calcium in its diet. You can feed your tortoise as much calcium and on as good a diet as you like, but without enough sunlight or artificial UVb light, your tortoise will fail to thrive.
So what makes up a good diet for a Mediterranean tortoise? The key to the diet of Mediterranean tortoises is 'Low protein, low carbohydrate, high fibre, high calcium'. If you follow this rule your tortoise will thrive. There is still a lot of conflicting and bad advice given out about tortoise diets, often by people more interested in a sale than in the welfare of the tortoise. Each element necessary to a tortoises diet will be addressed below in order to clarify what is meant by a 'Low protein, low carbohydrate, high fibre, high calcium' diet.
Low protein dictates that these species of tortoise should not ever be fed meat, cat/dog food or 'tortoise chow' in any form. This also suggests that items such as legumes (peas and beans) which are high in vegetable proteins should not be fed at all or should be fed extremely rarely. Other shop bought greens such as lettuce and cabbage etc. either have no nutritional value, or have a low ratio of calcium to phosphorous. Feeding these items is detrimental to your tortoise and results in over rapid growth, deformity, and death.
Low carbohydrate means that your tortoise should not be fed fruit or vegetables on a regular basis if at all. Fruit and vegetables can upset the balance of a tortoises natural gut flora causing illness and diarrhoea and do not make up a significant part of a wild Mediterranean or grassland tortoises diet. These items should be fed in extreme moderation as a treat, or ideally not at all.
High fibre means broad leaved weeds and flowers, and in the case of tropical grassland species, grasses. This is the natural diet of these species, and is what they are designed to eat. High calcium, is a three pronged requirement. Firstly, you should add calcium to your tortoises diet regularly, to ensure adequate supply. Secondly, you should avoid foods with a high phosphorous to calcium ratio as this reduces your tortoises ability to absorb and use the calcium even if it is available. Thirdly, your tortoise must be given adequate UVb light (either sunshine or artificial lamps), to enable it to absorb and use the calcium in its diet.
In the wild most tropical tortoises cover large areas in search of their primary food: weeds and grasses. They are nomadic grazers by habit and in the wild select their own food items, which fulfil all of the above requirements. It is essential not to offer your tortoise the wrong food or too much food, as even on the correct diet, your tortoise can be overfed, especially in young or sick tortoises which are not hibernated over winter. we find that a good regime is to feed your tortoise as much as it will eat in one sitting (an hour) four days a week. Any food left after the hour, should be cleared away. You could quite easily feed everyday with a smaller amount. Some people recommend feeding enough weeds to just cover your tortoises shell every day. It is up to you to find a regime which suits you and your tortoise.
Tropical tortoises should be fed a diet which consists of grass or grass hays supplemented with broadleaved non-toxic weeds and plants either harvested from a safe place (i.e. the garden or somewhere away from busy roadsides and where pesticides are not used) or grown specifically for the purpose. Mediterranean species of tortoise should be fed primarily on the weeds without, or with much reduced proportions, of the grass and grass hay. The flowers of many of these plants are as popular (or more so) as the leaves. Typical plants which should make up the bulk of a tortoise diet include dandelions, clover and plantains. Many species of tortoises will enjoy grazing on a dry lawn (once the dew has evaporated), especially if the lawn contains a good selection of weeds! Timothy grass and other sharp spiky grasses should be avoided. A more comprehensive list of edible plants is found on our edible plants page. All food offered to your tortoise should be lightly dusted with calcium powder and twice a week a good vitamin supplement (designed for reptiles) should be offered.
It is a common myth that tortoises do not drink, and obtain all of their water from their food. This is incorrect, and given the opportunity, all tortoises will relish the chance to drink. We believe that water should be on offer to your tortoises all (or at least most) of the time to avoid the risk of dehydration, in an artificially created environment. Additionally, your tortoise will use bathtime to have a drink if offered a bath a couple of times a week.