The turtle feeding regimen varies considerably by species, locale, and season in the wild. It’s even dependent on gender.
In nature, few turtles are exclusively herbivorous or carnivorous, owing to the fact that even grazing herbivores ingest small invertebrates from time to time.
Even such well-known “carnivores” as common snappers consume some greens in the wild. Some tortoises come close to complete herbivory.
Before constructing a captive diet plan for your turtle, you must first determine what its natural food is.
What Can Aquatic Turtles Eat?
The diet of turtles varies depending on species, location, and season. Some turtles eat different things based on their gender. Some map turtles, for example, consume more mollusks than other turtle varieties.
Other elements that impact a turtle’s diet include the amount of vegetation in the area and the number of invertebrates present.
In addition, turtles that live in temperate locations may hibernate for a few months. This is a time when they don’t eat and they rest. When they wake up, the water will be cool and there won’t be as much food or vegetation.
In general, wild turtles get more sun exposure than turtles that live in captivity. This means that they can make more Vitamin D3.
There are also other things to consider when it comes to food. For example, the amount of different nutrients in the food (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals) and how rough/fibrous the food is.
The principles behind turtle nutrition lead to the following questions: What, how much, and how often should I feed my pet turtles?
How much and how often to feed a turtle is a separate article in its own right. We don’t know everything about their habitat and behavior, so it’s hard to say for sure what is the best way to feed them.
There are also anecdotal reports that can’t be proven with scientific research because it’s too difficult to track the habits of lots of turtles over a long period of time. Another thing to consider is how active the turtles are.
There is debate about what to feed turtles. In the wild, turtles consume a variety of foods. We have a study that reveals what they eat in the wild based on published research listing stomach contents in several species of turtles.
There are many different types of food that you can feed your turtle with and for this article, we are going to break them down into two categories: processed foods and natural foods.
- Processed foods are things like commercially frozen food or canned food.
- Natural foods are things that you might find at a grocery store, like raw meat or plants.
The goal of this article is to inform the general public about common freshwater/semi-freshwater native to the US, turtle species’ food preferences, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each option.
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1. Commercial Processed Foods
People will mostly say that turtle food manufacturers have studied turtle nutritional requirements to a degree that no single owner can accomplish without manufacturing processes.
People have no understanding of how research on turtles was conducted or what data was utilized in the study of creating turtle foods. Many people believe that rapid growth is a positive thing, but many specialists think it can lead to health issues such as shell pyramiding, kidney failure, and shortened life span.
Some experts say that you should only feed high-protein foods to a baby every other day after the first year of life, but Reptomin says that you can feed the baby 2 to 3 times a day, but it’s not clear how much each feeding should be.
A lot of these known brands have been around for a long time, so they have the market cornered. They use low-quality ingredients and fillers in their products. The only benefit to these products is that they are easy to find and purchase.
But that is not to say that there aren’t any quality commercial turtle food products on the market.
A good example of this is Mazuri Freshwater Turtle Foods. Mazuri Freshwater Turtle Food has more instructions that people can trust. You can also see a nutrition breakdown on their web page too.
Mazuri products are being used by Zoos and they do constant testing of products and foods they bring in to feed, so I’d say that they are running along the top lines.
People may also ask what kind of turtle the commercial turtle food is meant for. Is it for a red-eared slider or an alligator snapper?
Some people think that a carnivore diet is more likely to harm a herbivore than an omnivore diet is to harm a carnivore but when it comes to commercial turtle foods we are more concerned about the turtle food’s excessive protein levels.
Market turtle food items are so nutritionally complete and so widely available, that these become the dietary staple for most pet turtles.
Commercial foods try to put a lot of good things in them so turtles won’t need to eat other things.
People who own turtles usually have a hard time keeping them from eating too much. This is because turtles are very voracious eaters. However, people are concerned about overfeeding the turtles, so they usually stick to feeding them high nutrient concentration foods.
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2. Processed Natural Foods
Examples of processed natural foods include freeze-dried foods such as Zoo Med Laboratories’ “Can O Crickets” and can be bought at most pet stores. They are stored in closed containers and can last for long periods of time without refrigeration.
Freeze-drying foods are believed to kill parasites and in effect disinfect the food. It also removes the water by freezing thus making the food keep its original shape.
Since most minerals and some vitamins are water-soluble this technique avoids vitamin washouts.
Many of these freeze-dried foods like tetras freeze-dried shrimp turtle food are mostly intended to be treats and not dietary staples for turtles.
This means that they may provide some protein, carbohydrates, and fat but they are not likely to provide all the nutrients a turtle needs.
The downside when adding freeze-dried food to a turtle’s diet is that it can make a lot more mess than your regular turtle food in the enclosure.
RELATED READ: Do Turtles Eat Rocks?
3. Frozen Foods
Examples of frozen foods include blood worms, brine shrimp, krill, squid, mosquito larvae, and beef heart.
Freezing supposedly disinfects the food but for how long and cold no one really knows for sure. Many believe it gives rich live prey taste and nutritious variety without the parasite and disease-causing germs that can be found generally in live foods.
It’s not as nutrient-dense as the commercials foods but the turtles get more satiated with these types of foods.
- Mosquito larvae
- Goldfish Food
- Mysis shrimp
- Brine shrimp
- Spirulina-enriched brine shrimp
- Beef Heat
- Emerald Entrée
- Omega-3 Fatty Acid-enriched brine shrimp
RELATED READ: How to Keep Turtle Tank Clean?
5. Live Foods
Examples of live foods are usually commercially sold like guppie, rosie, comet, ghost shrimp, cricket, mealworms, wax worms, pinkie, mice, earthworm and wild-caught live foods can include crawdads, perch, slugs, grasshoppers, crickets, etc.
These can be bought conveniently and it’s fairly cheap with high enough moisture content to give satiety and a bit of thrill of the hunt. These types of foods are mostly given to mimic the natural diet of a turtle and come gut loaded with a variety of things that are part of a turtle’s natural diet.
The good part is that most of the feeder fish will actually clean the tank for you so that’s a thing to keep in mind when serving live foods to your turtle.
A concern that comes with live food is that they may carry parasites, which types of live foods are unknown but turtle tapeworms still have to come from some indirect host.
- Live tubifex worms
- Terrestrial slugs
- Ghost shrimp
- Pinkie mice
- Wild-caught fish
- California blackworms
- Aquatic snails
- Water bugs
6. Raw & Processed Meats
Many reasons exist why these are the worst choice for anything other than a rare treat.
If you give a turtle too much meat to eat at once, it will chew on the meat and release juices into the water. This makes the water dirty and can cause problems for the turtle. To avoid this, chop the meat into small pieces before giving it to the turtle.
RELATED READ: What can Turtles Eat from Human Food?
Plants present several difficulties as a primary food source.
Adult red-eared sliders and cooters are primarily vegetarian, yet most hobbyists will use products like Reptomin and other “meat” types to ensure adequate nutrition.
However, almost all turtles (even snappers) should at least occasionally be fed vegetation, and for the naturally vegetarian or mostly vegetarian types of turtles, it should account for a significant portion of the diet.
Some issues that come with feeding plants are:
- Poisonous plants – Be careful of poisonous plants
- Oxalic Acid – Avoid or seriously limit plants that bind calcium via Oxalic Acid: Spinach, Broccoli, Carrots, Parsley, Rhubarb
- Nutritional Value – It’s said iceberg lettuce has very little nutritional value, whereas Romaine lettuce has Vitamin A.
- Fruits – Has high citric acid can in theory change gut pH, leading to changes in intestinal flora
- Presence of pesticides/herbicides
- Water Lettuce
- Water starwort
- Water Fern
- Water Lilies
- Water Hyacinth
- Beet Leaves
- Collard Greens
- Mustard Greens
- Red Leaf Lettuce
RELATED READ: The Best Live Plants for Turtle Tanks
A turtle’s diet should have a calcium to phosphorous ratio of at least 2:1. This is important because if there is not enough calcium or if the ratios are not correct, the reptile can get sick. Unfortunately, many foods do not have good ratios (like feeder crickets).
Calcium is important for turtles throughout their lives. Turtles that don’t have enough calcium may not be able to harden their shells, and this can make them vulnerable to predators. Turtles get most of the calcium they need from their food, but you may also need to give them supplements if they don’t get enough.
It is generally thought your turtle will not overdose on calcium and without any vitamin D3, the turtle’s body cannot utilize calcium effectively.
What about nutritional supplements? We break them down into four categories:
|Multivitamin Supplements:||These products typically contain vitamins A, D3, and various B vitamins along with minerals like calcium and magnesium. They are designed to provide your turtle with a “boost” of nutrients that may be lacking in their diet.|
|Calcium Supplements:||These products are made from calcium carbonate or oyster shells and often contain vitamin D3. They are intended to help prevent soft-shelled turtles and those with shell pyramiding.|
|Vitamin D3 Supplements:||As the name suggests, these supplements contain only vitamin D3. They are designed to help turtles that may not be getting enough sunlight or those that do not eat foods containing vitamin D3.|
|Cuttlebone:||Cuttlebone is a natural source of calcium and other minerals. It can be given to your turtle as a nutritional supplement or used as a calcium-rich substrate for them to bask on.|
There are a variety of supplements available for turtles, but not all of them are necessary.
How Much Food Does A Turtle Need?
Let’s look at some turtle experts’ recommendations on how much to feed a turtle on a single meal:
- All they can eat in 10 or 15 minutes.
- All that they can eat.
- What would fit in the head of a turtle as if it were hollow.
- Feed the turtle until partial satiation and where there’s a noticeable drop-off in appetite.
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Turtle Feeding Recommendations
- Leafy greens should be given daily.
- For omnivores/herbivores (Painted, Red-eared slider, Cooters) feed meat-based foods daily for 6 months and then every other day.
- For carnivores (Mud, Musk, Softshell), feed meat-based foods daily for 6 months and then 3 times weekly just enough to not get satiety
- Feed turtles with meat-based meals To the point of diminished appetite, however, do not feed them to the point of total stuffing.
- A low-value, little snack (such as a tiny snail) on an off day is permissible, especially for carnivores.
- If you can easily afford frozen fish food, consider using it as a supplement to part of your turtle’s meat-based diet.
- Make at least a quarter of the meat-based portion of your reptile’s diet Mazuri, ReptoMin, or another high-quality commercial turtle food.
- Feeding snails or fish that were caught in the wild without freezing them for at least 1 month is not advisable.
- For calcium supplementation, throw broken-up cuttlebone into the tank at least three times a week without the backing (they can choke on it).
- Use a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement and a multivitamin once or twice a week.
- Remind yourself that you must not give in to continual begging! Whether you feed them or not, they will beg; it’s a conditioned response.
RELATED READ: How to Care For a Red-Eared Slider Turtle
It’s important to provide your water turtle with a varied diet.
This will help ensure they have all the nutrients and vitamins that their body needs for growth, even if you can’t find some of their regular food in stores.
With variety, it should be easy to maintain an appropriate balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals as well!