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What Do Pet Turtles Eat?

By Andrew Daniels

Turtles may not be as cuddly as cats and dogs, but they make fantastic pets for other reasons: They’re fun to care for, mesmerizing to observe, and they’ve been around since prehistoric times! Best of all, they’re relatively low-maintenance—just as long as you make sure to give them the right foods and keep their habitats clean.

What a turtle can eat depends on its species, and knowing what to feed your turtle to give it a proper nutritional diet is important. Here is your comprehensive guide to feeding your pet turtle so that it stays healthy, happy, and strong for many years to come.

What Do Pet Turtles Eat?

What you feed your pet turtle will largely depend on what kind of turtle you have. If it’s omnivorous, your pet turtle will eat commercial turtle food pellets, feeder fish and insects, and fruits and vegetables. If it’s herbivorous, your pet turtle can eat only fruits and vegetables.

You likely have a red-eared slider, which is the most common pet turtle in the U.S. “These animals are omnivorous, meaning they eat both animals and plants,” says Simon Starkey, BVSc, PhD, D.ABVP(Avian), Education Veterinarian and Technical Services Manager for PetSmart. Like red-eared sliders, most water or aquatic turtles eat an omnivorous diet. Follow the guidelines below and your turtle will be in great shape.

- Commercial pelleted food: It’s best to buy food made just for turtles, as this food will float and typically not fall apart as easily as pelleted food designed for other reptiles, Dr. Starkey says. Pellets should make up 25 percent of your turtle’s diet.

- Feeder fish and/or insects: Feeders like comet goldfish provide a great source of protein, as do correctly balanced minerals like calcium and phosphorous, and good levels of certain vitamins, like vitamin A. “As with pellets, these should make up 25 percent of a turtle’s diet,” says Dr. Starkey.

- Fruits and vegetables: Fill up the remainder of your turtle’s daily diet with fresh produce. The best veggies are chopped dark leafy greens such as kale, collard, and mustard greens, Dr. Starkey says. Shredded carrots, squash, and zucchini are great foods that turtles can eat, too. You can also go with edible aquatic vegetation such as water lettuce, water hyacinth, and duckweed. “For fruits, consider shredded apples and melons, as well as chopped berries,” recommends Dr. Starkey. “Supplement fruits and vegetables with reptile calcium and vitamin powders.”

If you have a land turtle, or tortoise, for a pet, they eat a strict herbivore diet. This means that their food should consist of only fruits and vegetables, usually a dietary mix of 20% and 80% respectively.

What Do Baby Turtles Eat?

What turtles can eat largely depends on their age and nutritional requirements. Keep in mind that younger sliders will eat relatively more protein than older animals, says Dr. Starkey. Baby turtles need to eat higher amounts of pellets and/or fedder fish relative to fruits and veggies. 

Where Can I Buy These Foods?

Turtle pellets can be purchased at most large pet stores as well as many online stories, says Dr. Starkey. Feeder fish and crickets should be available for purchase at pet stores too, while fruits and vegetables can be bought at your local grocery store.

Are There Any Specific Brands I Should Buy?

Any brand that is carried by a reputable specialty pet store—and is designed for turtles—will provide the right nutrients, Dr. Starkey says. “Brand is a little less important, because no single food should be the staple diet for aquatic turtles.”

What nutrients are really essential to my turtle’s health?

All animals need protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals, says Dr. Starkey. Calcium is an especially crucial part of your turtle’s diet due to the extra needs in its shell, which is mostly bone. “That’s why it’s important to supplement with calcium and mineral powders,” he says. 

Do turtles eat fish?

In the wild, turtles eat a variety of things including worms, small insects, snails, and fish. Wild turtles are mainly carnivorous when they are young because their bodies require protein in order to grow. Plus, growing turtles need the vitamins and nutrients that can be found in feeder fish livers. As turtles age their diets change and they begin to eat plants and other vegetation. Most pet turtles are omnivorous, meaning they enjoy both plants and meat, so treating your pet turtle to a small fish snack every now and then is a good idea. Pet turtles, depending on their size and age, enjoy small fish like minnows and gold fish. Knowing the age of your pet turtle will help you decide whether or not to feed it fish, as well as how often.

What should I look for on the nutrition labels of pelleted foods?

Look for protein levels between 40-45%, and fat between 6-8%, advises Dr. Starkey. “Semi-moist foods will have a lower percentage of protein and fat due to the higher moisture content of the food,” he says. You should also look for fishmeal to be one of the top three ingredients listed on the label, and for added vitamins and minerals to be called out in the ingredient list, says Dr. Starkey. Sill unsure what to choose? Consult a veterinarian.

What Do Wild Turtles Eat?

Nope. But maintaining a clean habitat with healthy water is very important, says Dr. Starkey. “Feed your turtles in a separate habitat—possibly a water-filled plastic container or secondary aquarium—as many turtles will defecate while eating, and the food itself can affect water quality.”

How frequently can I expect to buy turtle food?

That varies with the size of your turtle, but generally a portion of pelleted food may last 4 to 6 weeks, depending on supplemental feeding and pet size, says Dr. Starkey.

How often do turtles eat?

If your turtle is still juvenile, feed it every day, advises Dr. Starkey. Once it reaches adulthood (around 7 years old), you can feed it every other day—or about 4 to 5 times a week. Stick with around 1 cup of food per day, then increase or decrease that amount depending on how your turtle responds.

Can my turtle eat human food?

Besides fruits and vegetables, you could offer sparing amounts of meat to your turtle, says Dr. Starkey—but there really isn’t any point. “These will not be balanced because they lack the nutrients found in organs like the liver of feeder fish,” he says.

Additionally, your turtle should not be fed dog or cat food. The protein content is far too high, and will cause long term harm.

Image: Bruno Ismael Silva Alves / via Shutterstock

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