3 Seasonal Feeding Strategies for Your Turtle: Adjusting Diet Through the Year

Two red-eared turtles eat fish

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Seasonal changes affect every aspect of a turtle’s life. And, if you have a pond or lake full of turtles, you must understand the change in diet requirements. That’s the only way to help them cope with the environment, just like any other wild turtle does.

Winter has the most significant impact on a turtle’s diet change. Certain turtle species stop eating altogether in winter. On the other hand, turtles are seen digging mud for insects during the rainy season.

A turtle keeper only wishes to make his pet feel happy and at home. That’s impossible if you take every element of its natural habitat away from it. The least you can do is make some changes in its diet to get exactly what it needs in a particular season.

Key Takeaways

  • Turtles start brumation or hibernation during winter.
  • Map or box turtles are the most consistent when it comes to brumation.
  • You need to ensure your turtle has enough vitamin A before entering winter.
  • On rainy days, wild turtles bury themselves in mud and survive by eating earthworms and snails.

Why Does A Turtle Need A Different Diet For Every Season?

To adapt to the change in temperature and the threats it brings, turtles and every other animal manipulate their diet. If they don’t, then they won’t survive. Unlike humans, they can’t control the temperature in their nests.

Only those few turtles living in our homes enjoy the same privilege as we do. They feel less threatened and might be okay with the same meal throughout the year. But not all of them. If you end up with a fussy turtle, there’s a high chance their cravings will change according to the season.

I know you have been told by the seller/breeder that feeding commercial pellets is more than enough. But is that what turtles eat in the wild as well? You need to ask yourself these questions.

Here are 2 reasons why you definitely need to adjust a turtle’s diet to different seasons.

1. Not Every Pet Turtle Lives Inside A Tank

Pet turtles require quite spacious aquariums. An adult-size turtle can require a 120-gallon tank. I understand that it feels inefficient to keep upgrading the tank so many times after one point.

And the struggle is real if you are a true turtle lover and want to adopt a group of turtles. Many turtle keepers now choose to invest in a turtle pond if they have some space in the backyard. I support it mainly for 1 reason.

The set-up of a pond is very similar to the natural habitats of semi-aquatic turtles. Plus, a pond is way more entertaining, with lots of space to create their turtle society.

Needless to say, it is difficult to control the temperature of a backyard pond. Even if you install a heater, the water temperature will be low if it’s freezing cold outside.

That’s why your pet turtles can adapt their wild eating habits to cope with the changes in seasons. Hence, you have to comply with that as well and give them what their bodies actually need.

For example, turtles living in ponds might choose to brumate if the weather turns harsh. That’s unlikely for pet turtles living in a well-heated indoor tank. You see, both turtles will look for different types of nourishment because of the difference in habitat.

2. Rescued Turtles Are Difficult To Tame

Most people look for hatchlings when they think about adopting turtles. I appreciate that. But some of those turtles come into the shelter as adults. They have lived a decent amount of time in the wild. So, it is tough to domesticate them, if I can be honest.

They will expect the food they used to have in the wild throughout the seasons. And, if you try to force them only to eat commercial pellets, there’s a risk of them stopping eating altogether.

That’s why, as a rescued turtle owner, you must adjust your meal plan considering the season.

Turtles, like any other reptile, are not meant for captivity. The best thing you can do for your exotic friend is follow their natural routine.

What To Give Your Turtle According To Seasons

From January to December, we can divide the year into three major seasonal changes. It’s summer, rain & winter. The transition from summer to autumn is quite subtle.

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Plus, there’s no significant change in the food turtles pick for themselves during these times.

So, let’s go with the most severe changes in both the seasons & eating habits.

Sunny Summer (June To July)

The summer period starts before June. Turtles love summer. They thrive after a long and dark winter. Their priority is basking under the bright sun as much as possible.

They soak in the UV rays and synthesize vitamin D3 to make up for the loss during winter. But here’s the interesting part. All the sun-bath, heat, and vitamins trigger their metabolism.

So, their bodies signal them to find lots of protein. So, it’s important to plan their meals accordingly.

A sea turtle normally loves eating crabs, lobster, shrimp, urchins, jellies, algae, and guppies. These are good sources of healthy fat and protein.

Fish is a good source of vitamin A for them. It helps them rejuvenate their skin after staying in hibernation for months.

If we are talking about an adult sea turtle, you might not see it devour fish in summer. They love a vegetarian diet with a little bit of meat now & then. So, their main go-to food items are sea cucumbers, soft corals, mollusks, glass shrimps, small fish, and seaweed.

Full-Day Summer Diet For Your Pet Turtle

Ensure enough protein if you want your pet turtle’s summer diet to be nourished. If it’s a sea turtle, try to provide seaweed for fiber, soft corals for calcium, and crabs/shrimp for protein. The younger the turtle, the more protein-dependent they are.

Please don’t forget that.

If you have a freshwater turtle in your home, here’s an example of full-day meal.

As you can see, adult turtles need only 1 meal per day. And they don’t have the metabolism to digest animal protein.

So, if you give them a worm treat, le them fats the following day. It will give their stomach enough time to digest the protein.

Turtle’s AgeMeal-1Meal-2Meal-3
NewbornTurtle Pellets (non-negotiable), Feeder fish, duckweed.Turtle Pellets (non-negotiable), fish eggs.Turtle Pellets (non-negotiable), strawberry, kale, lettuce.
Juvenile Turtle PelletsPellets/ feeder fish, shrimp, leafy veggies.X
AdultKale, parsley, swiss chards, lettuce, carrots, squash (any of them). XX

The pellets you give a newborn turtle should be specially manufactured for that age group. Turtle pellets have different categories. Be careful not to give adult pellets to a baby turtle. Also, please remember not to force your turtle to start eating right away after hibernation.

Give them at least 3-4 days of time to adjust to the new temperature.

Cloudy Or Rainy Days (Mid-July To Late August)

During heavy rainstorms, turtles usually like to dig a hole in the mud. They hide their body under the shell. They don’t come out till it stops raining.

For food, they depend on the insects or earthworms they find in those muddy holes.

That’s the main source of protein. And, for adult turtles, it’s more than enough for 2-3 days.

Full-Day Monsoon Diet For Your Pet Turtle

Monsoon invites various types of worms/insects to come out of the soil. It can be a good source of protein for your turtle. If your turtle lives in your outdoor yard, you will find them looking for insects this season.

I don’t suggest you collect those worms yourself. This will be highly unhygienic. Just let your turtle explore the muddy areas.

And, if you have to prepare something, order some organic (unprocessed) freeze-dried food from a reliable seller.

Here’s what you can give them.

Turtle’s AgeMeal-1Meal-2Meal-3
NewbornTurtle Pellets (non-negotiable), Mosquito larvae/ants.Turtle Pellets (non-negotiable), bloodworms.Turtle Pellets (non-negotiable), strawberry, kale, lettuce.
Juvenile Turtle PelletsPellets+Baby snail/crickets/ ladybugs/pill bugs.X
AdultInsects-  bloodworms/ earthworms/ mealworms/ crickets.

XX

As usual, newborn turtles must be given pellets. Even though you raise your turtle outdoors, pellets will ensure they don’t lack any nutrition in their bodies growing up. You can give them organic live food when they leave the newborn stage.

Harsh Winter (December To February)

Winter is really harsh for turtles. They are neither fast nor do they have excellent hunting capacity. That’s why, when the food is scarce during winter, they choose to initiate brumation.

You will see the most significant change in eating habits during winter. In fact, the internet is filled with questions, “Why doesn’t my turtle eat in winter?” even though you keep your turtle in a safe and well-heated tank, they might still follow the less-eating strategy during this time.

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So, there’s nothing to worry.

But does it mean you stop giving your turtle any food? Well, I didn’t say that.

Let’s divide the winter’s feeding strategies into 2 categories to answer it clearly. Follow the first one if your turtle brumates and the second one if it doesn’t.

Pet Turtle Diet Feeding Chart infographic

Feeding Strategies For A Brumating Turtle

Turtles don’t necessarily hibernate. Even though hibernation & brumation indicate similar things, the former is quite extreme. We see snakes hibernating during winter. But turtles hardly go that extreme with this ritual.

You might see them getting outwardly lazy. They will hide behind rocks or logs for months. They might drink water from time to time. But you won’t see them urinating. The water is fully absorbed into their body for hydration.

During brumation, the turtles reduce their oxygen and food intake to slow down their metabolism. It allows the body to store energy and fat for a long time. Let’s look at how the feeding strategies differ in different stages of brumation.

Stage 1: Preparing Body To Brumate

Turtles suddenly don’t go in brumation. It’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit one day, and your fully active turtle becomes lethargic. That never happens.

Turtles actually start preparing for their brumation at least 1-2 months before. And, as their sole caretaker, it’s your duty to ensure a supply of food that will strengthen them for the upcoming month-long fast.

Here’s what you can do at this stage.

Strategy 1: Provide Food Enriched With Vitamin-A

Since we are now in the pre-brumation stage, the temperature is still not low enough. Expect this stage to start in September or October.

If the turtle brumates for only 2 months (January & February), you can start the prep from mid-November.

However, some species stay in brumation for 4 months (Nov to Feb). In such a case, you have to start prepping early. September would be okay to initiate a diet change.

The first change in diet would be to make it more rich in vitamin A. If your turtle only eats veggies, offer broccoli, mustard, dandelions, alfalfa, carrots, squash, sweet potato, etc.

Simply look for any orange or red veggie for your pet to munch on. Fruits are also a good option. Orange, cantaloupe, or peaches are enriched in vitamin A.

And if your turtle likes a little protein sometimes, make sure you are giving it feeder fish, guppies, baby mice, or any small fish. This is the best way to ensure your turtle has a large stock of vitamin A in its body.

This particular vitamin comes in really handy while the turtle is hibernating. Vitamin A protects & nourishes their skin in the harsh winter.

A turtle waiting to eat a scrimp at the edge of a pond
Strategy 2: High Fiber Food For Smooth Digestion

The next strategy is to include high-fiber food in the meals. You should start implementing this strategy from late September to mid-October.

The purpose is to speed up the digestion process. Otherwise, the vitamin-A-rich food you have given to the pet can get stuck inside the stomach. It’s well known that turtles have an extremely slow metabolism. They take a long time to break down complex & protein-rich food.

And the last thing you want is to have your turtle brumate with undigested food in its intestine.

As soon as the turtle enters brumation, the metabolic rate lowers to a minimum level. No food waste can get digested at this rate.

Hence, the half-digested food will rot inside the intestine, causing severe stomach ache. Unfortunately, many turtles die during brumation for these reasons.

That’s why our next strategy would be to add enough fiber to its diet. Leafy veggies like romaine lettuce & kale are usually any turtle’s favorite treats.

So, it’s a win-win.

Since the brumate period is close, the turtle will habitually reduce its food intake. So, nothing to worry about. Just make sure not to feed any animal-based protein after October.

The turtle doesn’t have enough metabolism capacity at this stage. Keep the food as light as possible.

Strategy 3: Let The Turtle Fast

There’s a high chance your turtle will have an aversion to eating from late October. But if it doesn’t happen naturally, you have to help the turtle. For that, implement a third strategy: let the turtle fast.

What do you have to do about that? Fight the urge to offer food at the regular feeding time. It’s very important to let the turtle get used to not having food.

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You may have to continue the no-food strategy for 2-3 weeks (basically till it starts brumating.)

Don’t worry, though. The turtle is not in any pain. You just have to follow a guide to imitate the pre-brumate temperature in nature. The ability to fast for so long also depends on the environment’s temperature.

Here’s a brief guide. Keep the temperature within 72 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit during September. Reduce it to 65 degrees Fahrenheit in early October. Then, gradually reduce it up to 50 degrees. Don’t jump from 70 degrees to 50 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. It will do more harm than good.

box turtle eating
Owner: April Kelley McGallion
Strategy 4: Keep The Turtle Hydrated

The final feeding strategy for pre-brumation is to let the turtle drink enough water. During the months-long fasting, your turtle will only drink water and nothing else. That’s why it is wise to let them practice beforehand.

Since the turtle won’t be moving at all or much during brumation, you have to soak it in chin-deep water. Not for very long, though.

Just 20-30 minutes every day is more than enough. The water that enters the turtle’s body within this time gets absorbed fully.

That’s why even though the turtle drinks, you will not see it urinating.

If you see it urinating, please contact your vet ASAP.

Stage 2: Brumation Period

Finally, the much anticipated month of actual brumation (December) has arrived. There’s no rule as to when exactly the turtle will finally close its body. The process remains more natural if you let the turtle brumate outdoors (must be safe). But I understand if it is not possible for various reasons.

You can let the turtle brumate indoors as well. You can use a refrigerator (not where you put food) to better control the 1 C to 10 C temperature.

However, our main concern is food. So, the ideal meal plan during winter brumation is absolutely no food. Even if you offer, the turtle won’t accept.

However, if you still give food, there’s a chance the food will invite unnecessary microbes into the place.

Since your turtle is not in a position to do anything, it’s better to stop offering any kind of food.

The only thing they will need is hydration. Soak them in water just like I described earlier. And wait for your turtle to end the fast on its own.

A turtle waiting to eat a scrimp at the edge of a pond
Stage-3: Post-Brumation

Most turtles come out of hibernation within 2 months. But don’t force it. Some species take as long as 4 months. As long as you don’t see any sign of illness, let it take time.

The post-brumation feeding routine can be a bit tricky. I suggest you consult with a vet before giving any food to your turtle.

It’s obvious that the turtle won’t be able to handle heavy & complex food like fish, cooked meat, crab, lobster, etc.

Many turtle keepers make the mistake of forcing such food down the turtle’s mouth. They assume the turtle must be very weak due to starving for so long.

But when the turtle wakes up, its body automatically releases a stream of glucose. It helps the turtle find its strength. So, they are not as weak as you think they are. Introduce light food and veggies first.

Make sure not to offer raw human food like chicken breasts, beef, mutton, etc. Return to their original meal plan once you see them eating happily.

I know you want to feed them more. But stuffing too much food in your turtle’s mouth can actually interrupt their digestive mechanism.

box turtle eating flower
Owner: April Kelley McGallion

Feeding Strategies For A Non-Brumating Turtle

Okay, so you know everything about a brumating turtle. But what if your turtle doesn’t initiate the brumation process? Should you still starve it? Absolutely not.

You should follow strategies 1, 2 & 3 as described above.

But, if you don’t see the turtle slowing down its movement, oxygen intake, and appetite, your turtle is not feeling the need to hibernate.

Some turtle species only brumate when there are direct threats out in the wild. Otherwise, they need at least a little food throughout the year.

The feeding strategy in such cases would be to offer simple and easy-to-digest food. Due to the low temperature outside, your turtles’s metabolism will slow down even if they don’t hibernate.

So, having a protein-rich heavy meal will only be difficult to break down.

It’s better to offer commercial pellets to juvenile pellets. Any live food like feeder fish, shrimps, and grasshoppers should be given once a month only.

Before You Go!

Some turtles never wake up from brumation. They die because of illness. And, the sad thing is you had no idea your beloved pet was suffering.

Here’s a list of common health issues turtles usually suffer from and how to prevent them.

Hopefully, it will make you feel more educated and confident as a new turtle keeper.

Article link: Common health issues of pet turtles & how to prevent them.

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.

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