10 Nutrition Secrets For Healthy Turtles: What To Feed & What To Avoid!


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

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Are you one of those who think turtles can live on iceberg lettuce for 100 years? Whether your pet turtle will have a maximum lifespan or not depends on how you feed it. Yes, there are actual nutrition secrets that will help you grow a strong turtle.

Newborn and juvenile turtles need more protein than adult turtles. Once turtles become adults, they prefer eating plants instead of meat. Giving too much protein to an adult turtle can lead to a condition called pyramiding, where the shell grows unevenly.

Every pet in the world needs different dietary plans that suit their age. A turtle is no different. It’s just people’s misconception that turtles are slow and don’t need much food. I hope by the time you finish this article, you will know exactly what your pet turtle’s regular meal is missing.

Key Takeaways

  • Adult turtles don’t need more than one meal per day.
  • A hatchling has the highest protein requirement in a turtle’s life cycle.
  • Juveniles can eat both meat and plants. But the meat portion has to be bigger.
  • Adult turtles require less protein and more plant-based fiber in their meal.
  • Adding supplements like calcium dust and vitamin A into the meal is okay.

Which Nutrients Do Turtles Need Regularly?

There’s no fixed rule to create a nutritious diet. It varies depending on the turtle’s age and taste preference. However, here are some important nutrients the ideal turtle meal must contain.

Have a look.

NutrientImportance for TurtlesBest SourcesSpecial Notes
CalciumEssential for shell health, composed of minerals.Cuttlefish bones, calcium powder.Excessive calcium can lead to metabolic bone disease (MBD), causing shell malformation. Balance is crucial. Natural sources are preferred over supplements.
Vitamin D3Vital for calcium absorption.Sunlight (UV-B rays).Turtles need regular exposure to UV-B rays for vitamin D3 synthesis, essential for calcium absorption. UV lights for tanks may not be sufficient as they often emit UV-A rays.
Vitamin ANecessary for healthy skin and body functions.Carrots, colorful veggies, live fish.Deficiency leads to hypovitaminosis A, causing skin issues and increased risk of infections. Include vitamin A-rich foods in diet. Supplements can be used if deficiency signs are present.
ProteinCrucial for growth, especially in younger turtles.Cooked chicken/beef, live shrimps, blood worms, feeder fish.High demand in hatchlings and juveniles. Adult turtles need less protein; excessive protein can cause shell pyramiding. For homemade diets, include live prey once a week. Manufactured pellets should have a suitable protein percentage for the turtle’s life stage.

1. Calcium

A turtle’s diet should contain sufficient Calcium. Their shell is made of minerals, including Calcium and magnesium.

You can choose a natural calcium-rich food like cuttlefish. However, if your turtle is a picky eater, try using calcium powder available at pet shops. You can sprinkle some powder on their food and let them consume it. The key here is to know how much is too much.

Amateurs or new turtle owners often provide their pets with more than enough calcium supplements. And the result can be terrifying.

For example, vets are concerned that too much Calcium (every day) can lead to a disease called MBD (metabolic bone disease).

As you can already guess, it deals with shell weakening or malformation. Turtles suffering from such diseases are found with pyramid shells. Instead of a balanced shell growth, the excess Calcium causes the shell to grow vertically.

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 Before you know it, the turtle gets hunchbacked. And, sadly, you can’t fix it. The pyramid shell will stay forever even if you reduce the calcium intake.

That’s horrible, considering it could have been avoided by being more careful. That’s why, as far as Calcium is concerned, always stick with the natural source.

Best Source For Calcium: Cuttlefish Bones

2. Vitamin D

I just mentioned how important calcium is for a turtle’s healthy growth. However, did you know that calcium absorption depends on the presence of vitamin D? And not just any kind of vitamin D.

Reportedly, a special kind of vitamin D commonly known as D3 is what your pet turtle needs. This particular nutrient is fat-soluble and enhances the body’s ability to absorb Calcium from the food. That means you need to ensure regular intake of vitamin D3 if you feel like the turtle is suffering from calcium deficiency.

Vitamin D3 can be found in both food and the environment. By environment, I mean sunlight. Staying under UV-ray for a few hours will generate enough D3 vitamin. As we all know, sunlight is the biggest source of UV radiation.

That’s why turtles habitually spend a decent amount of sun-basking daily. It helps them get all the vitamin D3 they need for the whole day.

However, not the whole UV spectrum is useful for producing vitamin D. Only the UV-B rays (290 nm to 320 nm) can penetrate the turtle’s skin and boost its growth. That’s the same reason why I don’t suggest cutting out quality sunbathing time for your turtle.

Even if you can afford a UV light set-up, ensuring the spectrum is close to UV-B is hard. Because the majority of the UV lights designed for tanks only provide UV-A rays.

Best Source For Vitamin D3: Sunlight

3. Vitamin A

Just like humans, pet turtles also need regular doses of vitamin A.

Otherwise, your favorite turtle can suffer from a painful condition called hypovitaminosis A. It simply means the turtle skin is damaged due to extra thick epidermal cells.

Moreover, the flow of liquid throughout the body can be disrupted, causing pain during urination.

Not only that, your turtle will easily catch bacterial infections. To avoid such incidents, make sure the diet is filled with vitamin-A-rich food. Colorful veggies like carrots, bell-papers, or live fish will do just fine.

You can also inject vitamin-A supplements into the food if the pet is already showing signs of the disease mentioned above. Otherwise, just stick with natural food.

Best Source For Vitamin A: Carrots

4. Protein

The majority of turtle species are omnivores. However, they crave more meat-based food while in the juvenile or hatchling stage. It’s not just because of the taste. Reportedly, young or baby turtles need a lot of protein every day to ensure proper body growth.

Once they pass the juvenile stage, their protein requirement decreases significantly. You may ask, what will happen if I offer protein-based food to an adult turtle?

 Well, it’s okay if you are offering a protein-based meal once every week. However, if you follow the pattern every day, your turtle’s shell will start pyramiding in no time. I have already discussed the danger of such occurrences above.

That’s why if you rely on manufactured turtle pellets, please pay attention to the protein percentage inside the meal. Usually, the package says whether it is suitable for adult turtles or not.

However, if you are someone who prepares the turtle’s food at home, it’s less complicated. Just drop live shrimps, blood worms, and feeder fish inside the tank once every week. The turtle will happily hunt the prey and have a nice dinner.

Plus, the protein component in organic live food is way less than that of store-bought pellets. So you can avoid the risk of overfeeding.

Best Source For Protein: Cooked Chicken/Beef

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Pet Turtle Diet & Feeding Chart

Pet Turtle Diet Feeding Chart

For a printable version of this amazing diet chart, click here!

Nutrition Requirement Based On Turtle’s Age

Nutrition requirement changes with age. It’s even true for humans as well. That’s why, to make sure your turtles are growing healthy, you have to plan meals based on their current body requirement.

1. Hatchlings (Below 6 Months)

If you have got yourself a hatchling, congrats! You can make sure the turtle grows to be strong. Hatchlings under the age of 6 months need two small feeding per day.

Share In Daily MealCategoryNutritious Options
50%Turtle pelletsSpecially manufactured for juveniles (from known brands).
30%Animal-based proteinFeeder fish, crickets, moths, chicken, beef, turkey.
20%FruitsBlueberry, strawberry, bananas, grapes, mangoes.

As you can see, 50% of each meal has to be specially manufactured turtle pellets. Commercial turtle food usually contains different minerals and vitamins essential for the turtle’s growth. It would be hard for you to plan an organic meal with the same nutritional benefits. Even though a newborn turtle doesn’t need to eat veggies, you can still add some as treats.

A lettuce here & there wouldn’t interfere with their health. Just remember to not overfeed veggies. More than 80% of a newborn turtle’s diet must consist of animal-based protein.

Owner: Elizabeth Nicole Hartin

2. Juveniles (6 Months To 2 Years)

Meal planning for a newborn & juvenile turtle is pretty similar. The food you are giving must contain sufficient protein. However, with juveniles, you can experiment more with organic protein sources. Expert turtle keepers like to offer shredded chicken breasts (of course cooked), beef etc.

Share In Daily MealCategoryNutritious Options
60%Animal-based proteinBoiled chicken, beef, live feeder fish (occasionally goldfish).
15%Leafy plantsLettuce, kale, watercress, water hyacinth.
25%Turtle pelletsSpecially manufactured for juveniles.

Moreover, you can include leafy plants in the diet. Just keep it within 15% of the whole meal.

3. Adult (Above 2 Years)

Adult turtles require completely different meals. They only eat once every day. And, due to a slower metabolism, it’s recommended not to offer heavy food (protein-rich) every day.

Share In Daily MealCategoryNutritious Options
50%plantsDandelions, kales, romaine lettuce, swiss chards, cucumbers, carrots, squash.
25%Turtle pelletsSpecifically manufactured for adult turtles
25%proteinGuppies, moths, crickets, freeze dried shrimps, glass worms.

The majority of your turtle’s meal should be veggies and fruits. You can add not just leafy plants but cucumbers, carrots, bok-choy, and other veggies as well. Unlike newborn turtles, the adult ones do like munching on hard vegetable stems.

They also grow a strong beak, which is sufficient to shred any vegetable into smaller pieces.

As for the protein component, drop live fish or insects (blood worms, meal worms) into the tank. It will save you the trouble of meal-prepping every day. Another reason why live insects are a better choice is the tolerable amount of protein.

Organic food usually has many other nutrients and fiber, unlike commercial-grade pellets. So, you don’t run the chances of overdosing your turtle with protein.

Feeding too much protein to an adult turtle is the leading cause of abnormal shell growth. That’s why you must keep improving your diet plan as the turtle ages.

3 Food You Must Avoid To Keep Your Turtle Healthy

1. Spinach

Spinach is usually the most favorite treat for aquatic pets. However, even though turtles love leafy greens, you should not offer them spinach.

This particular vegetable is abundant in a chemical called oxalate.

And what does it do? Well, in simple terms, oxalates prevent calcium absorption inside bodies. So, if your turtle is taking calcium supplements, spinach will neutralize the effects.

Other vegetables containing oxalates are parsley, bok choy, and nuts.

2. Tuna Fish

Surprisingly yes. Even though tuna fish can be quite a tasty treat, please avoid it. It does more harm than good to our turtle.

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You see, some fish are high in fat. Consuming too much oily fish (frequently) can lead to vitamin E deficiency in turtles.

This is true for humans as well. That’s why so many fish oil supplements also contain vit-E in them.

This particular vitamin helps turtles maintain healthy skin, a well-functioning reproductive system, etc. I would suggest avoiding tuna fish altogether. Instead, add fish that are less oily, like guppies.

3. Sausage

What’s easier than taking a piece of your breakfast sausage and letting the turtle have it? I am not sure about “easy,” but it’s unsafe.

You see, sausages fall into the processed meat category. It contains sodium and other preservative that are not harmful to humans. However, turtles have a different type of digestive system. They can’t digest food that is rich in sodium.

I would also recommend staying away from fried chicken and dairy products, not just sausages, though.

Did you know? Turtles are extremely messy eaters. They tend to make the water dirty while eating.

Solution: I know cleaning up the tank daily after you feed them is hard. That’s why, to keep their habitat clean and safe, try installing a feeding tank. The new tank can be small and humble. It doesn’t matter.

Just transfer the turtles into this tank for their 20-minute lunch break. Next, you can safely transfer them back to their original home (which is clean). You don’t have to worry about the turtle catching infections from leftover food particles.

Plus, the feeding tank is simple to clean. You only have to drain the water.

How Often Should I Feed My Pet Turtle?

All your efforts will be unsuccessful if you fail to identify how often you must feed a pet turtle. It’s pretty similar for any species you own. The hatchlings should get 2 small servings daily. I have already described what the meal should look like.

Turtle Age StageFeeding FrequencyMeal SizeMeal CompositionAdditional Notes
Hatchlings2 times per daySmallSpecific diet as previously described
Juvenile2 times per dayIncreased size from hatchling stageMetabolism is slower than active aquatic species, avoid more than 2 meals a day.
AdultOnce per dayMostly veggiesAdult turtles have even slower metabolism, time of feeding is flexible.
General AdviceAvoid starving pet turtles; they don’t naturally brumate in captivity. Use an automatic feeder if away.

Increasing the meal size once the turtles get a little bigger (in the juvenile stage). But only give them food 2 times per day as before.

The thing with turtles is that they have a slow metabolism. So they don’t get hungry as often as other active aquatic species. Offering them more than 2 meals daily will make things harder for their digestive system.

Finally, you can switch to a new routine once your turtle becomes an adult. Adult turtles like eating veggies the majority of the time. You already know how to set up the ideal meal. Just give it to your pet once every day.

Remember the metabolism thing? Well, for adult turtles, it’s even slower. That being said, you can choose a convenient time for feeding. It doesn’t matter that much.

Let’s debunk a common myth since we are already on the topic. You shouldn’t starve your pet turtle at all.

Many argue that turtles can live without food for months in the wild. That’s because harsh winter, lack of food and other adversities encourage brumation.

Once the turtle goes to hibernation (or brumation), they can live off the body fat for a long time.

However, it is not natural for your pet turtle to brumate. The tank’s convenient setting never encourages the turtle to initiate hibernation.

That’s why forcing the turtles to live without food (thinking it’s harmless) will cause exponential stress to the animal. If you are ever going on vacation, set up an automatic feeder.

box turtle on hand
Owner: April Kelley McGallion

Why Is My Turtle Not Eating?

Unlike other aquatic pets like fish, turtles can be extremely picky eaters. Considering they don’t get hungry as often, they don’t hesitate to reject food at all.

Reason of not eatingDetails
Eating HabitsTurtles are picky eaters, less frequently hungry compared to other aquatic pets like fish.
Owner’s FamiliarityLong-term owners usually understand their turtle’s preferences.
Food PreferencesTurtles may reject new food types like switching from live to freeze-dried food.
Suggested ApproachOffer their favorite meal in smaller portions to gauge reaction.
Nutritional SupplementsAdd necessary supplements (vitamin A, calcium dust) to compensate for nutritional loss.
Feeding TechniqueAquatic turtles must eat with their heads submerged underwater, as they cannot swallow outside water.
Serving SuggestionsClip leafy veggies to the tank for easier consumption; turtles chew and use water to push food down their throat.
Other ConsiderationsIf none of the above strategies work, the turtle might have other issues affecting its appetite.

I urge you not to get so worked up on this matter. If you have kept the turtle its whole life, you would know what it likes the best. For example, is your baby turtle used to having live food? And now that you have switched to a more convenient freeze-dried option, they are upset.

Try giving them their favorite meal (in smaller portions) and see whether your turtle reacts. If it does, then you have got yourself a food critic.

Make sure to inject some necessary supplements (vitamin A, calcium dust) into the food to compensate for the loss of nutrition. Another reason your turtle is not eating properly is the wrong serving technique.

Aquatic turtles can’t eat outside water. Even though they seem perfectly fine walking or resting outside the tank, they can only eat with their heads submerged underwater.

You see, most turtle species lack the ability to swallow food. They chew food and have enough water to push it down their throat. To avoid choking hazards, try clipping the leafy veggies on the tank. Your pet can easily shred the leaf and dive underwater to eat it better. Apart from these 2 reasons, there’s no way the turtle is not eating willingly.

The animal might be suffering from a health issue. You should get a vet’s appointment as soon as possible.

Before You Go!

If you are considering getting a turtle, you already know the struggles. And I think the most difficult challenge is finding the ideal nutritious and tasty meal. But the struggle doesn’t end there. It’s also important to clearly understand common health issues in turtles.

So that you are quick enough to notice your pet’s suffering and take preventive steps, please take a look at my next article, which covers the major health issues pet turtles suffer from.

Article link: common health issues in pet turtles and 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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