When thinking about the best way to keep chelonians fit and healthy, there are several aspects to consider – the environment in which you keep them, the temperature, humidity, cleanliness, freedom from infection and day light intensity for instance, but the most consideration has to be for the food that the animal eats.
Keepers with experience know that their animals do best and remain healthier for longer if fed on a diet that is nearest to the diet that their animal would find in its natural habitat.
It pays us all to know the background from which our chelonians come so that we can replicate this as faithfully as possible – the payoff will be fewer vets bills and happier, healthier pets.
Proper nutrition is even more important if the animals are young therefore still growing – or if they are breeding adults, especially females who have more specific dietary requirements.
This leaflet is intended to give general advice about the nutritional requirements of the most commonly found tortoise in this country left from the pet trade – those from the Mediterranean (North Africa and Turkish spur thighed, Yugoslavian and Bulgarian Hermanni, Greek Marginates and others like Libyans.)
A short leaflet like this cannot possibly cover every aspect but will hopefully steer people in the right direction, and more detailed advice is available from the society if needed. Advice on the feeding habits of terrapins is readily to hand.
Always ask yourself the question like whether your animal would find a particular food in the wild..... picture its natural home.... think about this seriously as there are so many misconceptions, particularly about tortoises as they have been kept here for longer and stories get passed on .......sometimes the animals are passed on also.
For instance where in the middle of the baking hot summer in turkey would a tortoise come across fruit cake or a dish of bread and milk, or even a tin of cat food, along with a can opener and be able to open it?? Some of these foods can be toxic to tortoises yet the myths continue.
Do your pet a favour and give it a natural diet.
All tortoises have to seek out food and expand energy to find it. After the rains it is more readily available so the tortoise can eat well – but has to store reserves for the part of the year when the food and water is scarcer. They obviously eat what they come across, which is basically weeds, windfalls and plant that change as the season’s progress. You may find your tortoise eats a lot of one food for a while and then moves on to eating something else for a while – this replicates the pattern of food that would be available in the wild.
Tortoises are basically herbivores needing a high vegetative fibre diet with low protein content. Peas and beans are too high in protein. Cats and dogs need high levels of protein and calories in their diets including fats – but they are mammals – so manufacturers reflect this in the foods they sell. This food should not be fed to tortoises as they are reptiles.
Fatty or dairy products should never be fed – excess fat is stored in the liver which can shorten their lives and obesity is as serious as it is in humans! Do not cook food of any sort as this is not there natural diet.
It is important to consider the balance between phosphorus and calcium in the foods you feed – they need to take in 4-6 parts of calcium to 1 part phosphorus to maintain healthy growth and avoid deformities. Bean sprouts for instance have a very high phosphorus to calcium ratio so should not be routinely fed to hatchlings. Weeds and vegetables that grow on chalk soil are more likely to have the correct balance.
Some fruits and vegetables can be too high in fats (avocado, banana) so should seldom be offered. Occasionally fruits are enjoyed by tortoises and are beneficial, especially for the moisture content.
A varied diet is important. If you find your animal seems addicted to a particular sort of food i.e. lettuce, leave it out of the diet for a while. It will not starve!! The problem is more your attitude then the tortoises is as they can go several days without eating and still be just fine! They are also scavengers and can be seen eating awful things – but this may also be a sign of a deficiency in their diet and you can correct this e.g. eating stones or snails may mean they are in need of more calcium.
Pet tortoises need vitamin and calcium supplements. Leave a lump of chalk of Cuttle fish bones around or even grate it on to their food. Use Nutrobal or Vionate on their food - especially for hatchlings or breeding adults. Let them have free range of the garden as they will graze and choose their own diet to supplement whatever you feed them.
Do not keep tortoises in pens as this limits their choice and ensures a build-up of worms. This will re-infect them to serious levels. Worm your tortoise every other year and then you know it is getting the maximum benefit from the foods eaten without competition.
Weeds – of delight to gardeners, and free!! Try to grow them, but if you do pick them avoid roadsides or recently sprayed areas. Feed lots of these.
Dandelions and relatives e.g. Hawkbits, Hawkweeds, Hawkbeard, Soft Thistle e.g. Sowthistle, Plantains, Clovers, Honeysuckle, Vetches, Trefoil, Bindweed, Russian Vine, Sedums, Mallows, Nettles, Acanthus, Wild Clematis, Robinia and Chickweed.
Vegetables – preferably home grown as they are nutritionally better than purchased produce. Feed a variety of these with a calcium or vitamin supplement.
Cabbage, Spring Greens, raw Broccoli, raw Cauliflower, Watercress, Curly Kale. Pea and Bean leaves, occasionally Spinach (has oxalic acid so be careful) and Salad greens.
Fruit - occasionally as too much can cause diarrhoea. Probably best to give as an occasional treat rather than part of the staple diet.
Cucumber, Tomatoes, (seeds removed for hatchlings) Orange, Grape, Apple, Mango, Watermelon, Pear, Raspberries, and Strawberries.
Cat or dog food, cheese, egg, meat, milk, banana, avocado or cooked products.
Healthy animals in the wild will normally avoid eating poisonous plants instinctively but keen owners ask which plants to avoid in their garden just in case!! If you suspect your animal has eaten something try to wash its mouth out and give plenty of fluids. Do not make the problem worse by rubbing its eyes.
Use your common sense if there is a warning label on a plant in the garden centre for humans; do not plant it for tortoises! For instance Dieffenbachia, Calla Lilies, Arrowhead Bines and Begonias have lots of oxalates like Rhubarb does. Contact can cause a burning feeling with some swelling.
Aloes, Agapanthus, Azalea, Cyclamen, Daffodil, Dianthus, Euphorbia, Foxglove, Holly, Hyacinth, Ivy, Lobelia, Mistletoe, Mushrooms, Nightshade, Oleander, Periwinkle, Rhododendron, and some Chrysanthemums can be potentially toxic. I do not know the status of Bluebells which seed themselves all over my garden, but I suspect the tortoise give them a wide berth otherwise they would have been cropped and not grown so prolifically!! Do not panic as some of these plants are commonly found in gardens inhabited by tortoises. I would choose to avoid them if starting from scratch.