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Tortoise Care

Two tortoise eating


The majority of tortoises are herbivorous in nature and require a high fibre diet. They are browsers in the wild eating a wide variety of foods over wide areas. We need to  replicate this wild behaviour as much as possible by offering a wide variety of food each in moderation, too much of one thing will lead to nutritional problems. It is best to research what your species eats in it’s wild habitat in order to best replicate this. Below is a brief outline:

Example Diet for Mediterranean Tortoises

  • Three quarters of the diet - Dark green leafy vegetable matter

Such as dandelions, kale, watercress, flat-leaved parsley, chicory, bok-choy with a small amount of peas, beans, hay, hand picked grass (or allowed to graze), grated carrot,  grated pumpkin, sweet peppers etc.

  • One eighth of the diet - Fruits

Such as apples, pears, melon, papaya, passion fruit, strawberries, plums etc.

  • One eighth of the diet - Flowers and sprouted seeds

Such as dandelions, nasturtiums, roses and sprouted seeds such as mung beans, lentils, chick peas .

Tropical tortoises (such as the red and yellow footed tortoise and the African Hingeback) the amount of fruit and flowers may be doubled. These species are omnivorous so once a week include some low-fat animal protein in the form of pre-soaked dry cat food.

Grassland species (such as the African Spurred tortoise and the Leopard tortoise) a good provision of fresh uncut grass or good quality Meadow hay is advised. Grasses and Hay should make up about 70 –75% of the total diet.

The Indian Starred tortoise diet lies somewhere between the Mediterranean and Leopard Tortoise diet.  It should include coarse green leaves, mixed grasses and flowers.

Omnivorous species  such as the American box turtle tend to be more carnivorous as juveniles, becoming more herbivorous as they age. They require animal proteins in their diet such as mealworms, earthworms, wax worm larvae, beetles and even pinkie mice. Pre-soaked dry maintenance dog food can also be offered alongside usual green leafy vegetable matter.


Fresh water must always be available. It is also a good idea to allow your tortoise to soak itself for 10 minutes, twice a week in fresh tepid shallow water to ensure adequate hydration. It is quite normal for them to urinate and defecate in the water, simply change it if they do.

Calcium requirements

A deficiency in calcium may result in metabolic bone disease (otherwise known as nutritional osteodystrophy). See below.

Diets high in fruit, lettuce and celery are notoriously low in calcium.

Some foods such as spinach, beetroot and rhubarb leaves contain excessive calcium binding compounds, these prevent calcium being absorbed by the body, therefore these foods should be avoided.

Calcium/Vitamin D3 supplementation is advised based on it’s health, life stage and nutritional status. Please ask your vet for advice on correct supplementation.

Metabolic bone disease

This is where extensive resorption of calcium from the bones and shell occurs. It is the bodies attempt to increase circulating blood calcium levels and is often accompanied with a vitamin D3 deficiency as a result of inadequate UV-B provision.

When the calcium is resorbed it leaves only a fibrous tissue which is much weaker. To compensate, the bones thicken to try to maintain some strength, unfortunately this is no substitute for calcium and leads to weak bones, spontaneous fractures, deformities of the shell seen as softening and pyramiding. The plastron and carapace become  weakened due to hypo-mineralisation allowing the muscles to deform their structure.  In some the softened shell allows the corners of the carapace to roll upwards. Sadly some of these shell deformities are not correctable even when the deficiencies have been corrected.

An excessive calcium and vitamin D3 intake can be equally concerning, leading to mineralisation of soft tissues and heart failure therefore it is vital to maintain a balance.

UV-A/UV-B Lighting

For most herbivorous chelonian UV-B (280-315nm wavelength) and UV-A (315-400nm wavelength) are necessary to activate the Vitamin D3 pathways. This lighting must be placed inside the enclosure, directly within 30-45 cm of the reptile not through glass. This should be on a timer switch set for 12-14 hours a day during daylight hours only as they must also have a period of darkness for 10-12 hours a day. Inadequate light provision will result in low levels of vitamin D3 being produced, which can lead to calcium deficiencies.

It is advised that ultraviolet light provision to prevent metabolic bone disease be at the levels below:

  • Desert tortoises—High UV-B levels (10% or full unfiltered sun for 12 hours.
  • Semiaquatic basking chelonians– Moderate UV-B (5%, or full unfiltered sun for 12 hours)
  • Terrestrial tortoises from forests—low UV-B (5% or full unfiltered sun for 6 hours)

It is vital to change the bulb every 6-9 months even if it appears to be working fine. This is because the quality of the  UV-B/UV-A rays emitted will degrade over time.

Please be careful where you obtain your UV-B/UV-A lights. Many purchased on the internet are imports labelled as ‘sunlights’ but do not provide full spectrum UV-A/UV-B. We recommend ‘ReptiSun’ bulbs.

Temperature and humidity

As reptiles are unable to generate their own heat it is vital to keep their environmental temperature warm and stable. Every species of reptile have their optimum preferred temperature, which will allow their enzymes and metabolism to function at their optimum levels as temperature will influence the rate at which their food is digested.

The ideal environmental temperature will of course depend on the climate that your species originates from. Mediterranean tortoises should be kept in a 20—28 degree C temperature range with a relative humidity of between 30-50% which is around the normal levels of the average centrally heated home.

It is important to ensure only one end of the enclosure is heated so the tortoise can move to a cooler zone to maintain their optimum preferred temperature.

Heat should be controlled by a thermostat and thermometers placed at each end of the enclosure.

Heat mats and basking lamps

A radiant heat mat can be placed on the outside wall of the enclosure at one end and a focal hot spot for basking using a protected ceramic or infra red heat bulb suspended from above.

Dietary Problems

Many companies produce pelleted food which claim to be supplemented with minerals and vitamins and contain moderate levels of fibre. There are differing opinions on the suitability of these diets. If you decide to use these please make sure they are pre-soaked in water before offering them to your tortoise.

Tortoises will continue to eat until they are full. Problems occur when too much low energy food is fed, filling their gut before their energy and nutritional requirements are met. This is often seen in those individuals consuming large quantities of lettuce, cucumber and celery.

Avoid giving bananas they may cause colic and can adhere to the mouth/beak encouraging local infection.  Avoid avocados as their fat content is extremely high and may cause liver problems, they are also thought to have toxic properties.

Chronic protein deficiencies can occur when reptiles are fed a high cellulose, low protein diet consisting of mainly lettuce and fruit. This may then lead to a general wasting condition with increased susceptibility to infections. Most of the protein they require comes from leafy greens such as dandelions, watercress, spring greens and rocket.

Refrain from offering any animal proteins to herbivorous species as these can lead to kidney damage and major organ failure.

Warning about vivarium plants

It is common practice to place artificial plants inside enclosures. These can and often are eaten. Unfortunately this foreign material once eaten can cause gut impactions often requiring emergency surgery to prevent death of the reptile. We therefore advise against using artificial plants. Should you choose to include them we urge that you regularly check the plants for signs of damage.

Please contact us on 01254 53622 should you have any concerns about your reptile's health.

This care sheet is a basic guide only. Further information must be sought before you decide to take responsibility for any exotic pet.

Written by Caroline Ashworth RVN, Cert VNES - Daisy Street Veterinary Centre, January 2016.

Page updated 3rd Feb 2017, 12:04
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