The correct diet for pet tortoises is a subject that crops up time and time again. The problem is that, like humans, tortoises love to eat things that are not good for them and so give little guidance to inexperienced owners by avoiding unsuitable food
offered to them.
Wild tortoises follow a cycle determined by their environment. In the winter, of course they are hibernating and so do not eat anything. Then in the spring there is a flush of new growth and they can gorge themselves after hibernation. Then as the weather gets hotter the plants dry out many tortoises will aestivate at this time of the year, or venture out in the cooler periods to feed on what food is available. Then autumn arrives and there is a flush of late growth as the rain
returns, and the tortoises can have a last feed before hibernating once again.
The diet of a wild tortoise is governed by what is available, rather than what they select, and this is what leads to the problems in captivity as tortoises will largely eat whatever is given to them, regardless of its suitability. The owner is completely responsible for making sure that the quantity and quality of the diet is suitable. The ideal diet for a pet tortoise is actually quite simple to define as a high fibre, high calcium, low protein, diet consisting of leaves and flowers.
In captivity, they should ideally be fed a mixture of plant leaves such as Dandelion or Plantain, which can be collected or grown, and can be supplemented with shop bought salad like Watercress or Rocket. To keep calcium intake high the food should be supplemented at each feed with pure calcium powder. This can be quite a challenge however and so keepers can turn to prepared diets. These can be useful when wild weeds are scarce and can be used alone or mixed with wild or bought plants. However, prepared foods should not form the entire diet.
If using a prepared food then extruded pellets based on cereals should be avoided. These can be low in suitable fibre and high is sugars, both of which can cause stomach problems. Better alternatives are foods based on suitable plants that have
been processed to retain as much structure as possible. This may be dried plants (such as the Lucky Reptile or White Python foods), or cob based foods such as the Zoo Med and ProRep foods. Some of these will also have additional D3 and calcium
supplementation but do not remove the need for additional supplements.
There are some things that should simply be avoided:
• Processed foods such as chocolate, cake or yorkshire pudding (I kid you not)
• Animal protein such as dogfood, tinned meat or ham.
• Salad vegetables grown for their appearance or taste such as Lettuce as these
contain virtually no fibre or nutrients, although they are useful for tempting a
• Foods high in sugar such as fruit or cereal.
Remember a healthy tortoise with the correct diet will grow slowly and steadily, forming a smooth shell with no pyramids or ridges. If a tortoise is growing too fast, or with uneven shell growth, then something is wrong which needs to be identified
and corrected immediately.
Thanks to Dave Perry for this advice.