Diet and Feeding Your Box Turtle
Article by Tess Cook
Diet is one of the most crucial factors in maintaining a healthy box turtle. Getting a turtle to eat or to eat the proper nutritious foods is often the hardest thing a turtle owner must learn to do. For some reasons, many turtles, especially wild caught turtles, will not readily eat or are fixated on only one food. It may have something to do with the stress of capture and removal from their home ranges.
Temperature and lighting play a role in triggering appetite, and turtles no doubt have their own food preferences. A turtle not given the proper circumstances to feed will go on a hunger strike. Unlike warm-blooded animals, they aren’t forced by their metabolism to eat. They can just slow down their activity level, retreat in their shells and wait for better conditions. Unfortunately, if the turtles are kept in a tank or penned in an outdoor area, those better conditions will not come unless the owner makes an effort to supply them. If they aren’t supplied the turtle slowly grows weaker and becomes debilitated, ill and eventually dies. So it’s important to find out what is required to get your turtle to eat.
These are some of the first causes to look for when box turtles refuse to eat:
If the box turtle is outside, try feeding it during late morning hours. If it is early in the year or late in the fall, you may need to adjust the time of feeding to a later hour so the turtle has a chance to warm up first. When nighttime temperatures go below 65° F the turtle will need to warm up its body temperature before it will feed. Cold turtles cannot digest their food properly; therefore location is important when considering a place for an outdoor set up. Check to see where you have placed the enclosure. If the enclosure faces the east, it will get morning sun; but if it is on the west side, it may not get sun until later in the day. West- and north-facing enclosures are not good.
Some turtles are very timid and will not eat in the open. You need to provide an eating area where it feels safe, like near a shrub or by the hide box. Is the food in the sun or shade? Try putting the food plate in an area where it is partly shaded in the summer. A turtle can overheat very quickly, and it may not venture out into the sun to feed if it’s too hot. In the fall, when it’s cooler during the day, place the food in the sun.
Is the food something the turtle wants to eat? Wild turtles are omnivores and in will eat earthworms, snails, grubs, beetles, caterpillars, grasses, fallen fruit, berries, mushrooms and flowers. They will take a bite of anything that smells edible. But they won’t come across hamburgers or bacon and eggs in the wild! You must feed your turtle what it needs to eat, not what is convenient for you to give it. If you find something your turtle really loves, then you are half way to retraining any bad eating habits. If it loves earthworms then try giving it chopped worms with grated yellow squash and cantaloupe. Or a plate of worms and chopped collard greens and strawberries. A list of good foods is presented later in this section.
If your turtle is kept indoors, and this is recommended only for hatchlings and sick or weak box turtles, then you have other factors to consider if your turtle won’t eat. Is the ambient temperature too low or too high? There should be a gradient of temperatures in the set up with the hot end being around 85-87° F and a cool area around 75-78°. This cool area could be where the hide box or burrowing area is placed. Feed the turtle at the same hour and place each time. A UVA and UVB producing fluorescent tube like Vita-lite(Tm) can make foods more appealing to turtles by bring out the colors. It may also stimulate appetite in much the same way a nice bright sunny day makes us happy. Full-spectrum light is also necessary for vitamin D3 production, especially if your turtles is not getting vitamin D3 from food and is not living outside.
Are several turtles housed together in close proximity? A dominant turtle may not let a weaker turtle eat. Make sure each turtle has their own food dish. Place the food in shallow plates or tiles.
After you have eliminated all physical causes to a hunger strike and the turtle still does not eat, then you will have to look at medical causes. For a beginning turtle keeper it may be hard to tell from behavior if a turtle isn’t eating due to illness. If the feces look firm and no whitish mass of worms is seen, the turtle may be soaked in slightly warm water that contains a few drops of reptile vitamins for half an hour each day for one week. The water should only go half way up the back of the shell and not over the turtle’s head. If a turtle still hasn’t eaten after a week, then a trip to a reptile veterinarian may be necessary.
If the eyes are closed and puffy, the box turtle will not eat and should be taken to a veterinarian. There are several reasons why the eye condition may be present. Vitamin A deficiency causes the glands in the eye to dry out and infection may begin. Upper respiratory illnesses can also cause the eyes to become infected. These conditions are best handled by a vet who may want to treat it with antibiotics.
Box turtles have specific dietary needs to ensure good health. A well-balanced diet is easily provided from a combination of common grocery store items and backyard biota. Following is a list of foods to give your box turtle. Each feeding should include a food item from several food groups. For example, include a protein, a vegetable and a fruit, or a protein, a fruit and a green leafy vegetable. By varying the kinds of food you give your turtles, you are increasing the chances that they will get the mineral and vitamins necessary for good health. You also lessen the chances of them fixating on just a few foods.
Feed young turtles a small amount daily or every other day. Adults can be fed every 2 days in late spring and summer. Diet for hatchling box turtles is discussed in the reproduction chapter. Regardless of the age of your box turtle, a feeding schedule should be made in advance. During the summer months when I’m trying to strengthen and add weight to my box turtles, my schedule may be like this: Monday, Wednesday and Saturday are full meal days. I may feed young turtles on Tuesday and Friday also. It may just be a small snack where they might get a beloved treat like bananas or tomatoes sprinkled with vitamins. On Sundays the turtles receive no food. A day of fasting will not harm a healthy turtle. Of course, use your own best judgment. You may want to feed more or less often depending on the health or activity level of your turtles. However, clean water should be provided daily.
PROTEIN makes up about 50% of the diet. Protein foods should be cut up small enough so the turtle cannot get its fill of food with just one bite of protein. Mix the protein with the vegetables and fruits. All meats should be sprinkled with calcium supplement that contains no phosphorus.
REGULARLY -- Natural live, whole foods like pesticide free earthworms, slugs, waxworms, beetles, grubs, sow bugs. Boiled, chopped chicken, feeder fish or beef heart.
OCCASIONALLY -- Low-fat soaked dog kibble, soaked puppy Milkbones®, low-fat premium canned dog food, cooked lean steak, mealworms and crickets that have been gut-loaded with enriched food. Prepared box turtle food products.
RARELY -- Boiled egg, tofu, low-fat cat kibble.
NEVER -- Raw meats, fatty meats or processed meats.
VEGETABLES make up about 30% of the diet. Use only the part of the vegetable that is colorful as it contains the most nutrition. Use fresh vegetables whenever possible, and steam or grate hard vegetables before offering to the box turtle.
REGULARLY -- Summer and winter squashes, peas in the pod, sweet potatoes, okra, grated carrots, green beans, wax beans and cactus pads with ALL spines removed.
OCCASIONALLY -- Mushrooms, corn on the cob and tomatoes.
RARELY -- Sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, beets and cauliflower.
FRUITS make up about 10% of the diet and are dessert for your turtles. Most turtles love fruits and each seems to have a favorite. Try to find your turtle’s favorite. If it is a finicky eater, use the fruit to entice it to eat other foods. Chop the fruit into small pieces and mix it with things the turtle should eat but won’t. This way, with every bite of fruit it will also eat the required food. I sprinkle vitamins on the fruit as well.
REGULARLY -- Grapes, fresh figs, blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, apples, crabapples, cantaloupe, kiwis, cherries and persimmons.
OCCASIONALLY -- Bananas and strawberries.
LEAFY DARKY GREENS make up the remaining 10% of the diet. Dark leafy greens contain fiber and many minerals and vitamins. Greens help keep the turtle gut healthy through their cleansing action. Always provide your turtles with greens.
REGULARLY -- Collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, carrot tops, parsley, wheat grass and turnip greens.
OCCASIONALLY -- Romaine, red leaf lettuce, endive.
RARELY -- Kale, Swiss chard.
NEVER -- Spinach, rhubarb leaves and iceberg lettuce.
Following the above diet I have produced healthy box turtles with smooth shell growth and strong immune systems.