As with all animals, turtles have specific dietary and environmental needs that have to be fulfilled. Without these requirements, your pet will have health problems that ultimately lead to disease and death. There are numerous species of terrestrial turtle and tortoise that are kept in captivity, and each may have its own special requirements and “normal” values. This information sheet focuses on generalized principles of turtle and tortoise care. You should seek specific information on the dietary and lifestyle requirements of the breed of turtle/tortoise you are keeping. If in doubt, consult your veterinarian.
Turtles, like other reptiles, need specific wavelengths of ultraviolet light (290-320nm, the UV-B spectrum) for 12-14 hours per day in order to properly utilize vitamin D and calcium in their bodies. Without UV-B, even if the turtle is ingesting the proper amount of calcium, the body is unable to convert calcium into healthy bone. Stunting softening and deformation of the shell eventually occurs as can deformities of the beak (mouth). Sunlight is the optimal source of ultraviolet light, especially for these wavelengths. Owners that keep their turtle indoors should utilize commercial reptile lights that include at least 5% UV-B in their spectrum. Therefore, when selecting a light, make sure that the label with the light states this information explicitly.
UV lights often have a life span of 6-9 months, so the effectiveness of the light may be gone even though the light is apparently working. Changing these lights regularly is therefore also important. During the warmer months, setting up an enclosure such that your turtle can be outside in natural sunlight would be most beneficial. Of course, this enclosure should be both escape-proof and predator-proof. Consider that many terrestrial turtles can and will burrow, so perimeter fencing may need to reach below ground level.
Turtles and tortoises are cold-blooded which means they cannot significantly raise or lower their body temperature independent of the environmental temperature. Their body temperature reflects the temperature of the surrounding air or water. The optimal temperature range for terrestrial turtles and tortoises is from 23 to 33° C. This can be provided by direct sunlight or by a heating lamp. The critical upper limit of temperature tolerance for most turtles and tortoises is 35ºC. If they are kept at this temperature for any extended period of time, death can occur.
When arranging a set-up, either outdoors or indoors, make sure that there are areas of both heat/basking light and shade so that your pet can regulate their own temperature by moving to different areas within the enclosure. Take into consideration that some turtles hibernate in the winter; information on this phenomenon should be sought in other literature. Only healthy turtles should be permitted to hibernate.
The second most important factor after temperature control is humidity. Humidity control can be difficult to monitor and is often overlooked, but the importance of proper humidity cannot be overstated. Improper humidity levels can lead to illness and death in all turtle and tortoise species.
Tortoise species from arid or desert-like environments need a low relative humidity, while those that live in a jungle setting are going to require a very high humidity. Dehumidifiers can help lower relative humidity and mist sprayers can help raise relative humidity. A wide variety of humidity controlling systems can be utilized. The type of substrate used sometimes affects humidity. For tortoises requiring low humidity, sand, gravel, and rock coupled with good air circulation, may be a good option. Similarly, for species requiring high relative humilities, orchid bark, peat, and moss all work to hold moisture and help keep the relative humidity high.
Turtles can be kept indoors in a terrarium or outdoors in an appropriate enclosure. Whether indoors or outdoors they need to be kept in a safe, ventilated, predator proof, escape proof enclosure, with access to water, places to hide, places to bask and places to warm and cool themselves. Enclosures should mimic the natural environment (i.e. access to water for soaking and drinking, a habitat of mostly dry bedding). Simple enclosures are often better then complex ones as complex enclosures can be difficult to clean and maintain. There should be easily accessed areas that are free form moisture to allow your pet to bask. Moist environments in soil and bedding can in some cases promote fungal growth, and affect your pet’s health. It is best if the environment can be thoroughly cleaned at regular intervals and kept as sanitary as possible.
Tortoises are mostly solitary in the wild however they can usually be kept in groups in captivity. Remember that your pet will grow and you may have to increase the size of its enclosure at regular intervals.
Bathing & Drinking
Turtles often enjoy fresh water for drinking and will climb in for a soak. Tortoises require less water but fresh water should be provided daily.
Clean water is necessary for land turtles in several ways. Soaking in water stimulates most turtles and tortoises to eliminate. If fact, many tortoises will not empty their bladder until they have found water to soak in. Because turtles tend to eliminate in their water, it should be changed daily. Unclean water can cause anorexia and disease.
While some turtles might eat every day (required for hatchlings and juveniles), adults can go for days (or even weeks!) without eating. Most pet turtles and tortoises are fed every 24-48 hours. Decreased appetite is a common indicator of illness in captive turtles, so feeding patterns should be observed and compared to the individual’s history. Gastrointestinal transit time can range from one to several days in adults; therefore, it is normal if defecation only occurs a couple of times a week.
The omnivorous turtles and tortoises (e.g. box turtle, red-foot tortoise, and yellow-foot tortoise) require nutrients provided in both animals and plant materials. A diet of 85% vegetables, 10% fruits, and 5% animal protein is suggested. Dog food is sometimes used as a protein supplement, but its use should be limited. Diversity is the key to a healthy diet. These turtles greatly benefit by having a combination of vegetables, fruits, insects, earthworms, slugs, and mealworms. Omnivorous species seem to enjoy brightly colored berries and vegetables such as strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, etc. Owners should make sure that vegetables with a high calcium-to-phosphorus ratio are fed more often than those with a lower value. Items such as dark leafy greens like kale, collards, dandelions (leaves, flowers, and stems), mustard greens, romaine lettuce, broccoli, and green peppers are excellent in this regard.
Grassland tortoises (e.g. sulcata, leopard, and Russian tortoises) are vegetarian and enjoy grazing on grasses and dark leafy greens. Staples include timothy hay, other grass hay, alfalfa hay, soaked alfalfa pellets, clover, dandelion, mulberry and grape leaves, and flowers such as carnation, hibiscus, and roses. Other possible offerings include bok choy, thawed mixed vegetables, green beans, peas in the pod, radishes, clover, corn, and carrots.
Disease and Illness
Common problems in land turtles include dog bite trauma, automobile trauma, respiratory infection, urinary bladder stones, egg binding, pneumonia, eye infection, ear infections, liver and kidney disease, metabolic bone disease, overgrown beak/nails, and shell deformities. Parasitism, infection (bacterial, viral, fungal), and neoplasia/tumor growth also occur. Decreased appetite or anorexia is a very common symptom of clinical disease. Seek veterinary attention immediately if loss of appetite occurs. Many disease states can be prevented by good hygiene, correct care and correct diet.
Just like other pets, it is recommended that turtles and tortoises receive regular veterinary care. A complete physical examination is recommended every 6-12 months. An annual fecal examination is recommended to check for internal parasites. Blood tests are recommended every 1-3 year(s). At each veterinary appointment, discuss any questions or concerns you may have about your pet with your veterinarian.