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Fat Tortoises

Can Tortoises Get Fat?

Although obesity in tortoises is quite rare, it brings with it a lot of health complications and issues. As such, it’s best to work towards preventing your tortoise from getting fat.

In cases where the chelonian is already obese, there is a lot that can be done to solve the problem, including dietary changes and providing more open space.

In this article, we will be looking at the causes, symptoms, negative impact, and remedies for obesity in tortoises. So can tortoises get fat? Yes, they can.

A quick way to find out if your tortoise is fat is to look at its neck and limbs. A good example of that is of the tortoise pictured above. You can see it has fat rolls around it’s limbs which is preventing it from positioning its legs to walk.

Quick Reference Section

Dangers Of Obesity In Tortoises

Obesity isn’t only deadly to humans, it is also deadly to tortoises, turtles, and by extension all other animals.

First of all because of the tortoise’s shell which cannot store fat, the only places that fat can be deposited are the tortoise’s armpits, groin, knees, and neck.

This extra fat makes it difficult (and in some cases impossible) for the tortoise to retreat into its shell. It’s important for even captive bred tortoises to retreat into their shells.

It’s a natural behavior and it allows the tortoise to feel safe in its environment. The shell also protects the chelonian from injuries.

Interestingly enough trying to retreat into the safety of its shell can actually lead to injuries as it is a very tight fit.

Obesity also stresses the tort’s organs such as the joints, circulatory system, and even the kidneys. All of this adds up and shortens the tortoise’s lifespan.

As you may have figured out, a fat chelonian also has a hard time exercising and living an active life. Inactivity also shortens the lifespan.

Dealing With Obesity In Tortoises

As the saying goes, “Prevention is better than cure.” The same can be said about obesity.

Preventative measures to take include providing the tortoise with an active lifestyle and a well-balanced diet for its species.

Although slow, tortoises are actually very active in the wild. They cover large areas foraging for the right plants & vegetation to consume.

Some tortoises are known to consume as many as 200 different species of plants a year. Of course, the variety depends on the season (dry vs rainy seasons).

All this exercise ensures that the tortoise remains at the right weight. Captive-bred tortoises may not have a lot of space to wander, which can be detrimental to their health as it leads to weight gain.

Overfeeding is the other main cause of obesity. Feeding a tortoise the right amount of food is just as important as feeding it a well-balanced diet. When it comes to feeding, here are some questions to consider.

Is the diet nutritionally balanced?

It’s important that the diet provides the animal with all the needed carbs, vitamins, proteins, and calories.

The main issue here is that many keepers provide the tortoise with foods that have high protein and too many calories.

As mentioned earlier, in the wild, the season dictates what the tortoise eats. During the rainy season, the tortoise feeds on flowers, fungi, and even fruits; foods that are much higher in calories.

During the dry season they eat tough dry foods such as grass, leaves, and stems, all of which have a low water content. This roughage is high in fiber and calcium but also low in calories.

Unfortunately, some tortoise parents feed their pets foods high in calories all year, not realizing that they are actually making a mistake.

Does the tortoise like what your giving it?

Red footed Tortoise Diet
Red footed Tortoise eating fruit as a treat

Like us, tortoises have a preference for what they eat. You need to make sure to give them foods that they will eat. Here you need to know the species of the tortoise.

If you don’t know what type of tortoise you have, check out our tortoise species page, and if you need more guidance have a look at our turtle identification guide.

While most tortoises including the Leopard tortoise enjoy roughage like weeds, grass, hay, and flowers, some, such as the Red-foot and Yellow-footed tortoises, prefer flowers and leaves. Others, such as the African Hingeback, need meat and fruits.

Is the diet affordable and sustainable?

You need to feed the tortoise foods you can afford. One way to reduce your costs is to put edible plants in the tortoises enclosure. What should be avoided is giving them hard to find and expensive plants.

Importance Of Exercise

As already mentioned, another cause of obesity is inactivity. To prevent this, a large spacious enclosure is best. A garden or a big backyard can do wonders for the tortoise. Lack of exercise coupled with poor feeding habits is the reason why many captive tortoises live short lives.

Have a look at our tortoise setup guide which will surely give you some inspiration for both indoor and outdoor enclosures. It might even make sense for you to build a large tortoise table. 

Feeding The Tortoise The Right Amount Of Food

Tortoises generally live in areas where most of the food around them is low in calories. As such when feeding them you have to provide food low in calories. This however depends on the species and dietary preference of the tortoise.

Mediterranean Or Subtropical Tortoise Diet

Cat sniffing a marginated tortoise with lettuce in between
Cat sniffing a marginated tortoise with lettuce in between

Most tortoises kept as pets are Mediterranean or subtropical tortoises. These include Sulcata tortoise, Hermann’s Tortoise, Marginated Tortoise, Mediterranean Spur Thigh Tortoises (Greek Tortoises), North American Desert Tortoise, and the Russian Tortoises (Horsfield’s tortoise).

These tortoises are endemic to semi-arid grasslands where most of the edible plants are succulents, weeds, and shrubs. When creating a diet for them, concentrate on these plants.

For more on tortoise diets you can check our guide on what tortoises eat.

On very rare occasions, they will feed on a slug, a bug, or other proteins. This may even be accidental. As such, when creating a diet for a subtropical or Mediterranean tortoise, it should be strictly herbivorous.

Since tortoises are opportunistic eaters, they will accept most foods offered to them. It’s up to you to decide what to offer and what not to offer. The wrong foods can lead to the chelonian growing excessively large.

Some foods to avoid include vegetables high in protein such as peas, beans, root vegetables (which are too high in carbohydrates), fruits, meat, eggs, and even cabbage.

Supermarket greens are also too high in sugar for these tortoises. While these foods can be used to feed freshwater turtles, you should not offer them to your subtropical or Mediterranean tortoises.

Some foods to feed the Mediterranean and subtropical  chelonians include:

  • Mulberry leaves
  • hibiscus leaves & flowers
  • Opuntia cactus pads
  • Dandelions
  • Natural occurring edible weeds such as clovers, sow thistle, and bramble leaves (avoid the prickly weeds)

Occasionally, you can give them leafy vegetables but only occasionally. Store-bought leafy greens are too nutritional for these chelonians and must be kept to a minimum.

Having a piece of a cuttlefish bone or calcium block in the enclosure allows the chelonian to improve the amount of dietary calcium it absorbs. This is a good practice and also helps to maintain their beak.

Sulcata, Aldabra, Galapagos, And Leopard Tortoise Diet

african spurred tortoise (sulcata tortoise
African spurred tortoise (sulcata tortoise)

These tortoises feed mostly on hay and grass and should make up about 75% of their diet. Location will have an impact on what you feed them given that not all types of grass grow everywhere.

Some good grasses and hays for tortoises include Meadow hay, Orchard hay, Big Bluestem grass, Blue Grama grass, Buffalo grass, Couch grass, Dallisgrass, Darnel Ryegrass, Fescue, Kikuyu grass, Western Wheatgrass, Wintergrass, and Bluegrass.

This grass-based diet can be supplemented with edible flowers such as violas, petunia, dandelions, and hibiscus. This should be added whenever possible.

The last addition to the diet includes opuntia pads and clovers. These should also be regulars in the tortoise’s diet.

Indian Star Tortoise Diet

Indian Star Tortoise Eating greens
Indian Star Tortoise Eating greens

An Indian star tortoise diet should be in between that of leopard tortoises and Mediterranean chelonians. For these chelonians, fruits can be offered sparingly (as a treat once a week).

However, fruits aren’t a necessity. If you feed them a wide range of vegetation, they should get all the nutrients needed. On the other hand, too much fruit can lead to digestive tract disorders.

Some good food choices include mulberry leaves, fleaworts/plantain weed (Plantago), clover, hibiscus, dandelion, petunia, Mesembryanthemum, Crassula, and Sansevieria.

Omnivorous Tortoise Diet

Some tortoises are omnivorous and as such require both plant matter and animal protein to live a healthy life. Regardless, overfeeding proteins and foods high in sugar can still lead to obesity.

Some omnivorous tortoises include yellow foot tortoise, red foot tortoises, and African hingeback.

Limiting protein to once a week is recommended. Once a week offer a 22-pound adult about an ounce of moist cat food. This should contain enough protein for the tortoise. Scale this down proportionally for sub-adults and juveniles.

Other proteins you can offer include edible snails, slugs, and other insects.

Fruits also make up an important part of these tortoises’ diets. Make sure fruits are only offered regularly to turtles that can tolerate them. These include the ones mentioned in this section.

Feeding Schedule

While feeding the wrong foods even in moderation can lead to obesity, overfeeding can also cause obesity, this is particularly true of foods high in calories, fats, and proteins.

Here are some guidelines to follow:

With weeds, flowers, grass, hay, and succulents that are low in calories and water but high in fiber, you can offer as much as the tortoise will eat.

These also include vegetables with low calories such as broccoli. Lettuces, sprouts, and stems. All of this depends on the dietary requirement of the tortoise.

Foods that need to be limited include vegetables & fruits high in calories and proteins. Since some tortoise species prefer diets with meat and fruits, you need to closely monitor their food intake.

Feed omnivorous tortoises foods high in calories and proteins about three times a week or less. The portions offered should be about the size of the tortoise’s head.

Commercial Tortoise Diets

Commercial tortoise diets cause a lot of disagreement among tortoise parents and breeders. While it is the preferred food choice for some, others feel they are the worst thing to feed tortoises.

The problem is that most commercial tortoise diets are of low quality. They may also be high in calories but low in fiber. This can be a really bad combination. Regardless, if commercial tortoise diets are to be offered, they should be offered in moderation.

Even with high quality commercial diets such as Mazuri tortoise Diet, overfeeding can occur when tortoises are offered unlimited access to the feed.

Conclusion

As you may have noticed, tortoises do get fat. Obesity among tortoises is characterized by fat deposits around the eyes, on the limbs and the neck. A fat chelonian generally looks too big for its shell.

Obesity comes with many health risks. It affects the tortoise’s innate ability to retract into its shell and makes it difficult for the tortoise to breathe. In addition to this, obesity also negatively affects internal organs.

Because of the limited amount of exercise captive bred tortoises get, it’s easy for them to get fat. This is further compounded by the nutrient rich diets most captive breds are fed.

Most tortoise species aren’t equipped to handle most vegetables and fruits offered them. To prevent and control obesity, the tortoise should be fed a diet rich in fiber & calcium and low in calories, and given enough room to exercise in.

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