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How long can a turtle go without eating?

Turtles are hardy animals that can survive for long stretches of time on very little, but how long can a turtle go without eating? The answer boils down to survival traits that turtles and other reptiles have evolved that allow them to survive extreme adverse conditions.

For pet turtle owners, understanding the resilience of these creatures, from baby turtles to adult ones, is crucial for ensuring their healthy life.

For instance, during prolonged periods of low winter temperatures, most turtles are known to brumate. Brumation refers to a prolonged state of inactivity during extended periods of low temperature, rather like hibernation in mammals, and this behavior is exhibited by reptiles and amphibians.

Another adaptation employed by turtles is aestivation. This refers to a state of inactivity during extremely warm and dry periods, where the turtle ‘slows down’ to avoid overexertion when heat outside is at dangerous levels.

Both aestivation and brumation allow the turtle to survive without food for long periods of time although brumation is the most dramatic — Turtles can go without food for several months!

With all that said, specific conditions need to be met to trigger brumation or aestivation. When not in one of these states, a turtle can easily die of starvation in a matter of weeks.

Let’s take a closer look at adaptions like brumation and your turtle’s feeding habits and you can see what we mean — turtles can go a long time without food, but that’s not good for their health at all!

Duration a Turtle Can Survive Without Food

tortoise having a delicious snack
Tortoise having a delicious snack

A turtle shouldn’t go a few days without eating and when they are hatchlings or juveniles, they need to be eating daily, while adults should be eating every other day. With this being said, brumating turtles can go several months without food and neglected turtles can often live for weeks.

The healthy adult turtle can go without for 3 to 6 months, although this is an average and it can be more or less, depending on the individual specimen and the environmental conditions.

Unless the turtle is brumating, however, this isn’t recommended — A neglected turtle can die and suffer other health complications.

How long can a Brumating Turtle Can Survive Without Food

Brumation is the prolonged state of inactivity during extended periods of low temperatures and it’s basically the reptile equivalent of hibernation. This natural phenomenon is especially relevant for pet owners of species like the red-eared sliders, where juvenile turtles require a carefully monitored environment to maintain their internal body temperature. While brumation is the correct technical term, you’ll hear it used interchangeably with ‘hibernation’ a lot but ‘brumation’ is the correct term for reptiles.

During brumation, individual turtles stop eating and bury themselves under mud or debris at the bottom of their aquatic habitat.

During this time, their metabolism slows to a crawl, although if it warms up temporarily the turtle can resume a normal state briefly to hunt and then go back into brumation if needed. This is a powerful survival skill — While brumating, some turtles can survive even underneath frozen ponds!

For small turtles, a healthy individual can brumate for 10 weeks or less. For larger individuals, brumation typically lasts for about 14 weeks or less. Once out of brumation, it can take a week or two before the turtle starts to eat again, but this varies from turtle to turtle.

A brumating turtle can go without food for 11 to 16 weeks.

Incidentally, Brumation is also believed to increase fertility for successful reproduction, so breeders will often stimulate brumation with their turtles before breeding them.

Unless you will be breeding turtles yourself, however, this is not something that you want to encourage – while it is a natural defense against winter, it is very hard on the turtle and could be dangerous to their health.

Seasons in Which Brumation Occurs

Brumation generally occurs during the cold parts of the year — generally fall and winter during the months of October through April. The temperature within the turtle’s habitat is what triggers this state.

When the temperature falls below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 degrees Celsius), brumation may occur, with the ideal brumation temperature being 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius).

If temperatures fall below 35 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 degrees Celsius), the turtle may not survive — even if it is in perfect health.

When the temperature is low enough, the turtle will stop eating as it prepares to brumate. Brumation takes a long time, and undigested food within its system can cause the development of harmful microbes, and this is why the turtle fasts before entering this state.

Starting off, the turtle will find a brumation spot. For aquatic turtles, this is generally at the bottom of their aquatic habitat, although turtles may also hide under any convenient cover if mud is not an option.

Among cold-blooded animals, metabolism drops drastically during this time, and the turtle can survive several weeks without food. Some turtles can even respire using the oxygen found in the water.

While turtles have to come up for air from time to time, during brumation turtles can respire underwater through alternative means, such as cloacal respiration. Essentially, they can breathe by passing water through their butts!

Freshwater turtles generally brumate in ponds and the ice that forms on top of the pond helps to insulate it. So, even if air temperatures are freezing or below freezing, the temperature at the bottom of frozen lakes may not be as below 35 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 degrees Celsius).

Most frozen lakes have water temperatures higher than 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). Water is densest at 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), so the water at the bottom of the lake/pond tends to remain around this temperature.

Dangers of Brumation

Frozen pond

There are dangers to brumation. If the temperatures are too low, the turtle can freeze and die. If temperatures are too high, the turtle’s body would upregulate metabolism which could cause starvation. The turtle is also at the mercy of predators such as foxes and raccoons, as it reacts too slowly in this state.

Turtles lose body weight during brumation, as well — up to seven percent of their body mass. Losing more than this can be harmful to their health.

Due to the dangers of brumation, you should only encourage brumation if you intend to breed your turtles and if you do, only healthy adults should be allowed to brumate.

While brumation can regulate a turtle’s weight or help to increase their fertility, it’s simply too dangerous to encourage otherwise. As far as their nutritional intake, brumation allows turtles to go without food for an average of 11 to 16 weeks.

Feeding Your Turtle When You Aren’t Around

While turtles can go for a long time without food, so can humans – 43 to 70 days before starvation kills us – but you wouldn’t want to starve and your turtle doesn’t either. Since your turtle can’t bark or meow to remind you, you’ll need to adjust your daily routine to ensure that they are always fed on time.

That means you’ll need to know the proper feeding frequency and you’ll want to ensure that your turtles are being fed on a tight, dependable schedule.

For the turtle owner planning long vacations, you’ll want a constant supply of food. Since you will have a feeding schedule, you can use an automatic turtle feeder to take away the worry of that. Have a look at our automatic feeder review for a list of the best ones.

It is essential to feed hatchlings and young turtles daily and adults about 3 to 4 times a week. If you are going to be away for extended periods of time, then you will need to figure out a way to keep your turtle fed.

This can be your neighbor or a friend, ideally someone conversant with turtle care. Such a person can take care of other requirements as well, such as changing the water within the enclosure. You’ll want to offer detailed instructions on how to feed the turtle and a demonstration is a good idea.

Written instructions are best — just in case they forget anything.

Depending on how long you’d be gone, it may also be necessary to clean the tank and change the water. You’ll also want to provide terrestrial turtles such as box turtles with a fresh bowl of water that your friend can change for fresh as-needed.

You can automate a large part of what’s required.

For instance, you can install an automatic outlet timer that can turn the UV lights and heat lamps on and off at the right times daily, and you can even install an automatic food dispenser such as the ZOO MED Turtlematic Automatic Daily Turtle Feeder or the Petbank Automatic Fish Feeder.

These feeders can be used to dispense commercial turtle pellets so that your turtles are being fed on a set schedule, and then your friend will simply need to ensure that the feeding machine is full and working, as well as any maintenance required to ensure that the water is clean and healthy until you return.

Turtle Feeding Frequency

Tortoise eating a cucumber from a personas hand
Tortoise eating a cucumber from a personas hand

We have had a look at how long a turtle can go without food but ideally, how often do you need to feed a turtle? The actual frequency at which you feed the turtle will depend on the individual turtle, but we can give you some general directives.

Both overfeeding and underfeeding can be detrimental to the turtle’s health, so pay close attention to your turtle’s eating habits when you feed it. This is something you’ll pick up naturally and it’s useful information – a drastic change in eating habits is usually the first sign of poor health or sickness.

Keep a regular feeding schedule and stick to it so that the turtle becomes used to it. This also allows you to easily notice changes in eating habits so that if your turtle is unwell you’ll be able to identify this quickly.

Usually, you need to feed juveniles and hatchlings once a day until maturity, and turtles typically nature between the ages of 5 to 7. Age of maturity differs between species, sexes, and even individuals, so your best guideline is to use the species and gender approximation associated with your turtle.

Feed mature individuals once every two days. The species may need to eat less often, but your best best it to simply pay close attention to the turtle and offer food it’s hungry until you get a good idea of it’s appetite.

If the turtle eats less, you may need to feed it less, but if it shows signs of being hungry then you may need to feed it more — just be careful not to overdo it. You’ll quickly learn with successive feedings what amounts are ideal and we’ll talk more about portions in the next section.

Upon reaching maturity, your turtle’s appetite diminishes considerably and it may only accept food once every three days or more.

As always, keep track of the turtle’s feeding habits and just adjust the feeding schedule accordingly.

Food Amount to Offer

Apart from the frequency at which you feed your turtle, you also need to determine the amount of food to feed it. Overfeeding can be a problem among captive turtles. All of the protein, fat, sugar, and fiber that you feed the turtle counts, so you have to be careful not to overdo it.

For instance, the main source of sugar in a reptile’s diet is fruits, but should only offer a very limited amount of them. Once a week as a treat is ideal, so that they can enjoy the sweetness but not glut themselves on sugar.

Protein should make up 30 to 70 percent of the turtle’s diet depending on their age. Younger turtles generally eat more protein, as they tend to be more carnivorous at an early age.

As a rule of thumb, the diet of a hatchling should be composed of about 50 percent protein (animal material) and 50 percent fiber (leafy greens and aquatic plants).

Offer adults and subadults less protein and more greens and aquatic plants. A ratio of 30 percent proteins to about 70 percent greens and aquatic plants is ideal.

You can also offer commercial turtle pellets, as they are specially formulated to give a more complete nutrient profile, but don’t simply feed them pellets alone – a varied diet is going to be best.

Offer the turtle as much as it can eat within 15 to 20 minutes.

After feeding the turtle, remove all of the food that the turtle doesn’t eat with a net. This will help to prevent contamination of the turtle’s tank and keep it clean.

Some owners even feed their turtles in a separate tank to avoid contamination and while you don’t have to do that, it certainly makes cleaning easier!

Foods Turtles Eat

Turtles are predominantly carnivorous or omnivorous, while tortoises are mostly herbivorous. Although tortoises are turtles, most turtles aren’t tortoises!

Generally, “turtle” is used to refer to freshwater turtles, such as softshell turtles, snapping turtles, mud and musk turtles, and pond turtles (such as map turtles, box turtles, and cooters).

All of these turtles eat the same foods and the portions fed to the turtle depend on how large it is and the species. Some species are extremely carnivorous and need more animal matter, while others are omnivorous and require an equal mix of both animal matter and plant matter.

As such, you’ll need to do your homework and study exactly what kind of diet is ideal for your turtle species and for its current age range. That way, you’ll be able to ensure that they are getting their proper nutrition.

Hatchling turtles have different nutritional requirements than adults do, find out more here when you’re done!

Commercial Turtle Formula

Commercial foods are an excellent way to feed aquatic turtles. They are convenient, easy to store, and contain most of the nutrients that the turtle needs. If you have access to these, they should form the basis of the turtle’s diet — along with vegetables, aquatic plants, and other animal matter.

Some excellent commercial turtle foods to check out include:

Animal Matter To Feed Your Turtle

Dried or live, krill are a popular food for painted turtles
Hot tip – Turtles love dried krill!

Turtles like to eat other animals, especially ones smaller than they are. They aren’t choosy and feed on invertebrates, fish, and even other turtles (looking at you, Snapping turtles!!).

When kept in captivity, they will accept most foods so it is up to you to ensure you offer healthy foods only. Avoid meat high in fats.

Offer worms such as earthworms, bloodworms, blackworms, and redworms. Some insects to offer include locusts, sowbug worms, mealworms, superworms, dubia roaches, crickets, and dragonfly larvae. Some fish to offer include feeder fish, such as mosquitofish, crappies killifish, bluegill, and guppies.

Avoid feeding turtles fatty meats, dairy products, and processed meat products such as sausages, deli meats, and corned beef. If you must offer meat, consider lean options such as boiled chicken (boiled in only water with no salt, spice, or additives).

Plant Matter To Feed Your Turtle

In addition to protein, you should also offer plants that are high in fiber and nutrients, and low in carbohydrates. For most turtles, plants should make up 50 to 70 percent of the diet.

You need to be particular about the foods that you feed the turtle. Avoid toxic options such as tobacco leaves; potato, avocado, and tomato leaves, roots, and stems; and poison ivy. Avoid processed foods such as bread, biscuits, cakes, pasta, and grains. These have too many carbohydrates!

Some greens to offer include romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce, spinach, squash, mustard greens, dandelion flowers, turnip greens, escarole, prickly pear, aloe, parsley, elodea, endive, and collard greens.

Some aquatic plants to offer include hyacinths, pondweed, fairy moss, water lilies, anacharis, spike rush, frogbit, hornwort water lettuce, and duckweed.

Good fruit options include mulberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, papaya, cantaloupes, honeydew melon, bananas, pears, and apples.

When you feed your turtles, a lot of food bits can end up in rocks or sand in the aquarium. Find out how to properly clean your turtle tank to get rid of it here.

Frequently Asked Questions

How often do turtles need to eat?

Hatchlings and juveniles need to be fed daily. Adults can be fed once every two to three days. As the turtle grows it tends to eat less, but ultimately the frequency at which you feed your turtle will depend on the individual turtle.

Do turtles get hungry fast?

Yes and no. Turtles can go for several days without food, and in this sense, they don’t get hungry all the time. At the same time, they are opportunistic feeders and generally take every opportunity they get to beg owners for food.

Generally, they will eat as long as food is available and this is an instinct that serves them well in the wild. After all, food is not always readily available, and building up their fat and body mass is needed to survive extended periods of inactivity (dormancy).

What happens if I forget to feed my turtle?

It all depends on how long you forget to feed your turtle, the age of your turtle, its species, and its health. A healthy, mature turtle can survive a few days and even a week without food, but as their enclosures are heated their metabolism is running full speed.

As such, skipping feedings can lead to health issues and your turtle could conceivably starve. You’ll want to create a feeding schedule and stick to it and if you’ll be away often, then it’s a good idea to invest in an automatic feeder to ensure that your turtle is never going hungry in your absence.

How do you know when a turtle is hungry?

Generally, you cannot know. They are opportunistic feeders and generally take every opportunity they get to beg owners for food. As such, it’s important to stick to a feeding schedule to avoid overfeeding your turtle.

As a general rule, Hatchlings and juveniles need to be fed daily. Adults can be fed once every two to three days. As the turtle grows it tends to eat less.

Conclusion

So how long can a turtle go without eating? Under normal circumstances, turtles shouldn’t go more than a few days without food. Feed hatchlings and juveniles daily and mature individuals every other day. The exact feeding schedule will depend on the species as well as the individual turtle.

Under the right conditions, such as brumation, a turtle can go several months without food. This is a survival trait that they have evolved to allow them to endure winter weather, however, and not something you would encourage unless you were breeding your turtles.

While they can go long periods without eating, you wouldn’t want to do that and your turtle doesn’t either, so study up on their feeding habits, set a schedule, and stick to it. Your turtle will thank you!

Turtles exhibit some telltale signs when malnourished. This article from Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital can show you some examples with a box turtle of what can happen with a poor diet.

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