One of the most stressful situations is when a turtle is not eating. Fortunately, with turtles and tortoises this problem can generally be solved quite easily, and often without the help of a vet.
I can remember buying a pair of Ornate Wood turtles (Rhinoclemmys pulcherrima) as a kid that refused to eat for weeks after I got them. I was a real novice, and this really stressed me out!
After figuring out I had not given them a large enough pool or adequate hiding places, I corrected my mistakes and finally got them feeding. This experience was worrying, but it taught me that if you remain calm and do your research, a problem feeder can turn into a healthy, hungry pet.
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What to do if your turtle isn’t eating
There are many other reasons a Chelonian (turtle or tortoise) can refuse to eat – and we’re going to go through them – but first and foremost, DON’T PANIC!
Let’s not forget that in the wild they can go 2-7 months every single year without feeding, during either hibernation (brumation), or aestivation (a dormant state to handle heat or drought). Juveniles do not hibernate as deeply as adults, but still go days or weeks without feeding.
While their metabolisms may be running at a much lower rate during these periods, it does show that Chelonians are able to survive extreme variations in food intake.
In this article, we’re going to look at some common reasons behind turtle and tortoise appetite loss and give you some top tips on how to get them back on track.
Often, when someone tells me their pet turtle isn’t eating, temperature is at fault. I cannot stress enough how important it is to know exactly what temperatures your pet is being exposed to.
Every species has a specific range of temperatures that suit them, and you must research their natural history to get it right.
For example, tropical forest species are uncomfortable if kept too warm, despite the fact we tend to think of rainforests as “hot”. The reality is that temperatures there are incredibly stable, hovering around 77°F (25°C) during the day and 72°F (22°C) at night.
This means turtles that live in rainforests never experience the 86°F (30°C) summer heat that occurs in the U.S. or southern Europe.
One such species is the Vietnamese Leaf Turtle (Geoemyda spengleri) – one of the smallest turtles in the world. Being from tropical forests, they can quickly refuse to eat if kept at more than 77-80°F (25°- 26.5°C).
On the other side of the spectrum you have desert species who require a hot basking area. Gopher Tortoises, for instance, need a 90-95°F (32-35°C) basking spot to warm up before foraging, otherwise they can remain sluggish all day.
How should we measure our temperatures?
For terrestrial turtles and tortoises, measure the temperature of the basking spot with an infrared thermometer gun. For ambient temperature, use a digital thermometer probe in one of the animal’s hiding spots on the cool side of the enclosure, and another in a hiding spot on the warm side.
For aquatic turtles, measure the temperature of the basking spot, and any other land areas with an infrared thermometer gun. For water temperature use a submersible aquarium thermometer.
Never rely solely on a thermostat! Their temperatures must be double checked with thermometer guns or digital thermometers. I’ve had big brand thermostats be off by as much as 5°F (3°C). This might not sound like a lot, but to a baby turtle it can make a big difference.
If your animals are kept outside, pay attention to night-time temperatures towards autumn. If they drop too low your animals may try to hibernate – and, you guessed it – refuse to eat. If you want them to hibernate this is fine, but if they are a species that does not naturally do so you must bring them inside before temperatures dip.
A case in point is the stunning Red Footed Tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria). If you want to avoid these tortoises slowing down, going off food, and potentially getting sick, bring them indoors in the fall and give them constant, ideal temperatures until spring comes.
If you realise that your temperatures were off, correct them and you may just get your friend eating again within days! If not, keep reading to find out what else could be causing their lack of appetite.
It isn’t just temperature that turtles are sensitive to. Photoperiod, or the length of light exposure each day, also affects them.
Generally, 12 hours of daylight will keep Chelonians active, but decreasing hours of daylight can stimulate a hibernation response.
If you keep a species indoors that does not naturally hibernate, you must give them exposure to a UVB light on a timer year-round.
This will create a constant photoperiod like they would encounter in the tropics.
As always, remember to change UVB bulbs every 9 months for full effect.
Some Chelonians will have less of an appetite during the spring breeding season, this is natural and nothing to worry about if they are otherwise healthy. Likewise, gravid females often stop eating completely until laying.
The role of hydration in tortoise appetite
Something I’ve noticed with baby tortoises is that some of them just don’t understand how to drink from a bowl, to the extent where they will become dehydrated.
With dehydration comes – once again – loss of appetite! To counteract this problem, baby tortoises and terrestrial turtles should be given a warm, shallow bath every day.
I recommend a water temperature of 80-90°F (27-32°C), and depth of one third of their carapace height for around 10 minutes. Use a thermometer and change the water if it cools down too much.
Regular baths help with bowel movements and hydration, both of which encourage their appetite. For older animals baths are also great, but not necessary more than once a week.
Water depth and baby aquatic turtle appetite
Something that always makes me cringe is when I see a tiny baby turtle being kept in a huge tank, with 2 ft (60 cm) deep water.
Baby turtles are fragile, it shouldn’t be tough for them to find food or bask!
I give them a water depth of only twice the height of their carapace and an enclosure of 1 ft2 (90 cm2)at the most. At the same time, I make their basking areas as easy as possible to climb onto.
Shallow water allows them to walk along the bottom and forage whilst expending little energy. Low energy expenditure and easy access to food or basking spots results in a low stress lifestyle, perfect for encouraging feeding!
If your baby aquatic turtle seems to be struggling to find food, try this method of keeping it and see how it does.
Is my turtle stressed?
Fear of predation, overhandling, lack of a hiding place – all these can cause a turtle to become stressed and stop eating. Symptoms of stress include constantly hiding (not burrowing but hiding) or being very restless.
Also, bear in mind that although turtles and tortoises do great outdoors as adults (providing it’s warm enough in your area), juveniles can feel exposed to predation.
Often, they do better indoors for the first year or so of life, then outdoors in an enclosed pen after that, up until they reach roughly 10 cm (4 in) in length.
Should I break out the treats?
With Chelonians, the key to getting them feeding after a period of stress (such as when you first bring them home) can be trying treats, rather than a packaged diet.
Some Eastern Musk turtles (Sternotherus odoratus) love trying to kill worms, whereas baby Spiny Softshell turtles (Apalone spinifera) enjoy trying to catch minnows. The Vietnamese Leaf Turtle, that I mentioned earlier, has a fondness for snails.
Tortoises are curious by nature and can be tempted by brightly coloured or strong-smelling fruit. For a sulky tortoise, red watermelon is my go-to, though it is high in sugar and should not be given too often.
If treats do the trick for your turtle, make sure to gradually move them onto a more varied diet over time – treats are great for opening their appetite, not as a staple diet!
Have I been sold a wild-caught animal?
Unfortunately, some pet stores are still selling wild-caught turtles. Not only does this damage wild populations, but these animals are often dehydrated and parasitized.
If you suspect you have been sold a wild-caught animal, take it to a reptile vet for a full exam and parasite treatment. If you can, take its latest stool with you.
What illnesses stop a Chelonian from feeding?
Diseases that stop feeding are pneumonia, URTDs (upper respiratory tract infections), vitamin A deficiency and Mouth Rot.
Mouth Rot may be hardest to spot, causing few other symptoms in its earliest stages, asides from lethargy. When disease is involved, the change in appetite can be very sudden.
Look at the guidelines in the next segment to see when to seek help from a vet.
When to see a vet
If your pet has stopped eating, go through the tips I’ve shared and check if its husbandry needs improving.
After any alterations, wait a few days and see if it begins feeding. During this time do not handle it, as this may cause additional stress. If you have corrected a husbandry issue the turtle should resume feeding within a week or two.
If the animal does not resume eating, or shows any of the following symptoms, take it to a vet immediately:
- Runny nose/eyes
- Puss coming from the mouth or eyes
- Wheezing, coughing, or sneezing
- Lethargy (sluggishness)
- Walking in circles or swimming lop-sided
- Sudden change in behaviour
- Red or white patches on the shell or skin
Video on why a turtle isn’t eating
Sometimes turtles stop eating because they are sick, in which case some of the symptoms above will more than likely be present. If so, a vet will quickly give you a diagnosis and help restore the animal’s health.
In other cases, your pet may be refusing to eat because it isn’t happy with its husbandry – temperature being the most common issue.
If the animal is newly acquired, however, remind yourself that it may simply need some time to settle in.
Research and patience will usually solve a feeding problem, so it is important to remain calm! Use resources like this website to learn how to make your turtle feel happy and safe enough to eat regularly.
As always, feel free to comment and get in touch for advice!