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What Do Painted Turtles Eat?

What do painted turtles eat? This question piques the curiosity of many who encounter the painted turtle, an aquatic freshwater turtle native to North America. The diet of these fascinating reptiles, ranging from the western painted turtle to the southern painted turtle, is as diverse as their habitat.

They are found from southern Canada, through the expansive United States, to northern Mexico, inhabiting a variety of freshwater habitats like backyard ponds, slow-moving streams, and small lakes.

These turtles, among the most common in North America, boast a wide geographic range, covering areas from New York to Washington’s Pacific coast, and from Montana to New Mexico and Texas. Their striking appearance, characterized by bright red and yellow markings that seem painted on their shell and skin, only adds to their allure.

The painted turtle diet is remarkably diverse. Being omnivores, they feed on both plant and animal matter. In their natural environments, which include freshwater bodies such as ponds, streams, rivers, lakes, marshes, and swamps, they consume a range of food items.

This includes aquatic insects, small fish, amphibians, aquatic vegetation, and small aquatic invertebrates. Understanding what painted turtles eat is key to appreciating their role in the ecosystem and their care as pets.

Diet in the Wild

Dried or live, krill are a popular food for painted turtles
Dried or live, krill are a popular food for painted turtles

In the wild, painted turtles, including baby and young turtles, feed on plants and small animals like aquatic insects, crustaceans, fish, and carrion. During the breeding season, the diet of painted turtles diversifies further to include soft-shelled eggs and dead fish, particularly in late spring when these resources are more abundant.

These wild painted turtles often hunt in large groups, especially in bodies of water rich in food sources. As juveniles, the species is primarily carnivorous, but as they mature they transition into a primarily herbivorous diet.

Juveniles, thriving in warmer water temperatures that stimulate their metabolism, feed on cladoceran zooplankton and they have strong jaws with horny, tough plates that they use to grip their food. As they grow, maintaining an optimal body temperature through basking under UVB lighting or natural sunlight becomes crucial for their digestion and overall health.

Similar to other turtles, they can only eat in the water. This allows them to swallow their food as well as easily manipulate the food.

As opportunistic eaters (or omnivorous generalists), they eat food mostly found at the bottom of their freshwater habitat or among aquatic plants of their habitat. Invertebrates found within their vicinity are a large part of their diet and these turtles are known as ‘bottom-dwelling hunters’.

The species is known to rip apart large prey with its mouth and forelimbs before consuming it but they aren’t limited to large prey, as they also dine on small particles of food on the surface of the water.

This turtle, particularly the chrysemys picta picta, is known to obtain its vivid coloration, including the yellow stripes on its lower shell, from the large amounts of carotenoid in the diet. The more carotenoids they have in their diet, the brighter their yellow and red markings, although UV radiation also contributes to this phenomenon.

Individuals that feed on moderate amounts of carotenoids will have less brightly colored markings, but sources of them abound –. Carotenoids are present in algae and other aquatic plants that these reptiles feed on.

The western-painted turtle’s diet is well-known. During early summer, their diet is mostly composed of insects (about 60%). During late summer, their diet is composed mostly of plants (around 55%). They eat a large amount of white water lilies, to the point that it even helps with the dispersal of the seeds!

The midland painted turtle is known to eat vascular and non-vascular plants, as well as aquatic insects.

Little is known of the eastern painted turtle’s diet, although we do know that it consumes fish – mostly the injured or the dead unless it gets lucky and catches a live one.

Foods to Feed Your Pet Painted Turtle

Petbank Automatic Turtle Feeder
Automated turtle feeders like this Petbank can ensure regular feeding when you won’t be home.

It is important to offer a healthy selection of food and there needs to be a variety. This ensures that the turtle isn’t fixated on one food item and that the turtle acquires all the needed nutrients. The feeding schedule is also important, and proper nutrition is a must — you’ll want to provide nutrient supplements.

For juveniles, ensure that you offer more protein in their diet than plant matter, and for adults offer an exacting mix of plant matter and animal matter.

As juveniles and hatchlings are more carnivorous, we recommend a diet of 60 percent protein/animal matter and 40 percent plant matter. You should also offer a commercial diet, as these contain an adequate mix of protein and plant matter.

We recommend offering a hatchling formula. Since the young turtle is highly carnivorous, they may refuse plants offered to them, but you should still give them the option. As they get older, they’ll eventually start taking advantage of it!

Adults are more omnivorous, so you should offer about 40 to 50 percent animal material/proteins and 50 to 60 percent plant matter. Offer more plants if needed – you’ll be able to tell if this is the case by simply watching your turtle with the plants already in the tank.

Commercial diets are popular among pet keepers as they are easy to find and store. Unlike fresh food such as bugs, fish, and leafy greens, commercial turtle diets have longer shelf lives. You can store them in any cool dark place.

Leafy greens and aquatic plants do not have a long shelf life so keep an eye on them — they will need to be thrown out if not consumed to avoid making extra work for your filter or potentially contaminating their water.

Fish and insects are also more difficult to store, as you need to keep them alive until the turtle eats them, so a small holding tank is a very good idea if you are buying your feeder fish in volume.

Commercial diets alleviate the storage issue. They are also affordable and readily available. If you are a first-time turtle owner, then we definitely recommend them. Most turtles enjoy them and they also contain essential minerals and nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D3.

Supplementation may be necessary even if your turtle is well-fed. The nutrients that are usually missing are calcium and vitamin D3. The deficiency of these nutrients can lead to metabolic bone disease and this affects the growth of the turtle.

Nutritional MBD can cause mishappened limbs and shells, and the damage done by MBD is permanent and irreversible. As such, D and calcium supplementation are a MUST.

If your schedule is irregular and you’re worried about your turtles, then check out the Top 5 Best Automatic Turtle Feeders – they can run your turtle’s chowtime like clockwork!

Proteins/Animal Matter

Freshwater snails
Canned or fresh, snails are a traditional turtle favorite

This turtle eats a lot of protein, especially as a juvenile and a hatchling. Thankfully, there are many protein sources out there to choose from! The proteins can be insects, invertebrates, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

Most turtle owners, especially those who purchase supplies from a pet store, prefer to offer insects, but options also include meat, live fish, and even canned snails. Just ensure that the foods offered aren’t processed with salt and other preservatives — these can be harmful to the turtle.

Commercial Freshwater Turtle Diet

Commercial diets are advantageous as they are affordable and over all the needed nutrients. They are also high in protein. Hatchling formulae are manufactured with the high protein needs of hatchlings. Additionally, they also have long shelf lives.

They are easy to store as well. In fact, due to their superior nutritional profile, even experienced turtle breeders rely on commercial turtle food — just make sure that’s not all that’s on the menu. You’ll still need live food and plants – the pellets just ensure that you’re rounding out their nutrition.

Treats/Freeze-Dried Food

Invertebrates (Including insects, mollusks, & crustaceans)

Insects and other invertebrates such as crustaceans are excellent sources of protein and below are some great examples of some that you might offer:

  • Crustaceans:
    • Krills, shrimp, freeze-drilled krills & shrimp, crayfish, daphnia
  • Mollusks:
    • Snails, canned snails, slugs
  • Insects & myriapods:
    • Crickets, centipedes, caterpillars, bloodworms, grubs, earthworms, dubia roaches, silkworms, roaches, mealworms, bloodworms, waxworms, superworms, and sowbugs.

Fish

Painted turtles enjoy feeding on fish and there are lots of different fishes that you can offer to your turtle. Some good examples include:

  • Bluegills
  • Guppies
  • Killifish
  • Crappies
  • Mosquitofish

Avoid offering catfish, carp, goldfish, angelfish, bichir, tiger barb, neon tetra, zebrafish, cockatoo cichlid, rosy barbs, kribensis cichlids, spot tail shiners, and fathead minnows.

Meat

The painted turtle also accepts meat. Some meats to offer include:

  • Lean beef
  • Boiled chicken (no additives added including salt, pervasive, or spices. Just plain boiled chicken)
  • 93% lean hamburger
  • Pinkie mice
  • Tadpoles

Plant Material

These turtles also eat plants and in the wild, plant matter makes up 60% of their diet. They are opportunistic feeders, so they aren’t choosy about the plants offered and will eat just about any edible plant offered to them.

It is up to you, however, to ensure that the plants offered them are healthy and completely edible for turtles, so choose the plants that you put in the tank carefully.

Greens, Fruits, and Plants to offer

Leafy greens up close
Leafy greens are good for you and your painted turtle, too!

You can offer aquatic plants, leafy greens, and fruits to add a healthy variety to their diet but there is one caveat – Fruits are to be offered sparingly, as they are high in sugars and too much of them may lead to obesity and other health issues.

With that said, here are some leafy greens and veggies that your turtles may enjoy:

  • Zucchini
  • Squash
  • Mustard Greens
  • Mustard
  • Dandelions Flowers
  • Collard Greens
  • Dandelion Greens
  • Red Leaf Lettuce
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Turnip Greens
  • Mushrooms
  • Fresh Parsley
  • Escarole

Not all greens are good for them, however. It is best to avoid leaf greens high in phosphorus such as spinach, cabbage, and kale. Phosphorus makes the absorption of calcium more difficult and your turtle will be more prone to metabolic bone disease,, so it’s important to avoid these greens.

Some fruits to offer (sparingly) include:

  • Mulberries
  • Papaya
  • Apples
  • Banana
  • Raspberries
  • Blueberries
  • Cantaloupes
  • Pears
  • Honeydew melon
  • Blackberries
  • Banana

Since fruits have high sucrose levels, they can lead to obesity if offered too frequently and in large amounts, so they should only be an occasional treat – never a regular staple.

As far as aquatic plants, here are some excellent options:

  • Frogbit
  • Spike rush
  • Water hyacinth
  • Anacharis
  • Arrowhead
  • Azolla (fairy moss)
  • Waterweed
  • Water lilies
  • Duckweed
  • Hornwort
  • Pondweed
  • Water lettuce

In an outdoor pond or painted turtle enclosure, aquatic plants not only provide nutritional value but also replicate the natural environment, complete with a basking platform and gallons of water. These setups ideally should include a canister-style filter to maintain clean water.

If you have several turtles, aquatic plants are a very good idea, and you should consider buying them in large quantities. For a single turtle, however, it may be wasteful to offer them. Instead, you can give your turtle leafy greens.

Since humans also eat leafy greens, when you’re considering your next salad, be sure to share with your turtle – they’ll appreciate your generosity!

Supplements

Captive turtles, especially those in enclosures without natural sunlight, require supplements, and painted turtles are no exception. Adequate UVB lighting and heat lamps, along with supplements like calcium powder, aid in calcium absorption, crucial for their smooth shell’s health.

For those seeking guidance on proper diet and habitat setup, you can find a care sheet on our site for the four types of painted turtles:

These care sheets have been written by experts and reviewed by a herpetologist.

High-quality commercially manufactured pellets contain all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients needed. If you are offering turtle commercial pellets, you won’t even need to offer much in the way of supplements.

Otherwise, you’ll definitely need to supplement the turtle’s diet to ensure that they are getting proper nutrition.

Vitamin D3 and calcium are the most commonly needed supplements. You can offer cuttlebones or commercial calcium blocks to offer the calcium they’ll need and a commercial turtle diet for their other nutrients ensures that their health requirements will be met.

The Dr.Turtle Slow-Release Calcium Block and  Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle Banquet Block are great choices and if you want to learn more about turtle supplements, the Turtle Hub has a great article on that subject that you can read here.

Floating treats are some of the best turtle toys and can sometimes help to get your turtle excited about eating.

Foods to Avoid

Avocado slices
Avocados are toxic for turtles so they’re definitely off the menu!

Painted turtles are opportunistic feeders and will accept most foods offered to them, so it is up to you to keep unhealthy and potentially toxic foods away from them. Some of these foods are okay for humans to consume, so you may not even know that they are harmful to your painted turtle.

For instance, some vegetables to avoid include:

  • Avocado
  • Spinach
  • Chard
  • Parsley
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Beetroot
  • Cassava
  • Radishes
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Chives
  • Soybeans
  • Potatoes
  • Purslane
  • Rhubarb
  • Endive
  • Brussel sprouts
  • String beans
  • Bok-choi

Plant bits to avoid offering include:

  • Avocado seeds, stem, skin, and leaves
  • Tomato roots, stems, and leaves
  • Potato roots, leaves, and stems
  • Poison ivy

Fruits to avoid include:

  • Amaranth and fruit seed
  • Blackberries
  • Citric fruits
  • Nuts

Fish to avoid offering include:

  • Fatty fish such as rosy barbs, goldfish, and  kribensis cichlids
  • Fish with high levels of thiaminases such as goldfish, gizzard shad, card,  bullhead catfish, fathead minnows, red rosy minnows, feathered minnows, and spottail shiners
  • Bony fishes such as bichir, angelfish, and cockatoo cichlid
  • Fast-swimming fish that are hard to catch such as neon tetra, zebrafish, and tiger barb

Human foods such as meat and other dairy products to avoid include:

  • Dairy product
  • Processed foods with high levels of salt, sugar, and preservatives such as sweets, cookies, bread, grains, biscuits, pastries, cakes, pasta, corned beef, and sausages
  • Raw meat
  • Fatty meats

Reasons Why A Painted Turtle May Not Be Eating

There are a number of reasons why your turtle may lose their appetite, so it is important to notice whenever they suddenly seem to lose interest in their meals. Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons why your turtle might stop eating so that you’ll know what to check!

Improper Husbandry

The temperature within the enclosure has to be right — you’ll need to maintain a temperature range of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, provide adequate healing and UVB exposure.

The lights need to be on for 10 to 12 hours daily and off for 10 to 12 hours daily as well, in order to simulate a natural cycle of day and night. You can accomplish this by turning the lights on and off manually on a regular basis, or you can install timers to automate this process.

Without a regular day and night cycle, your turtle’s circadian rhythms will become irregular, and this can have a negative impact on their health.

Respiratory Infection/ Vitamin A Deficiency

One of the symptoms of respiratory infection is refusal to eat or loss of appetite. If you suspect this might be the case, other symptoms to look for include swellings around the eyes, lethargy runny eyes and mouth, excessive basking, and emission of raspy sounds.

Impaction/Constipation

If the painted turtle is constipated, then it may not feel like eating. As turtles tend to be messy creatures, you’ll likely notice if they have stopped producing waste, so keep an eye out for this.

Impaction is another condition that can cause a loss of appetite and this usually occurs when the turtle ingests a large quantity of substrates from the floor of the tank.

Eye Problems

Similar to humans, turtles can suffer from eye problems, and this can make it difficult for them to locate their food. If your turtle swims up when you come to feed them, but never seems to eat, then this might well be the case.

Intestinal Parasites

Some common parasites include roundworms, nematodes, flagellate organisms, and flukes. Apart from a loss of appetite, other symptoms of parasites include vomiting, weight loss, passing of undigested food, and diarrhea.

Gravidity

When a turtle is carrying eggs, we say that it is ‘gravid’. A gravid female may eat less or even stop eating altogether. Other signs that the turtle has eggs include passing of eggs in water, and digging around the nest.

You can help to avoid this particular issue by simply building a nest box in advance. If you have a female painted turtle, then this is a MUST. The female lay eggs, even without a male there to fertilize them.

Worse, the eggs could become impacted and threaten your turtle’s health, so be sure to check out ‘How to Set up a Turtle Nesting Box’ when you have some free time to learn more!

Lack of Stimuli

Some painted turtles may only eat food that moves, such as mice, worms, and insects that are visibly alive. This is especially true for individuals who have only been fed live food since hatching and wild-caught individuals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do I feed my painted turtle?

They eat a wide variety of foods and you should offer them a mix of them. Start off by offering commercial diets such as Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, Hatchling Formula, Exo Terra Aquatic Turtle Hatchling Food, and Gargeer Aquatic Turtle Food.

You should also offer invertebrates such as Krills, shrimp, freeze-drilled krills & shrimp, crayfish, daphnia, snails, canned snails, slugs, crickets, centipedes, caterpillars, bloodworms, grubs, earthworms, dubia roaches, silkworms, roaches, mealworms, bloodworms, waxworms, superworms, and sowbugs.

Fish such as bluegills, guppies, killifish, crappies, and mosquitofish are also excellent additions to their diet, and you can also offer plants and veggies.

Great plants, veggies, and occasionally fruits to include are zucchini, squash, mustard greens, mustard, dandelions flowers, collard greens, dandelion greens, mulberries, papaya, apples, banana, raspberries, blueberries, frogbit, spike rush, water hyacinth, anacharis, and arrowhead.

Can painted turtles eat fruit?

Painted turtles eat fruits, but since they have high sucrose levels, they can lead to obesity if offered too frequently and in large amounts.

Provided that they are offered sparingly and only once or twice a week, some good fruits to offer include mulberries, papaya, apples, bananas, raspberries, and blueberries.

Do painted turtles eat every day?

Baby and juvenile painted turtles should be fed every day, as they are growing and need the extra nutrition. Adults, on the other hand, don’t need to eat every day, with a feeding schedule of once every two days being just about perfect.

Can painted turtles drink milk?

No, painted turtles are reptiles, NOT mammals, so they never evolved to drink milk or even properly digest dairy foods. As such, keep dairy foods and liquids off of the menu. These could lead to diarrhea, upset stomach, or worse, so it’s important to keep dairy out of your painted turtle’s diet.

Can painted turtles eat raw chicken?

While they technically can eat it, you don’t want to risk introducing salmonella to their water, so be sure to only offer fresh, cooked chicken — never raw.

What are some foods harmful to the painted turtle?

Some foods that we know to be harmful to painted turtles include vegetables such as avocado, spinach, chard, parsley, broccoli, cabbage, beetroot, cassava, radishes, onion, garlic, chives, soybeans, endive, Brussels sprouts, string beans, and bok-choi.

Plant bits to avoid include avocado seeds, stem, skin, and leaves, tomato roots, stems, and leaves, potato roots, leaves, and stems, and poison ivy. Fruits that you should avoid include blackberries, citrus, and nuts.

Fish to leave off of their menu include fatty fish, fish that are high in thiaminases, bony fish, and fast-swimming fish. Human foods like dairy and processed foods with additives and preservatives should also be kept away from your turtles and you should also avoid raw and fatty meats.

Conclusion

Today we’ve taken a closer look at what painted turtles eat and as you can see, they have a pretty diverse diet.

As juveniles, they need more protein, so they tend to eat fewer plants and focus more on live or protein-rich animal matter – this is even reflected in commercial diets, which come in ‘hatchling’ and ‘adult’ varieties for this very reason.

As they get older, plants make up a larger part (55%) of their diet, and for the best nutrition and to keep your turtle excited when it’s dinner time, you’ll want to include a mix of commercial pellets, live animals such as insects, invertebrates, and fish, and live plants and veggies will make up the rest.

Just be sure with leafy greens and veggies to quickly clean up what your turtle doesn’t eat and this goes for meats as well – which should be freshly cooked and NEVER raw. Provided that you keep their diet diverse and interesting, your turtle should look forward to their meals and grow up happy and healthy!

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