If you are wondering ‘Why is my red-eared slider not eating?’, then the first thing to do is to have a qualified exotic/herp veterinarian check them out — especially if they have stopped eating altogether! If it’s only been a day or two, however, then a little ‘turtle troubleshooting’ can definitely help!
Knowing the reasons why a slider won’t eat can help you to determine the root cause and subsequently, the best course of action. Common reasons why this happens can include illness, the environment, or even simply a lack of variety in the turtle’s diet.
Some other common reasons are incorrect enclosure temperature, brumation, lack of UV lighting, sickness/health conditions, improper diet, or even just not feeding the turtles in their water.
As Ben Franklin used to say, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure’, so let’s take a look at the most common reasons why your red-eared is not eating so that you’ll have a mental checklist to help avoid this in the first place!
Table of Contents
Incorrect Temperature Range
As cold-blooded reptiles, red-eared sliders will stop feeding when temperatures are too low. This is because low temperatures reduce the metabolism rate of the turtle, as a survival trait in the wild for nasty winters.
When the temperatures are low enough, the red-eared slider stops eating, and enters a lowered metabolic state called ‘brumation’. This usually occurs throughout the cold seasons – autumn and winter. In captivity, when temperatures are low such as with a busted water heater, your turtle may stop eating.
At temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, the turtle begins to enter a state of lethargy as it prepares to brumate.
Ideally, the water temperature should be around 78 degrees, and the basking area should be much higher — with a range of 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit being the ‘sweet spot’. To ensure that the temperature doesn’t drop too low, check it with the help of a thermometer, and make changes as necessary.
Most aquarium heaters have thermostats that keep the temperature within the right range, but regardless of this, water temperature is the first thing to check with a thermometer if your turtle isn’t eating.
It’s also a good idea to install a smart thermometer that controls the temperature of the basking site as well but even if you do, you should get in the habit of checking the basking area and water manually just to catch any problems before they can affect your turtle.
It only takes moments, but this good habit can go a long way towards keeping your turtles happy and healthy! So, check every day when you go to feed your turtles and if the temperatures within the enclosure aren’t within the correct ranges, then make adjustments and be done with it!
A red-eared slider that is brumating or preparing to brumate will stop feeding. Brumation (the reptile equivalent of hibernation) occurs with red-eared sliders during the colder months (autumn and winter) in response to lowered temperatures.
Brumating sliders will be lethargic or even completely still and refuse to eat, so if the tank is chilly and your red-eared slider isn’t eating, then it may be because it is brumating or wishes to do so.
Brumation can be stressful — an unhealthy turtle may not survive! If you are initiating brumation on purpose, however, with the intent of breeding your turtles, then you must ensure that temperatures do NOT fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Also, to get the turtles out of brumation, you can’t simply return the temperature instantly to the ideal ranges — this could put your turtles in shock or potentially kill them.
You’ll need to bring the turtle out of brumation gradually, slowly increasing the temperature within the enclosure by a few degrees daily until you are back to the normal active ranges.
Turtles, including the red-eared slider, require both UVA and UVB light to thrive. In the wild, they get this ultraviolet radiation directly from the sun, but when housed indoors you’ll need to provide this lighting for them. Installing a powerful reptile lamp is a MUST.
UVB is needed for the synthesis of vitamin D3, which allows your turtles to effectively process calcium for strong bones and to help keep conditions like metabolic bone disease at bay.
UVA light helps to maintain their circadian rhythm, allowing turtles to enjoy a natural ‘night and day’ cycle. That way, they always know when it is daytime and thus, time to be active!
Lack of proper lighting can mess with the turtle and cause it to refuse food and artificial light is the best option for indoor turtles, as glass tanks heat up in direct sunlight.
The UV light needs to be on for about 12 to 14 hours each day and then off for about 12 to 10 hours each night. It’s easiest simply to adapt this to your own sleeping schedule so that the turtles will be most active when you are.
UV bulbs should be changed every 6 months, as the intensity of the UV radiation tends to degrade with the passage of time, but check your lamp’s documentation, as some high-end lamps may have a longer optimal duration.
If your turtle isn’t eating and you haven’t changed the bulbs in a long time, then you may try changing the UV bulbs within the enclosure. If you haven’t installed UVA/UVB light bulbs in the enclosure at all, then you definitely need to do so NOW.
You can also use UV test strips to measure the intensity of the UV lights installed within your enclosure and it’s really a good idea to get in the habit of this.
You should even use a test strip when you’ve just installed a new bulb — while it should function perfectly, you never know if that bulb was returned and repackaged, so it’s always better to err on the side of safety.
An excellent UV tester is the REPTI ZOO UVB Tester, so you might want to invest in one of these or a similar product, just to ensure that the lighting is going to be adequate to your turtle’s needs. While UV light is an uncommon reason for a turtle not to eat, it does sometimes occur, so it’s worth looking into.
Symptoms of Health Conditions
Loss of appetite or refusal to eat is a common symptom of many turtle illnesses and diseases. If your red-eared slider isn’t eating, then you should check for other symptoms that it is unwell.
This can help you to pinpoint conditions that the turtle may be suffering from and whether or not professional help is required. With that said, when in doubt, always go to the vet – it’s your turtle’s health, after all, so it’s the safest and most sensible course.
One of the most common parasites that affect red-eared sliders is the roundworm. Other
common parasites include nematodes, tapeworms, flukes, and flagellate organisms. Symptoms of parasitic infections may include diarrhea, passing of undigested food, throwing up, and weight loss.
Generally, to treat a parasitic infection, the herp examines fecal matter under a microscope. This helps to identify the parasite and the treatment. Typical parasite treatments may include the administering of anti-parasite medications such as fenbendazole, metronidazole, and praziquantel.
Seeing tiny black worms in the tank might look like a sign of parasitic infection, but actually, it is not. Those wiggly worms that you are seeing are merely insect larvae.
These are common in tanks with substrates such as gravels and pebbles with spaces between the stones where organic matter can build up. You can get rid of these worms by changing the water, changing the filter media, and investing in a larger tank or more powerful filter.
Cleaning the tank (including the filter, filter media, and substrate) with a bleach solution is the quickest way to get rid of these worms.
In summary, watch for symptoms of parasitic infection, but if you see little wriggly worms, those are just larvae from insects and a quick cleaning will help you to deal with that later – once you’ve addressed your turtle’s appetite issue.
If you’d like to learn more, be sure to check out our guide on turtle parasites.
Vitamin A Deficiency / Respiratory Infections
Symptoms of respiratory infections include refusal to eat, emission of rasping sounds, excessive basking, runny mouth and eyes, lethargy, and swelling around the eyes. The most common causes for this are bacterial infection and a cold environment.
Red-eared sliders suffering from vitamin A deficiency are most susceptible to respiratory infections, so we’ve grouped them together in this article so that when you think of one, you’ll remember the other!
If your turtle is constipated, it will generally refuse to eat. The discomfort from the condition will cause your turtle to lose their appetite. As turtles tend to make a lot of waste when they’re healthy, after a time you’ll tend to notice it more when they suddenly don’t seem to be producing any at all.
Your turtle may have difficulty seeing. Check to see if the red-eared slider’s eyes are shiny, free of debris, and if they look clear. A turtle with bad eyesight may have difficulty locating food, so they’re appetite is fine – they’re just going to need a little veterinary assistance to help with their eyes.
A gravid female may refuse to eat. Signs that your female turtle is gravid include attempts to dig up a nest, a loss of appetite, and the passing of eggs in the water. If your turtle is pregnant, create a conducive environment for it to lay eggs in such as a nesting box.
Egg retention is harmful to the turtle and can even lead to death, and even a lone female in a tank will produce eggs, they’ll simply be unfertilized. So, if you see signs that she may be gravid, a nesting box is a must!
A diverse diet keeps your red-eared slider interested
If your turtle won’t eat, then you need to consider that the issue might be their diet. We’ll go over some key factors that go into a proper turtle diet so that you can compare them with your turtle’s current chow regimen to see if it’s time for a change in their menu.
Lack of Live Food
Most red-eared sliders prefer to eat live food such as earthworms, waxworms, mealworms, crickets, bloodworms, grasshoppers, flies, pill bugs, beetles, grubs, spiders, slugs, snails, crayfish, and even pinky mice. The movement of the live prey attracts the turtle. If your turtle refuses to eat, then you should offer it live food.
This may encourage your turtle to eat and if so, then likely your problems are solved for now!
If you decide to offer live food, it is better to buy it from a pet store or a bait store, rather than to catch insects yourself. Insects from your backyard may be coated in pesticides or other chemicals from your or the neighbor’s lawn, and might also carry parasites that captive-bred pet store bugs should be free of.
Lack of Variety in their Diet
Commercial turtle food (such as pellets) is a staple of most pet turtle diets, as they’re formulated to contain a majority of the nutrients that turtles need. Regardless of this, turtles like variety in their diets just like we do, so if you are only feeding your turtle pellets, then try giving them live food.
Ideally, you want to feed them a mix of the two, so that your turtle gets proper nutrition and that they also look forward to each and every mealtime!
Offer Brightly-Colored Food to Your Turtle
A nifty little turtle fact is that brightly colored foods attract turtles! You can try offering colorful foods such as rose petals, and dandelion flowers. Fruits that get their attention are also good, such as watermelon, mango, papaya, tomatoes, strawberries, and pretty vegetables will also get positive attention.
Fruits contain a lot of sugar, though, so offer these only once a week. You can mix them with healthier food options, such as edible flowers or their favorite vegetables, as these are low in sugar and better for their health.
Incorrect Feeding Location
A very important factor with your turtle’s diet has nothing to do with what’s in it, but rather where it is! That’s because red-eared sliders only feed underwater! Anything that you put on land is highly likely to be completely ignored, so stick to feeding them in the water and if they’re hungry, they’re going to eat.
VCA Hospitals has an excellent article on feeding red-eared sliders that you can find here.
Other important dietary factors
Just like our taste buds change, what your turtles like to eat will change over time, so it’s important to know what they prefer at various ages in order to keep their diet interesting and nutritious.
Hatchlings and young red-eared sliders, for instance, prefer protein and live prey to plant material, while adults really like to eat their ‘greens’. So, if your adult turtle is ignoring those insects that you’ve been primarily feeding it, then you might want to switch to a heavier plant-friendly diet to see what happens.
Male red-eared slider reach reproductive maturity at 2 to 5 years. At this age, they are classified as mature turtles. Female sliders, on the other hand, take longer to reach maturity, taking 5 to 8 years before they are considered mature.
As juveniles and hatchlings, they are predominantly carnivorous, as they are unable to effectively digest plants due to a lack of microflora in their digestive tract. For juveniles, you have a pretty extensive list of options that you can add to their diets.
Offer foods such as beetles, grasshoppers, daphnia, grubs, rosy red minnows, earthworms, dubia roaches, crickets, centipedes, waxworms, superworms, sowbugs, silkworms, roaches, mealworms, caterpillars, bloodworms, lean beef, tadpoles, snails, and small fish (except catfish or carp), slugs, krills, freeze-dried shrimp or krill, fish such as bluegills, guppies, killifish, crappies, and mosquitofish, crustaceans, crayfish, canned snails, boiled chicken, 93% lean hamburger, shrimps, mudpuppies, and pinky mice.
Also, you can offer commercial foods such as Fluker’s Aquatic Turtle Diet (2 Pack / 8-Ounce), MazurI Aquatic Turtle Food, and Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle Dry Food, Hatchling Formula.
Unlike juveniles, adults are mostly herbivorous and plants will make up the bulk of their diet. They’ll still need proteins — so some live food and their pellets are still good — but your main focus needs to be on having a healthy mix of plants.
As time goes by, you’ll learn their favorites, as well, but until then just focus on the basics!
In the wild, plants are actually what sliders feed the most on. Some aquatic plants you can offer your slider include water lilies, waterweed, water lettuce, spike rush, pondweed, water hyacinth, hornwort, frogbit, duckweed, anacharis, arrowhead, and fairy moss (Azolla).
If you can’t find edible aquatic plants, then there are definitely some ‘go-to’ vegetables that your turtle will love. Dark leafy greens are best, as they are high in calcium and low in sugar, and the aforementioned flowers such as dandelions and rose petals should also be well-received.
Other vegetables to offer include escarole, fresh parsley, mustard greens, mustard, dandelion flowers & greens, collard greens, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, squash, zucchini, and turnip greens.
Although not technically vegetables, mushrooms are also an excellent addition to a turtle’s diet that they’ll gobble right up!
Finally, some fruits to offer once a week (and in small amounts) to expand your turtle’s diet include blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, honeydew melons, strawberries, mangoes, bananas, mulberries, papaya, pears, raspberries, and apples.
Foods to Avoid
Even if your turtle is refusing to eat, there are foods you should avoid offering. Many of these foods mentioned are simply unhealthy for turtles, but some others are straight-up toxic!
Some vegetables to avoid include spinach, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok-choi, and cabbage. They are excellent for humans, but they are too high in phosphorus for turtles. Also avoid offering soybeans, radishes, and avocadoes.
Do not offer bony fish such as angelfish, bichir, and cockatoo cichlid. Other fishes to avoid include fatty fishes such as kribensis cichlids, goldfish, and rosy barbs; fishes containing thiaminases such as fathead minnows, bullhead catfish, spot tail shinners, carp, gizzard shad, and goldfish; swift fishes such as neon tetra, tiger barb, and zebrafish.
Do not offer processed human foods such as pastries, cakes, pasta, sausages, grains, and such. Your turtle might like them, but additives and preservatives may be present that could hurt or even kill your turtle, so it’s best not to risk any human foods.
Finally, some toxic plants to avoid include tomato leaves, stems, and roots, avocado skin, seeds, and leaves, potato leaves, stems, and roots, tobacco, and poison ivy.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long can a red-eared slider go without food?
During brumation, the red-eared slider can go several months without eating, surviving up to 3 months without a meal! However, if your turtle is active, then you have to feed it about 3 times a week if it is an adult and daily if it is a juvenile or hatchling.
Why won’t my turtle eat his pellets?
There are several reasons why your turtle isn’t eating his pellets. These reasons include low temperatures within the tank, the turtle may be brumating/hibernating, lack of proper lighting, sickness, gravidity (pregnancy), lack of stimuli (the red-eared slider may prefer live food that moves), lack of variety in the diet, and feeding it on land instead of in water.
Why is my red-eared slider not moving?
If your turtle isn’t moving, it may be brumating or it might be sick. To rule out brumation, simply pick up your turtle and if its limbs sway freely and it doesn’t respond, then the turtle has died. If it begins moving sluggishly and it’s a little chilly, then it might well be brumation.
If it’s not cold and your turtle is responding slowly, however, then it may be sick – get a vet involved right away!
There are many reasons why your red-eared slider may stop eating. These reasons include low temperatures within the tank, the turtle may be brumating/hibernating, lack of proper lighting, sickness, gravidity (pregnancy), lack of stimuli (the red-eared slider may prefer live food that they can chase), lack of variety in the diet, and feeding it on land instead of in the water.
If your turtle isn’t eating and it’s been more than 48 hours, then you should get them to the vet right away. If the change in appetite just started, however, then go through the checklist of items we’ve shared today.
You can check the enclosure’s temperature, check to see if your red-eared slider is brumating, check the lighting, check for symptoms of sickness or pregnancy, and go over their diet to see if it is varied enough and age-appropriate.
Now that you know the basics, with a little luck and proper care your turtle will keep a keen appetite and grow up happy and healthy, but when in doubt, always go to the vet – you really can’t go wrong that way!