This article is part of a four-part series that is all about the care of pet Red Eared Slider Turtles (RES). There is a wealth of information to be found and oodles of pictures. Each article is stand-alone and independent of the others, whether you seek information on housing, turtle health or just want to know more about your turtle, the information will be found within this series of articles.
I may know my stuff now, about turtles, but I did not know much at all, if anything when I first brought him home. My parents allowed my sister and I to 'pick a reward' from the mall above our bowling alley when we did good in tournaments or just had an unbelievable game. They forgot about the itty bitty pet store in the corner this day and I took full advantage. I came home with a turtle, my sister got new rubbery sandals.
Lucky for me my father was an outdoors type guy and knew dried flies were just not right. There was no internet at the time and we relied on vets and he even spoke to a professor or two at a nearby university (dragging me with him). This attempt at knowledge turned into trial and error and ultimately we learned what was best for the turtle.
Feeding your turtle now-a-days is nearly as easy as feeding a cat or dog. Well, eventually, there are some years in between hatchling and tween (5 years to 20 years) where the internet has told you your turtle will eat vegetables and fruit. Yet, for all the heads of lettuce you toss at him, he won't so much as nibble it.
The internet, this time at least, did not lie to you, it only mislead you with how easy it will be.
In the wild young turtles are primarily carnivorous – anything that moves on its own is considered food and lakes and streams provide plenty of this for them. At some point during the aging and growing process they start to nibble and eat water plants, they experiment with eating things that fell from nearby bushes and trees such as berries or crab apples.
Our pets though are fed protein heavy pellets from the beginning.
To ensure good health and longevity in your turtle you need to understand what they can and can not eat. I use to sneak cold dry cereal like Cheerios and a few times Cap't Crunch. He ate it – but it was not in his best interest to eat it.
It's easy to want to use the method of feeding that is easiest to you as the care giver of your turtle, but it's more important you ensure your pet turtles diet is balanced and healthy for him, even if it means a little extra work.
Keepers use pellets mainly because they are nutritionally formulated for turtles providing maximum nutrition and for the turtles part, they are incredibly eager to eat those pellets.
Red eared sliders are well-known for being gorgers and protein seems to inspire them to gorge more. While pellets are formulated for maximum benefit, they are a little heavy on the protein side for an exclusive diet, they were meant to be taken along side fresh vegetables, fruits and meats. Unfortunately, due to the protein in the pellet, the turtles will take them over anything else in the tank.
Pellets do provide important vitamins such as D3, which most indoor turtles without UVB lighting need to have added to their diet most often through commercial foods, since a lack of D3 can cause a whole plethora of health issues. But, so can too much protein.
With the daily use of pellets and live food commonly given it is very easy to have a diet too high in protein. Too much protein can cause very rapid growth, kidney and liver damage as well as pyramid-shaped shell.
If your turtle's carapace scutes start to develop concentric ring patterns and thicken, it can make the shell look 'bumpy'. This is a sure sign of too much protein. If caught early enough you can correct the damage to the shell, but if left long enough it is permanent.
All of which can shorten and lessen the quality of your pet turtles life.
Tricky Business of Turtle Nutrition
Reproducing a natural wild diet is the best way to balance a turtles diet. In the wild, turtles choose a variety of foods depending on what is in season. Variety is the secret to avoiding too much protein as well as keeping all other nutritional elements in balance.
Calcium, vitamin D3, phosphorus and vitamin A are the other elements we need to consider and as is the way of things, they rarely play nice together. When turtles first came out, it did not take long for the health problems to emerge since we did not know much of anything about keeping turtles.
To cure the turtles ails (they were suffering from metabolic bone disease – in which the body uses the calcium in bones to get what it needs, leaving bones deformed and weak), calcium was given, but the problem did not go away. It was discovered Vitamin D3 is needed. Still wasn't quite right, the problem persisted. It was baffling till they realized they needed phosphorus as well to help with the absorption of calcium.
What you need to remember is that phosphorus is in most of the foods they eat and vitamin D3 can be easily added with UV-B lights, commercial foods or a little time outdoors on warm sunny days, it's the calcium we need to keep an eye out for.
Red eared sliders can not use the calcium nor digest dairy products like yoghurt, cheese and milk. In the wild a turtle would get the calcium it needs through the addition of snails and eggs into their diet as well as some vegetables. It's been shown that wild animals have a considerably higher calcium intake than pets.
To be honest, many turtle keepers find that providing a rich and varied diet results in turtles not using them, myself included. I have not used a calcium block or supplement in years. He gets all his calcium through his diet. Unfortunately many turtles live on pellet diets and need added calcium.
Luckily the pet trade has your back and provides turtle calcium blocks and supplements for you to use. It allows the turtle to choose when to use them if they need them. But that is a band-aid solution, consider changing their diet, adding foods or even taking away foods.
So what foods are included in this rich and varied diet you keep talking about.
What You Can and Can Not Feed Them
Lucky for RES turtles there are only a few things they really should never eat, but they are somewhat common sense too. Since there are considerably fewer items they can not eat compared to what they can eat, we will start with the list of no-no's.
All milk products they lack the needed enzymes to break down lactose.
All canned goods and processed foods which are too high in salt and preservatives.
Naturally any candy, chocolate, flours and refined sugars.
No meats designed for human consumption.
No rhubarb and avocado plants
And that is all the no-no's.
Your turtle can essentially eat everything else in between ... fresh fruits and vegetables, meat in the form of aquatic life (not the meats me and you eat).
Some turtle keepers believe that turtles in the wild are never exposed to fruits and as such should either not be fed or should be fed sparingly as in a treat.
My turtles enjoy apple slices, frozen banana chunks periodically, strawberries are a main food of their diet as are blueberries and cherry tomatoes are gobbled up so fast sometimes I wonder if I even gave them one. The key is variety. If I only fed them one type of fruit and crickets, then it is bad. But if I feed vegetables with a few fruits everyday then it is not bad at all.
In many cases I freeze the fruits like strawberries, blueberries and grapes when it is close to 'turning bad' or just before – and since many fruits in my house seem to turn quickly, this is a big money saver for me.
A quick list of some fruits you can feed with the ones that I have found success with at the top.
Apples – preferably sweeter and not sour like granny apples. I slice mine and let it float on top of the tank, one turtle gets thicker slices than the other. Leave skin on.
Strawberries – frozen or fresh. I literally toss them in whole whether frozen or fresh and for added work, I do not thaw out the frozen berries.
Grapes – Between apples, strawberries and grapes, I really can't say which are the more popular, but grapes with skin on tossed in are loved in my tanks. I sometimes drop three or four in different areas so that when he is done eating that one, he can 'forage' for more.
Blueberries – my guys prefer these frozen for some reason, but fresh works fine too.
tomatoes – small cherry type tomato I just toss in the tank and watch the fun of them trying to 'capture it'. I believe feeding foods they 'work' for adds a mental stimulation they may not often get.
Bananas – I usually cut these into chunks, skin and all and toss into the tank either fresh or frozen, but I find frozen lasts longer.
Melons – most kind work, my guys seem to prefer the firmer fleshed types but they eat honey-dew, cantaloupe and even some watermelon now and then.
I have heard that others have had success with fruits such as mango and papaya, my guys have yet to show any real significant interest in them, but they will eat it, just not as eagerly as apples, strawberries and tomatoes.
There are a few vegetables you should either not feed to your turtle or feed only like once a month.
Spinach is one you should feed sparingly too and not make it a part of the regular feeding.
Iceburg lettuce or head lettuce as it is often called is nutritionally bankrupt and basically useless.
Cabbage is said to be not so good, but it is like spinach and should be used sparingly.
These are the ones that you can use freely:
Dark leafy greens are excellent to use – romaine, leaf lettuces, kale, mustard greens, dandelions, collard greens, beet leaves, endive, bok choy and spring mixes (just watch for spinach). I have also given then fiddleheads when they start to appear in spring. Leafy greens are easily the largest portion of my guys day-to-day diet.
Carrots – I thinly slice mine and use sparingly per serving as my guys rarely eat it, but I consistently provide it for Vitamin A, needed for eye health and respiratory function. They eat it, it would seem, when they feel they need it.
Peas – my calcium source. They enjoy snap peas still in the pod and utterly ignore frozen bagged peas.
Pumpkin, zucchini, sweet potato and squash are other perfectly good viable sources of food, only my guys have not much bothered with them and I can't say I have been successful, yet, in introducing these foods.
From the beginning my turtles have had live food, a variety of it, in their tanks available for them to eat when ever they want. Live food also provides stimulation in that it has to hunt and chase them, sometimes it has to figure out how to eat it, as in the case of some of the snails.
There is a surprising amount of 'live' foods to give and keep housed in their tanks with them.
When it comes to fish I tend to use goldfish as my main source of live meat in the tank. I also add guppies sometimes (they live in a 6 foot long tank) just for an added challenge. I also feed them (as well as save and freeze) parts of the fish caught during fishing season in Canada. They seem to really love the insides of bass, pickerel and sunfish more so than the meat.
My guys love earthworms, especially when they were younger, I hated the fact that when they bite them in half, all the dirt in them would come spilling out, so I started soaking the worms in small puddles to encourage them to poop out the dirt.
I will add the occasional crayfish to one of my tanks. The other turtle is, ahh, apparently scared of it and won't eat it unless it is dead a few days – I'm serious. The older boy I have chows down on them like a mower on grass.
I keep snails in my boys tank for a natural boost of calcium if they want it and some snails are great at removing algae from the area when the light is most intense. I use Japanese Trapdoor Snails, they are large and they can hold up to turtle curiosity remarkably well. They also last long than most other snails.
In an effort to offer as natural food as possible, I tried tadpoles. They seemed to enjoy them but I did not consider what would happen if they did not eat them and of course, Murphy's Law, it happened. Three tadpoles were never eaten and grew into big ole frogs or toads or something.
Some people use crickets, gut fed or not. I don't. I can't comment really on how well they work as a food, but even gut fed crickets are low nutritionally speaking. I also don't use bloodworms, so again I can't say their worth, I will just note that people have used them. I also do not often use 'ghost shrimp' but there is nothing wrong with using them as food.
Aquatic (or Pond) Plants
Water lettuce, water hyacinth, duck weed, hornwort, water grasses, anacharis, water lilies, frogbit, water milfoil and pondweed are all aquatic plants you can pick up at either an aquarium store (Like Big Al's in Canada) or from pond stores that sell aquatic plants for outdoor ponds.
Any plant you put into a turtle tank, I suggest not getting attached to. My boys will bite the water-lily stems and set the flowers free. Hornwort they gather into messy balls and sleep on and with duckweed they motor along the surface with their mouths open.
I don't use duck weed any more, it's one of the plants that seriously mess up my filter – but the turtles do love it – both to eat and hide under.
A tip: If you purchase plants from a nursery, chances are it has been fertilized or sitting in water with fertilizer in it. I always soak my floating plants like water lettuce and water hyacinth over night or for at least a day before adding to the tank.
Pellets are made by a number of sources, Mazuri, Wardleys and Repto-Min have the highest quality, best bang for your buck.
You may also be able to find trout pellets (it's getting harder) but they can also be given to your turtle ... but I warn you it doesn't take many pellets to make your turtle fat and they absolutely love trout pellets.
Calcium blocks are good to have if you are still sorting out or moving your turtle to a 'real food diet'. You can't overdose them on Calcium and they will only use the block as they need it, if they never use it, it just 'disappears' over time.
Customizing Your Turtles Diet
When I started to feed them non commercial types foods, I had one heck of a turtle protest on my hands. They flat-out refused to nibble on anything that was not a pellet or a moving fish. The ignored my attempts to entice them with it and it wasn't until nearly a week later when they finally gave in.
After I found a recipe that works. The gentleman's name that gave me this recipe is long-lost to history, hopefully he knows who he is. Using just a blender, fresh foods and a reptile based gelatin powder, you can create your own highly customized 'pellet' without any significant effort.
Sound too good to be true, but I am not kidding nor trying to be deceptive.
When you start creating your customized foods one of the biggest bonus' is that you can not only introduce foods they would likely never try, but you can control the nutrient values and portion sizes.
This 'recipe' I offer you is more of a guide, since the combinations and possibilities of food types are endless and really do allow you to use a range of foods and maximize the nutrition factor.
I use a lot of live foods in my turtles diet and as such do not add much if any meat to the recipe, other than perhaps some tuna water to entice them to try it, in the beginning. Remember the holy nutritional trinity, the point of this recipe is to find an easy way to add other nutrients besides protein, which is readily available to the turtle.
A few of these recipes or ideas for home-made turtle food tends to involve things like chicken, hamburger or beef hearts – I do not use any type of meat meant for human consumption in my turtles diet – without a vet saying to do so. I don't use eggs meant for humans either. Sadly I have even seen some suggest using red dye or the like ... just add strawberry I say.
Here is the recipe (guide)
Reptile gelatin, available at pet stores.
Fruits of your choice – berries, apples, grapes, melons
Vegetables of your choice – Dark leafy greens, zucchini, carrots etc
Meat (if using) – tuna water, bugs, worms or snails.
Chop up the fruits, veggies you have selected, as well as any water plants you may be adding. I find a blender is best – just don't purify into liquid – you want small bits of food.
Prepare the gelatin mix. Want more gelatinous, use less liquid. This gelatin has vitamins and nutrients in it, plus all the nutrients from the food added. Doesn't need more added in the form of powdered supplements.
Mix it all up.
Freeze it overnight in ice-cube trays – I bought some fish-shaped ones at the dollar store, but any kind will work.
Serve next day or when ever – no need to thaw, but you can if you want to make it easier.
With younger turtles, tuna water, bugs or earthworms can add an appeal to at least nibble on this new food, as they are familiar with those.
Turtles are notoriously curious – usually when you're not looking. They may ignore it when you're standing right there, but when you turn your back, they're all over it.
Sometimes I make these more as a quick and easy way to feed them, I don't always make sure the food's chopped up fine, some times I leave larger chunks of leafy greens poking out.
You don't have to thaw it out, I find frozen foods present a small challenge to turtles, who always rise to the occasion.
If they don't eat it or try it, take it out after a while, and try again. And again. Don't give up, they can be stubborn.
When first trying, use smaller ice-cube trays, once you know they eat them, then try larger ones. I tend to prepare both small and large-sized ones.
Turtle Pudding or Homemade Turtle Food
It really is this easy ... and so beneficial for your turtle!.