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What Should I Feed my Box Turtles?

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Question: What Should I Feed my Box Turtles?
Box turtles are omnivores, meaning they will eat a variety of animal and plant based foods. However, the proportions of animals vs plant based foods will depend on both the age and the species of box turtles. Generally, hatchlings and juveniles are more carnivorous than herbivorous, with more plant matter being added to the diet as thy grow older. However, in adults the ratio of animal and plant based foods will vary depending on the species.
Answer: Vegetables and Fruits A wide variety of fruits and vegetables should be offered in order to provide a balanced diet. Items should be clean and pesticide free. Particular attention should be paid to the calcium and phosphorus balance in the diet to prevent metabolic bone disease. An overall balance or ratio of calcium to phosphorus of 1:1 to 2:1 (calcium:phosphorus) is the ideal. The importance of this ratio in each individual item is not as important as the overall balance. Feeding a wide variety of items with the emphasis on those items with a good calcium to phosphorus ratio is the best way to maintain a healthy diet. A table of many different vegetables and fruits with their calcium to phosphorus ratios can be found on The Box Turtle Site. Look at the column headed Ca:P for the calcium to phosphorus ratio. Those items with a number greater than 1.0 are those which have a good ratio and should be emphasized in the diet. As an example, bananas (a favorite of many turtles) have a ratio of 0.32 which is low, and means they should be fed in moderation.

The following list is a good variety of fruits and vegetables (listed in no particular order):

  • Dark leafy greens such collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, kale etc.
  • romaine lettuce is probably acceptable but not as nutritious as other dark leafy greens. Never feed iceberg lettuce (poor nutritional value)
  • spinach (only occasionally due to high oxalic acid levels)
  • broccoli stems and leaves
  • carrot
  • beets
  • soaked alfalfa pellets, fresh alfalfa hay
  • pea pods
  • edible flowers such as hibiscus, nasturtium, dandelions
  • clover
  • strawberries
  • berries such as black berries, raspberries, blueberries
  • grapes
  • apples
  • mango
  • peaches
  • papaya
  • apricots
  • tomatoes (occasionally)
  • banana
  • kiwi
  • melon
  • corn on the cob can be an occasional treat

Animal Items
A variety of fresh and natural prey items is the best choice, and can be obtained from pet stores and bait shops. You can feed items caught outdoors too but be very careful about possible exposure to pesticides. Box turtles kept outdoors will probable hunt down wild insects and other invertebrates on their own, too.

  • crickets
  • earthworms
  • grass hoppers
  • beetles
  • caterpillars
  • mealworms
  • wax worms
  • super worms
  • red worms
  • snails
  • slugs
Other animal based items can include minnows, small chunks of cooked meats such as chicken and beef heart (raw meats offer too much chance of bacterial contamination) and occasionally moistened high quality, low fat dog food.

Commercial Diets
There are commercial box turtle diets available that are marketed as nutritionally complete. I am wary of formulated reptile diets as a long term diet, however, and I would recommend them only as a supplement to a variety of fresh foods.

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
This is a somewhat controversial area, and the need depends on the diet and housing (outdoors vs indoors). However, it is probably wise to dust the turtle food with a good balanced reptile multivitamin supplement at least a couple of times a week. Turtles kept outdoors under natural sunlight will produce their own vitamin D3 and won't need this vitamin supplemented.

A note on cannibalism: a turtle expert adds that box turtles have been known to resort to cannibalism. This is independent of how well fed they are, and often happens as a result of a box turtle ending up on its back or falling in water. I add this simply as something to be aware of -- make sure if you keep multiple turtles together that there are ample hiding places and no areas where a turtle might end up stuck and unable to get away from its cage mates.

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