Feeding Aquatic Turtles

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Aquatic turtles have always been popular terrarium subjects, both as a result of their ready availability and physical variety. However, due to their semi-aquatic nature, certain aspects of their husbandry may prove more challenging than those of a terrestrial species.

In the mid-1970's legislation was past that prohibited the sale of hatchling turtles under 4 inches in length to the general public. This was an effort on the part of the Food and Drug Administration to reduce reptile-related Salmonella infections among children. The result was less impulse purchases of these animals, fewer instances of Salmonellosis, and many angered turtle hobbyists.

Fortunately, the enforcement of these laws has relaxed over the decades. As long as certain guidelines are carefully followed, dedicated turtle enthusiasts can still obtain and keep many species, both common and rare.

Advancements in reptile care have made it so aquatic turtle care is well within the means of nearly anyone, but nonetheless, education is key to long term success. In this article, the basics of turtle nutrition and feeding will be covered. While housing, heating, and lighting concerns are easily overcome by most keepers, issues relating to feeding and supplementation tend to pose a greater obstacle.

It should be kept in mind that this is by no means a complete treatment of aquatic turtle care. Aspects such as enclosure selection, heating, lighting, and filtration should be researched elsewhere. There are many excellent articles and books available that cover all of the caveats of turtle care and breeding in great detail. These sources should be consulted, and this piece regarded as supplemental information.


Many of the most commonly encountered turtle species are omnivorous by nature. By being open-minded about their dietary selections, these animals receive a wide variety of proteins, vitamins, and minerals in the wild. A similarly diverse diet should be provided in captivity as well.

There are many very acceptable commercial turtle diets on the market, all with different strengths and weaknesses. It is for this reason that no single pelleted food be used as a complete, un-supplemented diet. Instead, a combination of different brands of food along with live insect prey and vegetable matter should make up the majority of the turtle menu.

Specific dietary preferences will vary from species to species, and some insight into the natural history of the turtles being kept is recommended. After all, offering a widely varied diet is not very effective if the animal refuses to eat certain items.


While no two turtles will have the same needs as far as feeding frequency and quantity, some generalizations can be made. Smaller animals will obviously require less food than larger animals, and temperate zone species often reduce their food intake during the coolest months of the year.

As a general rule, turtles should be offered only as much food as will be readily consumed in an hour or less. Overfeeding is a common problem with aquatic turtles, but not for the most obvious reasons. Rather than becoming overweight and unhealthy (as would most overfed pets) turtles tend to simply ignore food once they have had their fill. The issue that then presents itself is the decomposing leftovers and the effect it has on water quality.

The most common cause for abnormally dirty turtle water is overfeeding, with inadequate filtration being a close second. Pellets, vegetable matter, and live prey left in the water quickly break down, soiling the water faster than any filtration system can clean it. This can lead to bacterial growth and unhealthy ammonia levels.

Partial water changes coupled with feeding more reasonable amounts can quickly reverse this problem should it occur. Nonetheless it is best to prevent the situation from arising to begin with by paying close attention the amounts of food being offered and the amounts being consumed.


As mentioned earlier, providing a wide variety of food items is key to proper turtle nutrition and health. Food items for terrestrial herps are routinely dusted with calcium and vitamin supplements prior to being offered. However, in the case of aquatic animals, this can become difficult due to the fact that any powdered supplement will quickly wash off the food when placed into the water, which is where most aquatic turtles choose to feed.

To combat this conundrum some keepers opt to feed their turtles in dry "feeding" tubs. However, many turtles, especially newly acquired ones, will refuse to feed if not offered the security of water. Instead, offer as many different foods as possible including commercial pellets which are conveniently infused with the necessary nutrients.

In addition to the many types of commercial foods available, live feeder insects should be offered as well. These can include appropriately sized crickets, mealworms, waxworms, superworms, roaches, fish, shrimp, and nightcrawlers. These foods may be accepted on land, but more often than not they will end up in the turtle’s water source and be consumed there.

Vegetable matter should make up the remainder of the diet. The willingness of these animals to accept veggies will vary according to species, age, and personal preferences. The fruits and vegetables offered should be high in calcium and other vitamins, and low in phosphorus and sugars.

Dark, leafy greens such as kale, romaine lettuce, and collard greens are all excellent choices. Squash, peppers, and non-citrus fruits may be offered as well. Consult the specific dietary needs and preferences of the species being kept for more specific recommendations.


As discussed earlier, most if not all powdered supplements used on foods being fed to water turtles will be washed off in an aquatic environment. However, because many species will feed voraciously when food first becomes present, there is some merit to supplementing foods anyway. What small amounts of supplement remains on the food will add up over time, slowly but surely aiding in the prevention of certain vitamin deficiencies and metabolic disorders.

Of most importance, especially with young animals, is a calcium supplement. Animals housed indoors under artificial lighting should receive a calcium supplement complete with vitamin D3. Animals housed outdoors should be able to bask in direct sunlight and bio-synthesize vitamin D3 naturally.

In addition to a calcium supplement, a reptile multivitamin is also highly recommended. There are a number of such products available, all with different formulas. Follow the manufacturers directions for dosing information, as it will vary from product to product. Regardless, the use of a multivitamin will aid greatly in ensuring that no deficiencies occur over time.


All reptiles raised in captivity are capable of succumbing to a number of ailment related to an inadequate diet. However, certain species are more prone to specific problems than others. In the case of aquatic turtles, especially babies, deficiencies of calcium and vitamin A are the most prevalent.

Calcium deficiencies, sometimes diagnosed under the umbrella term "metabolic bone disease," stem from inadequate dietary calcium coupled with a lack of exposure to full spectrum lighting and/or appropriate vitamin D3 supplementation.

Symptoms of calcium deficiency include soft or misshapen shells, protruding eyes, lethargy, and anorexia, among others. Should any of these symptoms present themselves, swift action should be taken. Carefully review all aspects of husbandry paying close attention to the three aspects mentioned above.

Vitamin A deficiency, like calcium deficiency, is most likely to occur in baby or juvenile turtles. Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin that aids in a number of bodily functions, most notably, the maintenance and health of mucous membranes. While a deficiency of vitamin A may wreak havoc internally, it is the external symptoms that are most often noticed by keepers. These include swollen eyelids (both eyes are typically affected equally), nasal discharge, lethargy, and little interest in food.

The natural precursor of vitamin A in plant matter is beta carotene. Beta carotene is found in high amounts in yellow, red, and orange vegetables. By including these foods (squash, bell peppers, etc) in the diet, and by using proper supplements, deficiencies in vitamin A can be avoided.

With both issues, prevention is the best medicine. Properly planning the diet, and closely monitoring the condition of the animals are the most sure-fire ways to avoid many problems. Additionally, when caught early, both conditions are quite reversible. But if the conditions go unnoticed and are allowed to progress, the prognosis becomes more guarded.


Water turtles are, without a doubt, some of the most fascinating reptiles commonly kept in the United States. Fortunately there is a wealth of information available pertaining to their care in captivity, making them a manageable pet for any dedicated keeper.

However, their maintenance is not without caveats, the most notorious of which have been discussed in this article. By following the guidelines discussed herein, and by carefully researching the general needs of the species being kept, turtle ownership can be a successful and rewarding endeavor for all.