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Home > Turtles > How Long Can a Tortoise Go Without Food? A Safety Guide

How Long Can a Tortoise Go Without Food? A Safety Guide


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Dr. Karyn Kanowski Photo

Written by

Dr. Karyn Kanowski

Veterinarian, BVSc MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Unlike most pets, tortoises do not necessarily need to eat every day, and in the wild, can go for weeks, even months, without eating! We need to provide our pet tortoises with a healthy balanced diet, but you may be wondering how long they can be left without food. However, our vet experts recommend that a pet tortoise should not go more than 2-3 days. Let’s explore more in the following article.

Their slow metabolic rate means that tortoises can survive long periods without food, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is normal for them to stop eating, or that we can go away and leave them without food. Let’s delve a bit deeper into the feeding habits of tortoises and learn what we should be feeding them, how often, and how long they can go without food.


Typical Tortoise Diet and Eating Habits

The majority of tortoises are strictly herbivorous and only eat plant-based food. In captivity, it is important to provide tortoises with a variety of foods that reflect what they would eat in the wild, so they should be given the opportunity to feed on plants whenever possible. Allowing them access to the garden, or including living plants in their enclosure is a great way to provide food and enrichment at the same time. You must ensure the plants are safe for tortoises, and fortunately, there is a very long list of these. A few examples are:

  • Dandelions
  • Succulents like aloe vera or agave
  • Geranium
  • Pansies and Petunias
  • Hibiscus or Honeysuckle flowers
  • Mallow
  • Strawberries – watch them make a beeline for them when fruit is present!

For variation, you can also feed your tortoise leafy greens such as kale, mustard and turnip leaves, and collard greens. Mediterranean or arid zone tortoises, such as the Sulcata, Leopard, Hermann or Horsefield tortoises should also be fed hay like Timothy grass.

For tropical tortoise species, like the red and yellow footed tortoises, other veggies such as zucchini and green beans are also good. You can occasionally feed your tortoise fruits such as papaya, mango, cantaloupe, apple, and watermelon for treats, but be sure to always remove seeds and rinds.

So now we know what your tortoise should be eating, what about how often they should be eating? And for how long can they go without food?

turtle eating strawberry
Image By: 13Monik69, Pixabay

How Long Can A Tortoise Survive Without Food?

Young tortoises need to be fed daily to keep up with growth and development, but for adults, feeding frequency can be every 2-3 days. This is due to their very slow metabolic rates. You can feed adult tortoises every day, but you might find yourself cleaning up a lot of leftovers, or worse, with an overweight reptile on your hands. In the wild, it is not uncommon for a tortoise to go without food for weeks, sometimes months, in periods of drought or cold. In these circumstances, they will slow their metabolism even further to minimize their energy needs, and use fat stores under their shell to provide energy and water.

What About Pet Tortoises?

We certainly wouldn’t advise that you take advantage of this survival adaptation to book a round-the-world trip without a second thought for your reptile friend, but it does mean that, with a bit of planning, you can safely disappear for a week or two without your tortoise starving in your absence. Remember that your pet tortoise is limited by their enclosure, so if you are planning a little getaway, here are some tips to keep your tortoise pal safe without having to hire a live-in pet sitter.

  • Living plants – as mentioned above, there are a range of plants that are safe for tortoises to eat, and if you do your research, you will likely find a selection that will grow well in their enclosure. This can provide a renewable source of food and shelter for your tortoise while you are away.
  • Water – always provide more than one source of water in case one spills or becomes contaminated. A bottle feeder is a great way to ensure there will be a ready supply of fresh water.
  • Timed feeder – these can be set up to dispense a measured amount of food pellets at certain intervals.
  • Adjust their feeding times – if your tortoise is used to being fed fresh food daily, reduce this to every 3-4 days in the weeks leading up to your trip so they are used to less frequent feeds.
  • Think about temperature – being reptiles, tortoises are unable to regulate their own body temperature, so be sure their enclosure won’t get too hot while you are away.
  • Enlist the help of a friend or neighbor – no matter how low maintenance your tortoise may be, you will still need someone to check on them every few days (daily if possible) to refresh their enclosure, top up water and food dispensers, and offer some fresh vegetables. Make sure to provide clear instructions as not everyone will be familiar with how to look after these exotic pets.
tortoise eating broccoli
Image Credit: taniadimas, Pixabay


My Tortoise Hasn’t Eaten for Several Days – Should I Be Worried?

Pet tortoises that are accustomed to regular feeds may occasionally stop eating for brief periods with no cause for concern. This could be due to shedding, colder temperatures, or just not needing as much energy. However, if your tortoise abruptly stops eating, and seems unwell (dull or watery eyes, noisy breathing, not moving much) then it is time to visit the vet. There are a number of reasons your tortoise may stop eating, such as gastrointestinal illness like constipation or inflammation, respiratory infections, boredom or depression, or nutrient deficiencies. When fed the incorrect balance of nutrients, tortoises can suffer from a potentially fatal condition known as Metabolic Bone Disease. This can result from a lack of UVB light, low dietary calcium, or by feeding foods that have a high phosphorus content.

The most common health problems in pet tortoises arise as a result of poor nutrition or incorrect habitats, so it is vital that you research their requirements before bringing one home.

red footed tortoise in the sand
Image Credit: seasoning_17, Shutterstock


Final Thoughts

Their extremely slow metabolic rates mean that tortoises are able to survive for periods of months without food when needed, but this isn’t something that should be exploited in our pets. It does, however, mean that we can leave them for a few weeks with some fairly basic provisions in place; not something we can do with our cat or dog! It is not unusual for pet tortoises to stop eating for several days at a time, but if this is very out of character, or if there are other signs of illness, a lack of appetite can be a very worrying sign.

By providing your tortoise with an enriching environment with the right temperature and light levels, a well-balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs, and variety to reduce boredom, you may never need to take them to the vet. They might not even mind if you leave them behind when you go on vacation, as long as you have everything prepared and someone to look in on them every few days.

Featured Image Credit: Alexander Varbenov, Shutterstock

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