Feeding the Hospitalized Turtle or Tortoise

Key Points

  • Make sure the patient is hydrated and warm before initiating nutritional support.
  • Chelonians display a variety of dietary strategies. Many tortoises are herbivores while some species such as the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) are opportunistic omnivores. Juvenile omnivores often eat diets higher in fat and protein.
  • When trying to determine if nutritional support should be initiated in an anorectic turtle, determine if the species normally brumates in the wild. “Brumation” is a period of fasting and reduced resting metabolism. Species enter this period of dormancy for weeks or months as an adaptation to excess heat or cold, drought, or lack of food.
  • Many gravid females also eat less or go off feed entirely.
  • Regular weighing is recommended for fasting reptiles.
  • Maintenance energy requirements (MER) in the reptile are derived from equations for Standard Metabolic Rate (SMR) 32 (BW0.75) where BW is in kilograms. MER is expressed in kcal/d and are based on values at 86°F (30°C). In the debilitated patient, only a fraction of the MER is offered at the first feeding and all volumes offered are increased only gradually.
  • Small amounts of brightly colored produce such as strawberry, tomato, melon, banana (with peel), yellow squash, and cooked sweet potato can attract the attention and stimulate the appetite of many chelonians. Live fish of appropriate size can attract the attention and stimulate the appetite of aquatic turtles.

Turtles and tortoises display a variety of dietary strategies ranging from the complete herbivory seen in many tortoises to the strict carnivory displayed in aquatic species like the snapping turtle. There are also many chelonians, such as the Eastern box turtle, that may be considered opportunistic omnivores. This review article, critiqued by reptile nutritionist, Susan Donoghue, discusses clinical concerns related to feeding the hospitalized turtle or tortoise. Topics covered range from recognizing true anorexia to food items to avoid. Practical technical concerns related to nutritional support such as tube feeding and daily caloric requirements are also discussed . . .


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