Lesson 6: Redfoot Tortoise Diet

TEXT VERSION: Redfoot Tortoise Diet Needs

….with exotic animal specialist (herpetologist) Danielle Inman & redfoot tortoise keeper Shannon Cutts

SHANNON: What should a captive redfoot tortoise be eating in a pet setting?

DANIELLE: Almost anything. These guys are true generalists. They have a very broad geographical range and they really employ their wandering to their benefit when it comes to their diet.

They will eat just about anything. There are documented instances of these guys eating carrion – so they find a dead animal and they will gorge themselves.

They eat a lot of fruit and vegetable matter. They occasionally eat insect proteins like slugs and snails when they find them. They eat a lot of grasses and leafy browse. These guys have even been documented eating fox poop, so they don’t have a particularly refined palate.

These guys – when we have them in captivity – there are sort of two facets to the diet question. And one is obviously a complete and balanced diet for these guys. That is important to their physical health.

Now the second thing that is important to their psychological health is allowing for them to eat those foods in a natural way.

So foraging is a very natural behavior for them. So providing whole foods is really great.

Now that needs to be sort of modified a bit for the hatchling tortoise. You do need to provide things that they can prehend – you know, that little dinosaur mouth – as they grab things if we provide them with food items that are too large they will just kind of roll away from them and they may have difficulty actually tearing and biting into those things. So you may have to chop things up a bit and modify that for the babies.

But the more enrichment you can provide them – it’s good exercise and it gives them confidence – if they feel like they can just go full-on Brontosaurus on things and just pull weeds apart that is going to be really, really good for them.

So providing flowers is a good option – things like hibiscus flowers, mulberry leaves, hibiscus leaves, fresh grasses and curlier stemmy greens – things like green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, romaine, cilantro, dandelion greens, clover, clover flowers, parsley – all of those are great options.

Another thing that I would advocate for is – again, if you can’t have your tortoise outdoors with its own little tortoise garden at least allowing it some time outdoors in a safe foraging area so that it can walk around and find those nice clover patches and dandelions, as long as your yard’s not treated, is a great idea for them.

They may happen upon a little isopod that they can eat or a snail or a slug and all of those are great things for them to be able to eat.

Tortoise pellets are also something that we have within our arsenal that obviously a wild tortoise wouldn’t be able to eat but they sort of make up for those gaps that we may have in providing all of the things that they would naturally have access to.

And so Mazuri makes some really great tortoise pellets. There are lots of different good companies that make a fortified tortoise pellet that you can add to their diet to make sure that they are getting those additional vitamins and minerals that they may otherwise be missing.

Now animal proteins make up only a small portion of their diet but it is something that shouldn’t be completely neglected.

So  maybe the 10 to 15 percent range should be things like the slugs and snails that we talked about, maybe chicken livers or hearts, a high-grade canned cat food or dog food – things like that are all really great options for delivering animal protein although it’s certainly not the only thing that you can do – there are a lot of options.  Eggs, anything like that is okay.

The bulk of their diet should be those greens, fruits and vegetables.

And there are very few things that are off-limits to these guys.

Obviously you shouldn’t feed them any processed foods, like, you know, people sometimes think it’s funny to give them a bite of pizza but that is obviously not something [that they would find in the wild]. I’m sure that the redfoot would think it was wonderful because they are so food motivated but their digestive tract is not made to digest those things.

These guys certainly may experience some health issues associated with eating un-natural things.

So again, you know, the biggest thing is keeping in mind where they are from and what they may have access to. They’re obviously not some stealthy hunter so they are not going to track down and hunt animals or quick-moving insects or other invertebrates. They would, however, if they came across a dead mouse in the forest, indulge.

So keeping those things in mind and then adding in things like good seasonal mushrooms and things to their diet is a great option.

redfoot turtle cartoon

NOTE from Shannon

I will admit I also found diet to be a daunting challenge when I first brought Malti home. To be truthful, I still find diet to be a daunting challenge.

For starters, because tortoises are cold-blooded, their digestive system works quite differently than it does for warm-blooded pets (and for their people, for that matter). Food takes longer to digest and to move through the digestive tract and out the other end.

Tortoises have particularly primitive digestive systems and it can take one to two weeks (yes, WEEKS) for some foods to travel from end to end. This makes over-feeding a very real risk.

On that note, while some cold-blooded pets can be notoriously picky eaters, the redfoot tortoise is not one of them. These torts love – and I mean LOVE – to eat.

So while I found Malti’s robust appetite right from hatchling-hood quite reassuring, the result was that I took her constant desire to eat as a sign she was always ravenously hungry. I didn’t see it for what it was – an opportunistic feeder’s natural instinct to eat while the eating’s good in case there wasn’t any more later on.

This instinct makes such good sense in a wild setting where food sources truly are variable and sometimes hotly competed for. But in a captive setting when the animal in question is getting a robust daily curated organic menu all sliced and diced and dusted with tortoise nutritional powder, it is important to be the one to do the heavy lifting to supervise portion control.

Otherwise, as I did, you could end up with a very (VERY) plump tortoise who then needs to go on a D.I.E.T.

Major suck.

As a side note, it was when Malti lost her appetite that I knew something was really wrong with her health and I rushed her to the veterinary ER. And it was that decision that saved her life.

So appetite is another huge indicator of your redfoot’s overall health. As such, it is smart to watch your tortoise’s daily food intake very closely.

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