Turtles can be quite difficult to feed sometimes and because most of them prefer to take their food into the water where they feel more secure, it can be hard to see what they are actually ingesting as opposed to what they remove from their food supply. What many owners forget is that although a turtle eats animal based protein, in the wild they are what are usually termed ‘opportunistic omnivores’ – which means that they will eat anything that comes their way and which is edible. Think teenage boy and you will have the basic idea. Most turtles have a diet which in the final analysis mostly vegetarian – so perhaps the teenage boy analogy is not as accurate as all that after all!
Why is my turtle off its food?
Sometimes an animal is just not very peckish and you might notice that some food it usually enjoys has not been eaten. At other times, the food goes untouched for days and the condition of the animal deteriorates or other symptoms become obvious, such as a runny nose or uneven swimming patterns. In the first case it is best to just change the food so it is totally fresh and perhaps add a special treat which you know the turtle likes and leave it twenty four hours. This will probably do the trick. If it doesn’t and the animal is otherwise free of symptoms another simple check would be to make sure that the temperature of the water and air is what it should be. A couple of degrees out can actually make a lot of difference to a turtle’s metabolic rate and in consequence, its appetite. If the anorexia is connected with other symptoms, the animal should be taken to the vet, as this is a useful early sign that something else may be wrong. If it has no shell problems or respiratory infections, it may be a case of mechanical damage in the mouth from a thorn or piece of bone in its food, or it may have mouth rot. Even if it is something as relatively simple as having a problem with laying eggs, it needs a vet to diagnose and treat.
Tempting and balanced
Some turtles bought as hatchlings from a pet shop have never really been properly nourished and with a possibly overcrowded environment have relied on the remnants of their yolk to sustain them. They need to be tempted to eat and it is a good idea to give them small amounts of the right foods, watching to see if there is anything that they prefer. Some turtles are very voracious feeders – red eared terrapins, for example – whilst others are more fastidious. In fact, the red eared terrapin’s appetite is sometimes its downfall, because when in the mood it will eat anything not nailed down and this can include stones and other indigestible items. This can lead to anorexia and in this species is the first thing a vet will check.
The amount of food to provide is a ticklish problem – too much will result in a smelly habitat as fish and meat will quickly spoil if left in the water and can clog up filters really quickly, making the whole environment very unhealthy. If you feed too little the turtle can become very agitated and anxious and also quickly deficient in the right vitamins and minerals. The best plan is too feed generously but clear uneaten food at regular intervals before it can spoil.
Supplements and how to deliver them
All captive animals are eating an abnormal diet no matter how careful their keeper and in the case of turtles it is vital that the calcium and other elements of their diets are kept in normal ratios. Otherwise, the animal can suffer from a number of serious conditions, such as soft shell (metabolic bone disease or disorder), blindness (caused by too little vitamin A) and also general malaise and failure to thrive. It is difficult to make sure that your turtle is getting enough of all it needs for good health and it is worth taking a bit of extra time when preparing their food. Whatever else you will be feeding your turtle, dried food will certainly make up a proportion and it is a simple matter to rehydrate it in such a way that the calcium supplement is ‘bound’ to it and so will not wash off. If you dust the dried food with the calcium powder and then rehydrate, the calcium will be absorbed into the food and so will be eaten with the stick. The other trick is to feed this first. That way even the least hungry of your turtles will eat it, rather than picking out the more interesting food you may offer. Fish, snails and a nice mixed salad looks more interesting to you than some reconstituted brown stuff – and so it does to your turtle. So feed the boring stuff first and then bring out the rest in the same principle that you can’t have pudding until you have eaten the main course!
Is anorexia serious?
Unlike people, a turtle will not deliberately starve itself if all else is well. A lack of appetite, if it goes on for more than a day or so must always be investigated and especially if beforehand the animal has always liked its food. Sometimes stress can play a huge role in this issue and in that case it is usually quite easy to guess the reason. If the turtle has just been moved to a new habitat or you have introduced more animals this can be more than enough to stop it eating. In this case it will probably recover its previous eating habits spontaneously. Everything else should be referred to the vet.