How To Tell If Your Turtle Is Hungry

how to tell if my turtle is hungry

Aquatic turtles love to beg for food and never seem to be full. This is a big concern for beginner turtle owners, who worry about starving their new pets. So, how can you tell if your turtle is truly hungry?

Aquatic turtles are extremely opportunistic eaters and will beg for food even when they are overly full or overweight. The key is to follow a set feeding program and provide good quality, nutritious food. If you are doing this, then it is extremely unlikely that your turtle is genuinely hungry.

Establishing a well-planned, vet-advised feeding program is the key to preventing hunger in your pet turtle. But how do you know if you have fed too little…or too much? Are you still worried about how hungry your turtle seems to be? Read on to find out how you can judge your pet’s dietary needs.

Misleading signs that can make your turtle appear hungry

Aquatic turtles are seasoned professionals at begging for snacks. When you enter a room, your turtle may go wild, rush to the glass and do an excited little dance in anticipation of feeding time.

As a result, new owners are often tempted to break their planned feeding regime and offer their turtles extra helpings. 

Unfortunately, the turtle is likely to act this way even if you fed him every hour of the day. Turtles will eat and eat and eat some more, perhaps even vomiting in-between, so beware! This behavior is clearly not healthy or beneficial

Understand that these behaviors are normal and not signs of true hunger:

  • Approaching the glass when you enter the room.
  • Coming to a feeding station frequently when food is not available.
  • Eating extremely quickly.
  • Eating everything that you offer, even when the turtle should be full already.
  • Vomiting and still eating more.

Even though these behaviors tug at your heartstrings, you should not give in and provide extra food!

Why your turtle behaves as if he is hungry when he isn’t

So, we’ve established that aquatic turtles have a whole behavioral repertoire designed to get you to hand over the bottomless snacks. Now let’s talk about why your turtle is acting this way. 

In the wild, turtles need to show this much enthusiasm for seeking food, because it is scarce, and the turtle cannot predict when the next meal will be available.

Eating opportunistically and grabbing all the extra calories they can, has protected turtles for millennia in the wild…they can’t change their ways just because you’ve provided a secure and plentiful home for them. 

Accidentally over-feeding turtles is a much more common problem for pet owners than under-feeding. Do your turtle a favor and keep him on a strict and nutritious diet. 

why is my turtle always hungry
Red-Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

The dangers of overfeeding your turtle

Sadly, many pet aquatic turtles are fed too much and end up being overweight. In most other pets, the effects of being overweight are easy to observe and easy to fix. For example, if you overfeed a dog, he will become fat. The answer is simply to reduce his calories and exercise him more. 

Not so with the turtle. An overweight turtle is much more difficult to notice, and the dangers are far more complex

  • A turtle who is overfed will develop growth deformities in the shell, leading to the formation of a pyramid shape. 
  • The turtle’s shell may grow too fast, or areas may begin to shed. 
  • If the turtle is fed too much at once, you will likely notice vomiting. 
  • Over time, you will see the development of fat folds around the turtle’s upper leg. 
  • The turtle may become noticeably less active. 
  • An overweight turtle will sadly suffer from damage to the function of its liver and kidneys. 

Signs that your turtle really does need more nutrients

A turtle that is genuinely ‘hungry’ is likely to be so for one of two reasons:

  1. The turtle has been refusing food for a very long time.
  2. The turtle’s diet is nutritionally deficient, so the turtle needs specific nutrients.
  3. If your turtle hasn’t eaten in a long time.

If your turtle has been refusing food, this is a sure sign that something is wrong. As we learned above, turtles by nature should show a lot of willingness to eat. Therefore, refusing food means that the turtle may be ill, or that the environment needs to be adjusted. 

In this situation, you are right to be concerned that your turtle could be hungry and in need of feeding.  

  • Check that the temperature and light levels in the habitat are adequate. 
  • Ensure that your turtle has shelter and secure private space within his enclosure.
  • Consider handling your turtle less, especially if its habitat has been changed recently.
  • Try to entice your turtle with new foods, or foods that are colorful. 
  • You could try live food, that may trigger your turtle’s innate feeding response. 
  • Aquatic turtles often prefer eating underwater, so try delivering food underwater. 
  • If this does not work or you suspect the turtle is sick, speak to your herp specialist vet. 
  1. If your turtle is nutritionally deficient. 

You may notice some signs that your aquatic turtle is nutritionally deficient by closely monitoring its body condition. Watch out for:

  • White patches on the shell. These may indicate a Vitamin A deficiency. 
  • Hollowing or collapse of the scutes of the shell. This may indicate a calcium deficiency. 
  • Increase in hollow space around the legs of the turtle, where the leg meets the shell. This may indicate general weight loss. 

In the case of a nutritional deficiency, the turtle may in fact be overweight, yet still lacking a vital nutrient such as calcium.

The turtle will seek to replenish this nutrient by eating everything they can. The answer is not to feed more! Instead, ensure you are feeding a correct and varied diet that meets all the nutritional needs of your species of turtle. 

Take your hungry turtle to the vet

We know we’ve said it already, but this point can’t be stressed enough!

The bottom line of pet care is:

When in doubt, visit the vet!

It might cost a little money and an hour or two of your time, but it will put your mind at ease. You may also avoid bigger bills and prevent your pet from suffering down the line.

Exotic pet ownership is a big responsibility, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you’re concerned about your turtle’s weight…it only makes you a better pet parent!

How to ensure that your turtle is never hungry

We’ve discussed above that the key to preventing hunger and malnutrition in your pet aquatic turtle is to implement an appropriate feeding program. This can be tricky and does require a little research, as every turtle requires a different diet

  1. What species is your turtle?

Firstly, you need to know which species of aquatic turtle you have. By far the most popular turtle to keep as a pet is the Red-Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).

Other extremely popular species to keep as pets include the Yellow-Bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta), Southern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys dorsalis), and the Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii). 

  1. How old is your turtle?

The correct diet for your turtle is strongly influenced by the age of your turtle. This is not just because the turtle’s body will get larger as they age, but also because their nutritional needs change drastically throughout their lifetime.

For example, the ratio of protein to vegetation required is quite different for juveniles versus adult turtles. 

is my turtle hungry?
Western Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta bellii)

The frequency with which they should be fed also changes as the turtle ages. Younger turtles require smaller portions, fed more frequently than adult turtles. 

  1. What size is your turtle?

A common parameter by which to judge the correct portion size for your turtle is the volume of its head. Try to find a container that closely matches the size of your turtle’s head and use this as an easy method to measure out the turtle’s diet. 

Another method to judge portions is to provide food for a set time of 15 minutes, and thereafter remove food from the tank. Always note what and how much your turtle ate, in order to establish baseline data for the normal eating habits of your turtle. 

These are just a few factors that determine the correct diet for your pet turtle. Bear these factors in mind as you research the best foods and supplements for your pet. Always follow the advice of your vet, and be mindful that what works for one turtle may not be correct for another. 

What your turtle should be eating

Take a look at the guide below to see how the dietary components are different for the common species of turtle. Notice how juvenile turtles are more carnivorous but require a greater ratio of vegetation as they age. 

The life stage of turtles is generally determined by their size, but a good rule of thumb is that after one year of age, you can begin to transition the juvenile’s diet to that of an adult, over the period of a few years.

Try offering progressively larger foodstuffs and be mindful to introduce greater amounts of vegetation over time. Slowly begin to increase the period of time between feeds. 

Red-Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) and Yellow-Bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta).

 JuvenileAdult
How often to feedEvery dayEvery 2-3 days
Meat to Vegetation ratioProtein 70% / Vegetation 30%Protein 50% / Vegetation 50%
Dietary componentsPellets 25% / Fresh Meat 45% / Vegetation 30%Pellets 25% / Fresh Meat 25% / Fresh Vegetation 25%
PelletsSmaller sized pellets that sinkLarger sized pellets that float
Store-bought live feedFish: Guppies, minnows.Fish: Guppies, minnows.
 Invertebrates: Earthworms, wax worms, bloodworms, crickets, aquatic snails, mealworms, krill, live shrimp.Invertebrates: Earthworms, wax worms, bloodworms, crickets, aquatic snails, mealworms, krill, live shrimp.
 Amphibians: Tadpoles, frogs.Amphibians: Tadpoles, frogs.
Store-bought aquatic plantsWater lettuce, duckweed, azola, water hyacinth.Water lettuce, duckweed, azola, water hyacinth.
VegetationChoose vegetables that float and remember that variation is key. A range of nutritious leafy greens including kale and collard greens work well. Bell pepper, carrots, squash, green beans. Try shredding or chopping vegetables to mouth-full size If necessary, par-boil until softer. Choose vegetables that float and remember that variation is key. A range of nutritious leafy greens including kale and collard greens work well. Bell pepper, carrots, squash, green beans. Try shredding or chopping vegetables to mouth-full size If necessary, par-boil until softer. 
Calcium supplementationProvide a cuttlebone or a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement twice a week.Provide a cuttlebone or a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement twice a week.

Southern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys dorsalis) and the Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii).

 JuvenileAdult
How often to feedEvery dayVegetation daily. Protein 2-3 times per week. 
Meat to Vegetation ratioProtein 50% / Vegetation 50%Protein 20% / Vegetation 80%
Dietary componentsPellets 25% / Fresh Meat 25% / Vegetation 50%Pellets 10% / Fresh Meat 10% / Fresh Vegetation 80%
PelletsSmaller sized pellets that floatLarger sized pellets that float
Store-bought live feedFish: Guppies, minnows.Fish: Guppies, minnows.
 Invertebrates: Worms, crickets, krill, live shrimp, aquatic snails.Invertebrates: Worms, crickets, krill, live shrimp, aquatic snails.
Store-bought aquatic plantsWater lettuce, duckweed, azola, water hyacinth.Water lettuce, duckweed, azola, water hyacinth.
VegetationChoose vegetables that float and remember that variation is key. A range of nutritious leafy greens including kale and collard greens work well. Bell pepper, carrots, squash, green beans. Try shredding or chopping vegetables to mouth-full size If necessary, par-boil until softer. Choose vegetables that float and remember that variation is key. A range of nutritious leafy greens including kale and collard greens work well. Bell pepper, carrots, squash, green beans. Try shredding or chopping vegetables to mouth-full size If necessary, par-boil until softer. 
Calcium supplementationProvide a cuttlebone or a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement twice a week.Provide a cuttlebone or a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement twice a week.

It is good to be aware that as with all elements of pet care, different experts may have slightly differing advice. The key is to offer a wide variety of food that ensures your turtle receives all the nutrients he needs and does not become bored of certain foodstuffs. 

Overfeeding and improper feeding are much more dangerous than underfeeding. 

The take-home message is that you are unlikely to be underfeeding your aquatic turtle. Turtles show signs of hunger because they have been programmed by their evolutionary history to seek food opportunistically.

The truth is that turtles can survive many weeks without food if needs be. 

The greater danger is that you are feeding too much, or not feeding a nutritionally balanced diet. The answer is to implement a vet-approved feeding schedule and stick to it…no matter what your turtle is telling you!

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