Reading the behavior of your turtle can be confusing and leave you desperate at times.
In my experience, a turtle that won’t eat isn’t always something to worry about and there are multiple reasons why it may be happening. However, you’ll need to make sure nothing’s wrong before moving on, especially if it’s a baby turtle you’re dealing with.
If the animal lacks appetite and is not moving much then a stressful change in its habitat may be the cause.
Also, what if I told you that It’s not unseen for an aquatic turtle to suddenly stop accepting pellets?
Anyway, in this article, I will explore the main causes behind a pet turtle that’s not eating.
Why is my turtle not eating?
The first time my turtle stopped eating I felt helpless and desperate.
It can be even more alarming if the lack of appetite is accompanied by not moving much and overall inactivity.
There are a couple of reasons why your pet turtle won’t try to eat:
A turtle may be refusing to eat due to a slowed metabolism. The lack of daily UVA light or the decrease in temperature may contribute to slow metabolism in all turtles.
Sometimes turtles naturally slow down their metabolism during certain periods of the year.
However, the wrong lighting setup can make a turtle inactive and potentially sick.
Another factor that may play a role in your pet turtle’s lack of appetite is a stressful change to its habitat.
If the turtle has been introduced to its new tank just recently it may be that the animal is too stressed to eat and it needs some time to settle.
Rarely a change in diet may be needed to encourage the eating habits of your pet. For example, most baby turtles need a different type of food compared to when they mature.
Let me explain each of the aforementioned causes in detail.
1. Slowed metabolism due to lack of UVA light
Turtles need daily access to UVA light because it stimulates their appetite, activity, territorial and mating behavior.
What’s called UVA light is part of the Ultraviolet spectrum and has a wavelength of between 315 and 400 nm.
The lack of daily exposure to this type of light may suppress your pet turtle’s desire to eat by slowing its metabolism, while also making it lethargic.
Your turtle tank should have a properly set basking area with bulbs that provide all the right light to your reptiles.
The turtle should be able to bask whenever it feels like in order to maintain normal metabolism.
Also, baby turtles need to bask even longer than adults to sustain healthy growth.
Ask yourself the following questions to figure out whether your turtle refuses to eat due to lack of proper lighting:
- Does your turtle tank have a basking area?
- Does the basking area include bulbs that provide heat, UVA, and UVB light?
- Have you changed any of the bulbs in the past 8 months?
If you answered “no” to any of the questions above then it might be time to take action.
You can learn pretty much everything there is to setting up the proper lighting in my article on heat and UVB lamps for turtle tanks. Visit the link to read the guide, and make sure to skim through the included product recommendations to spare yourself some time for research.
While you wait for the delivery of your new bulb you should likely get your turtle outside in the sun for an hour or two.
Author’s note: Backyards and balconies are fine as long as the turtle has access to both sunny and shady spots. Let your pet do its thing and decide if it wants to move in the sun or in a partial shade.
Don’t forget to supervise your turtle and protect it from getting lost or being attacked by other animals.
2. Stress from being transferred to a new tank
When I first introduced my small Red Eared Slider to her new tank, she did not eat at all the first week. This got me quite worried so I sat down and started researching.
It turned out, turtles are creatures of habit and a transition from one habitat to another can leave them stressed.
If your aquatic turtle is new to its tank, and you made sure you set everything properly from the start, then it may be that it refuses to eat due to stress from the transition.
It takes turtles up to 2 weeks to settle and begin feeling comfortable in a new habitat.
During this time the pet may refuse to eat, but that’s normal. When my Red Eared Slider felt more comfortable in her new environment she started accepting food and became more active overall.
Turtles are very hardy creatures and don’t have a problem going for up to 2 weeks without eating, even in their most active periods.
Anyway, even if you got a baby turtle that doesn’t want to eat at first, it is normal but you should try to feed it daily.
It’s not ideal for babies not to eat, but they will be fine.
Try offering different types of food to the babies and research the diet of your particular species of turtle to encourage its appetite.
Also bear in mind that the diet of a turtle may change depending on its age (more on that in another section below).
Author’s note: Some turtle owners prefer to feed their pets outside of the tank. This is one of the practices that keep the turtle tank clean and easy to maintain. However, bear in mind that handling causes additional stress for the turtles at first, but they do get used to it with time.
3. Dropping water temperatures
When temperatures drop turtles limit their movement and may even stop eating completely.
Typically, the water temperature in most turtle tanks should be around 75 °F and not exceeding 80 °F (between 23.8 and 26.66 °C).
When fall comes it could affect our turtle tanks without us noticing.
The temperatures drop slightly, but enough for our aquatic turtles to become sluggish and lose a big portion of their appetite.
What I recommend is to get a separate water thermometer because the built-in ones some heaters have may be off.
I have one in my turtle tank because I don’t want my turtle’s comfort and activity levels to be a guessing game.
But why do turtles become lethargic when temperatures drop anyway?
Let me explain in the next section.
4. Preparing for brumation during winter (semi-hibernation)
Typically, almost all aquatic turtles will slow down during winter, even if your tank has the perfect water temperature.
This is because turtles use both temperature and light as indicators for the coming of spring and winter. Along these metrics, turtles also use the length of day to tell when it’s time to slow down their metabolism.
Experts have hypothesized that turtles may be able to see the different angle at which sunlight falls during winter.
If your tank is near a window then your pet turtle may have recognized the indicators that winter is coming.
During winter in the wild, turtles go in a semi-hibernation mode which is actually called brumation. When turtles go into brumation they don’t fall asleep; they remain awake but largely inactive. All pet turtles will be affected to a degree so you won’t have to worry if yours doesn’t try to eat or move around as much as it used to.
Typically, a pet turtle will start eating less and less in October or November but that can change depending on where you live. During this time the turtle will attemp to enter brumation if the environment signals it’s getting colder.
To prepare for it, your turtle will slow down its metabolism in which case it needs to pass most of the food in its intestines.
Its metabolism will slow down and so its energy levels and food requirements may decrease.
Most temperate species of turtles will attempt to start brumation during the colder months of the year. Box turtles, Paint turtles and Red Eared Sliders are all examples of temperate species.
During brumation a turtle may refuse to eat altogether. This explains why sometimes owners don’t see their pet turtle eating for months. While in brumation mode, a mature healthy turtle can go for up to 160 days (more than 5 months) without eating anything. During this time a turtle can lose 1% of body weight per month, up to 6 or 7% in total. The babies of overwintering turtle species can survive without food for more than a month on their own fat reserves, but this is not desirable since it’s considered extreme living conditions. Smaller species should not be allowed to brumate for more than two and a half months.
What do I mean by “allowed”: Ideally, you should prevent brumation in your pet turtle. Brumation hides some dangers to your pet like making it more susceptible to disease and such. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if your pet turtle is overal healthy but it can be.
The best way to prevent a turtle from brumating is to make sure the lighting cycle and temperature throughout the year remain the same in the pet’s tank.
This is sometimes difficult in places like Northern USA and Canada. Are you reading this article during winter?
If your turtle has started brumating it means that despite your best efforts it sensed the weather is getting colder and the days are getting shorter.
In these cases you should probably ramp up the water heater a bit and also increase the temperature of the heat lamp in the basking area if its model allows for that.
5. Baby turtles require a different diet
Most baby turtles need to eat more meat and protein as opposed to mature turtles that prefer to consume more vegetation.
Therefore, if you’re taking care of a turtle hatchling you need to do some research on its diet requirements.
The specific diet of a baby turtle will depend on its species, but should largely consist of small worms, bugs, shrimp, and feeder fish.
Here are good baby diet plans for the most popular pet turtles:
- Box turtle hatchlings are almost exclusively carnivorous and will often refuse pellets at first. Bloodworms, crickets, nightcrawlers, steamed chicken, or fish (no spices) can all contribute to a varied meat diet. These turtles are shy feeders and don’t like being watched when eating.
- Musk turtle hatchlings should be fed 90% varied meat foods and 10% vegetables or fruit. Earthworms, crickets, feeder guppies, and quality meat pellets are all good choices to supply the baby with protein.
- Red Eared Slider babies should be fed quality pellets with high protein content supplemented with earthworms, crickets or fish, and the occasional romaine lettuce.
- African Sideneck turtle hatchlings will likely prefer nightcrawlers, small feeder fish, and shrimp as a large majority of their diet. Pellets may or may not be accepted at first.
- Baby Painted turtles are attracted to wiggling foods such as small fish and insects, but will also benefit from algae and leafy vegetables. Luckily, this type of turtle accepts pellets from a very young age, which could be a good staple diet, along with the greens.
- Map turtle hatchlings need a diet of pellets and live foods such as worms, small insects, or fish. Map turtles are not picky eaters and will usually accept pellets from early on.
- Aside from quality carnivore pellets, Baby Snapping turtles should eat primarily worms, bugs, feeder fish, or small snails. You should also supply their diet with leafy greens, but only once a week when they’re young.
- Diamondback Terrapin babies can be fed commerial hatchling formula foods daily with a once-a-week treat of crickets, earthworms, shrimp or snails. Terrapin hatchlings are very receptive of commercial foods, which allows to limit the live food treats, unlike with other baby turtles.
Usually, a young turtle will need to maintain its high-protein diet for the first 6 to 12 months of its life.
After that, they will gradually switch to a more balanced omnivore diet.
To spare you some more time for research:
Tetra Reptomin offers an excellent hatchling formula for baby turtles. This turtle food has 45% of crude protein and is fortified with Calcium and Vitamin D3. The higher protein content is exactly what a turtle hatchling needs and the vitamins are crucial to the healthy development of the shell and bones.
These pellets can be used as a staple and will be readily accepted by most babies that have settled.
6. Most aquatic turtle species can only swallow food underwater
It’s physically impossible for most aquatic turtles to swallow food above water.
This is because aquatic turtles do not produce saliva and need the help of water to ingest foods.
This is something most turtle owners will learn with time but I am obligated to mention it.
7. Being shy when feeding
Some turtle species like the Box turtle don’t like being watched while they eat.
This usually happens at an early age and could very well be the reason why your turtle refuses to eat with you around.
If you suspect that you have a shy eater, then I recommend leaving the food in its enclosure and leaving the room for a couple of minutes.
Author’s note: This behavior is not guaranteed with every turtle and it largely depends on the individual.
8. It’s sick and it needs to be taken to a veterinarian
If your pet turtle isn’t eating and all else fails then the animal may be sick and in need of veterinary care.
Most of the time the lack of appetite would stem from what I’ve listed above, but in some cases, it could be a symptom of sickness.
Here are a couple of typical symptoms that may indicate illness in pet turtles:
- Gasping for air when above water;
- Lopsided swimming;
- Bubbles coming out of the turtle’s nose;
- Not being able to dive and just floating;
- Excessive basking.
If you notice any or a combination of the aforementioned symptoms then your pet might be ill.
Your best course of action would be to take your sick turtle to the vet.
I don’t recommend waiting it out, as in some cases antibiotics may be needed to fight the infection.
What to do if your pet turtle is not eating?
Wether you’re looking after a hatchling or an adult turtle that doesn’t accept food your first course of action should NOT be force feeding.
Given that the most common reason for a turtle to not eat is a slow down in its metabolism you should first try to fix that.
Force-feeding should be your absolute last resort, and only when recommended by a turtle vet.
To help the metabolism of your pet turtle speed up you can:
- Increase the water temperature in the turtle tank by ramping up the heater.
- Increase the heat coming from the heat lamp in the basking area.
- Maintain a steady lighting cycle throught the year
- Make sure your turtle gets the sufficient amounts of UVA and UVB light each day.
- Move the tank away from the window if it’s located there. Turtles can use the information from the outside to conclude it’s time to brumate and slow their metabolism down.
- Ask a vet for a vitamin shot (they’ll know what to do if they deem it necessary).
How to force-feed a healthy pet turtle that refuses to eat otherwise?
You can ask a vet how to force feed your turtle if it turns out it’s necessary.
Either way, here’s a generally agreed upon by the experts method to force feed a turtle:
- Soften the usual amount of pellets your turtle would eat by adding turtle tank water to them in a bowl and mashing them up.
- Fill a 10 ml syringe with the softened food mixture and then use that to fill up a 1 ml syringe.
- Hold your turtle at a 45° angle out of the water. This is done to prevent the turtle from choking on food.
- Rub its nose or front legs to make it open its mouth in defence.
- After its mouth is open slowly push the food with the 1 ml syringe, but do it from the side of the mouth. This is done to, again, minimize the risk of choking. Don’t push the food directly in the turtle’s throat.
- Return the turtle in the water where it can swallow the food in peace. Turtles can’t swallow food above water.
- Patiently wait for the turtle to swallow everything. Don’t rush the process.
- Repeat the above steps until the turtle has eaten as much as it would normally eat. If you don’t the right amount – research how much your turtle species should be eating at its current age and weight.
Turtles can be picky eaters and may refuse pellets at first
It takes some trial and error before you find out what your new turtle likes to eat.
In my experience there’s no food that’s 100% guaranteed to be accepted and every turtle will have its own preferences.
I’ve seen turtles get addicted to shrimp and refuse to take anything else until you wait long enough.
I’ve also seen baby turtles courageously trying pellets and never looking back.
Pellets are something that we introduce to a turtle’s menu gradually. More often than not pellets won’t be the first food of choice of a young turtle.
To encourage your turtle to switch to pellet foods you may need to cut down on other snacks.
One good method I use is soaking the pellets in water from a tuna can (not oil).
Another trick to encourage your baby turtle to switch to pellets is to keep them in its favorite food so that they acquire the smell.
It is also important to remember that a turtle won’t let itself starve if food is present and it can physically eat.
Anyway, as a pet owner, you need to try different foods at first and see what works.
I’ve found that rotating different brands of good quality foods helps with the growth and health of my pet turtles.
By rotating pellets and experimenting along the way, I make sure that my turtle gets a balanced supply of vitamins and minerals.
Here’s what I usually do to feed my turtles a balanced diet:
- I feed a different type of pellet every meal;
- I leave fresh leafy vegetables such as Romaine Lettuce in the tank at all times;
- Once a week I offer live or freeze-dried foods soaked in vitamins.
Author’s note: Once your pet turtle learns that you’re the “Food God” it will become a real beggar. To satisfy its insatiable hunger between meals you can offer Romaine Lettuce. Romaine Lettuce is not high on protein and it won’t throw your pet’s diet off balance.
The good thing about having a pet turtle is that these creatures are hardy and, usually, you’ll have enough time to figure out why yours has stopped eating.
With time and experience, you’ll learn to spot issues at a glance and fix them quickly.
Leave me a comment below if you need additional guidance or just want to share your success with getting your pet turtle back on track.