I have seen many recommendations for diets...Some good
...Some bad. Russian Tortoises are grazers and enjoy broad leaf plants.
The best diet is a variety of weeds (leaves and flowers). Dandelion is a
favorite. However for many , the ideal diet is just not available. So what
are the alternatives that can keep our tortoises healthy and happy?
There is a real concern among tortoise lovers about abnormal growth and poor health from improper diets. There are also certain "anti-nutrients" in plants that if given in sufficient quantities , have a negative impact on the health of or animals. These include oxalic acid, phytic acid, goitrogens, purines and tannins. More on these later. The true key to a healthy diet is variety.
Russian Tortoises are "programmed" to eat allot in a short
period of time. In the wild they are active only a few months of the year.
When they come out of hibernation they feed voraciously in preparation for
aestivation (some refer to this as summer hibernation though its not
really hibernation, but more like a long siesta) .
In captivity they are active most the year and can easily over eat. Also if kept in an indoor pen they get less exercise than in the wild. These 2 factors can lead to rapid growth and a shortened life span. For this reason their diet should be restricted.
When kept outdoors they can be allowed to graze freely and fed daily small amounts of supplemental food. I am fortunate in that I have enough weeds and flowers growing all summer that I rarely need to feed anything else. I have divided my pen in thirds and keep 1/3 growing a fresh crop of weeds at all times.
Indoors, they receive far less exercise and tend to rely on grocery store green. I prefer to feed them as much as they will eat in twenty minutes....daily. I have also fed them as much as they would eat in an hour... every other day. Both methods work.
Also if you chop up hay (timothy, orchard, Bermuda ...etc) and mix it with the greens you can feed larger volumes. I also leave fresh hay in the pens at all times.
Most grocery stores have a decent selection of greens that Russians readily eat. Ideally the greens should be organic and pesticide free. However this is the real world and not all tortoise keepers have access to "ideal" food. So, I have this section as a starting point for a varied diet. The following greens are easily found in my local stores:
Romaine lettuce (fed on occasion)
Red and green leaf lettuce (fed on occasion)
Spring Mix (mixed salad greens)
cabbage (fed on occasion)
With the above veggies one can develop a good diet. Once again (and I can't stress this enough) variety is the key!
Don't feed the same food day in and day out. Mix varieties and choose a different green as the basis every few days.
OTHER GOOD CHOICES
Some other favorites of my tortoises that are available:
Hibiscus (flowers and leaves)
Hen and Chicks
Prickly pear flowers, fruit and pads (burn the spines off)
Plantain (not the banana type fruit....the weed plantago major)
Mallow (flowers and leaves)
Rose (flowers and leaves....make sure no systemic pesticides were used)
Cornflowers Plagiobothrys ssp
Forsythia (flowers and leaves)
Dayflower Commelina diffusa (flowers and leaves)
Californian Poppy escholzia
Chia Salvia hispanica
Make sure all are pesticide and herbicide free.
The following food items should be avoided for a variety of reasons. there are many books and groups that go into great detail...so I won't repeat them here. At the end of the page are a few links).
All fruit (although fruit is often recommended, its sugar content can lead
to parasite blooms....just not worth it) the exception is apples due to the high quantity of pectin....but still not frequently.
All grains (including bread, pasta etc)
Dog and cat food
All human food except what's been listed as "good"
Pellet type foods (An often overlooked factor of pyramiding is grain based diets. These are the pellet food that some claim to be essential to health. They typically contain soy, wheat and or rice. These are high in omega 6 fatty acids which has a negative effect on health. They also have an acidifying effect which causes a leaching of bone. They are high in phytate which binds calcium and other minerals. They also have an unfavorable ca/ph ratio and a low ca/mg ratio which has a negative impact on calcium metabolism. Grains alter Vit D metabolism. Diets high in grains can have a negative impact on bone growth in spite of adequate exposure to sunshine. (http://www.sawellnesscenter.com//nutrition/Diet/Cereal%20article-1.pdf)
A number of food items contain chemicals that interfere with a tortoises ability to absorb nutrients from food. Although most food items have some of these...a varied diet can minimize the harmful effects.
(more info can be found at Cornell University Poisonous Plants Informational Database)
This is a naturally occurring element in many plants and imparts a bitter taste in greens such as mustard greens. This substance binds minerals...the most important being calcium. It binds with minerals which must be eliminated through the kidneys. In large amounts (or in small quantities with improper hydration) can lead to kidney stones and kidney damage. Avoid rhubarb and beet greens....limit (don't eliminate) spinach,
This is found in high concentration is peas, beans and cereals. This chemical also binds minerals as well as proteins.
Although tannins are beneficial for the most part, in large quantities (as with all anti-nutrients) they bind protein and interfere with digestion.
Purines are well known in humans as being a contributing factor in gout. Russian tortoises fed large amounts can develop kidney disease.
This compound is implicated in the development of enlarged thyroid glands (Goiters). They interfere with the uptake of iodine. Some eperts believe that all the Brassicae family should be avoided like the plague due to this. However Kuzmin and others observe that plants from this family are regularly eaten¹. A recent paper outlines in details the diet of Russian Tortoises
One of the most important supplements is calcium. If there is a good source of UVB as with tortoises kept outdoors, a light dusting of the food with calcium daily is sufficient. Indoors use phosphorous free calcium with D3. Many prefer RepCal calcium without D3.
However, dusting with calcium is not without its own risks. While superficially it does seem to have benefit, it has its own problems. Too much calcium results in secondary deficiencies of zinc, copper and iodine, mal-absorption of essential fatty acids, and formation of calcium-containing bladder stones.
Instead I prefer to feed high calcium greens and keep cuttlebone available at all times. This way the tortoise can regulate its own calcium intake. Cuttlebone is often ignored for long periods, but when extra calcium is needed such as with gravid females or a young tort experiencing a growth spurt, it will almost disappear overnight. Click here for the nutritional analysis of cuttlebone.
Another supplement I use is TNT (Total Nutrition for Tortoises™) Nutritional Supplement from Carolina Pet Supply. This is a nutritionally balanced formula which provides the vitamins and minerals (very high in bio-available calcium) that are often lacking in the captive diet. It’s formulated from a variety of dehydrated and powdered flowers and weeds.
Also of use are probiotics. Most of our animals come to us with abundance of parasites and disturbed gut flora (the good bacteria that live in the intestines). Supplementing with probiotics goes a long way to restoring normal gut function. iFlora from Sedona Labs is one of the best probiotics used for reptiles.
Water is very important for all animals. Russian tortoise are no exception to the rule. Being an arid species , much of the water can be extracted from their food. However they do need a regular source. I keep a shallow bowel of water in the pens. Indoors I prefer to soak them for 20 minutes in chin deep "baby warm" water every 2-3 days. This serves 2 purposes. It allows me to inspect them frequently and (since they usually empty their bowels and bladders while soaking) it keeps the cages much cleaner.
Composition of Plants
Here are some good links:
USDA NUTRIENT DATA LABORATORY
1. Kuzmin, S. L. 2002. The Turtles of Russia and Other Ex-Soviet Republics. Edition, Chimaira Frankfurt am Main (pg. 101-130)
Joe Heinen BS, DC, FIAMA, Dipl. Ac. (IAMA)
Copyright 2000 http://russiantortoise.org, http://www.russiantortoise.net
As an addendum. Many have asked me what a tortoise looks like that wasn't properly fed. Here is a link to a recent rescue by Marty La Prees INdiana TURTLE CARE, Inc.
Click here to see photos of shell deformities ..... really sad....but now she has a great home!