Maybe you’re going on vacation for a few weeks and not sure what to do with your turtle. Or perhaps you got caught up in work and forgot to feed your turtle two days in a row, feeling guilty.
Whatever the reason, now you’re curious.
So, how long can your turtle survive without food?
Adult turtles can survive up to six months without food as long as their environment is favorable. However, young turtles shouldn’t go without food for more than a week. And regardless of maturity, turtles typically won’t survive longer than a few days without water.
No matter what turtle species you have, doing the best for your pet’s health is crucial to keeping them roaming around you for years to come.
Although low maintenance, turtles need the proper diet for their subspecies to be healthy. Because they’re not as widely popular as a dog or cats, knowing the ins and outs of your turtle’s needs can be murky.
So, read on to learn how long turtles can survive without food. And when it’s time to call it!
What Are The Nutritional Needs of Turtles?
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all chart to guide you on your turtle’s nutritional needs. The biggest thing you need to think of first is the turtle species. And then what age they are and their current health conditions.
But, generally, turtles are omnivorous, i.e., they eat plants and animals. Many young turtles (under ten years old) need extra meat as they grow. All turtle species need a fresh supply of water throughout the day.
- Leafy greens, e.g., Collards and Mustard Greens
- Plants, e.g., Water Hyacinth and Duckweed
- Fruits, e.g., Apples and Mangoes
- Live prey, e.g., shrimp and crickets
- Processed food, e.g., dried sardines and turtle pellets
- Cooked meat, e.g., chicken and beef.
What percentage of each source your turtle needs will depend on their age, current health, and species.
Generally, plants account for 60-80% of their diet, with meat taking the remaining 20-40%. (Fruit should be given sparingly as a treat).
Talk with your vet if you’re unsure what your turtle needs.
Factors Affecting How Long Turtles Can Survive Without Food
Factors affecting how long your turtle can survive without food include the species, age, size, and current health condition.
There’s a whole host of reasons you may need to leave your turtle without food. For example, maybe you’re away on vacation. Or perhaps they’ve gone on a Great Escape, and it’s been a few days.
Read on to find out how those listed factors affect your turtle’s health.
Although there’s a general consensus on how long turtles can go without food (and water), some species are hardier than others.
Box turtles encompass several species, including the Asian Box turtle and the Three-Toed Box Turtle. They typically have a domed shell into which they can fully retreat. (Like you might in a box).
Box Turtles can survive without food for a few months as long as they’re in good health. But they will only survive without water for around a day or two.
They need a ready water supply. And how much they need will depend on the species. For example, semi-aquatic species, like the Red-Eared Slider, need enough water to swim in.
Although most pet turtles tend to fall into the ‘small adult turtle’ category, it’s important to know if yours is considered a small turtle.
When your turtle reaches a maximum of 8-10 inches in length, it’s considered a small turtle. Some common species include painted turtles, red-eared sliders, and box turtles.
The smaller the turtle, the longer they tend to be able to survive without eating compared to their larger counterparts.
However, this is just a general observation, and you must be sure that your pet has fully matured before thinking of leaving them without food for a few weeks or months.
Age is one of the biggest influences on your pet’s ability to survive without food.
Adult turtles can survive months without food (as long as there’s plenty of water nearby). In contrast, hatchlings and juveniles are still growing and haven’t learned how to brumate. So, these young turtles can only survive for a couple of weeks without food.
Brumation isn’t total hibernation. Turtles will still move and drink water but more slowly.
There shouldn’t be any need for them to brumate as a pet, though. They have a ready food supply, and their terrarium is temperature controlled. So, winter conditions won’t be the same.
To tell if your pet turtle is an adult, you should expect them to fully mature between the ages of 5 and 8. In comparison, tortoises can take 20 years to mature fully.
Knowing the exact age of your turtle is extremely hard to determine. But, as long as you know if they’re an adult or not, you’ll be able to tell how long they can go without food.
Turtle’s Health Condition
This may be an obvious one. But the healthier your turtle is, the longer they will be able to survive without food.
As with humans, turtles need food to combat illness and recover. So there are some health problems to watch out for during starvation periods.
Some common health problems that all turtles are vulnerable to include Vitamin A deficiency and respiratory infections.
Vitamin A deficiency is usually caused by an imbalanced diet and can be corrected with dietary changes and supplements. Your turtle may be deficient if they’re lethargic or have eyelid/ear swelling.
If your turtle is vitamin A deficient, they won’t be able to go without food until they’re better. Left untreated, vitamin A deficiency could lead to kidney failure.
Respiratory infections can develop from bacteria and untreated vitamin A deficiency. A respiratory infection’s symptoms include excess mucus in their mouth or wheezing. To combat the infection, your pet will need antibiotics and a regular diet.
What Happens When Your Turtle is Deprived of Food?
Aside from unplanned starvation, watching for concerning signs while your turtle goes without food is essential. The two main effects are broken down into physical and behavioral.
Physical Effects of a Food-Deprived Turtle
The most obvious physical effect of a food-deprived turtle is weight loss. Now, it can be difficult to tell if your turtle is underweight and needs food.
An underweight turtle will look too small for their shell because their arms and legs will be thin. And with little muscle mass. If, while handling, they feel too light for their average size, they’re underweight.
It’s unlikely that your turtle will lose much weight during short-term starvation (15 days or less). Even during brumation (if they do so), the weight loss shouldn’t be drastic.
Watch for signs of infection and vitamin A deficiency, which can accelerate weight loss. Not eating when prompted is the first sign of something wrong.
Look for signs of swelling, abscesses, and white discoloration of the shell. If your turtle refuses to eat, it’s time for a vet trip.
Behavioral Effects of a Food-Deprived Turtle
Without regular access to food, a food-deprived turtle slows down their metabolism to compensate. So to conserve energy for vital functions, the turtle will only move slowly. And only move to get some water or readjust themselves.
Lethargy and inactivity are the most significant behavioral effects during starvation, whether it’s only for a few weeks or months of no food.
How To Prepare Your Turtle For a Starvation Period
If you’re planning on going away for a few weeks or months, you can be confident now that your adult turtle will be okay without food.
But, before you wave goodbye to your reptile, you can do a few things to make your turtle as happy as possible.
Plump Them Up
With as much notice as possible, start feeding your turtle more vitamin A-enriched food in the weeks and months before your trip. But don’t overdo it, as turtles can develop hypervitaminosis A.
Turtles typically lose around 1% of their weight every month of starvation. Anything more than that can be a sign of disease.
Just before heading away, get your turtle weighed by a vet. And then again, on your return, tell how well your turtle fared the starvation.
The day or two before your turtle starts their starvation period, clean out their terrarium. Doing this will prevent any lingering or hidden bacteria around the tank from entering your pet’s system.
During their starvation period, their immune system will slow as their metabolism prioritizes vital functions. So if bacteria has the opportunity to get into your pet’s system, there could be deadly consequences if left untreated.
Make sure all temperature control equipment (thermometer, hygrometer, heat lamp etc.) is all working correctly to maintain proper temperatures for your turtle.
Another way to prevent any sneaky bacteria or parasites from wreaking havoc is to get your turtle’s feces tested. Testing feces for bacteria/parasites before the starvation period is a great way to keep your turtle safe.
Constant Fresh Water Supply
Aside from drinking, turtles need water to bathe in. And that amount will depend on the species.
Because turtles bathe in water, bacteria and feces will get into the water too. So if they are left to drink only this water, it will quickly lead to your turtle getting an infection.
Ideally, get a friend or neighbor to pop in and change the water at least once a week. If that isn’t possible, the best option for your pet is to get an automatic water dispenser for their terrarium.
Turtles are hardy creatures, and adults can go without food for months. Perfect for those times you’re going on holiday or accidentally forgetting to feed due to work.
As long as your pet is healthy and has enough fresh water, you can be confident that your reptile will be perfectly safe during starvation periods.
Just make sure someone is watching for signs of illness and drastic weight loss.
Kate Breen is an oddball gaming-obsessed copywriter experienced in several niches, though her love lies with animals. Pets are unconditionally loving creatures, and Kate strives to inform owners about the best care through her animal welfare knowledge