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The large shell-less assistant here….
When Malti first joined our little flock as a five-week-old hatchling redfoot tortoise, my approach to her feeding and care was basically the wrong approach.
I had the initial thought – “Well, how hard could it be? I kept water turtles as a child and they were all really healthy!”
Hah. I don’t often wish for a do-over in life, but I really really do when it comes to raising a hatchling redfoot tortoise. I did a terrible job.
To be fair, I also had terrible veterinary guidance.
I mean, truly awful. As it turned out, not every veterinarian who claims to specialize in “exotic pets” actually does. That was a heart-wrenching time for us both. I have blogged extensively about that experience here elsewhere so I won’t rehash it here, except to say that this is the post I would have wished I had, had I know to wish for it.
Calcium. Phosphorus. Oxalates. Ultraviolet full-spectrum light. Heat. Humidity. Vitamin D.
These are the elements of a healthy hatchling redfoot. Get them right and your little tortoise will grow up with a smooth, shiny shell and be healthy inside it too.
Get it wrong and …. it isn’t easy for me to type this. Your tortoise could die. Malti almost did die.
Even if your tortoise doesn’t die, you will spend thousands of dollars in veterinary care and go through emotional and mental hell trying to nurse her back to health again. And you will live the rest of your life knowing your tortoise suffered when you could have prevented it. Horrible. Take it from me. All I can say is, my animals are far more forgiving of me than my own species would likely be in this particular scenario.
Please forgive the strong warning. It’s just – I don’t want to sugarcoat it for you because taking on the care of a hatchling anything – homo sapiens, avian, reptile, canine – is never ever ever going to be easy. That is, it won’t be easy if it is done right.
If you ever catch yourself thinking it is easy or even that it should be easy, consider how easy of a time you have had caring for your own self over the years.
It isn’t easy. Or at least I personally haven’t found caring for myself to be easy. For example, I don’t remember getting a manual when I popped out called “how to care for a homo sapiens at every life stage.” (I checked and my own mom didn’t get one either.)
Speaking of which, there are some good books about how to care for redfoot tortoises at every life stage. I’ve done some blogging about that in the past here and will be updating my list here shortly as well.
But here again, think about the research you have done into your own health issues and how helpful (or not) available resources have been to you. The truth is, there is a LOT of contradictory information out there no matter what species you are dealing with.
This is why I recommend that you find an exotic veterinarian you really REALLY trust to be your guide…and do this ASAP.
If you do this first – like before you even bring home your little redfooted hatchling – and if you use the heck out of that expert resource to make sense of all the other resources available to you, then I promise you and your tort will have a much smoother ride throughout your (hopefully very long and healthy) life together.
Having said all that, and acknowledging at the outset that I am neither a redfoot tortoise expert or breeder or an exotic veterinarian, I am nevertheless going to attempt to decode the redfoot tortoise diet plan for you.
Redfoot tortoise food group ratios.
Like pretty much every other redfoot tortoise feeding topic, there is a lot of expert disagreement when it comes to how much of which food groups to feed redfoots.
This disagreement intensifies depending on a redfoot tortoise’s life stage (hatchling, juvenile, adult, senior), gender, life stage (young, adult, pregnant, et al) and even geographic location.
Why is there so little consensus?
There are several reasons. First, food types can vary by season. Fruits and flowers are more plentiful during warm seasons, for example. If you are following a true South American wild redfoot tortoise diet then you would want to offer a seasonally appropriate menu.
Next, even though South American redfoot tortoises are not a hibernating species, they still can experience a metabolic slow down when it gets colder and there is less daylight. So you don’t want to over-feed during these cool season times and risk weight gain.
But then again, some experts advocate simply following the same diet all year long for simplicity and dietary consistency. If you are able to do this based on what is available locally, this is also a perfectly acceptable method to use as long as your exotic veterinarian agrees.
If you are interested, I share much more detail about what I do for Malti in each of these areas in this resource post.
Here, I will offer you an overview of what the experts have to say and you can talk with your exotic veterinarian about which approach is the best for your tortoise.
The warm season/cool season diet.
So here is an example of a warm season/cool season diet plan for redfoots:
- WARM season 70/20/10: 70 percent flowers/leaves and fruits; 20 percent grasses and vegetables; 10 percent protein and fungi.
- COOL season 40/25/25/10: 40 percent fruits; 25 percent flowers/leaves; 25 percent grasses and vegetables; 10 percent protein and fungi.
The year-round diet.
- 55/35/10: 55 percent flowers/leaves and fruits; 35 percent grasses and vegetables; 10 percent protein and fungi.
Tackling the Ca:P and oxalates dilemma.
In this section, I am going to talk about what is hands-down the most complicated part of feeding your redfoot tortoise – picking foods that have the right calcium to phosphorus (Ca to P or Ca:P) and oxalates ratio.
This can be tricky and here is why: sometimes a food will have an excellent Ca to P ratio but then be high in oxalates (oxalic acid). Spinach is a great example. So you would want to feed spinach sparingly if at all.
Other times a food will have a less optimal Ca:P ratio but be low in oxalates and high in other important nutrients. Strawberries are a good example. Here again, you would want to feed strawberries sparingly if at all.
Some experts will tell you to eliminate spinach and strawberries. Others will caution moderation. Let your exotic veterinarian be your tie-breaker in all such dilemmas.
Calculating the right Ca:P sans oxalates redfoot tortoise diet.
There are two ways to tackle this topic.
- The first way, which I strongly favor since my brain doesn’t do math, is to simply identify which foods have the ideal ratio of all of the above and feed those.
- The second way, which you might like if your math scores in school were anything you would willingly share on a resume, is to calculate out all the ratios yourself.
If you prefer option #2, there are lots of nutrition resources online that you can use to calculate out your own Ca:P to oxalates ratio and factor in the other essential nutrients as well.
Here, it is also important to be aware that the Ca:P ratios of popular tortoise foods can be stated differently from one website to the next. This is super confusing! So to be safe, always consult at least two or three resources to get a sense of what the most correct data may be for a given food.
In the same way, one website will say “never feed zucchini” while another will say “feed sparingly” or “safe to feed daily.” For these types of issues, you just have to identify the nutritional resources you feel are trustworthy and defer to your exotic veterinarian for additional guidance about feeding or avoiding individual foods.
I found this ideal tortoise diet calculator that is supposed to calculate the Ca:P ratio for you. I can’t figure out how to use it (see “math scores” above) but if you can, it seems like a very comprehensive one to use!
If, like me, you prefer option #1, here is what you need to know to make sense of this whole dietary dilemma.
- The optimal calcium to phosphorus ratio of redfoot tortoise foods is always at least 2:1. Higher calcium (like 3:1 and up) is even better wherever possible.
- Too much calcium = brittle bones; too little calcium = soft bones.
- Phosphorus can actually leach calcium out of the bones.
- Oxalates (oxalic acid) are calcium inhibitors. This means they won’t let your tortoise’s body absorb the calcium required to make Vitamin D, which is vital for healthy kidneys and bones. The optimal level of oxalates is zero oxalates or as low as possible otherwise. Any food that has even a moderate oxalic acid content should be minimized and perhaps avoided.
Okay. Clear as mud, right?
And I know you can’t put your redfoot tortoise’s meal planning on hold while you go earn a masters in exotic reptile nutritional science. So I’m going to try to make it simpler – the kind of simpler I needed when I first brought Malti home to stay.
Below here I give you a short list of healthy, safe redfoot tortoise foods that can form a foundation for your redfoot tortoise weekly meal plan.
For the most general purposes, or at least until you get your exotic veterinarian’s expert guidance, you can go ahead and start feeding these food items safely.
* (Also, I have listed out and linked to my resources at the bottom here so you don’t have to take my word for any of this – you can go right to the sources if you have questions.) *
Then, as soon as you are able to, talk to your exotic veterinarian about the specifics of if/when, how, how often and how much to feed of each food and each food group for the gender, age and health issues of your redfoot tortoise.
Your exotic veterinarian can help you put together a more comprehensive weekly menu complete with additional foods in rotation to ensure complete and total redfoot tortoise nutrition.
Healthy and safe staple redfoot tortoise foods.
If it was possible to rewind all the way back to day one when Malti first came home with me and start again, these are the staple foods I would start feeding her.
DARK, LEAFY GREENS & FLOWERS.
3:1 Ca to P ratio; very low oxalates – GREAT staple green for redfoot tortoises!
Turnip greens are also high in Vitamin C & K, folate, fiber, manganese, beta carotene (precursor to Vitamin A).
2:1 Ca to P ratio, NO oxalates – GREAT staple green for redfoot tortoises!
Dandelion greens also provide plenty of Vitamins A & C and fiber.
Hibiscus leaves and flowers.
1:1 Ca to P ratio (although some resources differ on the exact ratio, all sources agree hibiscus leaves and flowers offer GREAT overall nutrition for redfoots), NO oxalates.
Hibiscus is also great for Vitamin C, iron, fiber.
9:1 Ca to P ratio, NO oxalates.
Mango is also high in Vitamins C, A, B6 and magnesium.
2:1 Ca to P ratio, NO oxalates.
Papaya is also high in beta carotene (precursor to Vitamin A), magnesium, potassium, zinc, Vitamin C, folate and fiber.
2:1 Ca to P ratio; NO oxalates.
Pineapple is also high in Vitamin C and manganese plus fiber.
3:1 Ca to P ratio, NO oxalates.
Lots of Vitamin K, magnesium, potassium, manganese, fiber.
Fresh figs (never dried!) also have a lower fruit sugar content which makes them a great fruit choice for fruit sugar-loving redfoot tortoises.
As with every other category in the redfoot tortoise diet, experts disagree about a) whether to offer redfoots protein, b) how often to offer protein, c) what types of protein to offer, and d) everything else.
One thing I will say about a) is that I truly believe redfoot tortoises need protein. They eat protein in the wild. Sure, it is mostly slow bugs like snails and slugs and earthworms, and carrion when available, and also their own and other animals’ poop sometimes – so it’s not like they are feasting on rib-eye all day every day.
But it is protein all the same.
The truth is, protein is harder to come by (catch) when you are slow-moving and are considered delectable yourself, so in general protein probably makes up no more than 10 percent of a wild redfoot tortoise’s weekly menu. Yet I still believe it is important to offer. You can talk with your exotic veterinarian about this topic in more detail and always be guided by what they have to say.
Meanwhile, this list simply represents a general overview of different protein sources that can be offered. I have starred the protein types I have offered to Malti in case you are interested.
- *Hard-boiled eggs (whites and yolks).
- *Organic steamed, skin-less, bone-less salmon.
- *Organic sustainably-harvested canned or fresh tuna.
- *Mealworms (live or freeze-dried – Malti prefers the latter and Bruce the former).
- *Superworms (gut-loaded mealworms that are extra-nutritious).
- Cat food.
- Dog food.
- Pinkie mice.
- Steamed or boiled shrimp.
- Steamed or boiled chicken.
Redfoot tortoise water, treats & vitamins/minerals/supplements.
I spend a lot more time talking about Malti’s water, her treats, the vitamins/minerals and supplements I use and my reasons for what I choose in this resource post.
Okay, I really hope this post is helpful if you are caring for a redfoot tortoise of any age or life stage! Remember, always reach out to your exotic veterinarian if you have specific questions relate to your tortoise’s needs and health.
* Feeding resources:
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