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Providing calcium separately allows the turtle to decide when it needs more calcium. Cuttlebone, plaster block, boiled and crushed eggshells, and crushed oystershell can all provide calcium on demand. Just providing a good source of calcium is not enough, however. Dietary calcium is not properly utilized in the absence of vitamin D3. Turtles can manufacture D3 if provided access to UV-B rays from direct sunlight or a good reptile light (e.g. Reptisun or Reptile D-Light.) Or D3 can be provided in the diet through supplements like Rep-Cal. A few foods block the absorption of calcium because of their high oxalic acid content. It's important not to overuse these foods, but they may have some benefits as natural vermifuge agents. Some foods contain goitrogens that can lead to iodine deficiency if overused. (Providing cuttlebone can correct this problem too, as it contains trace iodine.) High levels of protein put an abnormal stress on the kidneys, and may be implicated in some shell deformities. It's best to avoid excessive use of meats intended for human consumption and other high protein food sources. When used sparingly as part of a varied diet, no harm is likely to result, but high protein meats should not be used as a staple. It is important to use a great variety of foods, and not overuse any one type. Remember that all plants provide protein too, so it is not difficult to get enough protein in the diet.
For many years, turtle hobby enthusiasts have resorted to following lists of "good" foods and "bad" foods. Turtles in the wild pay no attention to these lists. :-) They avoid difficulties that could arise from some of the so-called bad foods by eating them sparingly, as part of a great natural variety around them. When they feel the need for calcium, they seek out eggs from amphibians & birds, or gnaw on carrion bones, or even eat mineral-rich dirt and sand. When humans intervene in the lives of wild animals, they tend to over-analyze things, to the detriment of the animals. By avoiding foods on the "bad" lists, we cheat our animals of many nutritious menu items. For instance, cabbage is often forbidden because of the high goitrogen content. If you fed your turtle nothing but cabbage, and never let it have iodine in any other form, the turtle could indeed develop kidney problems and goiter. So just use cabbage as one of the many items on the menu, and provide cuttlebone for the iodine replacement.
WHAT SHOULD I FEED MY TURTLE?
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All that being said about pellets, reproducing the natural diet as much as is possible will make your turtle happier and healthier. In the wild, turtles choose from among a variety of foods that are in season and available. Variety is one key to a good diet for your turtle. Calcium is the other important key. Supplementation isn't necessary if enough variety is used in the diet. (After all, no one provides vitamins for the wild turtles, and they tend to be healthier than captives).
You can read about the complicated relationships between calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D3 and other elements at several websites. The point to remember is that phosphorus is in most of the foods that turtles eat. It is the calcium side of the ratio that demands attention.
Commercial pellets are probably what your turtle was raised on by the breeder. Because of the convenience, most breeders who must feed hundreds or thousands of turtles, rely on pellets for the babys and young adults. It should be remembered however, that these breeders are primarily concerned with keeping these turtles healthy for a relatively short period of time, just until they are placed in the market. That being said, most breeders recommend that pellets should be the staple of your turtle's diet. They are specially formulated, but they should not be the only food that you offer them. The high protein content in pellets allows you to offer them in smaller quantities. Often products' packaging might list different estimates on how much to feed. Just be aware of the quantity you are feeding and take steps to ensure that your turtle is receiving a balanced diet and is not overfed.
There are many opinions and suggestions regarding the amount of proper feeding we should offer our turtles. The information presented represents a general guideline suitable for most turtles. Hatchlings or turtles under a year old should be given pellets daily. The amount given should be an amount that would fill your turtles head (not including it’s neck. It is appropriate to offer vegetables daily - even if they initially refuse. You may have to try different varieties to see which kind your turtle would take. Turtles over a year old should be given pellets every other day or every two days.
There are various ideas on the quantity of pellets you should feed your turtle. Hatchlings should receive more protein in their diet - approximately 50% of their entire diet. Since turtle pellets can contain more than 40% protein (Reptomin for instance), adding the occasional cricket, guppy or earthworm can round out their diet. For older turtles, pellets should compromise between 10-25% of the diet.
Here are some reputable brands that are very popular: Fluker's Aquatic Turtle Diet, HBH Turtle Bites, Mazuri Fresh Water Turtle Diet, Nasco Turtle Brittle, Nutrafin Turtle Gammarus, Purina AquaMax, Rep-Cal Aquatic Turtle Food, Tetra ReptoMin, Wardley's Reptile T.E.N. and Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle Food. The Mazuri and Reptomin are highly recommended.
Turtles can be very aggressive beggars and many inexperienced keepers, supplied only with pellets, often give in to this begging. Overfeeding is also a result of other people besides the owner offering additional pellets to turtles without consideration to the overall quantity a turtle should receive. This excessive amount of protein causes accelerated growth, premature sexuality, shell disfigurements (pyramiding), and even organ failure.
First, it is important to know what species you are feeding. Diet and every other facet of care is determined by the natural habitat of the turtle. For instance, River Cooters eat a diet primarily composed of plants, while Map Turtles prefer animal matter. American Box Turtles are omnivores who eat a little bit of everything. The Malayan Box Turtle should eat plenty of plants with just a little bit of animal matter, but the Chinese 3-Striped Box Turtle eats "meats" almost exclusively. The red-eared slider starts out life eating mostly bugs, worms and other invertebrates, but becomes more omnivorous as it matures. (Please note: The information on this page does not apply to tortoises, which often have highly specialized diets).