Beginner’s Guide to Turtle and Tortoise Care – Lighting, Feeding and Handling

Picking and purchasing an enclosure for their pet turtle or tortoise is most likely one of the first steps a new turtle or tortoise owner takes. Picking the right type of enclosure is incredibly important, and more information about this can be found in our blog “Beginner’s guide to Turtle and Tortoise care – Enclosure”. Proper turtle and tortoise care entails more than just the enclosure, as picking the right diet and lighting will play a big role in keeping your turtle or tortoise healthy. Some basic information about lighting, feeding, and handling can be found in the article below.


Both tortoises and turtles need light that is nearly exact to normal sunlight, UVA and UVB light. They also need warmth like the sun would provide. UVA will help regulate behaviours, like feeding and activity. The UVB will help the body create vitamin D3, which in turn will help them process and utilise calcium. Without absorbing UVB rays, turtles and tortoises are unable to produce Vitamin D3 and utilise calcium, which will lead to serious health issues.

So, how can you provide your tortoise and/or turtle with heat, UVA, and UVB? You can buy special lamps for this. Make sure to research what type of lighting the lamp provides you plan on buying. Some will only provide UVA or UVB, and some will provide both. They also come in different strengths and ranges. Make sure to create a balance in your pet’s enclosure suitable to its specific needs. These lights need to be on for 10 to 14 hours daily, followed by 10 to 14 hours of darkness. If you are unsure of the specific needs of your type of tortoise or turtle, consult with a professional. 



A tortoise is a herbivore. They should be allowed to graze on grasses, a mix of leafy plants, and flowers. Examples of leafy greens they can eat are romaine lettuce , kale, red leaf lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, collard, mustard and dandelion green. Depending on the species of tortoise you get, they may have specific needs, so it is important to research their diet well. Only add fruits to your tortoise’s diet if you have a type that requires this. The pre-made tortoise foods available are convenient, but often lack nutrition. So, it’s best to create a homemade mix salad specifically tailored to the needs of your tortoise. Provide a good variety in your mix to ensure they are able to get all the nutrients they need.

tortoise grass

It’s also important to make sure that your tortoise is getting enough calcium. This can be done by feeding calcium rich foods and adding a calcium supplement to their diet. They need additional calcium to stay healthy. If your tortoise is not getting enough UVB or sunlight, add a supplement with vitamin D3. Make sure that your tortoise has enough fresh and clean water to drink in a shallow dish. 

A healthy tortoise will eat daily, but can skip a meal. A feeding schedule that is common under tortoise owners is to feed them several small, nutrient-dense meals every couple of days, and let the tortoise graze as it wishes. When they are brumating, they do not eat for weeks.

Tortoises should not eat dog or cat food as it is too high in protein and fat for them. Milk and other high protein foods are also not suitable. Even though your tortoise may look healthy for a long time, these will cause deformities in the shell growth and cause liver and kidney damage. Also don’t feed your tortoise sodium-rich foods, canned vegetables, dairy products, bread, beans, celery or frozen vegetables. A common diet mistake new tortoise owners make is only feeding them lettuce, but this is an insufficient and incomplete diet. 


Generally speaking, turtles are omnivores. This means they will eat plants and meat. There are some differences between different kinds of turtles though. Soft shell turtles are fine with a full meat diet, so can be completely carnivorous. Eating plants in their case can mean something is wrong. There are also a few turtle breeds which are vegetarian. When choosing a suitable diet for your turtle, age plays a role. Juveniles and hatchlings will need more protein than adults do, and their diet should reflect this. As there is no “one size fits all ” turtle diet, research the diet your specific type of turtle needs and stay as close to their natural diet as possible. Make sure their diet is constantly varied to ensure they get all the nutrients they need. Just some examples of what your turtle’s meal could consist of are: wax worms, leafy greens, earthworms, crickets, kale, snails, squash, non-toxic aquatic plants, pellets, carrots.

Just like with the tortoise, you need to make sure that your turtle will get enough calcium and vitamin D/Vitamin D3. This can be done through supplements. Also, you need to be mindful of protein percentage to prevent internal organ problems and promote good shell health.  


Most turtles and tortoises usually do not appreciate getting lifted, cuddled, and handled. They also can transfer salmonella. Proper hygienic measurements must be taken after handling and caring for your pet turtle. 


Besides the costs for supplies and food, it is important to keep in mind that veterinary care for reptiles is a specialisation, hence will drive the price up. Make sure that you are ready to carry the financial responsibility that comes with owning a pet turtle or tortoise.

Important note

Tortoises and turtles end up for adoption all the time as they require more care than people realise and have long lifespans. Contact your local rescue center if you would like to adopt a turtle or a tortoise. Never buy a turtle or tortoise that was wild-caught. If you can’t take care of your pet turtle or tortoise anymore, don’t release them into the wild. They will either die because the environment is unsuitable for them, or they become an invasive species and threaten local wildlife.  

Keeping turtles and tortoises as pets

Caring for a turtle or tortoise is often underestimated, which can affect their health and welfare. By providing information to (potential) pet owners, we hope to improve the overall welfare of turtles and tortoises that are kept as pets, and inform those interested in a pet turtle or tortoise so they can make a thoroughly thought through decision if a turtle or tortoise is the right pet for them.
Did you know we also pet sit turtles and tortoises? Our reptile sitters are knowledgeable about their care and will love your turtle or tortoise like it’s their own. Feel free to contact us for more information about our pet sitting service.

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