The amount of time a tortoise can survive without food depends greatly on a number of factors. The species of tortoise, the size, the usual diet, its overall health and age all contribute to how long they can survive without being fed. On top of that, some tortoise species are able to undergo hibernation or brumation, which can significantly lessen their need for food.
In general, a healthy adult tortoise can live for as much as 6 months to 3 years without food, provided that they have access to drinking water and their other needs are met. We have a full article on how long a tortoise can go without water here, how long can a water go without water?.
One astonishing story involved a cherry-head red foot tortoise from Brazil surviving inside a locked room for 30 years. The owner wasn’t aware that the tortoise was inside the room at all, and originally thought that the tortoise escaped when she was still young. It is assumed that the tortoise survived by eating termites out of the rotting wood inside the room.
Of course, if you aren’t able to feed your tortoise for over 30 years, then you probably have bigger problems. That being said, however, this story demonstrates just how resilient these reptiles can be in the harshest conditions.
How Long Can Tortoises Live Without Food?
One of the hardest things to think about for any tortoise keeper is whether their tortoise is going to be okay if they’re planning on leaving the house for a few days and won’t be able to take care of their pets. Sometimes, it’s just not possible to have someone check on your tortoise and take care of them for you when you leave.
You might be forced with the thought of your little pet not being able to eat for a few days. This is a common problem tortoise keepers have to worry about when they go on vacation.
However, tortoises and reptiles in general are very resilient creatures. Coddling them too much like you would coddle a dog or a cat does not work well at all. In fact, feeding them too often can actually be detrimental for their growth, in some cases.
Whether you’re planning on going on a trip for a few days and won’t be able to feed your tortoise, or are just plain curious, let’s take a look at how long tortoises can live without food.
Factors That Determine How Long A Tortoise Can Go Without Food
Accessible Sources of Water
Although tortoises can survive long periods of time without eating any food, water is a totally different story. If a tortoise is able to drink clean water or be able to soak without being impeded in any way, then they can survive for much longer, even when they don’t eat. The worst that could happen to tortoises that don’t have food but have ample access to water is that they’ll lose fat, which happens often enough in the wild.
If your tortoise isn’t able to drink or soak while you’re gone, they can develop a host of health issues that can cause severe, and even permanent damage. Kidney failure, articular gout and renal system backup are just one of the few things your tortoise might suffer if they’re deprived of water for too long.
If you plan on going on a vacation and couldn’t find someone to feed your tortoise while you’re gone, at least make use of an automatic water dispenser. Luckily, they’re easy enough to find in pet shops. On top of that, there are also ways you can make water dispensers from cheap materials and customize them accordingly.
Accessible Heating and UV
Another resource that will improve your tortoise’s survival in times when food isn’t available is the access to proper heating and UV. So long as your tortoise is able to bask freely and has access to both UVA and UVB, then they can survive lean times with minimal health issues, and can even allow them to grow normally.
Another thing to consider about heating is that the warmer it gets, the more active your tortoise will be. This means that they will expend their energy much quicker, and in turn, will need to replace that energy through food. Of course, you wouldn’t want to keep them too cold, either, since that’s a whole different issue altogether.
As we’ve mentioned before, tortoises will likely lose weight regardless, since they won’t be eating, but at least the health issues don’t go beyond this.
Some species of tortoises enter states that allow them to consume much less food than normal, allowing them to survive much longer without food. Hibernation is very common amongst species that live in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, such as Spur-Thighed Tortoises, Russian Tortoises, Hermann’s Tortoises and Marginated Tortoises. Some species of tortoises native to the U.S. also hibernate.
During the state of hibernation, it is common for tortoises to not eat for months at a time, and if done correctly, could still encourage healthy growth for your tortoise.
Another factor that needs to be considered is the age of the tortoise. Hatchlings and juveniles are far less resilient than their adult counterparts, and may need to be fed daily, or at least once every 2 days. Tortoises younger than 6 months old will be growing quickly, so they will need a lot of food.
That said, hatchlings and juveniles can only survive for a few weeks to just one month without food. Also, young tortoises who have been deprived of food during their formative years for too long may develop health issues when they grow older, such as metabolic bone disease and severe pyramiding.
Older tortoises are able to survive without being fed for longer. If you are able to provide a safe area for your tortoises outside, they can subsist on the weeds if you aren’t able to buy them any produce from the grocery.
Now we already know what the bad effects of going hungry for too long are. You get malnourished, you have to deal with stunted growth, and if it’s too severe, it can cause death. But tortoises, and reptiles in general, are very different from other pets. They don’t need as much food as other animals do, in fact, it can actually be detrimental for tortoises if you feed them too much.
Reptiles are cold-blooded, and one of the effects of being cold-blooded is that they don’t use up as much energy as mammals or birds do. This makes it extremely easy to overfeed your tortoises. Overfeeding tortoises will cause them to become obese, and become prone to pyramiding.
Feeding tortoises produce that is designed for human consumption also makes them prone to overnutrition. In the wild, tortoises are used to eating weeds and other foods that are low in nutrients. That’s why they can afford to eat as much as they can find. Feeding them overly-nutritious foods can cause shock to their systems, and can be bad for their overall health and growth.
This is why it’s important to put some time between each feeding, so as not to overwhelm your tortoise’s systems too much. This is a process known as meal spacing. The amount of time you put between each meal varies depending on the age of your tortoise, and how much food you feed them per meal. Here’s a list that could give you some ideas on how to go about meal spacing:
- Tortoises younger than 6 months – Feed daily, with multiple meals per day, if necessary
- Tortoises older than 6 months, but younger than 2 years – Feed daily, or once every 2 days
- Tortoises older than 2 years / Adults – Feed 2 – 3 times a week or once every 3 – 4 days
Tortoises are hardy creatures, and if raised well enough, can weather through some pretty harsh conditions with minimal adverse effects. Whatever the conditions you have in your tortoise’s enclosure, you have to be pretty neglectful to cause damage greater than what tortoises are already dealing with in the wild. But since you’re taking the time to read this, we’re assuming that you’re a responsible keeper who cares a lot about their pets.
Tortoises have evolved to survive droughts, storms, forest fires and all manner of natural disasters that can limit their access to food. That’s why tortoises are able to survive as much as 6 months to 3 years with minimal to no food at all.
So there’s no worry of going on a vacation for a few days. Unless a calamity happens, where there’s very little you can do anyway, your tortoise will likely still be there to greet you when you get home.
That being said, though, the lack of food isn’t the only issue you have to worry about when you leave your tortoise alone at home. Your tortoise might flip over and be unable to right itself, or they might suddenly need to go to the vet, or they might start fighting with the other tortoises in the habitat and cause stress.
For the sake of being a responsible tortoise keeper, have someone check up on your tortoise at least once a week, or every few days if possible, even if they don’t have to feed your tortoise. This is especially important if your tortoises are still young.