What Should I Feed My Red-Eared Slider Turtle?

In addition to pellets, they eat prey, greens, aquatic plants, and veggies

A red-eared slider turtle
A red-eared slider turtle. Mojkan/Getty Images

Red-eared sliders need a diet that is a mixture of both animal and plant materials. Young red-eared sliders eat more animal protein, so babies should start with a diet that's more on the carnivorous side.

It's still a good idea to offer vegetation to young turtles, even though they may not start eating it until they get a little older. Offering it early on could make it less likely that you slider will shy away from trying vegetation as it ages.

That is useful because vegetation should make up a significant portion of the adult red-eared slider's diet. 

Variety Is the Spice of Life for Turtles, Too

Commercial pellets are fairly nutritious, are convenient, and are beneficial since they contain a good mix of vitamins and minerals. However, as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life. Offering a wide variety of foods is better than just dropping in a commercial turtle pellet for your little guy. A variety of fresh food offers a wider range of nutrients in different forms, which may even be absorbed better when fed in the natural state.

Feeding a variety of items is also more stimulating to the turtle and a good form of enrichment. Live prey items are especially desirable because they give turtles an opportunity to exercise by hunting as they would in the wild. Generally try limiting pellets to about 25 percent of the diet, making up the rest with items from the following options:

  • Prey items: Earthworms, crickets, waxworms, silkworms, aquatic snails, bloodworms, daphnia, shrimp, krill, and meal worms. For very small turtles, prey may have to be cut into smaller pieces. Larger turtles can be offered larger prey, such as tadpoles or feeder fish, though some experts warn that feeder fish may carry parasites and other undesirables, and some fish (like goldfish) are too fatty to be fed regularly.
  • Leafy greens: Collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, kale, and bok choy. Iceberg lettuce should never be fed because it is not nutritious enough, and dark green leafy lettuces such as romaine can be fed sparingly. Make sure you feed items with appropriate calcium-to-phosphorous levels.
  • Aquatic plants: In an aquarium or pond, you can add aquatic plants that turtles usually love to snack on. They often eat submerged plants like anacharis, water hyacinth, water lettuce, duckweed, azolla (fairy moss), and frog-bit.
  • Other vegetables: Carrots (both the orange vegetable and the green top), squash, and green beans.

Nutritional Supplements for Red-Eared Sliders

A good reptile multivitamin with calcium and vitamin D3 should be mixed with the turtle's food a couple of times a week. Also, an excellent way to provide additional calcium is to put a cuttlebone in the turtle tank. These are often available in the bird section of your local pet store and can be affixed to the tank with suction cup clips or just floated in the water.

Tips for Feeding Red-Eared Sliders

  • Catching wild prey can be dangerous if they have pesticides on them. They can also give your red-eared slider intestinal parasites. The same goes for vegetation like dandelion greens that you pick outdoors.
  • Vegetables can be shredded to make them easier to eat. This is especially helpful with smaller turtles.
  • Some experts recommend feeding fresh fruits such as bananas, berries, apples, and melon. However, this isn't really a natural staple in the red-eared sliders diet, and it may cause diarrhea. If you offer any fruit at all, make sure you offer very small quantities as a special treat.
  • Don't feed frozen fish, or at least not very often, because freezing some types of fish increases levels of an enzyme in the fish that destroys vitamin B1.
  • Cooked chicken and cooked lean beef don't offer balanced nutrition, and these will foul the water very quickly. Use these only as very occasional treats, and feed them only if you use a feeding tank outside of the main tank. The protein contents can also contribute to kidney disease in your turtle.
  • Never feed raw chicken or meat due to the risk of bacterial contamination to both you and your captive turtle—who isn't used to being exposed to such things since he lives in a controlled environment.

Additional Resources for Red-Eared Slider Owners

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT