Among various quirky habits that turtles possess, rock-eating is the most concerning one for me. The scientific term for this is geophagy. And it’s not just unique to turtles. A wide range of mammals and reptiles are known to eat rocks – even humans.
In this blog, we will discuss why do turtles eat rocks. If not addressed on time, it leads to an intestinal blockage that can even prove fatal.
Let’s jump in!
Why Do Turtles Eat Rocks?
The most common reason behind a turtle eating rocks is a mineral deficiency, especially calcium. Other probable causes could include boredom, hunger, and an inhospitable tank environment. Although this is an instinctive behavior, this could lead to severe conditions like blocked digestive tract and internal injuries.
Let’s discuss these tendencies in brief below so you can assess the correct reason for your pet turtle.
You May Also Like:
As much as they’re dangerous for turtles, rocks are packed with essential minerals like calcium, iron, and phosphorus. Turtles need and crave these minerals. So, if they don’t receive enough of these nutrients in their diet, they will instinctively turn to eat rocks.
They usually go after the substrate rock. If you live outdoors, normally unmonitored, the repercussions are even high with all kinds of rocks, big and small.
It’s a widely practiced behavior in the wild. And while wild turtles may have a higher tolerance of digesting these rocks, your captive probably doesn’t.
You may be surprised to hear this, but yes, your turtles get bored too. Turtles are intelligent creatures that love mental stimulation. Living within four tank walls, no matter how big it is, will inevitably get boring. As a result, they will swim down to the bottom and start eating rocks – just for some amusement.
They definitely aren’t too bright by mammalian standards. However, you need to make sure their habitat includes a few safe objects for them to play around with. It can be an aquarium-friendly decoration or some live plants.
To Curb Hunger
Told you, turtles aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. Sometimes, they can confuse rocks for food. This often happens when they’re hungry. If your turtle isn’t receiving enough diet, he will naturally resort to other stuff in the tank – such as fish, plants, and even rocks – to fill his stomach.
As you already know, rocks won’t curb the turtle’s hunger as they don’t contain calories. But turtles are known to go great lengths to stave off hunger pains – sometimes resulting in rock-eating.
If the rocks are tiny, smaller than a turtle’s head or mouth, to be precise, there’s a good chance that a hungry turtle will confuse it for food.
In some species, especially birds and crocodilians, there’s a tendency to consume rocks and stones on purpose. Apparently, this helps with digestion as the stones reside in the digestive tract and help grind hard foods like seeds and bones.
Some believe that this is the case with turtles too. While there aren’t many scientific studies backing this claim, it won’t hurt to rethink your turtle’s dietary routine!
Now that you have the answers to why do turtles eat rocks, let’s see what happens after that.
Here’s a video of couple of sliders eating rocks in a tank:
What Happens When Turtles Eat Rocks?
Eating rocks can have both immediate and gradual effects on your turtle’s health. For starters, the rock can choke your turtle and quickly take his breath away. Next, even if there’s no immediate impact at first, this can lead to the gradual obstruction of the digestive tract, which once again can be fatal.
Rocks don’t break down by the stomach’s acids since they’re made with hard materials. Thus, your turtle will have an incredibly tough time passing the rock through its digestive tract and excrete through its cloaca.
In most cases, the rocks accumulate in the digestive system. If diagnosed on time, your turtle will have to undergo major surgery to remove the obstruction. Otherwise, he’ll experience a slow, painful death.
One or two stones occasionally do not pose any problems. Most probably, they’ll poop it out.
However, if it’s an addictive habit, you need to take some serious action.
But first, let’s look at the signs of obstruction.
4 Symptoms Of Digestive Tract Obstruction In Turtles
If you catch your turtle trying to nibble or gobble down rocks and pebbles in the tank, first of all, remove all of the gravel from the habitat. Next, you will have to carefully study the turtle’s health and behavior for signs of discomfort.
The most common signs of digestive tract obstruction in turtles are:
- Loss Of Appetite
All of the symptoms mentioned are big red flags. Immediately ring up the vet and book an appointment.
How To Treat Turtle’s Digestive Tract Obstruction
Complicated cases like this can only be treated by medical professionals. Unfortunately, there’s no effective medicine or treatment you can seek on your own without the vet’s help. First of all, your vet will take an x-ray to determine if there are any stones, and if yes, their location.
Once the stones are confirmed, and their locations are determined, your vet may try to give your laxatives to help him pass the rocks.
If that’s not possible, he may resort to giving medications through a syringe or cannula directly into the turtle’s digestive tract. This will help to pump out the reptile’s stomach.
However, if the stones are too big or the case is quite severe, the vet will resort to manually removing the stones through surgery.
As you can see, none of the options sound too pleasant for your turtle. In this case, prevention is better than cure by miles! So, let’s look at some prevention tips.
3 Ways To Prevent Turtle From Eating Rocks
A turtle’s digestive system isn’t built to process rocks. So, you need to be careful in the first place to avoid painful situations mentioned above. First, remove all the gravel from the rock that your turtle can fit in its mouth. Next, ensure his mineral needs are being met. And don’t forget to create an exciting environment in the tank to keep him occupied.
Change The Substrate
Your best bet would be changing the substrate – the most effective one too. As long as the tank contains pebbles the turtle can fit into its mouth, the risks always loom. When choosing your next substrate, don’t forget to weigh factors like comfort and safety.
You can switch from pebbles altogether to alternatives like sand and coral substrate. If you are opting for the latter, be mindful of the size.
I personally prefer aquarium sand for substrate.
To be honest, sand can be quite compact and make burrowing difficult. However, the fine texture means safety for my turtles. And I wouldn’t trade safety for anything else.
Here’s the one I use by Carib Sea.
It doesn’t contain artificial dyes and paints and is pH neutral. The beautiful white color creates an absolutely stunning contrast as well.
Supplement Calcium In Diet
If you doubt the regular diet isn’t well fortified with calcium, you can take the help of supplements readily available in the market. The best thing to do is to give him food naturally rich in calcium. But if you’re confused or don’t have much time in your hands, you can use a supplement like I do.
Here’s an extremely popular option by Zoo Med that’s made with bioavailable sources of calcium, which means it’s free of harmful impurities. It also has safe levels of Vitamin D3 your turtle absolutely needs.
Play With Food Options
If you think your turtle is constantly confusing rocks for foods, you can switch to frozen, dried shrimps and mealworms. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, shall we? Even if that’s not the case, he’d appreciate a fresh change in diet!
But on a serious note, sometimes, turtles do confuse rocks for food if they are used to pellets.
Here’s a yummy frozen option for your pet turtle from Fluker’s.
Stimulate Tank’s Environment
Amping up the tank’s environment can really do wonders for your turtle’s overall wellbeing. Even the slightest change or the most minor addition can keep your turtle amused for hours.
There are several options to choose from. You can use rubber practice golf balls, ping pong balls, or even glowing bath toys.
My turtles absolutely love to move around the ping pong balls with their little mouths and limbs. These colored balls are also an innovative and affordable way to play the tank’s aesthetics.
Here’s a link if you need some for your pet too.
Conclusion On Why Do Turtles Eat Rocks
Here’s a quick recap of all the essential bits.
The tendency of eating rocks is known as geophagy. And turtles eat rocks for a variety of reasons. While calcium deficiency is the number one cause behind it, the reasons could vary broadly.
Sometimes, it’s something as simple as hunger and boredom.
However, this rock-eating behavior can have some repercussions for your turtle. From choking hazard to a completely obstructed digestive tract, this unusual quirk can quickly turn into life-threatening situations.
Make sure to read through the prevention tips once again!