If your turtle is eating rocks, you’ve got some really serious problems on your hands. Here’s why they eat them, and what you can and should do about it if it happens.
As the owner of several pet turtles, I get it. I really do.
You want your aquarium to look nice and authentic.
And small rocks, pebbles, and stones laying on the bottom of your tank really does make the aquarium feel more “natural” and “genuine.” Both for the turtle and the viewer.
But I’m here to tell you that when it comes to turtles and rocks, going small is a big no-no. Trust me. Not only have I done a bit of reading on this, but I’ve experienced making this mistake myself numerous times in the past.
Why Is My Turtle Eating Rocks?
So, let’s get straight to it.
There seem to be about four main theories regarding why turtles eat rocks:
- It helps them digest their food.
- To help with mineral deficiencies.
- Mistaking them for food.
I’m not a scientist, nor do I have any background in animal biology or anything, like that, so I cannot speak to the veracity of any of the above claims.
However, in my opinion, based off of my own experience owning different species and different turtles, many of whom have tried to eat rocks, I believe that turtles do this most of the time due to them simply mistaking them for food.
Why My Turtle Is Eating The Gravel
Let’s use the most common pet turtle, the red-eared slider.
These turtles are aquatic and live in the water for the majority of their lives. If you have ever owned one, you know that they are voracious eaters.
All they do is swim around and look for food. All-day long.
Drop a few pieces of kale in your tank. Your RES will chomp them to pieces within minutes. Pellets? The same. Shrimp? The same. Fish? They will chase them and eventually…the same.
In fact, just about anything new that you put into a tank with a RES will almost assuredly get at least a nip at one point or another.
I’ve seen RES’s rip apart multiple basking docks, ramps, plastic trees and anything else that was put into their habitat.
Now, if you have gravel in your aquarium, I can almost guarantee you that you have probably seen your RES dig around in the gravel to find bits of food to eat.
In fact, pet turtles will also eat their own feces!
So the real question becomes, why doesn’t your RES (or other species) try to eat any of the small rocks, pebbles or gravel that you have on the bottom of your tank?
In my experience, if there is something that a turtle can fit into its mouth, it will try to eat it. Small rocks, pebbles, and stones included.
A turtle’s mind is relatively simple: Smaller than me = I’m going to try to eat this.
This is why I believe that most of the time, this is the reason why your turtle is eating gravel. It looks eatable.
Other Common Reasons Turtles Eat Rocks
Now, I fully admit that some of the other theories may have some credence to them.
For instance, many ground-dwelling species of bird are known to swallow small rocks and grit (called gastroliths), which are stored in their gizzard and which serve the purpose of grinding up food in order to aid their digestion.
Certain reptiles, such as crocodiles, have also been known to do this, so it’s not necessarily a stretch to believe that this is also a behavior exhibited in turtles as well.
In fact, according to an article I came across from the Scientific American, nearly 60% of the 185 wild desert tortoises that were X-rayed had stones in their stomachs. Possible reasons given for this were:
- To maintain a healthy stomach pH.
- Help combat stomach parasites.
- Help fight off poisons ingested.
So, there seems to be at least some evidence that turtles do ingest small stones from time to time for health reasons.
How Long Do Wild Turtles Live?
Having said that, I do want to make 1 point here:
Simply because a turtle does something in the wild, doesn’t necessarily make it healthy.
For instance, while it may be true that turtles do consume gravel and small pebbles in the wild, and while it may be true that in certain cases, it can be helpful, it can also DEFINITELY cause impaction, obstruction, and death as well.
Our goal, as educated turtle owners, is to provide a natural but safe environment so that our turtles live LONG, healthy lives.
Now, I haven’t come across a lot of literature regarding the second theory, that turtles sometimes swallow rocks in order to combat mineral deficiencies, only that some animals seem to do this due to a lack of calcium, phosphorus or other minerals.
For instance, turtles have been known to eat things such as bones due to their high requirements for calcium.
As far as the other theory is concerned, that these animals eat rocks due to boredom, it’s certainly possible.
After all, a turtle in the wild will typically be sharing its ecosystem with lots of other creatures: frogs, bugs, other turtles, fish, etc. It also won’t have as many limitations as far as where it can go.
It’s certainly possible that the turtle inside your tank does get bored from time to time and simply decides to start playing around or eating some of the gravel on the bottom.
Here’s the thing though, why turtles eat rocks isn’t all that important here. It’s something that may still be a mystery 50 years from now.
What’s is important, is that it is incredibly dangerous for your turtle to be eating them!
What Happens If A Turtle Eats A Rock?
Consuming small rocks, pebbles or stones in your aquarium is not healthy at all for turtles. It is very dangerous.
This is because the stones that are consumed can cause serious complications to your turtle’s digestive tract, due to something called “impacting” or “obstruction.”
This is just what it sounds like; stones that interfere in the ability of the turtle’s digestive system to do its work.
If you suspect that your turtle has eaten any gravel in your tank, here is what you should do:
- Immediately remove ALL remaining gravel from your tank. Every last bit. You don’t want to make the problem more serious by letting your turtle eat more. Remove all of it, permanently.
- Monitor your turtle very closely over the next few days. See if its behavior changes at all. Does it continue to eat? More importantly, does it continue to poop? You’ll really need to monitor this. Check for droppings any chance you get.
- If your turtle seems fine, continue monitoring it but you’ll need to wait until the gravel passes through your turtle’s system. This can take weeks. If it passes, great, your turtle should be back to normal.
- In case that nothing passes but more importantly, your turtle’s behavior starts to change, for instance, it eats less or stops defecating, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.
Supposing that happens, you will absolutely need to take your turtle to the vet.
- Your vet will likely X-ray your turtle in order to see if there are any stones present.
- Depending on the position and/or how large the stones are, your vet will either administer a type of ipecac syrup down the turtle’s mouth in order to cause it to vomit the stones up or…
- Surgery will be needed in order to manually remove the stones.
As you can imagine, neither of these will be very fun for your turtle, unfortunately.
However, both are certainly preferable to suffering from obstruction and possibly death.
The important thing is to be very vigilant with your monitoring after you suspect or witness your turtle swallow any gravel.
Watch for behavior changes, and really watch its poop. Most of the time, it will pass through its system. Hopefully, you will be able to retrieve it out of the water before your turtle eats it again.
- Turtles eat gravel and rocks because they mistake it for food, due to boredom and possibly for health reasons.
- Having said that, it’s NEVER a good idea to have gravel in your aquarium tank, remove it ASAP. Only consider stones, pebbles, and rocks that are larger than the size of their heads.
- If you see or suspect your turtle having swallowed gravel, monitor it closely for behavior changes such as less frequent or no eating, or no defecating. In case the rock was small enough, it will pass eventually, although it can take weeks.
- However, if your turtle’s behavior does start to change (for the worse), schedule an immediate appointment with your vet.