Last Updated on October 9, 2023 by Samantha Harris
Many species of tortoises hail from hot and dry climates, so they’re no strangers to cacti. Tortoises often eat cacti and other succulents in the wild, gaining nutrients and hydration.
The prickly pear is the most common cactus fed to tortoises. The spines (glochids) should be burnt off the cactus before feeding, but the tortoise will enjoy the treat.
The fishhook barrel cactus, mistletoe cactus, Easter cactus, dragonfruit, and Christmas cactus are safe in moderation. Trim the prickles to remove the risk of head/mouth injuries and skin irritation.
You can get a spineless cactus, but they require more care to thrive. Avoid the peyote if you feed a tortoise a spineless cactus because the hallucinogenic properties are toxic to tortoises.
Can I Put a Cactus in my Tortoise’s Enclosure?
In the wild, tortoises and cacti are often found in the same locations, such as deserts.
As per Restoration Ecology, the Galapagos Islands were repopulated with an endangered cactus alongside the equally rare Giant Tortoise.
This means you can add cactuses to a tortoise’s habitat to help tortoises feel at home. The prickly pear (Opuntia ficus indica) is the best cactus for a tortoise enclosure.
A prickly pear will need minimal water, making it ideal for the warm and humid conditions that tortoises prefer. This cactus shouldn’t be watered for its first month after propagation.
If your tortoise hasn’t devoured the prickly pear within a month, you can add water once or twice a month in peak summer.
Can Tortoises Eat Cactus?
Tortoises, alongside other reptile species, eat cacti in the wild.
A cactus’s spines (glochids) must be removed, or they’ll cause pain and irritation to the tortoise’s head and mouth. Thankfully, spines are just a small part of the cactus.
Other parts of cactus plants, including the pads and leaves, are nutrient-dense and beneficial to health.
However, not all types of cacti are as tortoise-friendly as the prickly pear. Let’s explore other common kinds of cactuses and whether they can be fed to a tortoise:
|Fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni)
|Arguably the closest cactus in content to the prickly pear, it’ll release hydrating fluid once cut open.
|Mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis)
|The mistletoe cactus hangs from an elevated surface. Unlike mistletoe, it’s non-toxic and tortoise-safe. Hairs on the stem may cause minor irritation.
|Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii)
|This cactus is similar to the Christmas cactus. If your tortoise doesn’t overeat, it’ll be perfectly safe.
|Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri)
|This cactus is similar to the Christmas cactus. As long as your tortoise doesn’t overeat, it’ll be perfectly safe.
|Possibly the most beautiful cactus and equally flavorsome, so your tortoise will love nibbling on dragonfruit as a treat.
|Peyote (Euphorbia canariensis)
|Never put the peyote in a tortoise’s enclosure. As per the International Journal of Phytomedicine, this cactus irritates the skin, eyes, and nose and contains carcinogenic toxins.
Cactus should only be an addition to your tortoise’s diet, not a cornerstone.
How Do Tortoises Eat Cactus without Getting Hurt?
Cacti have spiky stalks, which serve various purposes for the plant, including deterring predators.
In the wild, tortoises take a “no pain, no gain” approach, tolerating the spines and taking sizeable bites of a cactus plant. Most tortoise owners plant a spineless variety of prickly pear, grown exclusively for cactus pads to feed their pet or remove the spines manually.
Not all cacti are covered with spikes, and some are completely smooth. For example, most cacti from the mammillaria or astrophytum families are spineless and non-toxic.
Unfortunately, these spineless cacti are much higher maintenance than a standard prickly pear or equivalent. Unique light, water, and temperature needs mean they rarely flourish in a tortoise’s enclosure, hence why they weren’t profiled in our list of common cacti.
Are Cactus Good for Tortoises?
We’ve established that tortoises enjoy cactuses, especially desert tortoises.
There are more benefits to cacti than just decor. Tortoises that eat cactus fruits will also gain a range of vitamins and nutrients from their snack.
The nutritional breakdown of 100g of prickly pear cactus fruit is as follows:
While every type of cactus has a slightly different makeup and taste, they’ll all provide the same baseline of health benefits. The most prominent of these are listed below:
Cacti are found in arid conditions, so they need to retain moisture. Consequently, cut open a cactus, and a slick goo will meet you. This is what helps the cactus grow without water for prolonged periods.
Forget what you may have seen in old Western movies on TV. You can’t just cut open a cactus and drink the contents like fresh water. However, a tortoise will find the moisture within a cactus refreshing and hydrating.
This can be important as some tortoises can be fussy about drinking water. By feeding cactus pads periodically, you can keep the risk of dehydration at bay.
Calcium is an essential mineral in the diet of a tortoise.
The primary purpose of calcium is to ensure strong bones, a formidable beak, and a solid shell. Tortoise shells are made from a protein called keratin, and calcium determines the strength of this protein.
Cactus are packed with calcium. If your tortoise enjoys this ingredient two or three times a week, it’ll be well on its way to better bone and shell health.
You should alternate cactus with other calcium-rich foods, such as hibiscus and leafy greens.
Tortoises have extremely slow metabolisms, with food spending a significant amount of time in the digestive tract. While this has advantages when sifting out toxins, it also means that the tortoise relies heavily on fiber to maintain digestive health.
Current Therapeutic Research – Clinical and Experimental also explain that the fiber found in a cactus can help bind and remove body fat despite the high carbohydrate content.
Iron is essential to tortoises as it transports oxygen around the body.
If a tortoise has an iron deficiency, it’ll steadily sicken over time. You’ll notice that your tortoise is sluggish, and even the slightest movements appear effortful.
Cactus is a rich source of iron, but be aware that too much is as harmful as not enough. If you’re feeding cactus to your tortoise, don’t provide medical-grade iron supplementation.
The thick skin of a tortoise can be subject to damage and rot without sufficient vitamin A in the diet.
Cactus pads will keep a tortoise’s skin moist. Vitamin A also bolsters the eyesight of your tortoise, preventing the eyes from becoming crusty or swollen.
Tortoises rarely show symptoms of vitamin C deficiency.
However, vitamin C has antioxidant properties and can reduce the risk of long-term sickness. For a long-lived tortoise, this can be highly beneficial.
Tortoises are hardy but can be prone to bacterial or fungal infection. Unfortunately, when a tortoise is sick, it often takes some time to become apparent.
The vitamin E found in a cactus will strengthen the immune system of your tortoise, reducing the risk of various ailments. It’ll also provide more strength to the keratin found in the shell.
How To Prepare Cactus for Tortoises
If you believe your tortoise would benefit from snacking on cacti, you can purchase them from a garden center and take steps to make the cactus safe for consumption or grow cacti yourself.
You can buy a prickly pear cactus from reputable sellers. Once you bring the cactus home, remove any spines before providing access to a tortoise, which can be done in three ways:
- Burn the stalks with a lighter.
- Trimming with a knife.
- Plucking out by hand.
Burning the spines off the cactus is usually the fastest and most effective method.
Use a knife to slice pads from a mature, prickly pear cactus and leave them in a shady location for a few days. They’re ready to plant when the cactus pads harden and become callous.
If the pads are rotting, throw them away and start over.
Plant the calloused cactus pad in soil, where it’ll enjoy direct sunlight. Unlike a mature plant, a growing cactus must be watered several times weekly.
Before long, you’ll notice new cactus pads grow. Pluck these pads while they are bright green. If the cactus pads are smooth and devoid of stalks, they can be eaten directly from the source by the tortoise. If not, remove any stalks before feeding.
How Much Cactus Can A Tortoise Eat?
Your tortoise can eat cacti 2-3 times per week. Chop the cactus pads so they don’t eat an entire cactus in one sitting. Usually, this will be enough to sate a tortoise.
The prickly pear cactus is the best choice, but tortoises can also enjoy a mistletoe cactus if the stem has been cleared of irritating hairs.
In addition, many cactus fruits are high in naturally occurring sugars, leading to weight gain.