Table of Contents
- What do Sulcata Tortoises eat?
- EDIBLE WEEDS, LEAVES, AND FLOWERS
- (OPTIONAL; FEED IN VERY SMALL QUANTITIES) Dark Leafy Greens
- (OPTIONAL; FEED IN VERY SMALL QUANTITIES) Pumpkin (Fresh or canned puree)
- Fall and Winter Feeding
- Access to Water is Crucial!
- Adding Treats and Supplements Back into the Diet
- Dietary Problems
- Calcium and Vitamin Supplements
- Water Requirements
- Housing Requirements
- What temperature should my tortoise be kept at?
- Heating Tortoise Sheds
- Sulcata Tortoise Diseases
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Feeding/Diet Related Questions
- Enclosure/Housing Questions
- Health Questions
- My hatchling (baby) tortoise was fine; now he’s sluggish and doesn’t eat or move around. Why is that?
- What is that white, chalky-looking stuff in my tortoise’s droppings?
- Why does my tortoise have grayish/pinkish/purplish tissue sticking out of its rear end?
- Why does my tortoise have wet or salty patches around it’s eyes?
- Can tortoises and turtles carry salmonella?
- Why is my tortoise have bubbly nasal discharge/makes gasping or popping noises when it breathes?
- Behavior Questions
- Why does my tortoise pace along barriers and try to climb the corners of its pen or enclosure?
- Do sulcata tortoises eat poop?
- Why does my tortoise hiss at me when I approach him/pick him up?
- Why does my tortoise stick its head and limbs completely out while it’s sunning or under its heat lamp?
- How can I tell if my tortoise is a male or a female?
- How long do sulcata tortoises live?
- How big do sulcata tortoises get?
Although sulcata hatchlings are cute and tiny and will easily fit in the palm of your hand, they will get big. Sulcata are the third largest species of tortoises in the world. Only Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises — the giant tortoises you typically see in zoos — get bigger.
They also grow very quickly. As a desert species, they have evolved to deal with sparse and sporadic food supplies. In captivity, as a response to regular food supplies, sulcata tend to grow very quickly, so that they reach adult size in five to ten years, rather than the 20 to 50 years that would be typical in the wild. This fact catches many new owners off-guard, since pet store employees almost always tell potential buyers “Oh, don’t worry about it — the tortoise won’t get big for years!”
What do Sulcata Tortoises eat?
Sulcata tortoises evolved to deal with life in a semi-arid environment, where the only food available for much of the year is dry grasses and weeds. Be aware that your sulcata tortoise requires a very high-fiber, grass-based diet to stay healthy. If you feed the wrong foods to your tortoise, it will grow too quickly, develop a bumpy, pyramided shell, and may develop other health problems that could drastically shorten its lifespan.
The goal in feeding your sulcata tortoise should be to imitate Mother Nature. You should try to provide those items that the tortoise would encounter in its natural range, and in roughly the same proportions that it would encounter. If you can do this, you will find that your tortoise has few, if any, health problems and will grow slowly and steadily, with little to no pyramiding. Below is a list of items that SHOULD make up the diet of your sulcata tortoise:
Grasses — either fresh or as grass hay — should make up at least 75 percent of your sulcata tortoise’s diet. You should try to supply as many different grasses or grass hays as you can from the following list:
- Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides)
- Bermuda Grass (Cynodon Dactylon – actually originated in Africa!)
- Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata)
- Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
- Little Bluestem (Andropogon scoparious)
- Western wheatgrass (Agropyron smithii)
- Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
- Arizona Fescue (Festuca arizonica)
- Lawn Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)
- Sheep Fescue (Festuca ovina)
- Creeping Red Fescue (Festuca rubra)
Container Planting – Growing Graze Indoors
The best way to provide the grass-based diet that a sulcata requires is to have a large, safely-enclosed outdoor yard in which you can plant various types of grasses for your sulcata to graze on. This will allow your tortoise to graze at will, while he gets exercise and exposure to sunlight. Owners who can provide a tortoise yard don’t have to worry about overfeeding, or whether the tortoise is getting enough UV exposure.
If you want to plant and grow a variety of grasses for your sulcata, we recommend buying a Pasture Mix from a reputable seed supplier. You want a mix designed for horses — it should contain several different types of grasses and less than 10 percent of alfalfa, clover, and other legumes.
Whichever pasture grass mix you purchase, you should plant it into several different containers so that you can provide enough grass on a regular basis for your tortoise. Let the grass grow to at least three or four inches in height. After you harvest grass from one container, leave it alone until it grows back, while you harvest from your other containers in sequence. Hopefully, your first container will have re-grown back to harvestable height by the time you come back to it.
Grass Hay is Easier than Containers
Let’s face it: unless you have lots of space and time to grow grasses in indoor containers, grass hay is a much simpler way to feed your tortoise through the winter.
Grass hay can be purchased from feed stores that carry horse supplies, or directly from the farmer if you happen to live in a rural area. If you can find Orchard Grass hay, buy it because sulcata tortoises seem to have a real fondness for Orchard Grass. If the grass hay available near you is a mixture of different grasses and edible weeds, that’s fine, too. If you cannot find local sources for grass hay in your area, the Oxbow Hay Company sells Orchard Grass hay and will ship all over the US and Canada via UPS.
Free Choice Feeding
You can break up a hay bale and spread the hay around the tortoise’s yard or enclosure so that it can eat the hay as desired. Pile some of the hay into the corners of the tortoise’s enclosure so that it can burrow down at night for shelter. Remove any hay that the tortoise pees or poops on. Put more hay into the enclosure as the tortoise eats it.
Dampened or Soaked Hay
If your tortoise refuses to eat dry hay, try misting or spraying it with water. This increases the “grassy” smell and may tempt the tortoise into eating. You can also try soaking hay in a bucket of warm water for ten minutes, then giving the drained, wet hay to your tortoise.
During the winter at Sulcata Station, we pack dry grass hay into a five-gallon plastic bucket, cut it up using hedge clippers, then fill the bucket with enough hot tap water to cover the hay. We let this sit for 15 to 20 minutes before offering it to our tortoises atop their existing dry grass hay. The soaking rehydrates the grass hay and brings out its aroma, which seems to perk up the tortoises’ appetite for it. After they finish the damp grass hay, they’ll usually go on to eat the surrounding dry grass hay as well.
Use Hay to Coat Dark Leafy Greens
If you are in the process of switching your tortoise to a healthier, grass-based diet, you can use finely chopped grass hay to coat dark leafy greens to increase the fiber and nutrient content of the greens.
To do this: Pull out several large handfuls of hay and put them into a five-gallon plastic bucket. Then use scissors or hedge clippers to cut the hay into shorter lengths (The smaller your tortoise, the shorter you should cut the hay). Transfer all the chopped-up hay (even the microfine particles and dust) into a gallon-size plastic ziplock bag.
Whenever you feed dark, leafy greens (one good mix is to use dandelion greens, collard greens, Romaine lettuce, and arugula) to your tortoise, wash the greens well and shake off the excess water. Then put them into a plastic ziplock bag and add a couple of handfuls of the chopped-up grass hay (try to get various length of the hay and even some of the hay dust). Zip the bag shut and shake well. The end result is grass-covered greens that can help your tortoise get sufficient fiber in its diet. (This same technique is also great for getting calcium and vitamin supplement powders onto food.)
While you are feeding hay to your tortoise, make sure that you provide fresh, clean water at all times for your tortoise to drink. Sulcata are very good at extracting water from any fresh grasses and leafy greens they eat, but there is little to no extractable water available from dry grass hay.
A shallow plastic plant saucer works well as a water bowl for smaller tortoises. For larger tortoises, you can use a concrete mixing tub or a shallow plastic storage box as a water bowl. Make sure that the water bowl is easy for the tortoise to drink from, and shallow enough that your tortoise won’t drown if he decides to climb into it for a good soak.
Tortoises are notorious for pooping in their water bowls. It’s just a fact of tortoise life. Make sure you clean and refill the water bowl regularly — especially after your tortoise poops in it.
Getting your tortoise to eat grass and hay
Sulcata tortoises are a lot like human children — once they get accustomed to eating veggies and fruit, they tend to ignore the grass hay and weeds that they should be eating. Your job as the owner is to get your tortoise off the bad food and onto a healthier diet of grasses and edible weeds.
There are two ways to approach this situation:
- The “tough-love” approach: You completely stop giving the tortoise all the “bad” stuff like lettuce, greens, veggies, and so forth. Provide only grass and/or grass hay. Eventually, when your tortoise gets hungry enough, he’ll give in and eat it;
- You gradually wean the tortoise off the produce and veggies that it likes, but which isn’t good for it, and onto a better diet.
Sulcata are native to the Sahel region of Africa, which is just south of the Sahara Desert. They can deal with very meager supplies of food and can easily handle not eating for a while, if they are healthy to begin with. That is why the “tough-love” approach can work, provided that the owner isn’t too soft-hearted and doesn’t give in before the tortoise does.
If you are soft-hearted, it may be easier on your conscience to change the tortoise’s diet gradually. Here is how you can wean your tortoise off the greens and veggies, and onto a grass and/or grass hay-based diet:
- Put several large handfuls of grass/hay into a plastic bucket.
- Use kitchen scissors or hedge clippers to cut the hay into shorter lengths. Don’t worry about making all of it the same size, just chop it up. When you’re done chopping, you should have grass hay that ranges from three or four inches long all the way down to “dust particle” size. We have a specific, five-gallon plastic bucket with a tight-fitting lid that we devote strictly to keeping this chopped-up grass hay on hand.
- To feed your tortoise: Pull a handful of the chopped-up grass hay from the bottom of the bucket (make sure to get some of the smaller pieces and the “dust” as well) and put it into a gallon-size ziplock plastic bag.
- To the bag, add: a small amount of very warm water, a small amount of grated “orange stuff” (this can be carrot, pumpkin, winter squash, or sweet potato — basically, any veggie you have on hand that contains beta-carotene and lots of fiber) and a small amount of chopped-up greens to the bag. If you are using a calcium supplement, you can also add a small sprinkle of it to the bag.
- Zip the bag almost all the way closed, then inflate the bag as much as possible and zip it completely shut.
- Carefully shake the sealed, inflated bag to dampen and mix the grass, “orange stuff” and greens (and calcium supplement) well. Let the bag sit for about ten minutes so that the smells and flavors blend.
- Feed this mixture to your tortoise every other day or even every third day. The tortoise should be allowed to get hungry between feedings — but it will not get hungry if you feed it every day. Trust us, your tortoise will not starve from being fed less often.
This sounds simple enough, right? The real trick lies in changing the proportions of each ingredient over time. When you start this process, the mixture will be mostly greens, some “orange stuff” and a small amount of grass hay. At each feeding, you gradually reduce the amount of greens and “orange stuff” and increase the amount of grass hay. It’s fine to make this transition slowly. Your eventual goal should be a mixture of about 75 percent grass hay, 20 to 25 percent greens, a tiny bit of “orange stuff”, and a minimal amount of water (enough to dampen the hay, mostly). Once you achieve that ratio of ingredients — and the tortoise is eating it reliably — you’ve achieved your goal! This mixture serves as a good basic maintenance diet for sulcata tortoises.
PLEASE NOTE: This mixture will get moldy if it’s allowed to sit around uneaten. You should make it fresh every time you feed your tortoise.
Another method you can try if your tortoise still won’t eat: Make this grass/greens/orange stuff mixture (but don’t add the calcium supplement to it yet) in the morning and then let it sit in the ziplock bag for a couple of hours at room temperature. The dry grass will soak up the water and the liquid from the greens and grated orange stuff and rehydrate slightly. Just before you feed it to your tortoise, add the calcium supplement, then shake the ziplock bag well to mix it in thoroughly. Your tortoise might be more interested in it because everything will smell like greens and orange stuff.
EDIBLE WEEDS, LEAVES, AND FLOWERS
These items should make up the remaining 25 percent of the diet, if possible. Make sure that any plants you feed to your tortoise have not been treated with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. If you buy a plant from a large chain store like Lowe’s, Home Depot, Do-It-All, etc., re-pot the plant in organic potting soil and wait a couple of months to feed the plant to your tortoises — it will take a while for all the fertilizers and/or pesticides used by the store to leach out of the plant. Here are some recommended plants for sulcata tortoises:
- Prickly Pear Cactus pads (Opuntia species) – You can scrape off the needles with a sharp knife or burn them off by holding the pad over the flame of a gas or propane camp stove
- Broadleaf Plaintain or Buckhorn Plantain (Plantago major or Plantago lanceola)
- Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea grossulariaefolia)
- Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)
- Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
- Roses (Rosa species) – flowers only
- Hibiscus (Hibiscus species)
- Geranium (Pelargonium species)
- Mulberry (Morus species) – leaves only
- Grape (Vitis species) – leaves only
(OPTIONAL; FEED IN VERY SMALL QUANTITIES) Dark Leafy Greens
Use these only as special treats for your tortoise. This means you can feed these items in SMALL quantities, and only once per week at most. These items are NOT necessary, but they can serve as a nice treat for your tortoise, or a way to get them to eat calcium and vitamin supplements.
- Romaine Lettuce
- Collard Greens
- Mustard Greens
- Turnip Greens
You should be aware, though, that some of these greens contain significant levels of a compound called oxalic acid. This compound can affect calcium absorbtion. Thus, you should NOT feed large quantities of these greens on a regular basis.
Many people have told us that they were confused by this recommendation. Basically: a couple of Kale leaves or a handful of fresh spinach given to your tortoise once in a while as a treat is fine, if the rest of the time the tortoise is eating a healthy diet consisting primarily of grasses and weeds. On the other hand, feeding your tortoise only Kale and spinach will lead to it having health problems. The key concepts here are small quantities and infrequently.
(OPTIONAL; FEED IN VERY SMALL QUANTITIES) Pumpkin (Fresh or canned puree)
About twice a month, we mix canned pumpkin puree with a small amount of powdered vitamin and calcium supplements and make sure that each tortoise receives a couple of spoonfuls. It’s a painless way to get them to take supplements since they really love the color and taste of the pumpkin puree.
We also feed our tortoises whole pumpkins when they are in season. When the pumpkins ripen in the fall, we purchase three or four medium-sized ones for our tortoises. Once a week or so, we simply cut up a pumpkin using a hoe or shovel and distribute the pieces around the tortoise pen. Over the course of a day or two, the tortoises find and consume all the pumpkin pieces. Some people have reported to us that they freeze what they don’t use immediately; even though the pumpkin chunks tend to get stringy after being thawed, most tortoises still love them as an occasional treat, rind and all.
Fall and Winter Feeding
Feeding large tortoises is tough enough during the spring and summer, but when fall and winter roll around, it can become even more challenging. (Remember: sulcata tortoises do NOT hibernate, so you must provide food year-around for your tortoise.)
If you live in the southwestern or southern parts of the USA or Europe, you are fortunate because your sulcata tortoises should be able to go outside and graze almost year-around. However, if you live in areas with snowy and/or wet, cold winters, you must plan in advance how you are going to feed your “shelled eating machine” during the wintertime when it cannot go outdoors to graze.
Basically, you have two choices for feeding your sulcata tortoise during the winter:
- You can grow a variety of grasses and weeds indoors in pots or other containers; OR
- You can buy grass hay and use it as the main staple for your tortoise.
Either way, you should keep feeding your tortoise a high percentage of grass, along with small amounts of dark leafy greens, throughout the winter, or for as long as your tortoise cannot go outdoors and graze on its own.
Access to Water is Crucial!
While you are in the process of changing the tortoise’s diet, we strongly recommend soaking him every day to make sure that he remains properly hydrated. The tortoise will need to take in more water, either by soaking or by having access to a water dish (if he will drink by himself), to compensate for the water he’s no longer getting via veggies. The extra water is needed to keep the tortoise from getting constipation.
You may notice a change in your tortoise’s bowel movements as you change his diet. He may poop less frequently, and the poops may be less runny. These are both positive changes. A tortoise on the correct high-fiber diet produces poops that are firm, very fibrous, and smell vaguely like horse poop.
Adding Treats and Supplements Back into the Diet
Once you have gotten your tortoise to eat a grass-based diet, then you can slowly add back in other food items for variety. Foods like prickly pear cactus pads, flowers (roses, hibiscus, nasturtium, petunias, squash flowers), leaves (grapevine, hibiscus, mulberry, nasturtium) and non-toxic, edible weeds ( dandelion, henbit, pigweed, mustard, chickweed, common mallow, etc.) can be chopped up and added to the grass/greens mix in small amounts, in place of the “orange stuff”.
If you want to feed your tortoise dark leafy greens like collard greens, dandelion greens, Romaine lettuce, or arugula – feed these ONLY in small quantities, and ONLY once a week as a treat. The dark leafy greens are a great way to get the tortoise to eat calcium supplements and vitamin supplements. (Again, this is where ziplock bags come in very handy. We buy these in bulk at Costco because we go through so many of them!)
Simply wash the greens and shake the excess water off well. Then tear up one leaf as if you were making yourself a very small salad. Put the torn-up greens into a ziplock bag. Sprinkle a tiny bit of vitamin powder and a slightly larger amount of calcium powder onto the greens, then zip the bag almost closed. Inflate the bag, then close it completely and shake it well. The powder will adhere to the greens more or less evenly. Give the powder-coated greens to your tortoise immediately. We give our sulcata tortoises a small handful of these greens, covered with calcium carbonate powder and a small amount of vitamin powder, a couple of times per month.
Do not overuse the vitamin supplements! Too much can actually be worse than too little! You only need to provide these once a week at most. However, the calcium supplement can be added to food at every other feeding.
There are five common dietary problems that new owners of sulcata tortoises typically encounter when feeding their tortoises:
- Not providing enough fiber
- Providing too much protein
- Giving fruit and sugary foods
- Not providing enough calcium and/or the right calcium-phosphorus balance
- Generally overfeeding the tortoise
Avoiding Dietary Problems
You are responsible for the health and well-being of your tortoise, so you must make the effort to feed the right foods, and in the right quantities. Here are a few suggestions to help you avoid the typical dietary pitfalls:
1. Provide enough fiber by feeding your tortoise a diet that is based predominantly on fresh and dried grasses with some edible weeds, leaves, and flowers, as described in more detail below.
2. AVOID giving your tortoise foods that contains high levels of protein. This means that you should NEVER give your sulcata tortoise the following foods:
- Cheese or dairy products of any kind
- Cat or Dog Food of any kind
- Legumes (peas, beans, green beans, soybeans or soy-based products like tofu)
- Commercially-available “tortoise diets” (such as Pretty Pets, Mazuri, Zoo Med, etc.)
- Grains and Grain Products (corn [maize], wheat, barley, rye, etc.)
High protein diets stress the tortoise’s kidneys and liver. High dietary protein, particularly when it’s accompanied by inadequate hydration, has also been shown to cause pyramided shells in sulcata tortoises.
You should also avoid feeding your tortoise a steady diet of fresh or frozen/thawed vegetables. New owners are usually surprised to find out that these foods are high in protein. In fact, all types of produce grown for human consumption — even dark leafy greens — are too high in protein for sulcata tortoises to thrive on. However, SMALL quantities of dark, leafy greens, given ONCE IN A WHILE as a treat, don’t seem to be harmful.
3. AVOID giving fruit to your sulcata tortoise! Even though sulcata love fruit, it’s best NOT to give them any. Grazing tortoise species such as leopard and sulcata rely on beneficial bacteria in their intestines to help them digest and extract nourishment from the grasses that they eat. If you give your tortoise large amounts of fruit, the acids and sugars in the fruit can change the pH of the tortoise’s digestive tract, and this pH change can cause the beneficial bacteria in the tortoise’s gut to die off. When large quantities of gut bacteria die, they can release toxins that cross the gut wall and enter the tortoise’s bloodstream, causing the tortoise to experience a form of sepsis (Toxic Shock Syndrome) that can be fatal.
4. Provide enough calcium, and the right Calcium-Phosphorus balance to your tortoise. Also, avoid giving large quantities of diet items that prevent calcium absorption (broccoli, mustard greens, and other members of the brassicae family). Sulcata tortoises require a great deal of calcium in their diet to help them grow healthy bones and shell. The Sahel area of Africa where sulcata naturally occur is a semi-arid region that has calcium-rich soils. Wild sulcata tortoises therefore get sufficient calcium by eating the grasses that grow in these calcium-laden soils.
Think about where you live and how you feed your tortoise. If you live in a semi-arid or arid area with little rainfall, the calcium levels in your local soil will be relatively high. Any grasses grown in such a calcium-rich soil will also be high in calcium, so if you allow your tortoise to graze at will on grasses grown in this soil, you might not have to give your tortoise as much in the way of calcium supplements.
However, if you live in a rainy, humid area, then the calcium levels in your soil will be very low because it is dissolved and removed from the soil by the frequent rainfall. Any grasses grown in your local soil will be calcium-poor. Therefore, you should provide your tortoise with calcium supplements on a regular basis.
In choosing a calcium supplement, make sure you choose one that does NOT contain Phosphorus. Calcium (Ca) and Phosphorus (P) are both necessary to build healthy bone tissue. However, the phosphorus available in most food items is used much more readily by the tortoise’s body than calcium, so you really don’t need to supply any additional phosphorus to your tortoise.
We’ve found that the easiest way to get calcium into our tortoises is to leave cuttlebones in their pens. We purchase large (10″-12″ length) cuttlebone in bulk from a supplier on the Internet. (Suppliers can change, so we recommend you use Google to find “cuttlebone in bulk”.) If you choose to use cuttlebone for your tortoise, make sure that you remove the hard shell-like backing from each cuttlebone (a small flat-blade screwdriver seems to work best to pop this backing off), then break the cuttlebone into pieces and spread it around your tortoise enclosures. Your tortoise will chew on the cuttlebone when it feels the need for additional calcium.
If you prefer to use a powdered calcium supplement, we recommend buying a human calcium supplement (one that contains calcium citrate and/or calcium maleate) in capsule form. Once a week, open a capsule (or grind up a tablet if your brand comes in tablet form) and mix the powder with a spoonful of canned pumpkin puree. (Sulcata love pumpkin puree, so anything mixed with the pumpkin will be eaten!) You could also sprinkle the powder lightly over dandelion greens instead (or any type of edible weeds) and offer it to your tortoise. Powdered supplements stick better to dampened greens, so wash the greens, shake off the excess water, then sprinkle the powdered supplements onto the greens.
5. Avoid overfeeding your tortoise. Sulcata tortoises can experience a variety of health problems when they are fed the wrong foods — but they can also have problems when they are fed too much of the right foods. Overfeeding is the single biggest mistake that most tortoise keepers make. Reptiles have slower metabolisms than mammals like dogs or cats, so they really do not need to take in as much food as you might think.
You should also consider the activity level of your tortoise. Can he go outdoors and walk around a secure yard every day? Or does he stay indoors on a small tortoise table? If your tortoise is mostly sedentary, he doesn’t need to be fed every day — really! Every other day is fine, even though he may look up at you with pleading eyes in between feedings. A certain amount of “tough love” is required on your part to not give in.
Consider this analogy: A sedentary tortoise on a tortoise table is like an office worker stuck in a cubicle all day long. If the office worker eats a lot of fast food all the time and never gets any exercise, the chances are pretty good that he or she is going to be overweight, flabby, and have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other health problems. Tortoises who live indoors on a tortoise table and who are fed lots of vegetables (which are their equivalent of fast food!) on a daily basis are ALSO going to experience health problems. They will develop pyramided shells, they may be more susceptible to upper respiratory infections, and they may develop damage to their kidneys and livers.
Calcium and Vitamin Supplements
Sulcata hatchlings and juveniles grow relatively quickly, so they need additional calcium in their diets along with daily exposure to the UV radiation in sunlight. To a lesser degree, they may also benefit from regular vitamin supplements to make sure they are getting all required nutrients.
We’ve found that the easiest way to get calcium into our tortoises is to leave cuttlebones in their pens. We purchase cuttlebone in bulk from the Cuttlebones Plus website. We remove the hard shell-like backing from each cuttlebone (a small flat-blade screwdriver seems to work best to pop this backing off), then break the cuttlebone into pieces and spread it around our tortoise enclosures. The tortoises chew on the cuttlebone when they need additional calcium
If you prefer to use a powdered calcium supplement, we recommend buying a human calcium supplement — one that contains calcium citrate and/or calcium maleate — in capsule form. Twice a week, open a capsule and mix a small amount of the powder inside with a spoonful of canned pumpkin puree. (Sulcata love pumpkin puree, so anything mixed with the pumpkin will be eaten!) You could also sprinkle the powder lightly over dandelion greens instead (or any type of edible weeds) and offer it to your tortoise. Powdered supplements will stick to the greens better if you wash the greens first, shake off the excess water, then sprinkle the powdered supplements onto the greens.
Special powdered vitamin supplements for reptiles are also available in pet stores, but it’s easier and cheaper to use a human Centrum® vitamin pill, ground into powder. Use vitamin supplements in the same way that you use the calcium supplements — mixed with pumpkin puree or sprinkled lightly over washed greens — but use only a very small amount, and only once a week at most. Over-supplementing with vitamins can do as much or more harm than non-supplementing. Once a week is plenty for vitamin supplements!
Tortoises do require water! Dehydration is probably the most common problem that hatchling tortoises can experience and it can actually be fatal to them.
Always make sure your tortoise has access to a water bowl of some type. The water bowl should be large enough for the tortoise to climb into, and shallow enough that the tortoise can get out easily and won’t drown in it. The large plastic or terra cotta saucers that go underneath potted plants make excellent water bowls. Plastic saucers are much easier to clean and sterilize than the terra cotta ones. You can purchase these saucers at almost any home improvement or gardening supply store.
An alternative for larger tortoises is to use a round plastic snow saucer. These are typically sold in the sporting goods department of Target, Wal-Mart, etc. You can get them for less than $5 each when these stores clear out their winter inventory in early spring.
Sulcata tortoises are native to the semi-arid Sahel region in Africa (loosely defined as the region just south of the Sahara Desert). They have evolved to deal with a warm, dry environment with lots of natural sunlight, so their habitat in your home or yard should be set up with this fact in mind.
Your sulcata tortoise needs a shelter that will keep it safe, secure from predators, and either warmer or cooler than the surrounding air temperature as necessary. In the wild, sulcata tortoises dig extensive burrows underneath the ground, and they will retreat to these burrows at night or when the weather is too hot, too cool, or too dry. Burrows also protect the tortoises from predators of all kinds, including man.
Most of us don’t have the room to allow our pet tortoise(s) to dig a 30-foot burrow, so we need to provide a substitute form of shelter for our pet(s). Depending upon the size of your tortoise, you should provide either an indoor Tortoise Table or an outdoor Tortoise Shed for your tortoise to use at night or when the weather is too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry.
Indoor Enclosures: Tortoise Tables
If your sulcata tortoise is under five years in age and/or weighs less than 15 pounds, we recommend that you build an indoor enclosure called a Tortoise Table to provide your tortoise with nighttime accomodations.
With a Tortoise Table, you will have to take the tortoise outdoors each morning, and bring it back indoors at night. You should also provide various shelter areas in the tortoise’s outdoor pen to allow it to thermoregulate properly. A cool, slightly moist, shady area allows the tortoise to cool down, and a warm sunny area allows it to heat up as needed.
Outdoor Housing: Tortoise Sheds
Once your tortoise becomes too big or too heavy to safely lift and carry to an indoor enclosure, you must provide a Tortoise Shed, which is a heated, insulated shed or small barn in which the tortoise can stay at night or during inclement weather. The shed should be designed to keep the tortoise warm at night, safe from bad weather either day or night, and sheltered from predators and human thieves (we’ve heard many sad stories of tortoises being stolen from their owners!).
You have two basic choices when designing a shed for your tortoise:
- You can purchase and retrofit a doghouse, greenhouse, or small gardening tool shed to suit your tortoise’s needs, OR
- You can build a shed using residential construction techniques. While this option can be more expensive and more difficult, you are more likely to get a secure and safe shelter that is customized for the needs of your tortoise.
Aquariums of any size are NOT suitable enclosures for sulcata tortoises. A Tortoise Table is a much better way to provide an indoor enclosure for juvenile sulcata. A Tortoise Table provides more room and better air circulation than a mere aquarium.
Retrofitting Dogloos®, greenhouses, or garden sheds
We have heard of people buying and adapting Dogloos® (round, insulated plastic dog houses), Rubbermaid® garden sheds, and even small greenhouses for use as tortoise sheds. There are pros and cons to each of these choices.
Dogloos® tend to be used frequently because they are widely available, relatively inexpensive, and don’t take up a lot of room on your property. There are two significant drawbacks to using a Dogloo®: One is that the relatively small volume inside a Dogloo® can make it difficult to avoid overheating. The other drawback is that it is very difficult to put a square or rectangular heating pad (see Heating Tortoise Sheds, below) inside a circular Dogloo®. You have to purchase one of the smaller pads, and thus you risk your tortoise not receiving sufficient heat at night.
Rubbermaid® garden sheds can be found at home improvement centers, farm and ranch supply stores, and some membership warehouses (such as Costco or Sam’s Club). They are more expensive than Dogloos®, ranging in price from 200 to 400 U.S. Dollars. However, they also tend to make better tortoise sheds than Dogloos®, for three main reasons:
- Rubbermaid® sheds are rectangular, so it is easier to use a square or rectangular heating pad (see Heating Tortoise Sheds, below) inside.
- The shed is taller and has a retractable roof, making it easier to clean up after your tortoise.
- The Rubbermaid® shed also has a lockable door, making it easier to keep your tortoise in and potential thieves out.
A sulcata owner named Derek Davis was kind enough to email us about the Rubbermaid® shed that he uses for his sulcata tortoise. His photos and descriptions are here.
What temperature should my tortoise be kept at?
You need to provide your tortoise with daytime temperatures between approximately 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (23 to 29 degrees Celsius). DO NOT keep the tortoise’s enclosure warmer than this — no matter what the pet store may tell you! People mistakenly assume that sulcata tortoises must be kept at high temperatures because they are desert animals. This is NOT true! When the temperature goes above 85 degrees F, sulcata tortoises will seek shelter from the heat in their underground burrows, and they will stay underground until temperatures drop to tolerable levels. Wild tortoises stay out of the mid-day sun and heat, only coming above-ground to eat and drink early in the morning or early in the evening after temperatures have dropped.
Always make sure that your tortoise has access to cooler areas or shade so that it can cool down when necessary. Nighttime temperatures should be lower than the daytime temperatures, but should not be allowed to drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius).
Heating Tortoise Sheds
Providing sufficient heat for your tortoise throughout the night or during cold, windy, and/or rainy days is crucial to your tortoise’s health. Most areas in North America get too cold to allow sulcata to stay outdoors all year around, so a warm, secure house is a must for your sulcata tortoise.
We feel that the safest way to provide heat within a tortoise shed is to use Heat Mats. These are rigid fiberglass pads that have a heating element built into them. Sulcata Station uses and recommends the Stanfield® Heat Pad manufactured by Osborne Industries. These pads can stand up to the wear and tear that a large sulcata tortoise can dish out, and they are available in different sizes so you can find one to fit your tortoise’s shed or enclosure.
You will also need to purchase a Heat Pad Controller from Osborne to regulate the pad’s temperature safely. There are three different types of controllers available:
- The F300 Single Pad Control. This is a manual rheostatic control that provides power to a single heat pad. This is a rheostat, not a thermostat, so it requires you to closely monitor the pads to make sure they are at safe operating temperatures.
- The F911 Power Control. This is a manual rheostatic control that can control two pads simultaneously. Sulcata Station currently uses this controller to provide power to two 3-ft x 3-ft pads. Because this is a rheostat, we closely monitor the pads to make sure they are at safe operating temperatures.
- The F920A Automatic Regulator — This is the recommended pad control, although it is expensive. This controller uses a remote probe that will allow you to “set and hold optimum temperatures” on multiple pads. Please note that the F920A is NOT a thermostat. It is actually an automatic rheostat, which means that it will automatically control the amount of electricity going to the pad, not what temperature the pad’s surface will reach.
To use these controllers correctly, you must monitor the temperature at the pad surface closely until you are familiar with how it can change relative to surrounding air temperatures. The best tool we’ve found for measuring surface temperatures is the ProExotics PE-2 Infrared Temp Gun. You can also Google “non-contact infrared heat thermometer” to find these at other retailers. These thermometers are incredibly useful in helping you maintain the surface of the pad at safe yet comfortable levels for your tortoise. We recommend that the pad’s surface temperature should go no lower than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and no higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Do sulcata tortoises hibernate?
Note that sulcata tortoises DO NOT hibernate during the winter — in their native environment, winter is a dry season, not a cold season. Therefore, if you live somewhere that has cold, snowy winters, you must be able to provide large, secure indoor quarters (along with appropriate heat and UVB light) for your sulcata tortoise.
At some point, your tortoise will become large enough that it will be inconvenient to keep indoors. When this happens, you will need to construct a heated, secure tortoise shed to serve as the tortoise’s nighttime home.
UVB Light Requirements
Because they are from a very sunny, semi-arid environment, sulcata tortoises require a great deal of light to stay healthy and active; without high light levels, these tortoises can become lethargic. Sulcata tortoises also require daily exposure to UVB light to help them produce proper levels of Vitamin D3 in their bodies. Vitamin D3 is essential for the effective metabolism of calcium from food — tortoises that lack sufficient levels of Vitamin D3 cannot build healthy bones and shells, no matter how much calcium they eat.
Sunlight is the single best source of UVB radiation, so the best and safest way to provide Vitamin D3 to your tortoise is to allow it to go outdoors and be exposed to sunlight for at least 20 minutes per day. If this is not possible where you live, then you must provide the tortoise with an artificial UVB light.
We recommends that you buy a good quality mercury vapor combination bulb OR High Output (HO) T5 bulbs and fixtures. Our current recommended brand is Arcadia, sold in the United States through the Light Your Reptiles website. Arcadia bulbs and fixtures are also available in the UK and Europe.
Mercury vapor combination bulbs put out significantly higher levels of UVB as well as a good deal of heat, both of which are required by basking tortoises. Be aware that, for safety reasons, you need to use a clamp lamp or reflector lamp with a ceramic socket with these bulbs.
These combination bulb should be placed so that it is approximately 18 to 20 inches above the top shell of the tortoise. You should be able to feel a comfortable level of heat — but not too much heat — when you place your hand at approximately the same height as your tortoise’s top shell.
High Output T5 bulbs are fluorescent bulbs that also require a special fixture. You can purchase both bulbs and fixtures through the Light Your Reptiles website.
Supplemental Humidity Sources
The smaller a tortoise is, the more easily it can become dehydrated. If you have a hatchling or juvenile tortoise, you should be aware that it can become severely dehydrated, literally overnight, if its habitat conditions are not corrected to prevent this.
You should provide a supplemental humidity source in the tortoise’s enclosure — in addition to a shallow water bowl — to prevent overnight dehydration. One way to provide supplemental humidity is to pile up a deep, moisture-holding substrate like Sphagnum moss or Bed-A-Beast® in one corner of the tortoise’s enclosure where the tortoise can dig in and sleep overnight. Make sure to keep this corner moistened.
Another way to provide supplemental humidity is to provide a hide box with a dampened sponge attached inside it. To do this, find a large plastic storage container (make sure that your tortoise will fit inside easily). Discard the container lid. Cut a doorway large enough for your tortoise in the side of the container, glue a cellulose sponge to the inside-bottom of the container, then invert it and put it into your tortoise’s enclosure. Make sure to dampen the sponge regularly.
Soaking Your Tortoise
Some owners choose to soak their tortoises in addition to providing a water bowl and a higher-humidity sleeping area. Hatchling (less than 1 year old) torts can be soaked every day, since they are the most likely to become dehydrated. Juvenile tortoises (between the ages of 1 year and 5 years) should be soaked two or three times per week. If you have an adult sulcata tortoise, make sure you provide it with a very shallow pond so that it can walk into the water to drink and soak as necessary.
The water in which you soak a tortoise should be comfortably warm — but not hot. The water level should be no deeper than the base of the tortoise’s neck. It’s best to use some sort of plastic container that you can clean thoroughly after each use. Your tortoise may poop when placed into warm water, so be prepared to change the water at least once during each soak. Soaking time can range from 5 minutes to 15 minutes — just don’t let the water cool down too much. After the soak, dry the tortoise off with paper towels before you put it back into its pen or enclosure. (After all, you don’t like to run around the house without drying off after your bath, do you?)
Sulcata Tortoise Diseases
Hatchling Failure Syndrome
We often receive emails and comments from owners of hatchling or small sulcata tortoises, saying that their tortoise is ill. These owners almost always describe the same symptoms, as follows:
- Tortoise has stopped eating
- Tortoise has become lethargic and will not come out to bask
- Tortoise’s eyes are closed and won’t/can’t open
- Tortoise spends hours (or even overnight) sitting in its water bowl
- Tort’s shell is becoming softer, and its front legs are becoming limp and unresponsive
These symptoms indicate that the tortoise’s kidneys are no longer functioning adequately. The typical reason why a tortoise goes into kidney failure is chronic dehydration. Small tortoises can become severely dehydrated overnight if kept in dry conditions without access to a scrape or burrow that allows them to maintain proper hydration status. Over time, if they do not get sufficient water back into their systems, they experience chronic dehydration, which can cause kidney failure.
Can it be treated?
The early stages of kidney failure can be treated successfully — but only if detected very early. Treatment requires taking the tortoise to a reptile vet so it can receive IV and subcutaneous fluids to reverse the dehydration. The vet may also draw blood to measure creatinine and potassium levels. These levels will help the vet determine how acute the kidney failure is.
Be aware that by the time your tortoise is displaying the symptoms listed above, it may already be too late to reverse the kidney failure. One of the main jobs of the kidneys is to filter the blood and remove the toxins and acidic byproducts of normal cellular processes. As the kidneys fail, they are less effective at filtering the bloodstream, so those toxins and acidic compounds begin to build up. To neutralize the rising acid levels in the blood, the tortoise’s body begins to remove calcium from its bones and shell — leading to the softening of the shell, limp limbs, and the lethargy. The tortoise’s internal organs can also suffer damage from the rising acidity and toxins. When tortoises reach this stage, no amount of fluids will make the kidneys restart or undo the damage to the tortoise’s bones and organs. The kindest thing you can do at that point may be to euthanize the tortoise.
Why Does This Happen?
Misinformed pet stores or vets may tell new owners that because sulcata tortoises are desert animals, they cannot tolerate any humidity and should be kept at very high temperatures. THIS IS WRONG and it shows a real lack of understanding about how sulcata tortoises and many other desert animals actually deal with their environment!
The natural behavior of sulcata torts in the wild is to come out of their burrow in the early morning (when temperatures are cooler) to bask and eat. When the temperatures start to rise, they disappear back down into their burrows. They simply do not stay out in the heat of the day for any length of time if they can avoid it by finding shade or a burrow.
The relative humidity inside tortoise burrows in the wild has been measured at 40 to 60 percent, which is typically much higher than the above-ground humidity. Air temperatures inside a burrow are also much cooler — typically 10 to 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) lower than above-ground temperatures. This cooler, more humid micro-environment prevents small tortoises from getting overheated and dehydrated, since they can move either higher or lower in the burrow as needed to remain comfortable.
Preventing Hatchling Failure Syndrome
The only real way to treat Hatchling Failure Syndrome is to keep your tortoise from becoming dehydrated in the first place. The best way to accomplish this is to establish a lower-temperature, higher-humidity micro-habitat in your tortoise enclosure, one that mimics the conditions found inside a tortoise burrow.
To prevent dehydration and establish this kind of micro-habitat in your enclosure, we suggest these steps:
- Continue to soak your hatchling or small tortoise regularly and provide a shallow water bowl for it to drink from.
- Provide a substrate that holds moisture, such as a 50/50 mixture of Bed-A-Beast® and topsoil, and make sure that the substrate is deep enough to allow your tortoise to dig a nightly burrow or scrape (a shallow burrow excavated on top of the soil). A tortoise will usually choose a dark corner away from any light or heat lamps to sleep in, so pile the substrate deeper in that area.
- Provide an appropriately-sized hide box with a cellulose sponge attached to the inside, and keep the sponge damp. This hide box can be in the sleeping corner or a different one. Observe your tortoise and see what it prefers.
- Monitor the humidity in your enclosure. Purchase a hygrometer and find a way to place it in the enclosure near where your tortoise sleeps. Try to maintain a humidity level of 60 to 75 percent in whatever area your tortoise sleeps in.
- Buy a spray bottle, a pump sprayer, or a watering can and use it to moisten the substrate regularly to maintain a higher humidity level in the tortoise’s sleeping area.
Why do you have to do all this?
Darrell Senneke of the World Chelonian Trust puts it this way:
What is problematic is that we cannot duplicate a natural environment indoors for any tortoise. While the recorded humidity for areas where G. sulcata live in the wild may be very low, the humidity that is found down in a sulcata burrow can be considerably higher.
Hatchlings — particularly indoors in the summer in an air-conditioned building — do not retain body moisture as well as adults. In air-conditioned houses, the ambient humidity can drop to 10% or lower.
A two-inch tortoise has roughly 8 times the surface-to-volume ratio of a four-inch tortoise. That means they only have one-eighth the reserves (moisture) of the larger animal. In addition the shell and skin is thinner so the transpiration through the skin is faster.
In the wild, if a hatchling is to survive (and very few do), it must have access to an area that will allow it to retain its moisture. In captivity (indoors) there is no way it can look for this area — we must supply it.
Salmonella bacteria are widespread in the environment and are often carried by animals. Humans who ingest salmonella bacteria can develop a gastrointestinal infection called Salmonellosis. Symptoms typically include fever, stomachache, and diarrhea. Healthy adults can shake off a salmonella infection fairly quickly, but some people (infants, the elderly, and people whose immune systems are compromised due to disease, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or autoimmune disorders) can develop serious (and sometimes potentially fatal) complications from Salmonellosis.
However, there is an easy way to prevent this problem: Wash your hands after handling, feeding, or cleaning up after your reptile pet. Every Time.
What is the connection between salmonella and reptiles?
Media reports of people getting Salmonella infections from their reptile pets creates an erroneous perception that only reptile pets cause these problems. Frankly, you’re more likely to contract Salmonella or E. coli infections from eggs or poorly-cooked meat. And pet owners should be aware that ALL pet species — not just reptiles, but cats, dogs, and birds as well — can carry some form of Salmonella bacteria. However, because more people are buying reptile pets, the Center for Disease Control has developed the following recommendations specifically for reptile owners:
How to Prevent Transmission of Salmonella from Reptiles to Humans
- Pet store owners, veterinarians, and pediatricians should provide information to owners and potential purchasers of reptiles about the risk for acquiring salmonellosis from reptiles
- Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling reptiles or reptile cages.
- If you or others in your household are at increased risk for infection or serious complications of salmonellosis (e.g., children aged less than 5 years and immuno-compromised persons), you should avoid contact with reptiles.
- Pet reptiles should be kept out of households where children aged less than 1 year and immunocompromised persons live. If you are expecting a new baby, you should remove the pet reptile from the home before the infant arrives.
- Pet reptiles should not be kept in child care centers.
- Pet reptiles should not be allowed to roam freely throughout the home or living area.
- Pet reptiles should be kept out of kitchens and other food-preparation areas to prevent contamination. Kitchen sinks should not be used to bathe reptiles, nor to wash their dishes, cages, or aquariums. Bathtubs are used for these purposes should be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected with bleach afterward.
Frequently Asked Questions
Feeding/Diet Related Questions
What should I feed my sulcata tortoise?
Sulcata torts evolved in the semi-arid regions of Africa just south of the Sahara Desert. Their digestive tracts have evolved to handle low-nutrient, high-fiber foods like dry grasses and weeds, which are the only sources of nutrition for much of the year in that region. The best way to feed your tortoise is to provide it with a safely-enclosed yard or pen where it can graze on a variety of grasses, grass hay, and certain safe edible weeds like dandelion, plaintain, and chickweed.
Upon realizing this, many new tortoise owners freak out and reply, “But we live in (somewhere with cold and snowy winters) and it’s impossible to let him out to graze!” We realize that it’s impossible to grow grass, clover, edible weeds, and so on during the winter in Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Ohio, Minnesota, etc. Therefore, please visit Sulcata Station’s Fall and Winter Feeding Recommendations page to learn how you should feed your sulcata during the winter months when it can’t go outdoors and graze.
The breeder/vet/pet store told me to feed it lettuce and veggies. Should I?
Probably the worst thing you can do to your tortoise is to feed it a steady diet of grocery store produce and/or frozen veggies.
These tortoises are very good at extracting nutrients from what would appear to be not-very-nutritious foods like dry grass hay. If you try to maintain your sulcata tortoise on a diet of grocery store produce ONLY, your tortoise will develop significant health problems (including kidney and liver damage) that can drastically shorten its lifespan. Here’s why:
All vegetables grown for human consumption contain relatively high levels of protein when compared to dry grasses. In breaking down these proteins, your tortoise’s digestive tract creates various amino acids and other waste products that are absorbed into the bloodstream along with the nutrients that the tortoise actually needs. The tortoise’s kidneys and liver filter out these waste products from the bloodstream. Consistently low levels of protein don’t overexert the kidneys and liver, and they can recover from any minor damage caused by the waste products and toxins in the bloodstream. But if the tortoise’s diet is consistently too high in protein, the kidneys and liver can become irreparably damaged by all the waste products and toxins they are filtering out of the bloodstream. This damage to the kidneys and liver will drastically shorten the tortoise’s lifespan.
In addition, sulcata tortoises that are fed only vegetables grow much too quickly, leading to weak bones and lumpy, pyramided shells.
Which commercial tortoise food should I use?
The quick answer is: NONE. Commercially-prepared “tortoise chow” (no matter who makes it) is a particularly bad idea for sulcata tortoises. Here is an answer that was posted by Brad Morris, a sulcata keeper whom I consider to be a professional, and whose advice I respect and trust:
G.sulcata needs high fiber plant material for proper nutrition. Their digestive tract has evolved to handle large amounts of cellulose. The cellulose is broken down into soluble fatty acids in the torti’s complex fermenting digestive system. These are the source for the torti’s nutrition. Where do processed foods fit in a system like this? They don’t. I believe there are long-term health problems such as changes in the kidneys and digestive organs. I think there are malnutrition problems also. By the way, they can become constipated without their massive amounts of roughage keeping stool structure firm. Andy [Highfield, Director of the Tortoise Trust] has seen some necropsies of this sort of thing, ask him. This same diet of gobs of plant fiber keeps internal parasites and undesirable bacteria in check. Throw in some high energy processed foods – you will have worms, protozoa and bacteria thanking you. The torti will most likely accelerate his food intake to account for the loss of nutrition. Those foods are a gimmick; they play on today’s fashion of being convenient. Torti fed these products are also prone to maggot attacks on their bottoms.
We believe that commercial foods of any kind are NOT good for reptiles of any species. Bonnie Key wrote a very enlightening, eye-opening article about commercial reptile foods (unfortunately no longer available online) for the Veterinary Information Network website. Despite what their advertising copy may claim, the companies manufacturing these foods DO NOT do any real research into whether their foods are good for reptiles! As Bonnie said in her article, pet-product companies are in business to make money for their shareholders, not to benefit pet owners and their critters. With the increasing popularity of reptile pets, these companies realized that they had a golden money-making opportunity — by selling often useless (and sometimes dangerous) items to reptile owners. Thus, pet stores have shelves full of pelleted and canned diets for a variety of reptile species that may not actually benefit from such foods. As Brad stated above, reptile owners need to get past the “convenience factor” of such foods and realize that these products can actually ruin the health of their pets.
Why can’t I give my sulcata fruit?
Even though sulcata love fruit, it’s best NOT to give them any. Grazing tortoise species such as leopard and sulcata rely on beneficial bacteria living in their intestines to help them digest and extract nourishment from the grasses that they eat. If you give your tortoise large amounts of fruit, the acids and sugars in the fruit can actually change the pH of the tortoise’s digestive tract. This pH change can cause the beneficial bacteria in the tortoise’s gut to die off. When large quantities of gut bacteria die, they can release toxins that can cross the gut wall and enter the tortoise’s bloodstream, causing the tortoise to experience a form of sepsis that can be fatal.
How can I wean my tortoise off the veggies and onto grass and grass hay?
There are basically two different ways to handle your situation:
- The “tough-love” approach: You completely stop giving the tortoise all the “bad” stuff like lettuce, greens, veggies, and so forth. Provide only grass and/or grass hay. Eventually, when he gets hungry enough, he’ll give in and eat it;
- You gradually wean the tortoise off the foods it likes, but which isn’t good for it, and onto a better diet.
Sulcata tortoises are a lot like human children — once they get spoiled on grocery store produce, they want to eat the stuff they like, even though it’s not necessarily what’s good for them. However, unlike human children, I can pretty much guarantee you that your tortoise won’t starve to death if he doesn’t eat for a week or two. Sulcata are native to the Sahel region of Africa, which is just south of the Sahara desert. Thus, they are used to very meager supplies of food, and can easily handle not eating for a while, if they are healthy to begin with. That is why the “tough-love” approach can work, provided that the owner isn’t too soft-hearted and doesn’t give in before the tortoise does…..
But if you’re soft-hearted, it may be easier on your conscience to change his diet gradually to a more healthy one.
Why do I need to soak my tortoise?
In the wild, tortoises spend a lot of time in underground burrows that have a much higher humidity level than the desert outside the burrow. This “high-humidity microclimate” inside the burrow helps the tortoise stay properly hydrated. When we keep tortoises in pens or enclosures, taking away their ability to dig burrows, we have to compensate by providing them with extra water. The problem is that some tortoises won’t voluntarily drink, even if you put a water dish into its pen or enclosure. If your tortoise won’t drink on its own, you will have to start soaking your tortoise regularly.
How often you soak it depends on how big it is. Hatchling torts probably should be soaked for 15 minutes or so every day. Tortoises over a year old can get away with at least three soakings a week. As the tortoise gets even larger, soakings can be done even less frequently, but probably at least once a week.
Make sure that the water is lukewarm, and no deeper than the base of the tortoise’s neck. It’s best to use some sort of container that you can scrub out after each soaking. For small tortoises, a plastic dishpan or plastic storage box works well. For larger tortoises, use a large plastic cement-mixing tub (you can get these at Home Depot, Lowes or any home improvement/hardware store).
We make sure to provide water at all times for our tortoises, especially while they are out in their tortoise yard. We currently use several of the 24-inch plastic saucers that go underneath the big Rubbermaid plant pots as sulcata watering holes. Our tortoises regularly walk into them, drink, flip water up onto their backs, then climb out.
Outdoor water bowls tend to accumulate a layer of algae on them fairly quickly. We put a fresh saucer in place, then clean the algae-covered one by filling it with vinegar and leaving it in the sun for a day. After that, it’s easy to scrub the algae right off the surface of the saucer. Vinegar and UV from sunlight are the best algae killers we’ve found!
What’s the best substrate to use for my tortoise?
We use and recommend either or both of the following substrates:
- Grass Hay — Please note that this is grass hay (orchard grass or timothy grass), not alfalfa hay. Many sulcata keepers recommend grass hay as a substrate because the tortoises can (and usually do) eat it. Again, you may want to put down a few layers of newspaper underneath it to absorb moisture. If the hay gets too dirty, you can compost the hay and newspaper whenever you change the substrate.
- Organic Topsoil and Bed-A-Beast® mixture — Because we live in a true desert with very low humidity (frequently less than 15 percent), we use a 50/50 mixture of organic topsoil and Bed-A-Beast® to recreate the “high-humidity microclimate” that is found in wild tortoise burrows. This mixture allows the humidity right at the surface of our tortoise table to vary from almost none underneath the heat lamps to 40-50 percent in the corners of the table.
[Bed-A-Beast® is a brand name for a substrate made from ground-up coconut husk fiber. (Other manufacturers also make this type of product and their names for it are different. All of them are sold as a compressed brick. When you soak the brick in a gallon of warm water, it will absorb the water and expand quite a bit.]
Once you’ve rehydrated the coconut fiber substrate, you should mix it with an equal amount of topsoil. Your goal is to create a mixture that is not muddy or extremely wet; it should be damp but not soggy.
We spread several layers of newspaper over the table, then spread this mixture over the newspaper, and pile up some of it in the corners of the table. Then we put grass hay into the corners of the table so that the tortoises can nestle into it to sleep. Keep the hay out from under the heat lamps, because dry hay can be flammable.
Substrates to Avoid
You should AVOID using the following substrates with your turtles or tortoises:
- Alfalfa pellets — These tend to get moldy when wet; some tortoises respond to the dust with allergy-like symptoms (runny nose and eyes, etc.)
- Corncob or ground walnut shell — These substrates do not digest easily and can cause potentially fatal blockages if the tortoise eats enough of them.
- Cedar shavings, pine shavings, or pine bark — These substrates contain oils that are toxic to tortoises.
- Sand, Calci-Sand, crushed oyster shells — These substrates can cause impactions in the digestive tract if the tortoise eats them. They also abrade the tortoise’s bottom shell, which can allow infections to occur.
It’s critical that you get this tortoise to a reptile vet immediately! Your hatchling is more than likely suffering from severe dehydration and possible renal (kidney) failure. If left untreated, it will be fatal. Even with veterinary treatment, your tortoise’s odds of surviving kidney failure are not good.
Dehydration and the resulting renal failure seem to be the main cause of death for hatchling sulcata tortoises.
What is that white, chalky-looking stuff in my tortoise’s droppings?
The white stuff is the tortoise’s urine. It is made up of urates — a combination of excess uric acid, minerals, and other body waste products that the tortoise’s kidneys have filtered out and excreted. Urates can vary in consistency from totally liquid to about the same consistency as toothpaste.
Urates in your tortoise’s droppings is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it can indicate a problem in either of the two following instances:
- Do the urates seem really hard or gritty, or does your tortoise seems to be straining to poop? If so, your tortoise may be dehydrated. You need to start soaking your tortoise more regularly, or provide more humidity in its enclosure, to prevent it getting dehydrated and having the urates solidify into a bladder stone. If the tortoise is *really* straining, or not pooping at all, take it to a reptile veterinarian immediately, because it could already have a bladder stone, and such stones could actually kill it.
- Is your tortoise is passing urates more than three times per week? If so, you may need to take a look at what you feeding your tortoise. Feeding too much protein to herbivorous tortoises can stress the kidneys and cause them to produce a lot of urates. Make sure you are feeding your sulcata a low-protein, high-fiber diet (that is, lots of grass, hay and edible weeds, and NO ANIMAL PROTEINS) and that you soak the tortoise regularly.
Why does my tortoise have grayish/pinkish/purplish tissue sticking out of its rear end?
Congratulations — it’s a boy! The tissue extruding from his back end is actually his penis. He is starting to “show off” because he is in the process of reaching sexual maturity.
With reptiles, sexual maturity depends much more on the size of the animal, and not necessarily the age of the animal (with mammals, it’s the the other way around — age tends determine sexual maturity, not size). Male tortoises in captivity tend to reach sexual maturity much earlier than their wild counterparts, simply because captive tortoises are better fed and grow faster.
Male torts display their penises for a variety of reasons. Usually these displays are extremely brief, lasting for a few minutes at most, after which the penis generally goes right back inside the cloaca. This is all very normal behavior for a male sulcata.
The only time to be concerned is if the penis stays out for a long time (say, for more than a day). If it stays out for a long period of time, the tortoise might have a “prolapsed” penis. A prolapse can cut off the circulation to the penis, causing cell and tissue damage. If you suspect a prolapse has occurred, you should take your tortoise immediately to a reptile-competent vet so that the vet can gently replace the penis back into the cloacal cavity.
Why does my tortoise have wet or salty patches around it’s eyes?
This doesn’t seem to be a problem — our tortoises show this sort of thing semi-regularly, and all are very healthy. We notice it more often when the tortoises are extremely warm from being out in the sun or from basking under the heat lamp for a long time. Just make sure your tortoise is properly hydrated, and make sure you provide your tortoise with a shady area where it can go to cool off.
Can tortoises and turtles carry salmonella?
Yes. Most animal species (including dogs, cats, and reptiles) can be carriers of some form of salmonella.
Why is my tortoise have bubbly nasal discharge/makes gasping or popping noises when it breathes?
Yes, your tortoise probably is ill, and you need to take it to a reptile veterinarian as soon as possible. Tortoises can come down with a disease called Runny Nose Syndrome (RNS) that is basically the tortoise’s version of a cold or pneumonia. If the tortoise is not treated with antibiotics to cure the infection, it can die. Sulcata tortoises are particularly susceptible to developing RNS if they are kept in damp, cool climates.
Make sure you take your pet to a qualified reptile veterinarian who knows which drugs can be safely used on tortoises. Vets who haven’t received such specialized training, however well-intentioned they may be, might not know the best way to treat reptiles and could end up killing your turtle (unfortunately, it’s happened to us, folks — a well-intentioned vet killed one of our box turtles by injecting a megadose of vitamin A and D, which caused liver and kidney failure).
If your tortoise is given antibiotics, you can help it recover by keeping the tortoise well-hydrated (with additional soaking, if necessary) and keeping it warm (with a heat lamp or other form of supplemental heat). Antibiotics can stress the tortoise’s kidneys, so keeping it well-hydrated helps flush out the kidneys and prevent renal failure. Keeping the tortoise warm keeps its metabolism up and helps its immune system fight the infection.
Why does my tortoise pace along barriers and try to climb the corners of its pen or enclosure?
This behavior is probably the result of boredom. There are two things you can do that will alleviate the problem, although it might not completely go away.
The first thing to do is make your pen or table walls opaque. If your tortoise can see through the barrier, it wants to go through it. And it will continue to try as long as it *can* see through the barrier.
The other thing you should do is add various things like hide boxes, plants, hills, valleys, and so forth to the center of the pen or enclosure. If you can break up the open spaces of your enclosure, the tortoises will be less likely to pace along the edges of its enclosure or pen.
We also recommend blocking corners off with a board or brick placed across them. This creates two 45-degree angles instead of one 90-degree angle, and your tortoise is much less likely to try to climb in the corner and end up flipped over onto its back.
Do sulcata tortoises eat poop?
Well, believe it or not, this is very typical of sulcata tortoises and nothing to be concerned about. All tortoises will do this to some extent. So while it seems gross and disgusting, it’s really just an instinct that helps the tortoises survive in the wild. Sulcata in particular are notorious for doing this since they evolved in a relatively food-poor environment, and coprophagia (poop-eating) allowed them to obtain certain nutrients and vitamins that may not have been available otherwise.
If you have dogs or cats as well as tortoises, you should keep your tortoise from eating dog and cat poop. There are several reasons for this, but the two main ones are these: If you give your dog or cat an oral medication called Ivermectin to prevent heartworm and other parasites, their poop can contain enough of the medication to poison your tortoise. And, on a purely biochemical level, dog or cat poop simply contains too much protein for your sulcata.
Why does my tortoise hiss at me when I approach him/pick him up?
Tortoises instinctively pull into their shells whenever they feel threatened. The action of pulling in its head and front legs compresses the tortoise’s lungs, which causes them to exhale suddenly — that’s the hiss you hear. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the tortoise is angry or upset; it’s just following its instinct for self-preservation.
Once the tortoise realizes that you’re not a predator, you’re just its Human (and that you may have food!), it will often come right back out to see what’s up. Shyer tortoises may take longer to lose that instinctive fear of being approached or picked up, but eventually most of them do learn to relax a bit.
That limp, “arms and legs and head stuck completely out” pose is the classic tortoise basking position. It’s stretched out like that so that it can expose as much of the skin of its legs and neck as possible to the heat. You may see this behavior first thing each morning after your tortoise has come up out of its burrow or sleeping area and parked itself underneath the heat lamp where it’s warm and toasty. Sometimes the tortoise will get so comforable that it will fall asleep. Basically, although it looks really scary when your tortoise does this, it’s really ok.
How can I tell if my tortoise is a male or a female?
It is very difficult to determine the sex of a sulcata that is less than 10 to 15 pounds, or less than 12 inches in shell length. In fact, most sulcata owners don’t know what sex their tortoise is until they witness it laying eggs, or everting its penis, or attempting to mount other tortoises.
In mature sulcata, the anal scutes (the two plates on the sulcata’s bottom shell [plastron] that are located just in front of its tail) of a male generally form a wider angle than the anal scutes of a female, but this may not be 100 percent reliable with smaller tortoises. We thought we had properly identified the sexes of our juvenile sulcata tortoises, but we still ended up with a male tortoise named Isis.
How long do sulcata tortoises live?
We can’t seem to find any scientific research on this topic, but if sulcata tortoises are anything like Galapagos tortoises, they might have an extremely long lifespan. There are documented cases of Galapagos tortoises (the big tortoises typically seen in zoos) living well over 100 years. If you keep your sulcata healthy, it should live at least that long, if not longer!
You should keep one thing in mind when you acquire a tortoise of any species: Your tortoise will more than likely outlive you, and therefore you should make plans about where the tortoise should go and who should take care of it after your death. If you own a sulcata or other tortoise, you should make sure you specify who you’d like your tortoise to live with after you’re gone, and if possible, provide a fund to help defray costs for the new owner. Keep this information with your Will and other important documents.
How big do sulcata tortoises get?
You can expect your sulcata tortoise to easily reach 18 inches (45 cm) in shell length, and 70 to 100 pounds (30 to 45 kg) in weight. Some tortoises do get even larger: If your tortoise turns out to be the chelonian equivalent of Shaquille O’Neal, it might reach 24 to 30 inches (60 to 76 cm) in shell length, and around 150 lbs. (68 kg) in weight!
How much does a sulcata tortoise cost?
Generally speaking they cost anywhere from $100 all the way up to $1000.
What’s the difference between Sulcata Tortoises and African Spur-Thighed Tortoises?
New owners often (and erroneously) refer to these tortoises as “African Spur-Thighed Tortoises.” This can create a lot of confusion with a completely different tortoise species from the Mediterranean area. Experienced owners tend to avoid this confusion by referring to their tortoises as “sulcata tortoises,” based on the correct scientific name (Geochelone sulcata). That’s why we use the term “sulcata tortoises” throughout this website.
The “true” spur-thighed tortoises originate in the areas around the Mediterranean Sea and belong to a completely different complex of tortoises. They also require completely different care than sulcata tortoises. The scientific name for the whole complex (or Genus) of Mediterranean-area spur-thighed tortoises is Testudo. There are various species within the Testudo genus. The most commonly available ones in pet stores are:
- Greek Tortoise (Testudo graeca)
- Herman’s Tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
- Iberian Tortoise (Testudo ibera)
- Kleinmann’s Tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni)
Because they come from environments that are very similar, and because their care is very similar, these tortoises are all commonly lumped into a generic category often referred to as “Mediterranean Spur-Thighed tortoises.”