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.
My hatchling (baby) tortoise was fine; now he’s sluggish and doesn’t eat or move around
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.
Tortoise has 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.
Wet or salty patches around tortoise’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.
Bubbly nasal discharge; tortoise making 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.
I just found my sulcata eating 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.
My tortoise sticks its head and limbs completely out while it’s sunning or under its heat lamp
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.