What should you expect from your sulcata tortoise?
African Spurred Tortoises, also known as “sulcatas," are outgoing, inquisitive and active tortoises that are becoming increasingly popular in captivity. Most of the sulcatas that enter the pet trade are sold as tiny hatchlings that will easily fit in the palm of one’s hand. However, these small pets quickly grow large- in fact, sulcatas are the third largest tortoise species in the world. Their long life span requires a substantial long-term obligation.
What should I feed my tortoise?
Sulcata tortoises are strict herbivores. In captivity they require a very high fiber, low protein, low fat, grass-based diet to stay healthy.
The best foods for a sulcata tortoise include mixed fresh grasses, grass hay, clover, dandelion, edible flowers and spineless Opuntia cactus pads. A smaller part of the diet may consist of dark leafy greens (collard greens, kale, carrot tops, mustard greens, endive, and watercress) and other vegetables. Excessive quantities of protein-rich vegetables (beans, peas) are not recommended. The exclusive use of commercially available pellet diets for tortoises is controversial, but these may be used as a portion of a sulcata diet. Calcium supplementation may be beneficial. Foods containing animal-based proteins such as dog/cat food or insects should be avoided. Fresh water should be available at all times in an appropriately sized water dish.
The ideal housing for sulcata tortoises of any age is outdoor housing, with natural sunlight and ventilation. For small and medium sulcatas (up to 12”), a pen can be fashioned using railroad ties or posts to form a perimeter fence, with special attention to make it escape proof, as sulcatas can burrow under fencing. Hiding shelters should be made available within the enclosure to provide shade and protection. The substrate can be a sand/soil/peat mixture of a pesticide-free patch of lawn. Shrubs, small trees and ornamental grasses may be used to enhance the pen’s appearance. In some areas, the top of the pen will need a secure covering to keep predators out. Bringing the tortoise inside at night may also be necessary to prevent predation or theft.
If an indoor enclosure must be used for a young sulcata, the best accommodations is a glass terrarium or plastic/polyethylene tub. The enclosure should be large enough (minimum 20 gallon tank) so that a temperature gradient can be established using a basking light, from 90-95 degrees on the hot end to 75-85 degrees on the cool end. Captive tortoises not exposed to natural sunlight will also need a high quality UVB-emitting light source. Cage accessories are provided by offering cork bark, driftwood, plastic shelters and non-poisonous plants.
Housing for your sulcata tortoise should:
- Be warm and dry, preferably outdoors, with exposure to natural sunlight.
- Be secure from predators such as cats, dogs, raccoons, and foxes.
- Contain shelter from heat, rain, and other environmental elements.
- Be escape proof.
Indoor enclosure should:
- Contain rabbit pellets, paper towel or peat as a substrate.
- Include exposure to artificial UVB lighting and a basking spot for 10-12 hours a day.
- Allow as much floor space as possible with proper ventilation.
How can you keep your sulcata tortoise healthy, happy and safe?
- Take a newly purchased sulcata tortoise to an exotic animal veterinarian, such as the ones at Saukville Veterinary Clinic, for a wellness examination and fecal check for parasites.
- Quarantine new tortoises in a separate area for at least 30 days.
- Provide a high fiber, low protein, and low fat diet.
- Because these tortoises do not hibernate, in cooler climates they must be provided with warm winter housing.
- Allow sulcatas to dig burrows in their outdoor enclosures, which is part of their natural behavior.
- Allow the tortoise to have access to water deep enough for soaking to maintain proper hydration.
Things you must keep away from your tortoise:
- Running loose in the home
- Cats, dogs, or other predators
- Hot rock or direct contact with heating elements or light sources
- Overabundance of food
- Cat or dog food of any kind
- A steady diet of fruits and protein rich vegetables
- Over supplementation of vitamins or minerals
- Damp or cold conditions
- Items that might cause the tortoise to tumble over onto its back
- Inappropriate items that might be ingested, since sulcatas will swallow almost anything
For more information: Association of Reptile & Amphibian Vets