Leopard Tortoise Care Sheet

Keeping and caring for a Leopard Tortoise requires a significant investment in both time and money, but they are beautiful animals they’re well worth the trouble.

This Leopard Tortoise care sheet should give you all the information you need to know to get started with your Leopard Tortoise, but there are a few very good books out there dedicated to tortoise care that we would recommend all owners have at home. Some of the best are Sulcata and Leopard Tortoises (Complete Herp Care) or Pet Sulcata & Leopard Tortoises Care Guide as well as the more general Tortoises: A Beginner’s Guide to Tortoise Care and Turtles and Tortoises: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual.

Leopard Tortoise Size
With only three larger species of tortoise on the planet, these are pretty hefty creatures that can be expected to reach an adult length of 15″-18″ depending on the subspecies (babcocki subspecies is larger), and some will exceed even this. Some range-restricted wild races from Ethiopia and Sudan can be twice this size, but it is unlikely you’ll come across one of these being sold as a pet.

Leopard Tortoise Lifespan
If you care for your tortoise well, it should live for about as long as you do, and could even outlive you. They shouldn’t live any less than 50 years in captivity and 70 is nothing to shout about, so a Leopard Tortoise is a serious commitment!

Image by Flickr user NH53

Image by Flickr user NH53

Outdoor Leopard Tortoise Housing
In an ideal world all Leopard Tortoises would be kept outdoors, but this is only possible if you live in the right area. Your tortoise will need a temperature of 80F-90F during the day, dropping to 65-75F at night. If your climate is colder than this or could be described as damp, you’ll have to face the much trickier task of housing one or more Leopard Tortoises indoors (see below). An outdoor enclosure should be a bare minimum of 100 square feet for a pair, with walls at least 18″ high that your tortoises can’t see out of – concrete blocks and wood work well. Luckily Leopard Tortoises don’t climb or burrow, but they do have predators, so while you don’t have to worry about your pets getting out, you do have to provide some form of protection from raccoons, foxes etc., especially when the tortoises are still young.

Within the enclosure there should be a large grassy area where your tortoises can not only graze naturally, but also find shelter, security and hiding places. Planting this area with shrubs and grasses such as alfalfa, pampas grass, hebes and lavatera will be much appreciated. Also desirable are bare ground (particularly if you plan to breed Leopard Tortoises) and an open gentle slope where your tortoises will enjoy basking in the sun.

The final key feature of an outdoor enclosure is some sort of hide box.

This is where your Leopard Tortoises will retreat to at night or during inclement weather, so it must be accessible at all times. The hide box needs to be heated and insulated, and you should be able to monitor and regulate the temperature quickly and easily. A cold frame will work for young tortoises (assuming you can fit a heat lamp, make an easily accessible entrance and keep everything fully weather-proof), but larger tortoises will clearly need something more substantial like a greenhouse (make sure they can’t see through the glass!) or a large and well-insulated garden shed.

Indoor Leopard Tortoise Housing
Raising young Leopard Tortoises indoors is common practice and is best achieved using a tortoise table/house, which you can either make yourself or buy ready to use. When larger tortoises need to be brought inside over the winter, you’ll need a large enclosure, at least 4’x8′. Alternatively, if you use a garden shed as a hide box during warmer months and it’s sufficiently well insulated and heated to cope with the winter chill, you might be able to confine your tortoises to this shed if it’s big enough.

For a substrate, you can use either grass hay, a mixture of sand and topsoil or something like ReadiGrass from a pet store or online if you want something specially designed for pets. You’ll want to turn the indoor enclosure into an area with different microclimates and different mini habitats. This would ideally mean a few rocks and plants, as well as an open, dry basking area kept at around 95F and a warm and moist hide box. Apart from the basking area, the ideal temperature is again around 80F-90F in the daytime and 65F-75F overnight.

As soon as it’s big enough and the temperature is high enough, let your Leopard Tortoise outside again – this is where it wants to be and where it should be kept for as much of the year as possible.

Heating and Lighting
To heat enclosures and hide boxes to the recommended temperatures outlined above there are a few possibilities, including infrared heat lamps and ceramic heat emitters. Note that some kind of thermostatic temperature controller may be necessary depending on your climate and enclosure of choice. This can get expensive quickly in cold regions, which is worth considering before you buy a Leopard Tortoise. The temperature should be watched closely – too cold and your tortoises are likely to get ill or worse; too hot and your tortoises will overheat with similarly serious consequences.

As with all types of tortoise, Leopard Tortoises need UVB light to help them properly process calcium, which is important for their shells. Natural sunlight is by far the best, and they should get as much of it as possible. When housed indoors, you absolutely must provide a source of UVB light. Either get a fluorescent UVB tube (some are specially designed for reptiles), or hit two birds with one stone by using a mercury vapor lamp, which will also produce enough heat to keep some enclosures warm enough.

Leopard Tortoise Diet
Most of the diet you feed these tortoises should be made up of grasses and greens, preferably from a well-planted grazing area in an outdoor enclosure to closely mimic the conditions they would find in the wild. When this isn’t possible, feed them various grasses and hays (orchard grass, timothy hay, meadow hay, ReadiGrass etc.) as the primary source of nutrition (about 70% of the diet), and pad out this diet with weeds and greens. These can include dandelion greens and flowers, clover, hibiscus leaves and flowers, plantain, spineless cactus pads, thistle, petunias, zucchini, butternut squash, carrots, mulberry tree leaves and so on. Food should be given on a smooth flat rock or a similar surface so that your tortoises don’t ingest any of the substrate.

Steer clear of spinach and other foods high in oxalates, cat and dog food, brassicas, and fruit to be on the safe side, as this has been known to cause digestion problems, which can sometimes be fatal. Some owners do feed their Leopard Tortoises fruit, but it should certainly never be more than very small amounts.

Calcium supplements are often necessary, so make sure your pets can always access a cuttlebone, which will also help to keep their beaks nicely trimmed. You can sprinkle small amounts of powdered calcium supplement onto their food a few times a week as well, but be careful not to overdo the amount of calcium, as this too can cause problems.

Vitamin D3 supplements are also handy, particularly for young tortoises and for tortoises kept indoors that won’t be getting enough sunlight. A product like Zoo Med Reptile Calcium with Vitamin D3 will sort out both calcium and vitamin D3 requirements at the same time, and this is probably the best solution here.

Leopard Tortoise Water
You should always provide a shallow water dish (get a large size!) for your tortoises so that they can drink at all times of year and in all types of enclosure. They will also use it for soaking (which helps to keep them well hydrated), so it must be shallow enough that there is no danger of drowning. Leopard Tortoises have the unfortunate habit of defecating when they soak, so their water dish should be cleaned and refilled every day.

Hatchling tortoises become dehydrated much more quickly and easily than adults, so they should be soaked several times a week for up to 20 minutes at a time. Again, use warm, shallow water where they cannot possibly drown.

Leopard Tortoise Hibernation
Leopard Tortoises do not hibernate, but they may be noticeably slower during the cooler months of the year.

Leopard Tortoise Handling Leopard Tortoises
Leopard Tortoises can be handled, but they won’t really appreciate it. They tend to be fairly shy creatures, liable to retreat into their shells, and they aren’t suitable for regular petting by children. They will however get to know and recognize their owner (or primary food provider!) and so will be more tolerant of you than of others.

Keeping Multiple Leopard Tortoises
Leopard Tortoises are not nearly as aggressive as some of the Mediterranean species or as territorial as the Sulcata Tortoise, which allows them to be kept in groups without causing any problems. You can keep groups of several males and females together as long as you give them a correspondingly larger enclosure, larger hide box etc. Of course, you should only keep opposite sexes together if you’re prepared for eggs and hatchlings.

If you’ve got any questions or think we’ve missed something off this Leopard Tortoise care sheet, be sure to contact us and let us know! We’re always happy to help. 🙂