Sulcata Tortoise Care Sheet

Many first time tortoise owners choose a Sulcata Tortoise and have no problems, but caring for one properly is not always easy, especially if you live somewhere cold for at least part of the year. If you do choose to buy a Sulcata Tortoise, this page covers all the basic care information you’ll need, although we also recommend buying one of the dedicated books out there – either Sulcata and Leopard Tortoises (Complete Herp Care) or Tortoises: A Beginner’s Guide to Tortoise Care.

Image by Flickr user cliff1066™

Image by Flickr user

Sulcata Tortoise Size
These are big creatures! Only the Galapagos and Aldabra Giant Tortoises are bigger, and Sulcata Tortoises (particularly males) can reach up to 200lbs in weight and 36in in length, so don’t be fooled by the cute little hatchling comfortably resting in the palm of your hand. Most individuals won’t reach such an enormous size, but 100lbs isn’t anything too unusual, and growth rates are hugely variable, although all Sulcatas grow more slowly as they age.

Image by Gregory Moine

Image by Gregory Moine

Sulcata Tortoise Lifespan
While it is very much the exception and not the rule, Lifespans as long as 150 years are possible, and most individuals should be able to live for at least 70 years if treated well and looked after properly. Before buying a Sulcata Tortoise, you have to be prepared for a very long term commitment, and for the distinct possibility of being outlived by your new pet.

Outdoor Sulcata Tortoise Housing
Keeping your Sulcata Tortoise outdoors is always preferable if you live in a suitable climate, but most people will need to bring their tortoise indoors for at least some of the year. Outdoor enclosures need to be strong and sturdy because of the size and strength of Sulcatas, with wood or (cemented) concrete blocks being ideal. The enclosure should be at least two feet high and extended underground to discourage your tortoise from its natural burrowing behaviour. However you choose to build your enclosure, the perimeter should not be transparent, as Sulcata Tortoises seem more determined to escape if they can see the outside world!

The most important aspect of any outdoor enclosure is a shelter for the tortoise to retreat into when the weather turns cold or otherwise unpleasant. It must also protect your Sulcata Tortoise from predators and, unfortunately, even human thieves, as tortoise theft is sadly far from unknown. One good option is to buy and retrofit a doghouse or small garden shed (or even a greenhouse). The other choice is building a custom tortoise shed, but this will inevitably be more expensive.

Note that the normal ground in your garden is normally fine for tortoises unless it’s heavily contaminated with pesticides and/or fertilizers. Having said that, including some desert plants (anything fragile won’t last!) and a muddy wallowing area would be good.

Indoor Sulcata Tortoise Housing
This is normally only realistic in the first few years of a Sulcata Tortoise’s life, as an older individual will simply be too big for most people to be able to keep indoors. Many people do choose to raise young tortoises indoors though, so that an outdoor enclosure and tortoise shed is only necessary after a few years of growth.

‘Sulcata tables’ can be made or bought, and these are always the best option. They must include an area with high humidity where the young tortoise(s) can hide, simulating the burrows they would use in the wild. Without this humidity, their shells will not form properly and your tortoise will suffer from dehydration.

Including a rock or two is a nice idea so that there is always somewhere clean, but as for the ideal substrate for an indoor enclosure, there are no hard and fast rules. Something like cypress mulch is pretty much perfect, with alternatives like coconut coir and various different hays working well too.

Temperature and Lighting
Sulcata Tortoises like cooler temperatures at night than during the day, but not normally lower than around 60F. If the outside temperature drops below this, you’ll need to start heating your tortoise shed, and make sure that your tortoise actually goes into it each evening. It’s also worth noting that Sulcata Tortoises retreat into their burrows to escape the midday heat in the desert, which is why they need somewhere to retreat when the sun is blazing high in the sky. Don’t assume that they’re fine in very high temperatures all day long just because they’re desert creatures! When the temperature reaches around 85F they hide away, so you shouldn’t keep your tortoise shed at a temperature any higher than this.

To heat a tortoise shed, it’s recommended that you use a heat mat and regulator, not a heat lamp. These lamps have the potential to burn the scales of your tortoise’s shell, which will kill the cells and will sometimes lead to bare bones being exposed. Heat mats are a far superior option.

Standard room temperatures are fine when keeping Sulcata Tortoises indoors, but extra heat should be provided in a basking area so that they can warm up when they need to. Around 90F is an ideal temperature for these areas.

Tortoises need a source of UVB light, which should be kept on for at least 12 hours a day if kept indoors, and letting them outside on sunny days will be good for them. The lights should always be switched off at night. Mercury vapor combination bulbs produce a good level of UVB radiation, as well as a fair amount of heat, so these would be our bulbs of choice. Generally speaking, the light source should be around 20 inches above the top of your tortoise’s shell.

Sulcata Tortoise Diet
Strangely enough, specially designed tortoise foods should be avoided for Sulcata Tortoises, as should large amounts of fruit and vegetables. A good staple food source is grass hay (commonly sold for horses), along with a range of edible weeds such as clover, dandelion and cactus pads.

Occasional supplementation may be necessary to ensure your tortoise gets sufficient amounts of vitamins and, particularly for young tortoises, calcium. Vitamins should certainly never be given more than once a week, and even that is often unnecessary, but powdered vitamin supplements for reptiles are available. Calcium supplementation can be achieved with ground up cuttlebone or even calcium tablets intended for humans. These should only be given up to twice a week maximum.

Never put food out on any surface where the surface itself may be ingested e.g. on soil or gravel. This is why a few large rocks are useful.

Sulcata Tortoise Water
Dehydration can be a serious issue for Sulcata Tortoises – they definitely do need to drink! A shallow water bowl with low sides that your tortoise can easily climb out of is essential, or you run the risk of your tortoise drowning. The water should be no deeper than the base of the tortoise’s neck.

Soaking is also widely practiced, where young Sulcata Tortoises can rehydrate by soaking in (shallow!) warm water for around 15 minutes at a time. Around three times a week should be sufficient. Older tortoises take care of this for themselves if a suitable area is provided. Wherever it is that your tortoises soak, the area should be cleaned regularly. Unfortunately Sulcata Tortoises will often relieve themselves when they soak, which is clearly pretty unhygienic, and something you should be aware of to keep your pets healthy.

Handling a Sulcata Tortoise
Some pet shops will tell you otherwise, but these creatures can be stressed out by being handled, and it’s best to keep any handling to a minimum. Older individuals are generally more placid when it comes to handling, but it should still be infrequent and care should be taken.

You can see the supplies we recommend for Sulcata Tortoises here.

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch or check out the excellent Sulcata Station site.
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