Pet Care Resources Sulcata Tortoise Background and Care Recommendations

Avian & Exotics

Sulcata Tortoise Background and Care Recommendations

Natural History of Sulcata Tortoises

Sulcata tortoises are native to more northern parts of Africa, ranging from the southern edge of the Sahara down through the arid countries, including Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, the Sudan, and Ethiopia, up through the dry, hot Massaua coast bordering the Red Sea.

Captive-bred and imported Sulcatas can be found increasingly found in the pet trade. The sulcata is the largest of the African mainland tortoise, with specimens easily reaching 24-30 inches (60-75 cm) in carapace length and 80-110 pounds (36-50 kg). The largest on record was a male resident of the Giza Zoological Gardens (Egypt) who weighed in at 232 lb (105.5 kg) and measured 41.6 inches (104 cm) over the carapace (Flower, 1925, in Stearns). The oldest recorded specimen in captivity, also at the Giza Zoological Gardens, was 54 years of age.

Sulcatas come from some of the Sahel, the hottest, driest area in Africa. Some regions may not get rain for years. To make the most of available moisture, their skin is resistant to fluid loss but, when exposed to moisture, may become highly permeable. Towards this end, they will excavate pallets or burrows in the ground to get to areas with higher moisture levels; in the wild, they may spend the hottest part of the day in these microhabitats. Burrows may average 30 inches in depth; some dig tunnel systems extending 10 feet or more underground. Sulcatas are, like most turtles and tortoises native to dry areas, extremely efficient in their use of water.

In captivity, a similarly hot and dry environment must be provided year-round. Unlike the California desert tortoises, the sulcatas do not hibernate. While they can tolerate some surprisingly low temperatures, they cannot be allowed to get both chilled and wet or kept outdoors in chill, damp weather.

Behavior of Sulcata Tortoises

Sulcatas like to move around and are very strong — they must have a large area in which to freely and widely roam. Sulcatas also need to burrow away from the heat and do so by retreating to their pallets or into muddy wallows where they will stay for hours, flipping cool mud up onto their backs.

Whether housed indoors or out, Sulcatas roam about and are voracious eaters. Like many tortoises, they are also climbers. Care must be taken to assure they are not given the opportunity to climb things that are too steep resulting in their toppling over. If they flip onto their backs and are not able to right themselves, they may die.  Sulcatas also need to burrow away from the heat and do so by retreating to their pallets or into muddy wallows where they will stay for hours, flipping cool mud up onto their backs.

Keep dangerous objects out of their area. Steps, dogs, raccoons, and children are among some of the dangers that must be guarded against. Sulcatas are voracious, if not always smart, eaters and will ingest anything small enough and colorful enough.  Provide variety and security. Tortoises do not bask on the bare open ground. Provide a cluster of sturdy, low-growing plants they can crowd in amongst. Provide an interesting terrain by leaving (or building) some low hummocks, smooth rocks, pieces of wood, clumps of weeds, and edible plants.

Diet of Sulcata Tortoises

The phrase used most commonly by sulcata owners to describe their tortoises is “eating machine.” Sulcatas graze and forage for hours during the day. In captivity, they need to be able to graze on pesticide- and herbicide-free grasses and weeds.

  • Grasses and hay: Sulcata tortoises NEED access to grasses and hay on which to graze.  This is the bulk of their diet (90%) and should be from pesticide- and herbicide-free grass and grass cuttings, cheatgrass, clover, edible flowers (nasturtium, geraniums, hibiscus, rose petals), and shrubs.
    • Avoid feeding predominately alfalfa hay, as this is high in oxalates and can cause stone formation within the bladder, kidney failure and decrease lifespan.
    • Grass hays to offer include Timothy, meadow grass, oat hay, and orchard grass.
  • Greens and vegetables:
    • Greens to offer include collard greens, kale, mustard, turnip, and dandelion greens. Limit greens that are high in oxalates, such as parsley, spinach, rhubarb, beet greens, and collard greens.
    • Vegetables should be about 10-15% of the diet. These can include grated raw carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, broccoli, and corn on the cob; greens such as collards, dandelions, escarole, romaine, and kale.
  • Fruits:
    • Fruits should be fed sparingly, as a treat. These tend to be high in sugar and water content, both of which sulcatas are not accustomed to receiving in the wild.  Fruits that are appropriate to offer as treats include: strawberries, chunks of organically grown bananas with skin, cantaloupe with rind attached, berries; peaches (no pits), apricots (no pits), pears, apples
  • Supplementation:
    • At MedVet Hilliard, we recommend using a multivitamin supplement (such as Zoo-med’s Reptivit), twice weekly.

Sulcatas respond to bright colors, so always include at least one vividly colored food in your selection. This also means that you must keep inedible brightly colored things away from them!

Housing Sulcata Tortoises

Due to the tremendous amount of room these tortoises need to roam and graze, keeping them indoors year-round is not advised.  Temporary indoor housing should be provided when the weather is cold/damp.

  • Outdoor housing:
    • Must be provided a dry, heating housing unit to which they will return at night and during inclement weather. If they will not go in and out of this housing on their own, they need to be physically moved.
    • Daytime temperatures during much of the year should range from 85F-105 F (29-40 C) during the day. At night, temperatures can drop into the 70s F (21-26 C) in their enclosure.
    • It is recommended that fencing not be see-through, as many owners report their sulcatas trying to climb or push over/through these barriers to get to the other side.
    • Sulcatas enjoy burrowing and are very good at doing so. They should be provided with the material in which to dig and burrow.  Ideas for burrowing material include hay, leaves, grasses, or straw.
      • When placing fencing, keep in mind that sulcatas will dig/burrow and could dig out of their enclosure. Be sure fencing is not only tall enough but deep enough to keep your sulcata from escaping either by charging through or digging underneath any fencing.
    • Sulcatas need to be kept dry. Provisions need to be taken to keep their enclosure free of damp materials and excess moisture.
    • A shallow water bowl, with sides low enough for the tortoise to reach into, should be available at all times if there is no wallow available. Tortoises do not swim and can drown easily. You need to make sure they can easily access the water but that it is not any deeper than the tortoise’s bridge, the section of the shell that joins the carapace (top shell) and plastron (bottom shell).
      • This should be changed daily.
  • Indoor housing
    • Due to the tremendous amount of space a sulcata needs, indoor housing should be temporary during times of cold/damp weather.
    • Indoor housing must include both basking and cooler retreat areas, and a den box in which to burrow. An area for feeding and a shallow water dish must also be provided. Ultraviolet B lighting must be provided as well as suitable temperature ranges during both the day (80 F, 27 C) with a basking area (100 F, 39 C) and night (72 F, 22 C).

Health Problems of Sulcata Tortoises

  • The most commonly encountered health problems are a result of poor diet and/or husbandry (environment and living conditions).
    • Calcium deficiency: This can manifest in several different ways; including shell softening and metabolic bone disease.
      • This is prevented by making sure you are feeding an appropriate diet and that your sulcata has access to natural sunlight or a full spectrum UVA/UVB light source.
    • High protein: This can manifest in several different ways: including pyramiding of the shell and uric acid buildup in the bladder causing a life-threatening urinary obstruction.
      • This is prevented by feeding an appropriate diet.
    • Respiratory disease: This is characterized by discharge from the eyes or nose and possibly noisy/raspy breathing.
      • This is prevented by feeding an appropriate diet and living conditions.
    • If at any time your tortoise is overly lethargic, not eating, or displaying other signs of illness, it is important to have him/her evaluated by a veterinarian with experience treating reptiles. If they are sick for an extended period of time, many reptiles will develop liver and kidney damage that is irreversible, so they should be evaluated sooner rather than later.
      • Tests that may be recommended include radiographs and/or bloodwork to assess overall health and help direct treatment.

We hope this article gives you the tips you need to keep your Sulcata Tortoises healthy.

Additional Information about Sulcata Tortoises

By MedVet |
December 3, 2016