Home » How To Look After A Leopard Tortoise [A Complete Guide]
how to take care of a Leopard tortoise

How To Look After A Leopard Tortoise [A Complete Guide]

As the world’s fourth-largest tortoise species, leopard tortoises are heavy with distinctive shells. Hailing from dry African regions, they’re used to hot conditions, burrowing into the earth to lay their eggs.

To care for a leopard tortoise, provide an outdoor enclosure that’s 10 x 10 feet with wooden or plastic walls that a tortoise can’t see through.

Temperatures of 70-100 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal. Leopard tortoises need 10-12 hours of sunlight a day, or light produced by a full-spectrum UVB light.

Leopard tortoises are a lifelong commitment, living up to 100 years in the wild and 75 years in captivity.

Males are aggressive with each other, but they make docile, non-threatening pets that only bite when scared, confused, or mistaking human fingers for food.

Where Are Leopard Tortoises From?

Leopard tortoises come from the dry savannah regions of eastern and southern Africa, including Somalia, South Sudan, and Namibia.

They belong to a family of tortoises known as “Testudinidae.” Unlike many partly aquatic turtle species, they’re exclusively land-dwelling.

As grazers, leopard tortoises prefer semiarid, thorny grasslands, which provide plenty of food. They also hide inside fox, jackal, and aardvark holes for protection during extreme temperatures.

What Do Leopard Tortoises Look Like?

Leopard tortoises have distinctive shells resembling leopard markings. Their shells are high and domed, with steep, close-to-vertical sides. The shape and size of the shell leaves plenty of room for their lungs.

Their head and limbs are yellow, brown, or tan, while the front legs are paddle-shaped to enable them to move quickly and maneuver over rocky terrain.

Young leopard tortoises have black spots or blotches. They sometimes have dashes and stripes against a yellow background. As they get older, these markings fade and become brown or grey.

caring for a leopard tortoise

How Big Do Leopard Tortoises Get?

As stated, leopard tortoises are the fourth biggest tortoise species in the world.

However, they vary in shape and size. Adult leopard tortoises reach 10-18 inches long, with the average size being 16 inches from head to tail. The largest leopard tortoises can reach up to 28 inches.

The average healthy weight for a leopard tortoise is 13 kilograms (28.5 pounds), but some can grow to be as heavy as 40 kilograms (88 pounds).

How Long Do Leopard Tortoises Live?

Leopard tortoises live around 60-75 years in captivity on average, depending on their diet and environmental conditions. However, they can live as long as 100 years in the wild.

Leopard Tortoise Tank Setup

Adult leopard tortoises prefer to live outside. However, if you live in a cold climate, you’ll need to house your tortoise indoors.

Leopard tortoises don’t climb or burrow, but you’ll need to use a solid material, such as wood or plastic, to prevent the tortoise from seeing through the enclosure walls.

Leopard tortoises can be kept together. If you’re keeping a pair, create a 10×10 foot pen that allows them plenty of space to roam and exercise. Provide a hide box and shrubs, bushes, or grasses to provide protection and security.

You should also give your leopard tortoise access to:

  • Grass and alfalfa for it to eat
  • Bare ground to enable pregnant tortoises to dig and hide their eggs
  • Rolling terrain
  • Basking slopes placed in natural sunlight

If you’re housing a pair of leopard tortoises inside, you can use a large tub, plastic pool, or stock tank measuring 6 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 15.5 feet tall.

Whenever the weather allows, move them outside to expose them to natural sunlight.

Lighting and Temperature

An outdoor leopard tortoise enclosure must be kept between 70-100 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature indoors should be maintained at 75-90 degrees. You’ll also need to provide a warm basking spot of 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Depending on your indoor temperature, you may need to use a heat light during the night or even the day. This allows tortoises to thermoregulate and raise their temperature to digest their food properly.

Exposure to natural sunlight is essential for leopard tortoises, as it enables them to absorb and use calcium. It also allows them to produce vitamin D3.

Tortoises kept inside require a mercury vapor lamp or full-spectrum UVB light with 10-12 hours of daily exposure to enable their bodies to absorb vitamin D3. Fluorescent light bulbs provide the rays they need without too much heat.

Leopard tortoises are ectothermic, so they need a heat source such as an overhead heat lamp to keep their body heat regulated.

Basking lights are also a good choice, enabling your tortoise to move in and out of the heat as it chooses. Set the lamp up where your tortoise can’t touch or knock it over.

Humidity

Leopard tortoises need their environment’s humidity levels to be around 40-60% during the day and 70-80% at night. You can achieve this by misting the substrate.

Monitor the humidity levels by placing a humidity gauge or hygrometer in the cage.

Substrate

Leopard tortoises aren’t burrowing animals. You’ll only find them digging to make nests to lay and protect their eggs. However, as we’ve mentioned, they’ll need soil to do this.

According to the Royal Veterinary College, the best bedding for leopard tortoises includes:

  • Newspaper
  • Astroturf
  • Organic soil-sand mixture

It’s important that the substrates used can’t be eaten or cause blockages within the digestive tract. Wood chip is a prime example of a substrate to avoid.

Enrichment

Leopard tortoises thrive on enrichment to play with and prevent stress and boredom. Therefore, provide the following in your tortoise’s enclosure:

  • Pebbles
  • Rocks
  • Logs
  • Woodblocks
  • Bathing dishes
  • Moist hides

You should also offer more challenging forms of entertainment, such as:

  • Puzzles and rewards
  • Mazes
  • Pushing toys
  • Alternating foods
  • Ramps and climbing objects
  • Physical interaction

If you notice your tortoise exhibiting stress-related behaviors or signs of boredom, try swapping your tortoise’s toys and puzzles to keep it enriched.

What To Feed a Leopard Tortoise

All tortoises require a diet that’s high in calcium and fiber but low in protein and phosphorus. 50% of your leopard tortoise’s diet should be hay and grass.

Vegetation should make up the rest, such as weeds, plants, and flowers. Healthy examples include:

  • Dandelion
  • Hawkweed
  • Timothy hay
  • Chickweed
  • Lawn grass (not clippings)
  • Dock leaves
  • Clover
  • Plantain (all varieties)
  • Sow thistle
  • Bindweed
  • Milk thistle
  • Groundsel
  • Honeysuckle
  • Parsley
  • Sedum
  • Sage
  • Grapevine
  • Coriander
  • Hawkbits
  • Watercress

The remaining 10% of your leopard tortoise’s diet should consist of:

  • Spring greens
  • Carrot tops
  • Lettuce (all varieties)
  • Hibiscus
  • Broccoli
  • Nasturtium
  • Cauliflower
  • Rocket
  • Cabbage
  • Pumpkin
  • Green beans
  • Peas
  • Mangetout
  • Spinach
  • Brussel sprouts

Calcium supplementation is also important to increase your tortoise’s calcium intake.

What Not To Feed a Leopard Tortoise

Because leopard tortoises require a low protein diet, you should avoid meat and insects. They can impact your tortoise’s digestion, making them sick.

Other foods to avoid include those high in oxalates, such as:

  • Beet greens
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Kale
  • Mustard
  • Spinach

Then there are the foods that are low in calcium and nutrients, including:

While flowers are good for nutrition, some are poisonous. This includes buttercups, begonias, daffodils, and ivy. It’s not advised to feet leopard tortoises fruits or pelleted foods unless a vet recommends them.

Water Requirements

Leopard tortoises get most of the water they need through their food.

That being said, fresh water should always be available in a container that’s large enough for the tortoise to submerge itself in. Change this at least once a day.

Do Leopard Tortoises Like To Be Handled?

While leopard tortoises have a docile temperament, they’re not a social tortoise species. They prefer to be left alone and become threatened when handled too frequently, retreating inside their shell to avoid danger.

Not only do leopard tortoises dislike being handled, but they’re large and heavy, making them difficult to hold. This increases the risks of accidents, like being dropped from a height.

Are Leopard Tortoises Aggressive?

Male leopard tortoises become aggressive with each other during mating season, fighting for dominance over female tortoises.

As explained by Hormones and Reproduction of Vertebrates: Reptiles, terrestrial tortoises, including leopard tortoises, have two primary sources of pheromones called the mental or chin glands. These glands elicit aggression between male tortoises.

While that’s the case, leopard tortoises aren’t usually aggressive toward their owners. As docile creatures, they rarely develop behavioral problems with the optimum enclosure setup.

are leopard tortoises hard to look after?

Do Leopard Tortoises Bite?

Leopard tortoises aren’t known for biting. That being said, they sometimes mistake human fingers for food. They also bite when:

  • Threatened
  • Scared
  • Confused
  • Establishing dominance

Depending on how much pressure your tortoise exerts, the bite will hurt and may even draw blood.

Do Leopard Tortoises Like Company?

While leopard tortoises can live in pairs and small groups, they’re happiest when alone.

However, if you’d like to keep more than one, you can house up to five single-sex tortoises in an appropriately sized enclosure.

Similarly, leopard tortoises don’t need human attention. While early socialization can turn them into friendly pets, they don’t feel lonely or sad when their owners are away.

Tortoises will come to their owners when they approach because they learn to expect food or toys.

Do Leopard Tortoises Shed Their Skin?

Like all reptiles, leopard tortoises shed their skin. During the shedding process, skin from the head, tail, and limbs flake off in patches, leaving the tortoise with fresh flesh, scales, and flutes. While normal, it produces a dusty appearance that leaves some owners concerned.

You must not attempt to pull the skin off prematurely. Instead, leave it to flake off naturally to avoid abrasions. You can help the process along with soaks.  

Common Leopard Tortoise Health Problems

There are health problems that leopard tortoises are prone to, such as:

Respiratory Disease

Runny nose syndrome is a term used to describe an upper respiratory tract infection in tortoises.

It’s most prevalent in leopard tortoises and occurs throughout the year. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to spot and has a habit of recurring, even after treatment.

Respiratory infections are most often caused by:

  • Unclean enclosures
  • Poor immune systems
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Sudden drops in temperature
  • Environments that are too humid

Leopard tortoises are vulnerable to respiratory diseases due to their:

  • Size
  • Nutritional state
  • Inability to cope with dampness and humidity

Treatment involves a course of antibiotic drops administered inside the nose once a day.

Empty Gut Syndrome

Empty gut syndrome results from the digestive process moving too quickly, causing the gut to empty itself before it can absorb the nutrients the body needs.

Healthy poop is brown or dark green with white urates that come from the kidneys. Tortoises with empty gut syndrome have undigested food in their poop. Thankfully, the condition is easily treatable with antibiotics and rarely causes long-lasting damage.

Constipation

Constipation is another common health issue. Leopard tortoises poop every 2-3 days. Dehydration, parasites, foreign objects, and bladder stones are the most common causes of constipation. Egg binding is less common but is another reason.

To treat constipation, soak your tortoise in tepid water for 30 minutes, allowing the water to cover the plastron – the flat part of the shell.

If this doesn’t work, you’ll need to consult a vet for a more specific treatment.

Leopard Tortoise Shell Problems

While leopard tortoises have tough shells, they are affected by the following problems:

Shell Rot

Shell rot begins when harmful bacteria enter the body through cuts, scrapes, and lesions. If left untreated, the condition can turn deadly and lead to fatal blood poisoning.

Thankfully, leopard tortoises are less prone to shell rot than other tortoise species because they don’t frequently dig into the ground. Any cuts or scrapes can become infected, causing the shell to pit and rot.

The main signs of shell rot are holes forming underneath the shell and white patches.

are leopard tortoise easy to care for?

Shell Pyramiding

Shell pyramiding is defined by raised scutes during active growth periods.

Tortoises exposed to dry conditions are more likely to experience the condition, so providing the right humidity conditions is essential. Poor diets and nutritional deficiencies are also to blame.

Once the damage is done, it’s impossible to reverse. While the condition isn’t always severe, the most extreme cases can result in mobility problems.

Soft Shell (Metabolic Bone Disease)

Leopard tortoises with calcium deficiencies or a surplus of phosphorus are vulnerable to soft shell – or metabolic bone disease, as it’s also known.

Calcium is one of the most important nutrients for tortoises. When the body becomes imbalanced, it burns calcium too quickly and cannot absorb it. The shell then weakens and becomes fractured.

Symptoms of soft shell include:

  • Broken or fractured limbs
  • Cloacae prolapse
  • Deformed limbs and jaw
  • Inability to lay eggs (in females)
  • Lack of movement
  • Poor coordination
  • Soft or misshapen shell
  • Temporary or localized paralysis

As well as nutritional deficiencies, insufficient UV light is a cause of soft shell. That’s why providing the right lighting conditions and giving leopard tortoises access to natural sunlight is vital.

Do You Have To Hibernate a Leopard Tortoise?

Unlike other tortoise species, leopard tortoises don’t hibernate (brumate).

Instead, they remain active throughout the entire year. However, they’ll only remain healthy when exposed to a warm, dry environment, especially during the cold winter months.

Temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit cause the body to shut down, eventually resulting in death. Leopard tortoises thrive in the right environment with optimum light, heat, and humidity conditions.

Leopard tortoises aren’t the easiest tortoises to care for. They have specific setup requirements and thrive when living outdoors. Owners living in colder parts of the world must take extra care to provide their leopard tortoises with the conditions they need to remain healthy.