Home » How To Properly Care for A Sulcata Tortoise [A Complete Guide]
how to take care of a sulcata tortoise

How To Properly Care for A Sulcata Tortoise [A Complete Guide]

The Sulcata tortoise is a large, heavy species of tortoise with a yellow-brown shell and pointed scales.

Hailing from dry desert regions, Sulcata tortoises are used to hot conditions and dig into sand to protect themselves from predators and extreme temperatures.

Sulcata tortoises have long lifespans and can live beyond 70 years in captivity.

They can be aggressive, but with socialization from an early age, they learn to tolerate human company.

Where Are Sulcata Tortoises From?

Also known as the African spurred tortoise, Sulcata tortoises are native to the Sahara Desert and the semi-arid region of the Sahel in Northern Africa.

They spend their days digging burrows in the ground to find moisture, escaping to them during the hottest parts of the day.

What Do Sulcate Tortoises Look Like?

As mentioned, the Sulcata tortoise has thick yellowish skin and a brown to yellow, tan-colored shell.

This particular coloration helps the species camouflage themselves in their native sandy environment. Also, sulcata tortoises have pointed scales, or spurs, on their legs.

How Big Do Sulcata Tortoises Get?

According to Cambridge University Press, the Sulcata is the second largest terrestrial tortoise in the world.

Adults grow to be approximately 10-30 inches long and weigh 80-150 pounds, with males slightly wider and heavier than females. A healthy weight is 90 to 200 pounds when fully grown.

Baby Sulcata tortoises weigh 100 grams and reach 7 inches in width and 2 inches in height by the time they’re one year old.

It takes Sulcata tortoises 15-20 years to become fully grown.

care sheet for sulcata tortoise

How Long Do Sulcata Tortoises Live?

As one of the planet’s longest-living reptiles, Sulcata tortoises are a lifelong commitment.

Sulcata tortoises can live up to 70 years or more in captivity, and they have been known to live 80-150 years in the wild.

However, their average life expectancy depends on their care and diet and any injuries, infections, and illnesses that develop during their lifespan.

Sulcata Tortoise Tank Setup

Because of their large stature, Sulcata tortoises need a spacious outdoors enclosure they can stay all year round. It should also replicate natural conditions as closely as possible, with a large grassy area in the middle and dirt around the outside.

Sulcata tortoises are digging animals, so there needs to be a sturdy wall measuring at least 24 inches above the ground and 12 inches below to discourage this behavior and protect your backyard.

Like most tortoise species, Sulcata tortoises prefer large areas to roam freely. A small, confined space causes stress and depression.

Small hatchlings can be housed inside in an enclosure measuring 18 x 18 x 12” for the first year. However, your tortoise will quickly outgrow its enclosure and need upgrading to a larger home, such as a heated outdoor shed or greenhouse.

The optimum Sulcata tortoise tank size varies depending on the tortoise’s stature, but ensure it has enough room to explore, play, dig, and exercise.

Lighting and Temperature

Sulcata tortoises that are housed indoors and don’t have access to sunlight need UVB lighting and heat to help them absorb and metabolize vitamin B. The light helps Sulcata tortoises grow strong, healthy bones and avoid disease.

Sulcata tortoises thrive in hot temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more. However, they also need access to shady spots to cool down. During the day, maintain temperatures between 80 to 90 degrees with a basking lamp set at 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

If the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night, they need supplemental heat. Anything between 60 to 80 degrees is fine, but anything less may cause your tortoise to stop eating and become susceptible to illness.

You can also regulate the temperature of your tortoise’s enclosure by using insulating materials like wood. It should also have lighting and heating fixtures, such as:

Sulcata Tortoise Humidity

Like all tortoise species, Sulcata tortoises need a certain amount of humidity to survive. Tortoises lose body moisture throughout the day by urinating and breathing.

Providing adequate moisture levels prevents various health conditions, such as:

Sulcata tortoises need their enclosure’s humidity levels to be 40-60%. Bacteria are more likely to survive and cause infections and diseases when the humidity levels drop below 40%. Juvenile tortoises dehydrate faster and need slightly more humidity than adults. 60-80% is best for the first year of life.

To measure the humidity levels in the enclosure, use a hygrometer. As well as covering most of your tortoise tank’s ventilation, use the following things to increase humidity:

  • Bowl of water
  • Humidifier
  • Misting
  • Damp substrates, such as peat moss and coconut coir
  • Live plants

Bedding

Sulcata tortoises enjoy burrowing through their substrate to create burrows and trenches. They do this to:

  • Sleep
  • Hide
  • Lay eggs
  • Regulate their temperature
  • Entertain themselves

Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory explains how burrows protect tortoises from predators and extreme environmental conditions, meaning tortoises have strong digging instincts.

That’s why your tortoise’s enclosure needs a light substrate that allows it to satisfy its natural behaviors. Provide approximately four inches of bedding to enable your tortoise to dig and explore.

Be careful with the substrate you choose, as excess humidity can cause illnesses. Loose particles stick to food, causing your tortoise to ingest parts of the substrate as it eats.

The best substrates include:

  • Topsoil
  • Coconut husk
  • Sphagnum moss
  • Straw pellets

Never use walnut shells, cedar pellets, sand, or alfalfa pellets.

Enrichment

Sulcata tortoises need enrichment to keep them active while preventing stress and boredom-related behaviors. Pebbles, rocks, woodblocks, bathing dishes, moist hides, and logs make excellent forms of entertainment that your tortoise can explore and play with.

You can also try the following:

  • Providing puzzles and rewards
  • Creating mazes
  • Offering your tortoise pushing toys
  • Switching between foods
  • Encouraging digging
  • Providing ramps and climbing objects
  • Interacting and playing with your tortoise

What To Feed a Sulcata Tortoise

Sulcata tortoises are herbivorous grazers. They don’t eat meat and require a high-fiber, low-protein diet. They also need plenty of calcium. Grasses and hays should make up at least 75% of your tortoise’s diet.

Other good food choices include:

You will also need to add a calcium powder supplement to your Sulcata tortoise’s diet once or twice a week to encourage healthy shell development and prevent a deficiency.

What Not To Feed a Sulcata Tortoise

Insects and meat can be harmful to a Sulcata tortoise’s digestion, so they should be avoided. You should also avoid foods that are high in oxalates, including:

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

Similarly, cucumbers, lettuce, and bananas are low in calcium and the nutrients tortoises need, providing little nutritional value.

Poisonous flowers include:

  • Buttercups
  • Begonias
  • Daffodils
  • Ivy

Don’t feed your tortoise fruits, pelleted foods, or animal protein unless recommended by your vet.

Water Requirements

Sulcata tortoises receive most of their water through the foods they eat. However, you should provide a permanent shallow dish of fresh water that your tortoise can drink whenever it needs to rehydrate.

Do Sulcata Tortoises Like To Be Handled?

Sulcata tortoises have a pleasant and docile temperament. However, they’re big and slow, so they don’t enjoy being handled too often.

Sulcata tortoises retreat into their shell when they feel threatened and become overstimulated by too much handling. Excessive handling also leads to stress and health issues.

As a result, you should keep play sessions to 5-10 minutes each day. The earlier you start socializing your Sulcata tortoise, the more accepting your tortoise will be of handling. However, you should still minimize handling sessions as much as you can.

Due to their significant size and weight, Sulcata tortoises must be held and picked up with two hands to ensure a solid grip and prevent the risk of dropping.

Sulcata tortoises tend to flip themselves over and get stuck in small spaces. Owners will need to right them when this happens, so it pays to spend time socializing your tortoise.

Are Sulcata Tortoises Aggressive?

Sulcata tortoises aren’t known for being aggressive or territorial towards their owners. However, they can be aggressive towards each other.

Males are more territorial than females and fight by ramming themselves into each other. Females with eggs also become aggressive to protect their young.

Do Sulcata Tortoises Bite?

Sulcata tortoises are peaceful and docile. That being said, they bite when threatened.

Depending on the pressure exerted, the nip can be painful and even draw blood. Sulcata tortoises rarely bite without reason – biting is due to the following reasons:

  • Fear
  • Establishing dominance
  • Confusion
  • Mistaken identity

Do Sulcata Tortoises Like Company?

Unlike more domesticated pet species, Sulcata tortoises don’t need or crave company.

With enough enrichment, they can happily entertain themselves and live alone. However, Sulcata tortoises socialized from a young age may grow to enjoy their owners’ company. That being said, they won’t get lonely if left alone for an extended period of time.

In nature, Sulcata tortoises are solitary and thrive without the company of their kin. If you decide to keep multiple Sulcata tortoises together, they’re likely to become aggressive with one another and fight.

You can prevent this by providing them with enough space to roam and explore, though most homes don’t have enough room for these giant tortoises to live comfortably together.

Do Sulcata Tortoises Shed Their Skin?

Sulcata tortoises shed skin from their head, limbs, and tails. It flakes off in patches, creating a dusty appearance. Shedding skin is normal and leaves the tortoise with fresh scutes, flesh, and scales.

You must leave the skin to shed by itself. If you peel off the flakes, abrasions may occur. Instead, you can speed up the process naturally using baths and soaks.

Common Sulcata Tortoise Health Problems

Sulcata tortoises are similar to other tortoise species in that they’re susceptible to several illnesses and diseases. The most common include:

Respiratory Illnesses

The Veterinary Journal explains how respiratory infections are a leading cause of declining tortoise populations. Upper respiratory infections are the result of:

  • Unsanitary enclosures
  • A weakened immune system caused by a poor diet
  • Sudden temperature drops
  • Excessively humid environments

The signs of an infection include wheezing or a mucous-heavy discharge from the mouth and nostrils.

Empty Gut Syndrome

Empty gut syndrome, or dumping syndrome, is when the digestive process speeds along too quickly, causing the gut to empty before absorbing the essential nutrients.

Parasites are one of the main causes. Sulcata tortoises with empty gut syndrome will have undigested material in their poop. They also develop runny poop that looks similar to diarrhea.

Constipation

Sulcata tortoises poop every 2-3 days. As a result, they’re prone to becoming constipated and developing hard stools. Tortoises poop every 2-3 days.

Healthy poop appears brown or dark green, depending on the diet, and is sometimes accompanied by white urates passed through the kidneys.

There are many reasons that would cause your Sulcata tortoise to have trouble pooping, such as:

  • Dehydration
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Foreign objects
  • Bladder stones
  • Egg binding

You can treat constipation by providing a water soak in a large tub or administering vet-provided enemas or laxatives.

Sulcata Tortoise Shell Problems

Sulcata tortoises are tough and resilient, but they’re not immune to problems, such as:

Shell Rot

Shell rot is when bacteria get into the body through cuts and scrapes on the shell. This condition can be deadly if left untreated and lead to blood infections.

Because Sulcata tortoises dig into wet ground, they’re some of the most vulnerable tortoise species to shell rot, so dry substrates are best.

Pitting is the main symptom of shell rot, which is when holes form underneath the shell. White patches also occur.

caring for Sulcata Tortoise

Shell Pyramiding

Shell pyramiding is when the scutes become raised during periods of active growth.

The Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition explains how tortoises living in dry environments are more likely to experience pyramiding than those in humid conditions. The condition varies in severity, but it can impact movement and mobility in the worst cases.

Poor diets and nutritional deficiencies are the main causes of shell pyramiding. Unfortunately, once the damage is done, it can’t be reversed.

Soft Shell (Metabolic Bone Disease)

Sulcata tortoises develop soft shells when lacking calcium or in a phosphorus surplus, leading to metabolic bone disease. As mentioned, calcium is one of the nutrients tortoises need most.

When a Sulcata tortoise’s diet is short in calcium but high in phosphorus, the body burns calcium quickly and cannot absorb it. In time, the shell weakens and fractures.

Symptoms of metabolic bone disease include:

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

Inadequate UV light is also a cause. You can prevent soft shell by providing a calcium-rich diet and correct lighting conditions.

Do You Have To Hibernate a Sulcata Tortoise?

Unlike other tortoise species, Sulcata tortoises don’t hibernate (brumate). That’s why they need a hot, dry environment all year round, particularly during winter.

When exposed to temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, their bodies will shut down, leading to death. Providing a basking spot is another great way to ensure they remain warm.

Caring for a Sulcata tortoise is more difficult than looking after the smaller tortoise species. The main thing, which is also the most difficult, is providing a large enough environment to keep it happy and comfortable. Otherwise, keep it clean, provide a healthy diet, and choose the right substrate.