Sulcata Tortoise: The Ultimate Care Guide

Of all the different turtles and tortoises in the world, the Sulcata tortoise (or African spurred tortoise) is the most popular. They are known for havingSulcata Tortoise bundles of personality and make a fantastic alternative to a furbaby like a dog or a cat.

If you’re considering a Sulcata tortoise as a pet, it’s not quite as straightforward as getting a dog. There are specific care needs that come with owning such a beautiful and unusual animal.

To help you get started in your journey to getting a stunning shelled Sulcata friend we’ve collected loads of handy information on keeping them as pets. From how to feed them, to sourcing a healthy and happy Sulcata, we’ve got it all covered.

Here’s a complete care guide for the Sulcata tortoise:


A Sulcata Tortoise Introduction

The Sulcata tortoise is one of the biggest tortoise species in the world, topped only by the Aldabra giant tortoise and Galapagos. Adults are between 24 and 36 inches in length and can weigh up to 200 pounds! They can live up to 150 years old if they are healthy and kept well.

The gorgeous Sulcata tortoise originates from the Sub-Saharan part of Africa which is known to be extremely dry. Despite this being their natural habitat they do need to be able to access water. They need to avoid becoming dehydrated, which is why they dig deep, long and cool tunnels where the sand is moist.

These tunnels can often hold multiple tortoises, which is a survival behaviour, not a social behaviour. At dusk or dawn the tortoise will also maintain their hydration with fat juicy prickly pears and similarly water packed natural plants.


The Sulcata Tortoise As A Pet

Sulcata tortoises are so popular because they are so sociable and they each have their own individual personality. They develop true bonds with their owners and they are also very relaxed in general, so with respect they make a good family pet.

The two main considerations for prospective Sulcata owners is time and size. The fact that these tortoises live so long means when you take one on, you don’t only commit to them during your own lifetime. You need to be ready to rehome them when the time is right so that they can live on and receive the right care.

In addition, they get absolutely huge as adults and cannot be kept in a tank or similar container. Instead, they need a nice big (safe) garden to roam in, so they won’t work well as pets for people who live in flats or homes with a small backyard.

It is also worth recognising that if you are garden proud this kind of turtle does dig naturally and may well damage your yard. This species is very active and they will break down fencing, barriers and even brickwork so you have to be ready to reinforce those areas of your yard (and don’t get too attached to what you do have!).


The Look Of The SulcataAfrican Spurred Tortoise

This beautiful shelled friend has the classic turtle look. It has a charming knobbly, wrinkled head, legs and tail. It’s skin is a yellowy colour with darker patches in places and the carapace is a gorgeous mixture of ivory and light and dark browns.

The reason the African spurred tortoise is named that way is because there are spurs on their legs. The reason for the spurs isn’t properly known but it is thought they help protect the turtle’s head when it tucks inside its shell.

Once the tortoises get to fifteen pounds or more the males and females can be sexed through sight.

Females – The bottom of their shells are flat, they have shorter tails and their scutes are U shaped

Males – The bottom of their shells are curved inwards, they have longer tails and their scutes are V shaped


Sulcata Tortoise Temperament

Although the Sulcata tortoise is generally docile, it is important to avoid housing more than one male because they can become aggressive trying to flip other males over through ramming. When they reach maturity they may also go through a period of trying to mate with other turtles and show aggressive behaviours because of that new sexual drive.

Even with their gentle nature, it is also important to know that Sulcata tortoises can be attracted to bright colours and if they see something they like, they will mow down everything between them and the object of their affection to get to it, which can be quite scary when the turtle is of adult size!


Selecting A Sulcata Tortoise

You can buy Sulcata tortoises from breeders, however, please do consider taking on an older tortoise. Many African spurred tortoises are discarded once they get too big for owners to cope with so there is a real worldwide excess of these tortoises, especially elderly pals who really need a good home.

If you can find it in your heart to rescue one of these older, mature Sulcatas it’s a really great thing to do.

If you do want to select a Sulcata tortoise hatchling from a breeder do check the breeders reputation and certification. The best breeders are more than willing to not only answer all your questions, but to vet your suitability as a buyer.


Sulcata Health

The Sulcata is incredibly hardy in its natural environment but in capacity, they face a few potential health challenges which include:

  • Shell abnormalities from a lack of calcium or vitamin D in the diet, or a lack of UVB light
  • Bladder issues like stones and infections
  • Issues with egg binding
  • Infections on the skin with white patches and a nasty odour (usually associated with unclean/ wet substrate)
  • Dehydration
  • Scute pyramiding from too much protein in the diet, or low moisture levels in the air
  • Respiratory infections

More often than not you can tell that a Sulcata tortoise has a health issue because they lose weight, or they move less. They may also droop their head, have a change in stool consistency, have discharge from the eyes, nose or mouth, or just not seem themselves. These are strong signs the tortoise isn’t well and needs attention from an exotic pet experienced veterinarian.


Housing A Sulcata Tortoise

If you do buy a baby Sulcata tortoise then it can be kept in a 50 gallon vivarium with 14 hours of daylight (using a UVB light), 60% humidity and a basking platform that gets to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature. The ambient temperature of the vivarium overall should be about 80-95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Your hatchling will also need vivarium soil and sand of at least 6 inches for burrowing, with the lighting of the vivarium providing sunny and shaded spots. The vivarium should have uneaten food and poop removed daily, have substrate changes weekly, and it should be scrubbed with water and soap thoroughly every month.

By the time the Sulcata gets to about a year old it will outgrow this kind of enclosure.

Housing an adult Sulcata tortoise is very different to housing a baby Sulcata. The best option is an outdoor pen of at least 100 square feet only used when it is warmest in your region. Many people choose to allow the turtle to have the whole garden to roam in.

The most important aspect of the tortoise’s housing is a shelter that needs to be warm and heated. A raised dog house with a gradual ramp is a great choice, but it can be any similar tortoise home. It just needs to be sturdy, dry and warm. Ideally they will also have a shelter they can use to stay cool, which is buried into the ground slightly. This only has to be a plank held up by rocks and covered with sand. As long as the tortoise fits underneath it will work.

When it comes to their pen or your garden, the walls have to be 24 inches in height as a minimum with foundations that go to around the same depth as their height underground, and they should be brick or wooden panelling. A turtle that can see through the walls of its enclosure will be forever trying to escape.

Inside your garden – or the tortoises enclosure – there should be lots of clean and safe logs, rocks and other interesting features for them to climb and explore (which they love to do). The only thing to be sure of is that the features aren’t so high or unstable they could cause your turtle to fall on its back, or get injured from sharp edges or crushing.

Non-toxic plants and grass are also welcome, as well as burying soil. Some people choose to reinforce underneath their lawn or the turtle’s enclosure to make sure the tortoise doesn’t literally bury itself out into the wild!

As well as the nesting box and the climbing items your Sulcata tortoise will enjoy a shallow soaking dish to boost their hydration. It must be shallow so that it can be climbed out of easily because Sulcatas can’t swim.

If that is not suitable, you can soak the turtle in shallow water a couple of times a week yourself (which isn’t always practical when they get to a large size). Soaking this way is recommended over misting.

Adult Sulcata Tortoise

Keeping A Sulcata Tortoise Over Winter

If the temperature drops to 40 degrees or less in winter you should bring your Sulcata inside. An indoor holding pen with heating and UVB is important. It is also important to check that when they are spending time outside that the cooler weather doesn’t make them sleepy. It can cause them to fall asleep outside and may not get to their heated indoor enclosure, which is really dangerous for them.


Lighting & Heating

Any indoor enclosures require a UVB light source as well as a heating lamp (or both combined). However most Sulcatas are homed outdoors in climates where the daytime temperature reaches about 85-95 degrees, with a basking spot that reaches 100 degrees. The humidity needs to be around 50% in your local area too.

When it comes to nighttime temperatures, the Sulcata tortoise needs to be inside its nesting box for safety and warmth where the temperature should not get below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. A heat lamp is a good idea if this is the case and you can also consider extra insulation that helps keep the heat in for the tortoise. Tortoise bedding or beech wood chips are a good choice for your tortoises house as they won’t increase the humidity.

A good extra tip is to use a pond liner hung down and cut into strips across the entrance to your tortoises indoor section. This will help to keep the heat in without compromising the ability of your tortoise to get in and out of the den.


Cleaning & Hygiene

The tortoise pen or garden, and your tortoises sleeping house should be cleaned regularly to avoid moisture, bacteria and a buildup of faeces to occur. Sulcatas eat a ton and so they produce lots of poop that needs cleaning, as well as remnants of food they haven’t eaten.


Feeding Your Sulcata Tortoise

The Sulcata tortoise is a herbivore and they eat a lot, which is why they produce so much waste. Interestingly, we may accidentally make our tortoise unhealthy through feeding them with a nutritionally dense diet.

In their natural habitat what they eat is plain, poor in nutritional value and so, too much rich, nutritionally dense food will actually make your tortoise unwell. Shell malformation, diarrhea and other issues may present if a Sulcata has a diet too rich in nutrients.

Mostly, these gentle giants should be on grass hay or a similar product for general feeding. Dark leafy greens like endives, dandelions and romaine lettuce are good for about 20% of your tortoises diet.

Spinach, kale and broccoli can also be offered but they have calcium binding properties so they shouldn’t be offered much. Some people actually don’t offer them at all because of this. There are also issues with kale and mustard greens which contain goitrogens, which cause issues with the thyroid if offered in high amounts. Again, you should limit or avoid these veggies in your tortoises diet for this reason.

Fruits like apples, bananas and prickly pear pads can be given as treats to your Sulcata tortoise. Hibiscus flowers are also highly prized by Sulcatas who love the flavour and bright colour of these plants.

Lastly, do make sure your Sulcata tortoise has a calcium supplement given on a regular, scheduled basis as well as a general multivitamin. Your vet can advise you on which brands to choose and how often to give these supplements. Your vet can also test our tortoise faeces regularly to check for infection and other issues.


You’re On Your Way To Giving A Sulcata A Great Home

The dog-like Sulcata is a charming pet, but only if it gets the care it needs. Think very carefully about whether you can truly offer this animal what it needs and if you can, use our guide, your breeder/ rescue contact and your vet’s advice to ensure you know how to help your Sulcata tortoise thrive and live a happy, long life with you.

Be sure to check out My Turtle Shop Here for the essentials you need to help you set up.

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