Sulcatta & Leopard Tortoises
Caring for your new baby
New owners are often faced with the difficult task of figuring out how to provide the proper care for their newly acquired Leopard or Sulcatta tortoise. Often breeders or sellers do not give adequate information or worse wrong information. Pet store employees are trained to up-sell and do not have the proper training or knowledge to provide you, the new owner, with the right information. I am happy to announce that Tom, with https://www.tortoiseforum.org has graciously agreed to allow us the usage of his care sheets. The information here is gained from years of breeding, raising and caring for numerous species of tortoises. If you cannot find the information here, please visit the forum and search for "Tom, the Dog Breeder" and you will be connected with him.
It must be noted that we now know sulcatta babies hatch during the start of the rainy season in Africa. It is hot, humid, rainy, and marshy in some areas. Yes the area is dry for 8-9 months out of the year, but it is a swamp during hatching season. During the dry season, sulcattas spend the vast majority of their time underground in warm, humid burrows. Keeping your hatchling in a dry, desert-like enclosure, is a big mistake and an invitation for disaster. It is also very unnatural for these animals. Imagine what would happen to an earthworm in a hot, dry enclosure with dry substrate. The same thing happens to the INSIDE of a baby tortoise.
Your enclosure should be maintained such that an earthworm could live in it just as well as a hatchling tortoise. A damp substrate, a water bowl, and a humid hide should all be prerequisites. Along with this, warm temperatures day and night are necessary. Sulcatta and leopard tortoises are NOT prone to shell rot at all, and they do not get respiratory infections in these damp conditions as long as temps are kept up. I shoot for no lower than 80 degrees day or night year round. Adults can tolerate colder temps in some circumstances, but this care sheet is for hatchlings and babies and is aimed at helping them thrive, not just survive.
Heating and Lighting
I use a 65 watt incandescent flood bulb on a 12 hour timer and adjust the height of the fixture to get a hot spot of around 100 degrees directly under the bulb. Then I use a ceramic heating element (CHE) set to 80 degrees on a reptile thermostat to maintain my ambient temperature in the enclosure. Sometimes the basking lamp raises the day time ambient into the low 90s. This is fine and the thermostat will keep your CHE off during these times, but ready to click on after the basking lamp clicks off and the ambient temperature starts to drop at night. I use long florescent tubes when I want to brighten up the whole enclosure and I run these on the same timer as the basking bulb. The above are just what works for me and are suggestions for what might work for you. Every enclosure and home is different, and some customization will usually be necessary to get things "just right".
Tortoises MUST have regular exposure to the right kind of UV rays.
Real sunshine is best, but be careful. Shade should always be available as
babies can overheat and die surprisingly quickly. If your tortoise can get
some regular sunning time in a safe outdoor enclosure, even just a couple
of times a week for most of the year, you don't need any artificial UV. Its okay
if you have to skip two or three weeks of sunning time during a cold winter spell.
If you live somewhere with long frozen winters, then some artificial UV might
be in order for that time of year. I prefer mercury vapor bulbs. Long florescent
UV tubes seem to work okay too nowadays, but I have yet to test that theory.
I recommend against any type of coil or CFL UV bulb. I have personally seen
these cause eye issues too many times. More research is needed to find out
exactly what the problem with the CFL UV bulbs is, but there is no denying that
there is a problem at least some of the time.
The Actual Enclosure
I have not been able to make any open topped enclosure work to my satisfaction. Low sided, open topped enclosures like tortoise tables and sweater boxes are the worst. No amount of covering, or attempts to slow heat and humidity loss have worked well for me. There is just no way to keep the warm humid air where you want it. For about the last year and a half, I have only been using closed chambers for any tropical species of tortoise, and I couldn't be happier with them. Temperate species of tortoises that require drier conditions or a bigger night time temperature drop might fare better in the typical tortoise table set up. I will leave that for someone more experienced with those species to tell you in THEIR care sheet. Maintaining whatever temperature and humidity you want is easy and efficient in a closed chamber. They use a lot less electricity because all of your heat and humidity is trapped with nowhere to go. It also makes maintaining warm night temps a snap. Open tops allow all your warm humid air to escape up and into the room where your enclosure sits. Even if you cover most of the top, the heat lamps create a chimney effect and draw your heat and humidity up and out. Having the heat lamps outside, or on top of, the enclosure also lets the majority of the electricity you are using to produce heat float up up and away... A closed chamber can be made by covering the top of a tub or tank and minimizing ventilation, but its not easy and you burn more electricity. It works best if all the heating and lighting equipment is INSIDE the enclosure with the tortoise. Maintaining a small open topped box at 80 degrees with 80% humidity in a regular sized room that is 70 degrees and 20% humidity is VERY difficult, if not impossible in a practical sense. A closed chamber makes it easy.
Here is an older thread on closed chambers:
You need to know, and periodically adjust your temperatures. You need to regularly check warm side, cool side, basking spot and night temps, and adjust as needed. Every enclosure is different and they even change with the seasons in most households. It is not enough to plop a bulb on top and walk away. Check those temps, and make adjustments, preferably BEFORE the baby even comes home. I like to use an infrared temp gun AND remote probed thermometers for this purpose. Check your temps early and often.
Simply put: The bigger the better. I start babies in a 4x8' closed chamber. As a minimum, I would suggest no smaller than 48"x18" for a tiny hatchling. They need room to roam around. Once you put in the food and water bowls, the humid hide, and any decorations or potted plants, there is hardly any room left over to walk. Tortoises do not tend to do as well when stuffed into small enclosures. For a sulcatta, even 4x8' is only going to last a year or two. You might get three years with it for a leopard or slower growing sulcatta.
Humid Hide Boxes
This offers the tortoise a more humid place to retreat to and sleep and can simulate some of the more damp micro-climates they might utilize in the wild. It is as simple as getting a $2 black dishwashing tub from Walmart, flipping it upside down and cutting out a small door hole. I keep the substrate under the tub more damp than the surrounding substrate and it works great. You can also use plastic shoe boxes. Some people like to put sphagnum moss in their hides or attach a sponge to the top. This is all fine, but I usually don't bother. This is a short paragraph, but this is a very important detail that should not be overlooked.
Substrate is coco coir with fir bark and sphagnum moss on top to create interest. Natural slate tile and medium sized river rocks help keep nails and beak trim.
I recommend coco coir, orchid bark, cypress mulch, plain additive free soil, or yard dirt if yours is suitable. All of these can be purchased in bulk at most hardware or garden center stores at a tremendous savings. I recommend against wood shavings or chips, ground walnut shell, corn cob bedding, rabbit pellets, compressed grass pellet bedding, newspaper pellets, hay, cedar, or any amount of sand.
Plain old terra cotta plant saucers work best. They come in a variety of sizes to suit any size tortoise, they offer good traction to little wet tortoise feet, they have low sides and the are shallow so your tortoise won't drown if it happens to flip over and land upside down in the water bowl. Sink the bowl into the substrate for best results. No harm in having two water bowls, by the way. Do NOT use the typical ramped pet store bowls. These can literally be death traps for tortoises. Great for snakes and lizards though. Clean your terra cotta saucer as often as needed. The more they track food and substrate into it, and the more they poop in it, the better. This means they are comfortable using their bowl, and that is great news. Just rinse and refill as many times a day as you need to.
I recommend hatchlings be soaked in 85-95 degree water for 20-30 minutes once a day. I use a tall sided opaque tub and keep the water depth about a third of the way up the body. If you have a humid enclosure with a humid hide and a water bowl, it is totally fine to skip a day here and there. Soaking only once a week and using a dry enclosure is not enough in my opinion, and I would not buy a hatchling that had been started that way. Once the tortoise gets to about 4" I relax a bit on the soaking routine and gradually taper it down as they gain size. How often I soak older tortoises depends on a lot of factors, the current weather and season being two big ones. I soak more often when its hot and dry. If you live in a warm, humid, rainy climate, and your tortoise is exposed to these conditions, soaking less often is probably fine, but it still wont hurt anything to do it.
These tortoises are GRASS eaters. From the moment they hatch, until the day they die, grass should be a large part of their diet. Spring mix, romaine, kale and other greens are okay as a small part of a varied diet, but should not be the bulk of the diet. If someone must feed grocery store foods, the pile should be sprinkled with grass clippings or "Salad Style". For those who like the convenience of prepackaged, easy to handle stuff, "Salad Style" is basically finely blended up grass hay that can be sprinkled over any other food to add bulk and fiber. I got my "Salad Style" from Tyler at tortoisesupply.com.
For those that have a lawn, or access to one: Get a tub, get some scissors, get down on your knees, and go to work! It is so EASY to cut a few handfuls of fresh, green, tender, young grass, and dramatically improve your baby sulcattas diet. Any kind of grass will work. Finely chop it for little tortoises and sprinkle it all over the other food, or feed it by itself in a pile. Do be careful about lawn chemicals and pesticides. If you have a gardener, or its not your lawn, use extreme caution. Live in a condo or apartment complex? Don't do it. Not worth the risk, no matter what they tell you. Just grow your own grass in pots on your patio or window sills. Friends, family and neighbors might be able to help you out here.
For those who still just love the grocery store: Most stores are now selling little plastic pots of live, freshly sprouted, organic wheat grass. You can find it at many pet stores too. This is a great way to add grass to the diet of a young sulcatta. Get your scissors, hold the pot over the food pile and chop away. Water it and keep the pot in a window sill, and in a few days, you'll have more. You might need several pots as your baby grows, or you can buy seed from one of our site sponsors (Thank you Carolina Pet Supply) and sprout even bigger trays of it yourself.
Some of you may find that your "grass eating" tortoise wants nothing to do with eating grass. This should surprise no one, since most breeders and most keepers never even attempt to feed actual grass to their grass eating tortoise babies. So sad! I can tell you from first hand experience with literally HUNDREDS of babies, they WILL eat it. It may take a month or more to slowly introduce it, but PLEASE, slowly introduce it.
Other items that are good for babies and young sulcattas:
Grape vine leaves
African hibiscus leaves
Blue hibiscus leaves
Rose of Sharon leaves
Leaves and blooms from any squash plant, like pumpkin, cucumber, summer squash, etc...
Young spineless opuntia cactus pads
There are soooooooo many...
Smooth Sow thistle
Prickly Sow thistle
Goat head weed
Narrow leaf plantain
Other good stuff:
"Testudo Seed Mix" from http://www.tortoisesupply.com/SeedMixes
Pasture mixes or other seeds from http://www.groworganic.com/seeds.html
Mazuri Tortoise Chow
ZooMed Grassland Tortoise Food
When sulcatas get a little older and bigger, usually around 10-12" for me, they will start munching on plain, dry grass hay, all on their own. I like orchard grass hay the best for this, but I also used bermuda grass hay for years too. When they hit this stage, life gets MUCH easier. Just make sure you have drinking water readily available when they start eating hay, and consider soaking regularly if you are not 100% sure your tortoise is drinking enough, or if you live in a really dry area, like me.
I live in a desert and yet there is still green stuff all around me. I beg you to take a walk and learn about all the green stuff around you, INSTEAD of driving to the store again. Instead of a trip to the grocery store, take a trip to a local nursery for some weed IDs, and tips on growing your own stuff. What could be better than stepping out into your backyard and collecting all the free, healthy tortoise food you can carry? Think of the gas savings! Anyone who is a tortoise keeper, ought to be somewhat of a gardener too.
Supplements: I recommend you keep cuttlebone available all the time. Some never use it and some munch on it regularly. Some of mine will go months without touching it, and then suddenly eat the whole thing in a day or two. Sulcattas and leopards grow a lot. This requires a tremendous amount of calcium assimilation over time. A great diet is paramount, but it is still a good idea to give them some extra calcium regularly. I use a tiny pinch of RepCal or ZooMed plain old calcium carbonate twice a week. Much discussion has been given to whether or not they need D3 in their calcium supplement. Personally, I don't think it matters. Every tortoise should be getting adequate UV exposure one way or another, so they should be able to make their own D3. I also like to use a mineral supplement. "MinerAll" is my current brand of choice. It seems to help those tortoises that like to swallow pebbles and rocks. It is speculated that some tortoise eat rocks or substrate due to a mineral deficiency or imbalance. Whatever the reason, "MinerAll" seems to stop it or prevent it. Finally, I like to use a reptile vitamin supplement once a week, to round out any hidden deficiencies that may be in my diet over the course of a year.
This is a MUST in my opinion. Tortoises are solar powered, need lots of walking room, and benefit greatly form the great outdoors. With hatchlings I start with short excursions of only an hour or two a day, followed by a soak on the way in. As they gain size, I like to leave them out longer and longer each day, weather permitting, until they eventually live outside full time with a heated night box of some sort. Outside time must be done with great care as there are many dangers. They can overheat, be eaten or mauled, or escape. Here are some ideas. These things have all worked well for me, but the possibilities are endless.
I will simply state here what I know to be true based on my experience, my experiments, conversations with people who live in Africa and study African tortoises, people who have kept them for decades here in the U.S., and personal observations of thousands of tortoises in all manners of keeping styles.
There are many things listed as causes of pyramiding. I can refute each one with multiple examples. Lack of UV, lack of calcium, too much protein, too much food, the wrong foods, fast growth, wrong temperatures, small enclosures, not enough exercise, indoor housing, etc. None of these factors CAUSES pyramiding. They can all be somehow related to it, but they don't cause it. Simply put, pyramiding is caused by growth in conditions that are too dry. This is true for any species of tortoise, even the ones that don't typically pyramid. To prevent pyramiding I use a closed chamber and keep the ambient temperature 80 or higher all the time, I keep humidity around 80%, I offer a humid hide that holds 95-100% humidity, I soak daily to ensure good hydration, and I spray the carapace with plain water several times a day. Sulcattas hatch during the African rainy season. It is hot, humid, rainy and marshy. It makes no sense to keep them in a dry box, with dry substrate, and a hot desiccating bulb overhead. Simulating this rainy season has grown me hundreds of smooth leopard and sulcatta babies, as well as a few other species too. There are literally hundreds of examples of other people succeeding using the same basic philosophy here on this forum. So please, don't keep sulcattas and leopards in desert-style enclosures. It is not healthy for them. They are not the least bit prone to shell rot, like some other species are, and they DO NOT get respiratory infections from high humidity as long as temps are 80 or higher everywhere in the enclosure, day and night. I don't say these things and come up with these assertions lightly. Its not that I raised one tortoise this way, and everything went okay. I have raised literally hundreds of them this way and had no problems.