Leopard tortoises get their name from the markings on their plastron that resemble the large cat with the same name. These markings make the leopard tortoise an attractive pet but one should consider more than just the looks of this large tortoise before deciding to care for one.
Names for Leopard Tortoises
Leopard tortoise, Stigmochelys pardalis (formerly Geochelone pardalis), Stigmochelys pardalis pardalis, Stigmochelys pardalis babcocki
Size of Leopard Tortoises
On average, leopard tortoises reach about 10-18 inches long (with some subspecies growing to be up to 30 inches long) and weigh in at about 40-50 pounds (although some can weigh up to 70 pounds). The leopard tortoise is the second largest tortoise that is native to Africa (with the African spurred tortoise/sulcata tortoise being the largest).
Life Span of Leopard Tortoises
Leopard tortoises live 50-100 years in the wild making them a pet that will most likely outlive you.
Feeding Leopard Tortoises
Leopard tortoise are herbivorous grazers so their ideal diet is one full of high fiber grasses and greens. Pesticide-free grass is good for grazing during warm weather (i.e. a tortoise-proof yard) and their daily diet should consist primarily of grasses such at timothy or orchard grass or hay. Small amounts of vegetables can be offered too. Avoid feeding foods that are high in oxalates (i.e. beet greens, swiss chard, and spinach) or fruit (it can cause digestive upsets and diarrhea which will dehydrate a leopard tortoise). Also, never feed dog or cat food or other animal protein to avoid damaging the kidneys of a leopard tortoise.
Calcium and vitamin D3 supplementation is recommended daily for leopard tortoises (vitamin D3 is especially important when leopard tortoises are housed indoors). Pieces of cuttlebone (which can be found in the bird section of the pet store) can also be provided for gnawing on, beak health, and extra calcium.
Housing Leopard Tortoises Outdoors
Outdoor housing is preferable for leopard tortoises where the climate allows it. Daytime temperatures should be 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit (27-32 degrees Celsius) with a drop in temperatures at night to 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit (19-24 degrees Celsius). Leopard tortoises cannot tolerate cool or damp conditions and will most likely get sick if they are exposed to it. A large, sturdy, fenced enclosure with protection from predators is necessary, along with shade, hiding spots, and access to a shallow pan of water (deep enough to soak in but shallow enough that drowning isn't a possibility). A dry grassy area that allows grazing is also ideal for mental stimulation, physical exertion, and diet.
Housing Leopard Tortoises Indoors
Even if you are able to house your leopard tortoise outdoors for the majority of the year you may need to bring them indoors for part or all of the year. This is called overwintering. When this is necessary, provide a large (4 feet by 8 feet minimum) enclosure indoors. Many people make use of a small bedroom that they convert into a tortoise room. Grass hay makes an ideal substrate or bedding. Since the leopard tortoise is not being exposed to sunlight that doesn't get filtered through a window, a UVA/UVB light is vital. This special light should be on for a 10-12 hour cycle daily (and not filtered through glass or plastic) to mimic the sun and manufacturer recommendations should be followed for basking distances and when to replace the bulb. A basking spot of 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) should be provided using a variety of reptile heat bulbs or ceramic heat emitters. The rest of the enclosure can be heated to 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit (27-32 degrees Celsius) during the day and 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit (19-24 degrees Celsius) at night.
A shallow pan of water (deep enough for soaking but shallow enough to prevent drowning) should be provided at all times.
Behavior of Leopard Tortoises
Like other tortoises, leopard tortoises are slow, quiet, and not aggressive. While a larger tortoise may mistake a finger for food, it is unlikely to be bitten by a leopard tortoise. Leopard tortoises also do not hibernate since they are from a climate that is warm year-round (South Africa, Ethiopia, Somalia, etc.) but their metabolism and energy level may slow down during cooler months.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT