Leopard Tortoises: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

A leopard tortoise

Getty Images / Science Photo Library Ltd.

The leopard tortoise, native to South Africa, Ethiopia, and Somalia, is one of the largest tortoises. It gets its name from the markings on its shell that resemble the large spotted cat with the same name. Before committing to getting this tortoise, consider more than just the beautiful looks of this sizeable tortoise; it is long-lived, requires a lot of space, and has specific needs.

Species Overview

Common Names: Leopard tortoise

Scientific Name: Stigmochelys pardal, Stigmochelys pardalis pardalis, Stigmochelys pardalis babcocki 

Adult Size: 10 and 18 inches long, weighing 40 to 50 pounds  

Life Expectancy: 50 to 100 years

Leopard Tortoise Behavior and Temperament

Like other tortoises, leopard tortoises are slow, quiet, and not aggressive. They're generally good-natured animals and not the most exciting of pets.

While a larger tortoise may mistake a finger for food, leopard tortoises are not known for biting people. They do not fancy frequently handling. If they feel threatened, they will likely to retreat into their shells in their defense.

Unlike some other tortoise species, leopard tortoises aren't known to be climbers and don't burrow all that much. In the wild, males can get aggressive with other males during mating season, but in captivity, leopard tortoises are relatively docile.

They're not ideal for novice owners as they are somewhat high-maintenance compared to other tortoises. They need a large living space, protection from cool temperatures, and a varied, nutritious diet.

Housing the Leopard Tortoise

If you live in a cold climate, you may want to reconsider owning a leopard tortoise. These animals need hot temperatures year-round and have no tolerance for the cold. Due to its size and need for sunlight, leopard tortoises should be kept in a safe, outside enclosure as much as possible.

If you plan to have a leopard tortoise in your yard, its enclosure should have a place where it can hide. It needs to be fenced-in to help the tortoise feel secure and to protect it from predators. Do not house a leopard tortoise where even a well-meaning dog might encounter it; the situation may not end well for the tortoise. Tortoise hatchlings, for their first months of life, should remain housed indoors away from predators.

Make its enclosure like its natural habitat. Provide alfalfa and other grasses for it to graze on. Keep a shallow pan of water available for drinking, but make sure the tortoise does not get stuck in it.

In the wild, tortoises dig in the dirt to lay eggs, so provide bare ground for digging in its pen. Sun exposure is crucial for leopard tortoises and thus need a basking area where they can soak up vitamin D, which is essential for good health.

If you can't keep your tortoise outdoors year-round, be prepared to build a substantial indoor pen: an enclosure that is at least 10 feet by 10 feet with walls at least 2 feet high. If you have a small spare room in a warm area of your home, consider converting it into a tortoise haven.

Spot clean the tortoise's indoor or outdoor enclosure by removing visible pet wastes, and clean out its water dish daily.

Heat

As cold-blooded creatures, all reptiles need to regulate their body temperature. Ideally, daytime temperatures should be between 80 F and 90 F, and nighttime temperatures should not go below 65 F. Leopard tortoises cannot tolerate cooler or damp conditions. Provide a basking area that reaches 95 F. If you're housing the animal indoors, use reptile heat bulbs or ceramic heater emitters to mimic these temperatures and include a temperature gradient.

Light

Leopard tortoises thrive in direct sunlight. Since a leopard tortoise housed indoors does not get direct sunlight, a full-spectrum ultraviolet light is essential. This specialized, UVB light should shine directly on the tortoise (not filtered through glass or plastic) 10 to 12 hours a day. If indoors, also provide a basking light that shines down on a basking spot, such as flat rocks that retain heat.

Humidity

Relative humidity of 40 percent to 60 percent is ideal for leopard tortoises during the day. These tortoises prefer 70 percent to 80 percent relative humidity at night, which can be accomplished by misting the substrate at night. Check moisture levels with a hygrometer or humidity gauge placed inside the cage.

Substrate

Most pet owners use a substrate or bedding to line the bottom of an enclosure. If your leopard tortoise lives primarily outdoors, where it can dig in the dirt and forage on the grass, a secondary indoor enclosure can use newspapers for the substrate. Change the newspaper liner frequently.

If your leopard tortoise's enclosure is primarily indoors, provide a grass or hay substrate or an organic soil-sand mixture to give the feel of its natural habitat.

Food and Water

Leopard tortoises are herbivorous grazers; they feed throughout the day. About 50 to 80 percent of their diet should be comprised of high-fiber grasses and greens. Outdoor pesticide-free grass is suitable for grazing during warm weather. Their daily diet should consist primarily of timothy grass or hay. Each day, at the same time daily, you can feed small amounts of other vegetables (dandelion greens, collard greens, watercress, carrots) on a bed of timothy hay.

Feed the amount of food they will eat within 15 to 30 minutes. The rule of thumb is to offer a quantity of roughly the size of the tortoise's shell.

Avoid feeding a leopard tortoise leafy greens that are high in oxalates, such as beet greens, Swiss chard, and spinach. These greens and fruits can cause digestive problems and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration. Never feed dog food, cat food, or any other animal protein to your leopard tortoise. These foods can damage a tortoise's kidneys.

An indoor tortoise requires additional nutrients to make up for its lack of direct sunlight. Give your pet a high-quality tortoise food that includes calcium and vitamin D3 supplements. Tortoises can gnaw on pieces of cuttlebone, which can be found in the bird section of most pet stores, to promote beak health and provide extra calcium.

Change and clean its water pan daily and replenish it with filtered water.

Common Health Problems

Captive leopard tortoises are incredibly susceptible to respiratory infections. These typically occur when the animal's enclosure is too humid. Another common and painful condition among tortoises is shell rot, which is caused by a fungal infection. Signs of shell rot include a dry, flaky shell that may have a foul odor.

Perhaps the most severe ailment that afflicts captive leopard tortoises is metabolic bone disease. This potentially fatal condition results from an imbalance in the tortoise's phosphorous-to-calcium ratio. Metabolic bone disease causes soft, weak bones and may result in deformity to the tortoise's limbs.

These medical conditions are treatable by an exotics veterinarian who specializes in reptiles. Be sure to follow your vet's directions for care and treatment.

Legality

The United States banned the import of wild leopard tortoises in 2000 because many were infected with a tick that causes heartwater disease. This ailment can be devastating to livestock. It is still legal to breed and own captive, domestic leopard tortoises.

Choosing Your Leopard Tortoise

Due to the restrictions on importing leopard tortoises, make sure you're getting one from a reputable breeder who can produce documentation on the animal's history and health records. These tortoises can cost $100 to $1,000. The price goes up for older tortoises, factoring in the cost to raise them to thrive in adulthood.

A healthy tortoise has a smooth shell and clear eyes. If you can observe it eating, you'll note leopard tortoises are eating machines. If it's offered food and refuses it, that could be a sign the animal is unwell.

With a potential lifespan of 100 years, this is an animal that could outlive you. Be sure you make arrangements for your leopard tortoise's care if you are unable to care for it.

Different Species of Tortoise

If you’re interested in pet tortoises, check out:

Otherwise, check out all of our other tortoise profiles.