The sulcata tortoise (Geochelone sulcata), also known as the African spurred tortoise, is one of the largest tortoise species in the world. It has a brown to yellow shell and very thick, yellowish-brown skin, along with pointed scales—or spurs—on its legs. Native to arid and semiarid regions of Africa, these tortoises can adapt to various living conditions, which is one reason why they have become popular as a pet. However, they don't make ideal pets for everyone due to their long lifespans and specific care requirements. But if you can keep them happy and healthy, they can make for very fun, curious, and friendly companions.
Common Names: Sulcata tortoise, African spurred tortoise
Scientific Name: Geochelone sulcata
Adult Size: 18 to 30 inches long, weighing 80 to 150 pounds
Life Expectancy: 70 years or more
Sulcata Tortoise Behavior and Temperament
Sulcata tortoises are quiet like all other tortoises, and they are big and slow. They also tend to be curious creatures, sometimes to their detriment. They can easily get stuck in spaces that are too small for them, as well as flip themselves over and be unable to right themselves. As pets, these tortoises are generally pleasant and docile. They're rarely aggressive or territorial. But they still should not be handled regularly, especially when they're younger and more fragile. Excessive handling can cause stress and lead to health issues or even premature death.
Housing the Sulcata Tortoise
Access to a spacious outdoor enclosure is ideal for these large tortoises. They need a sturdy fence around 2 feet tall. And because they burrow quite well, the fence should be extended underground at least a foot in an outdoor enclosure. Shelter in the form of a doghouse or small shed is a good idea to provide protection from the elements, and a muddy wallow may be included for your tortoise to soak and defecate in.
Housing adult sulcata tortoises indoors can be impractical due to their size, but you will have to provide them with a warm space if you live in a colder climate. An outdoor heated shed or greenhouse where they can live when it is cool outside can be a suitable option. If you do choose to bring an adult sulcata indoors, you likely will need to dedicate a room to it.
Sulcata tortoises need hot temperatures to stay healthy and active. They can handle outdoor temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, as long as they have access to a shady spot where they can go if they need to cool off. If the nighttime temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, they'll need some supplemental heat.
Maintain daytime temperatures in a room, greenhouse, or shed where your tortoise resides at around 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit with a basking lamp at around 95 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit are typically fine. Don't let the enclosure get too cold, or your tortoise might stop eating and be more susceptible to illness.
Tortoises housed in an outdoor enclosure don't need any special light beyond the sun. But when they're housed indoors, a UVA/UVB light is necessary for your sulcata tortoise because it won't be getting regular, unfiltered sunlight. The light will help your tortoise grow strong bones, avoid disease, and stay healthy. Be sure to place the light close enough to your tortoise for it to receive the benefits, following the product instructions.
Sulcata tortoises prefer a humidity level of around 40 to 55 percent. Humidity that’s too high can lead to fungal infections and other issues. If you need to raise the humidity, lightly mist the tortoise’s enclosure once or twice a day.
Food and Water
Sulcata tortoises are herbivorous, grazing tortoises that need a high-fiber, low-protein diet. This can be provided by feeding a variety of grasses and hays (comprising at least 75 percent of their diet), along with some edible weeds and flowers, such as dandelions, clover, endive, and cactus pads. Small amounts of other leafy green vegetables are also fine. Avoid foods high in oxalates, such as spinach, mustard and beet greens, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Your tortoise will nibble on the grasses and weeds in its environment throughout the day, and you should offer a salad of other leafy greens and vegetables every one to two days. Check with your veterinarian to make sure you're offering the proper variety and quantity, as this largely depends on age, size, and health of your tortoise.
Many owners supplement the veggies with a calcium powder once or twice a week (or as directed). Do not feed fruits, animal protein, or pelleted tortoise foods from the pet store unless directed by your veterinarian. Tortoises get most of their hydration from their food, but you also should include a shallow water dish in their enclosure that you refresh daily.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
Like many reptiles, sulcata tortoises are prone to respiratory infections, especially if they're kept in environments that are too humid. And like other tortoises and turtles, shell rot is a common problem. This is usually caused by a fungal infection that leads to a flaky, dry shell.
Metabolic bone disease is another serious ailment among tortoises and other reptiles. When the animal's phosphorous-to-calcium ratio is out of balance, it can lead to softening and weakening of its bones. This disease can cause deformities and eventually death if not treated properly
All of these conditions are treatable by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles if caught early enough. Don't try to treat your tortoise with home remedies unless recommended by your vet.
Choosing Your Sulcata Tortoise
Getting a sulcata tortoise from a reputable breeder who can tell you about its health history is crucial. This is an animal you'll ostensibly have for a very long time, so you'll want to start off on a healthy foot. Breeders are fairly easy to find across in the United States, thanks to the animal's popularity. Expect to pay between $50 and $200 on average for a young sulcata tortoise.
Look for a tortoise with clear eyes and a smooth shell. And if possible, ask to see it eat. A healthy sulcata tortoise is a voracious eater; if it's not taking food, this could be a sign of illness. Most importantly, be sure you're up to the task of adopting such a large animal that could theoretically outlive you. Many sulcata tortoises are unfortunately rehomed, so you'll need to have a plan in place for someone to care for your tortoise if you're not able to any longer.
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