Sulcata Tortoises

These large, long-lived tortoises can be challenging pets

Close up of African spurred tortoise, Geochelone sulcata.
Sulcata tortoise close up outside in fenced enclosure. Nancy Nehring/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Sulcata tortoises are big tortoises and really do not make ideal pets due to their lengthy lifespan. But if you find yourself with one as a pet, they do have very specific requirements to keep them healthy and happy and you'll find that they make very fun companions.

  • Names: Geochelone sulcata, sulcata tortoise, African spurred tortoise
  • Lifespan: Sulcata tortoises can live 70 years in captivity (sometimes even longer)
  • Size: Adult length of 24 to 30 inches, weighing 80 to 110 pounds

Behavior and Temperament of Sulcata Tortoises

Sulcata tortoises are quiet like all other tortoises but they are big and slow. They can easily get stuck in spaces that are too small for them, flip themselves over and be unable to right themselves. They  need hot temperatures to stay healthy and active. Many people cannot meet the demands of a full grown sulcata for such a long stretch and end up trying to re-home the animal once the it reaches adulthood.

Despite the significant challenges sulcatas present when kept as pets, they are pleasant and docile, rarely aggressive and not very territorial. They hail from central Africa (although have been found to have remarkable ability to adapt to warmer parts of the United States).

These tortoises are widely bred across the southern U.S., and are no longer imported from other regions. This makes it easier to be sure you're getting a captive-bred sulcata tortoise, which helps cut down on potential diseases or health issues. 

Sulcatas are among the most-bred tortoises, and are the third-largest species of tortoise in the world (behind the Galapagos tortoise and Aldabra giant tortoise). 

Food and Water

Sulcata tortoises are herbivorous, grazing tortoises that need a high fiber and 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, edible flowers, weeds and cactus pads.

Small amounts of other leafy green vegetables are also fine, but avoid foods high in oxalates (i.e. spinach, mustard and beet greens, kale, broccoli and cauliflower). Veggies should also be supplemented with a calcium and vitamin D3 powder regularly. Do not feed fruits, animal protein, or pelleted tortoise foods from the pet store to a sulcata tortoise; they generally need a low-protein, high-fiber diet to stay healthy.

Housing a Sulcata Tortoise

These large turtles need a sturdy fence and since they burrow quite well, in an outdoor enclosure, the fence should be extended underground. Shelter in the form of a doghouse or small shed is a good idea, to provide protection from the elements.

Building a heated shed will provide a suitable shelter for colder weather but sulcata tortoises cannot survive cold winters outdoors. They can tolerate daytime temperatures of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit but a heated shelter might be needed if the night time temperature drops below 70 degrees. A shallow pan of water should be provided at all times and a muddy wallow may be used as well to soak and defecate in.

With the size of these turtles, housing adults indoors gets a bit impractical. An outdoor heated shed or greenhouse where they can live when it is cooler is sometimes a better option than keeping them in your house. If you still choose to house a full grown sulcata indoors you will need a room dedicated to them. 

Temperatures in the entire room, shed, or greenhouse should be maintained at between 80 and 90 degrees during the day and may drop as low as 72 degrees at night. Be sure not to let the enclosure get too cold or you will allow your tortoise to be susceptible to more illnesses and it may stop eating.

A basking spot should be provided and reach 95 degrees. A UVA/UVB light is also necessary when housed indoors since your sulcata tortoise is not getting regular, unfiltered sunlight. The invisible rays will help your tortoise grow strong bones, avoid metabolic bone disease, and stay healthy. Be sure to choose a light that emits rays far enough to reach your tortoise. 

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, and you don't want to inherit one with serious health issues. 

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, it could be a sign of illness. 

And as mentioned earlier, be sure you're up to the task of adopting an animal that could theoretically outlive you. You'll need to make arrangements for someone to care for your sulcata tortoise if you're not able to any longer. 

Common Health Problems

Like many reptiles, sulcata tortoises are prone to respiratory infections, especially if they're kept in enclosures or environments that are too humid. 

Metabolic bone disease is a 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

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. 

All of these conditions are treatable by a veterinarian specializing in reptiles, if caught early enough. Don't try to treat your tortoise with home remedies unless recommended by your vet.

Similar Breeds to the Sulcata Tortoise

If you're not sure that a tortoise the size of a sulcata will make a good pet for you, there are some other tortoise breeds you may want to check out:

For more profiles on various breeds of tortoise, check out our other tortoise profiles