How to Care for Your Sulcata Tortoise

So You’re Considering a Pet Sulcata?

If you don’t know much about them, I would suggest you click here first to read a detailed article about sulcatas (also known as African spurred tortoises) in their natural habitat. This will help you decide if you are able to mimic their environment in your home, as your ability to do so is crucial to their well-being.

After you’ve done your research and still decide you want a sulcata, read on. They’re wonderful pets for the right keepers and will be a lifelong companion! You can learn more on rescuing a homeless sulcata by clicking here.

How to Care For an African Spurred Tortoise

  1. Diet
  2. Enclosure
  3. Substrate and Decor
  4. Temperature
  5. Lighting
  6. Feeding and Watering
  7. Soaking
  8. Passing Waste
  9. Disease and Illness
  10. Indoor Vs. Outdoor

1. Main Diet

Sulcata tortoises are strictly herbivores — they eat only vegetation. You’ll want to feed your sulcata approximately 95% grass and weeds. This may sound dull to us, but it’s perfect for them because they require a high-fiber, low-nutrient diet for slow and steady growth. Provide as much variation within these guidelines as possible to ensure that your tortoise is getting all of the required nutrition. Know that a sulcata will not overeat. Provide him with hay at all times to be sure he doesn’t remain hungry after feeding fresh grasses and other foods.

What Should You Feed Your Sulcata Tortoise?

  • Untreated lawn grass
  • Clover
  • Timothy hay
  • Bermuda grass
  • Wheat grass
  • Mazuri pellets


You will find yourself learning how to garden while feeding your sulcata! Aside from plain ol’ grass and weeds, you can liven up the diet in a healthy way by giving them treats. Be sure that none of these plants have been sprayed with pesticides or were bought within 2 months.

Best Treats for African Spurred Tortoises

  • Geranium
  • Coneflower
  • Violets
  • Mint
  • Rose
  • Clarkia
  • Grape leaves
  • Marigold
  • Pumpkin (just wash before feeding)
  • Dandelion
  • Aloe
  • Coleus
  • Hollyhock
  • Oregano
  • Spider Plant
  • Hibiscus
  • Prickly pear cactus

Calcium is a very important part of the sulcata’s diet. Good sources of calcium can be found in safe foods such as dandelion greens, grape, and mulberry leaves. Also, remember to always keep a cuttlebone in the enclosure so that your tortoise can eat as it needs to.

It’s also important to note that fruits are very high in water and sugar. So while it’s okay to occasionally offer a strawberry, a watermelon rind, or a bit of tomato, this should not be a regular part of their diet. Once every two weeks is fine.

Safety Note

Never feed your tortoise iceberg lettuce as this can cause diarrhea and dehydration.

Wild Sulcata

Wild Sulcata

Photo by Tomas Diagne

2. Indoor Enclosures

For the health and happiness of your tortoise, it is important to provide them with a home that is as similar to the animal’s natural environment as possible. Sulcatas are best kept in outdoor pens in climates that are dry and warm. If you live in a cold, wet environment, a sulcata is NOT the right tortoise for you.

When your tortoise is a baby or young adult, it is easy to provide the proper enclosure right inside your home. But remember, the bigger the better! Large plastic totes work well for baby tortoises, along with homemade tortoise tables (as seen below). Glass enclosures are not recommended as tortoises cannot comprehend glass. They will continuously try to walk through it and become stressed. Moreover, water left in a glass tank will increase humidity, which can cause respiratory illness and shell rot.

Tortoise Table

Tortoise Table

For slightly larger sulcatas, a bookshelf turned on its back on the floor and lined with waterproof liner is great. The possibilities are endless! Use your own creativity!

Once your sulcata is big enough to go outside during the summer, there will be even more housing options.

This is an excellent indoor enclosure for a very young sulcata.

This is an excellent indoor enclosure for a very young sulcata.

3. Substrate and Decor

Sulcatas are burrowers — they love to dig! The best substrate to use in their enclosure would be a sterile dirt/sand mix. Never use just sand because if their food gets sand on it, they will eat it and could become impacted.

You’ll want to provide a hiding hole with sphagnum moss inside for humidity. Remember to spray it with water every so often. For babies, a flower pot turned on its side and buried halfway is perfect. Adults are going to require something larger like a plastic box or tub with a hole cut out for easy entry.

Fake foliage is not recommended unless it’s unreachable for the tortoise (some have been known to get curious and eat them). Real plants are great! The best method is to grow several different types of plants and seed mixes outside the enclosure and then cycle them in and out. Place them so that the individual pots are higher than the substrate. This ensures that the tortoise cannot eat or trample the entire plant, allowing it to regrow. Be sure to use soil with no perlite, vermiculite, or pesticides! Natural manures are fine.

A couple of plants that are easy to grow indoors and safe for sulcatas to eat are

  • Spider plant
  • Wheat grass
  • Hosta
  • Opuntia (prickly pear cactus)

If you wish, you can use stones to make pathways and rocks for climbing/basking. Be sure that none of the rocks are big enough to swallow as this will cause impaction, requiring surgery. If you get rocks from your yard, clean them thoroughly before placing them in the enclosure. Large tree branches can be a nice addition as well! Just make sure your sulcata can’t climb it and fall.

A good example of enclosure gardening.

A good example of enclosure gardening.

4. Temperature

An incandescent light bulb (heat lamp) should be placed on top of the tank (opposite the side with the hiding spot) to provide your tortoise a warm basking area. Make sure the temperature reaches 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit when the light is on. If not, adjust the wattage of the bulb accordingly. A second thermometer should be placed at the other (cool) end of the tank to make sure that side is at least 10-15 degrees cooler than the basking side so your sulcata won’t overheat. The heat lamp should be connected to a thermostat for temperature regulation. Using a blacklight bulb instead of an incandescent at night will keep your tortoise’s days and nights regulated.

  • Daytime Temperature: 75-90°F
  • Basking Spot: 93-96°F
  • Nighttime Temperature: 60-75°F

5. UV Lighting

UVB is essential for tortoises to process calcium in captivity. Without it, tortoises develop serious health problems such as abnormal shell growth, metabolic bone disease, and other serious illnesses (See photo below). In pens with open tops, the UV light should be positioned across the top and a heat lamp should be clamped securely to one side or set on top if there’s a screen.

  • UV Lighting should be left on for 10-12 hours a day and turned off at night.
  • Keep the UV lamp within 10 inches of the basking lamp for maximum efficiency.
  • Replace bulb every 6-10 months. Even though the light still works, they lose UV over time.
Effects of metabolic bone disease.

Effects of metabolic bone disease.

6. Feeding and Watering in the Enclosure

In spite of it being a desert species, the sulcata, like all tortoises, requires plenty of water. Some people think that they can go long periods of time without water, but that’s just not true. Not having enough water can cause kidney failure and stones, which can be deadly.

For babies, a very shallow dish of water should be made available. Make sure that if the baby were to fall in or flip over in the dish that he cannot drown. For adults, the bottom dish of a flower pot makes a good water bowl. Again, be sure there is no way the tortoise could drown.

Appropriate water dish and level for babies.

Appropriate water dish and level for babies.

Some tortoises like to climb into their water dish to soak. To insure they can climb in and out without flipping over, put rocks around the inner rim of the dish. To keep the water cleaner for longer, place rocks around the outside of the dish as well. This helps prevent substrate from being tracked in.

Feeding a sulcata in its enclosure is pretty easy. You can simply put the food on the ground. If the ground is damp, put the food in a shallow dish. If there are any scraps after the day, you’ll want to clean them out to prevent insects and sickness.


101giulia: Photobucket

7. Soaking Your Sulcata

Whether indoors, outdoors, or both, you’ll need to soak your sulcata, not only for cleanliness but also for proper hydration and for passing waste. 30 minutes, three times a week should be adequate for an outside tortoise, but in warmer months, you may need to soak him more often. Indoor tortoises should be fine with twice-weekly soakings.


Soaking Tips

  • You’ll want to use a tub large enough for the tortoise to turn around in, but not climb out of. You can use your bathtub, but be sure to thoroughly disinfect it afterwards to protect yourself against germs.
  • Use warm water for a healthy tortoise and slightly warmer water for one that is dehydrated (more on that shortly).
  • To prevent drowning, never fill the water up past where their nostrils are when their head is tucked in.
  • Never leave your tortoise in the bath tub while filling it up. It’s easy to forget what you’re doing and they will drown. Don’t leave them with the shower going either, as this can cause them to defecate and the stool will block the drain and overflow the tub.
  • Leaving your large tortoise alone in a safe, shallow amount of water is fine, however, babies should not be left unattended and adults should be checked on often.
  • While in the water, don’t be surprised to see your tortoise dunk his head in for what seems like forever. He’s not depressed; he’s drinking! Watch his throat and you will see him swallowing.
  • For particularly dirty tortoises, you can gently clean their legs and shell with an old soft toothbrush. Don’t use any type of soap — water only.

8. Passing Waste

Your tortoise will most likely pass stool and urine during baths. Their stool should be well-formed, brownish/green, and grassy. Their urine, however, can be startling if you don’t know what to expect.

Tortoise urine contains urates, which usually look like grey cottage cheese. Some urates are fine, but if they’re large or hard, your tortoise may be dehydrated. If this is the case, extra long and more frequent soaks in warmer water may be needed. Always be sure to call your vet if you’re ever in doubt. A well-hydrated, well-fed tortoise should show little urates.

Healthy tortoise poo.
White urates in urine.

Healthy tortoise poo.

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