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While captive sulcata tortoises are available as pets, they are a native species in Africa, found in countries south of the Sahara desert, including Senegal, Ethiopia and Chad. Sulcatas are large tortoises, and may be as long as 24 to 30 inches and weigh as much as 110 pounds. They also have long life spans and may live more than 50 years in captivity. Providing proper care will keep your sulcata tortoise healthy.
Sulcata tortoises do best in a dry, warm environment. Ideal daytime temperatures range from 85 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, dropping to the 70's at night. Sulcatas do not hibernate, so it is important that the tortoise has access to shelter, such as a dog house or trash can laid on its side, where it can stay dry. If the temperatures drop too low, the shelter also should be insulated and heated. Sulcatas like to burrow and dig an average of 30 inches deep into the ground. Burrows may extend 10 feet underground, which allows the sulcata to escape the heat of the day, and stay warm and safe from predators at night.
Because of their size and desire to burrow, you should not keep adult sulcatas indoors; although indoor housing may be necessary for sick or injured tortoises and hatchlings. Make sure the habitat is large enough for the tortoise to move around, as sulcatas like to do so and need that exercise to maintain good health.
Wild sulcatas graze on dry grasses throughout the day. Sulcatas do best feeding on grasses and weeds. Make sure these weeds are not exposed to pesticides that may poison the sulcata. Grass hay may be fed at times when grass is not growing in the sulcatas' enclosure. These tortoises enjoy fruits and vegetables, but these should not be a staple of their diet. Leafy vegetables, like romaine lettuce and collard greens, are healthy choices. Fruit should be avoided completely as they alter the acidity level in the digestive tract, killing off the beneficial bacteria that help the tortoise digest.
Although they are desert creatures, tortoises do need access to plenty of water to drink and soak in to avoid dehydration. Water should be offered in a shallow bowl that is big enough for the tortoise to climb into. Sulcatas can't swim, so make sure the water is not too deep.
Two common health problems that are seen in the shell include pyramiding and shell softening. Pyramiding is the irregular growth of the shell and usually is caused by a poor diet. Some issues that lead to pyramiding include a high-protein diet, calcium deficiency, too little sunlight or vitamin D, or excessive phosphorus. Tortoises with pyramiding often have other coexisting conditions, such as metabolic bone disease, bladder stones or renal problems. Seek veterinary care to treat underlying conditions and correct the diet.
Shell softening usually is the result of too much phosphorus or not enough calcium in the diet. Blood testing is advised to determine the exact cause, and to adjust and supplement the turtles diet appropriately.
Other Health Concerns
Sulcata tortoises enjoy climbing and may tip over onto their backs if they attempt a climb that is too steep. If left on their backs too long, they may suffer from hyperthermia, overheating or suffocation. If the tortoise gets scared while on its back, it may vomit and potentially choke on the vomit. Make sure that the enclosure is free from overly steep objects that might cause the tortoise to flip, and help a tortoise back onto its feet if it is found on its back.
Sulcatas also are prone to respiratory infections, especially when the tortoise experiences high levels of stress. Symptoms of a respiratory infection include lethargy, watery eyes, nasal discharge and lack of appetite. Infections are treated with antibiotics. Supplemental care may include providing a warmer environment, hand feeding or administering fluids.
Don't wait until your suclata tortoise is sick or injured before finding a good veterinarian. Many small animal veterinarians specialize in dogs and cats, and may not have the knowledge needed to treat your turtle. Find a vet that specialized in reptiles. If you need recommendations, check with your local herpetological society. Always consult an experienced veterinarian regarding the health and treatment of your pet.
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