Sulcata tortoises live in the grasslands of Africa. Newly hatched tortoises typically measure 1″- 2″ in
length, but can weigh 50 pounds at 5 years old. The full-grown Sulcata can measure up to 36″ and weigh
100 – 200 pounds. Sulcata are the largest tortoises in Africa and third largest in the world. They can
live over 100 years if cared for properly and can outlive their owners. Therefore, you must consider who
will care for your Sulcata when you are no longer able.
This species of tortoise does NOT hibernate so they cannot be kept outdoors in climates where the
temperature drops below 70 degrees or they will become ill or freeze to death. Babies or Yearlings
(under 2 years old) should not be kept outdoors. When large enough for an outdoor pen, they will
require a large grassy yard with a strong fence surrounding it.
These guys are burrowers and will dig tunnels up to six ft. wide and 30 ft deep if given the opportunity. However, providing proper shelter (housing) will greatly reduce or eliminate their desire to dig. Burrows can be dangerous as they can fill with water or collapse and cause the tortoise to suffocate. If you choose to allow a small burrow, place a rock or something solid at the end of the burrow to limit its depth and again to the sides as they attempt to bypass the barrier. They may eventually settle for the small hiding spot you have allowed.
Indoor Housing for Tortoises
Babies ( 2″ to 3″) can be kept in a glass terrarium, minimum of 20 gallons. All tortoises living indoors will require a UV light and heat lamp. Tanks with open tops can have the UV light positioned across the top and a heat lamp clamped securely to one side or set on top if there’s a screen.
Yearlings (1 to 2 years old or 4″to 6″) will require a minimum of 50-gallon tank or a large indoor enclosure. The best tanks are fully enclosed with built-in UV light and heat lamp with sliding glass (viewing) doors in front. This type will also maintain the UV and heat much better. Bedding (Substrate) can consist of Alfalfa (rabbit) pellets, hay or aspen bark. Do not use any type of humidity-holding bark such as pine or cypress, since the tortoise is unable to tolerate high humidity. Humidity from a water bowl or moist bedding can cause respiratory infections in Sulcata tortoises. Therefore, DO NOT keep a water bowl in the tank with your tortoise, unless for brief periods to take a
drink. Bedding will also need changed regularly to discard moist substrate and potential mildew from
A 1/2 log or other hiding spot can be placed at one end of the tank. Baby tortoises love going inside to sleep or will position themselves against the wall or a corner of their tank. They also love to climb, so anything you place inside the tank will likely be used for climbing and result in tip-overs. DO NOT place plastic or poisonous plants inside the tank as they will try to eat them.
Heating & Lighting for Indoor Tanks
Two types of lighting will be needed for all tortoises living indoors. 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. Depending on the size of your tank and the temperature of the room, anywhere
from a 15-watt to a 75-watt bulb can be used. Place a thermometer under the bulb on the tank floor
where your tortoise will bask. Make sure the temperature reaches 95-100 degrees 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
you won’t cook your pet. This heat lamp can be connected to a thermostat for temperature regulation.
Although it is acceptable for the temperature to drop slightly during the night to 75-80 degrees, it must
never drop below 72 degrees. Using a black, blue or red bulb in the heat lamp will allow your tortoise to
sleep better during the night. All day-moving reptiles require florescent UVA/UVB lights when housed indoors. This light replicates the sun’s rays that radiate vitamin D3 and helps the animal absorb calcium into their body. The light needs to be placed within 8″of the basking spot in order to be effective.
The light should be replaced every 6-12 months to maintain its effectiveness which weakens over time
(even though the ‘light’ may still work). This light should be turned off at night so the tortoise can sleep.
It is not recommended to use any type of heating pad, hot rock or anything other than a overhead heat
source as people have had problems with their tortoise burning itself on these types of heating elements.
It’s important to replicate the natural environment as closely as possible and natural heat comes from
above. However, a piece of flag-stone or other flat rock can be placed under the heat lamp if desired.
It will warm in the light and provide a nice spot for your tortoise to stretch out and relax.
DO NOT allow small tortoises to walk freely around the house as this greatly increases potential of being
seriously hurt or killed. Also, without appropriate heat, your tortoise will become ill. Therefore, your
tortoise must be provided with an appropriate terrarium or tank of the proper size with appropriate UV
lighting and continuous heat for the first one to two years of its life.
DO NOT allow young children to hold or play with baby tortoises without close adult
supervision. Their shells are not completely hardened and dropping (or stepping on) a baby can easily
cripple for life or cause internal damage and death.
Proper Outdoor Housing
General: In the wild, Sulcata have a very large territory and will roam an area of about 1 square mile. Keeping this in mind, you should try to provide them with as much space as possible. Also, Sulcata of any age must be kept warm (85 degrees year-round).
Juveniles & Adults (over 2 years of age and well developed) can move outside if you live in a warm climate, otherwise they will need a large warm basement, etc., to roam around in and will require UV lighting. Never allow your tortoise to roam freely inside your house as it requires a warmer temperature than you can personally tolerate (85 degrees). All tortoises living outside should have a grassy, fenced enclosure. Sulcata need plenty of room to move around and love to graze on green grass (which should be 85% of their diet). Sulcata living outside at any age, will require a heated house.
A dog house can be easily converted into a tortoise house by adding a ramp at the door and hanging a heat lamp from the ceiling. To make certain the house is free of drafts during cooler periods, it is a simple process to add a door and insulate the walls, place linoleum or tile on the floor and shingles on the roof. Throw a little hay inside & you will have a very cozy and comfortable Sulcata. Sulcata will poop anywhere, anytime so their house will need cleaned often and this will be much easier if the house has a removable or lift-up roof. Note the strips of carpet tacked to inside of door opening. This helps maintain heat while door is open. After tortoises are inside at night, door is closed
and latched. Note thermometer on outside of house (upper left of door) for easier reading of inside temperature.
Summary of Outdoor Housing Requirements:
* Converted dog house (or custom built) / Add door
* Slanted ramp with grips (block openings at sides)
* Carpet with slits, tacked to upper inside of door
* Vinyl tile (or linoleum) on floor and 12″ on wall base
* Removable rubber floor mat cut to fit
(watch humidity level)
* Hinged lift-up or removable slanted roof, tiled
* Heat lamp hanging on inside ceiling….minimum
of 20″ above tortoise.
* Red or ceramic heat bulb (to sleep at night).
* Thermostat to maintain temperature at 85 degrees.
* Thermometer on outside front of house
* Sunken shallow water dish at ground level
* Heavy block wall fence surrounding pen area
* Lots of grass for grazing inside enclosure
* Sunshine for basking & shaded area for cooling
* Non-toxic plants for hiding spots inside enclosure
Watering & Soaking – Cleaning
Never place a dish of water inside your Sulcata’s heated tank. This will increase humidity and can cause
respiratory problems. Therefore, remove your hatchling/baby tortoise from its tank and soak him in a
very shallow dish of warm water for 20-30 minutes every other day (3 times/week). The water should
NEVER be higher than the bottom of his chin/mouth and should NOT require that he hold his head up
out of the water to breathe.
Drinking: 20-30 minutes should allow your tortoise time to drink plenty of water. While drinking it is
common for tortoises to place their entire head under water for what may seem like a long time. This is
normal. If you watch closely, swallowing can be observed through the thin skin on his neck. Never let
anyone tell you that your tortoise can go without water for long periods of time. Water keeps his body
and organs functioning properly. So until he is big enough to live outside and access water on his own,
always soak your tortoise regularly.
Pooping: Soaking in warm water also helps your tortoise relax and release the waste from his system.
So until the baby tortoise learns to regulate himself, it is important to soak until he poops. Keep a second
shallow soaking dish handy to move the baby into after pooping. DO NOT allow the tortoise to drink
unclean water. (It is perfectly normal for your tortoise to occasionally poop a white discharge)
Cleaning Babies: The soaking period is also the best time to clean your baby tortoise. Two soft bristle
(baby) tooth-brushes work very well…one for brushing his upper and lower shell and around his butt area
and the second toothbrush for gently brushing food stains that sometimes accumulate around the mouth.
(Be very careful not to brush near the eyes as they could easily be scratched with a bristle). DO NOT use
soap, cleanser or chemicals when bathing your tortoise.
Juveniles & Adults: Once outside, you can sink a large shallow dish into the ground inside the tortoise
pen enclosure. Make certain the depth of this water dish will not cover the tortoises head if completely
filled with water…(even rain can fill this dish and cause your tortoise to drown). You will find that your
tortoise will occasionally climb inside the water dish and soak himself. Depending on the size of your
tortoise make sure he can also climb back out by himself. If this is difficult, create a step by placing flat
rocks around the inside edge of the dish
Cleaning Adults: Keeping an adult Sulcata clean becomes more difficult as it grows in size, but it helps
tremendously if they have lots of grass and less dirt to walk on. It also helps to pick up their poop as often
as possible as they will otherwise walk right over it. Their poop primarily consists of large clumps of grass
and is easy to pick up using a small plastic rake and long-handled scoop.
Most Sulcata enjoy being sprayed with water or sitting under sprinklers on hot, sunny days. This is a good
time to brush their upper and lower shells by briefly turning them onto their backs. Never allow your
tortoise to remain on its back for very long. In the hot sun this can quickly result in death. We
occasionally use our power-washer (on lower setting) to quickly remove all dirt and poop from shells of
larger tortoises. However, power spray must NEVER touch their face, neck, upper legs or vent area
(under tail) as these are soft areas that can be easily damaged by very hard spray.
Diet & Nutrition:
Sulcata tortoises are strictly vegetarians. DO NOT EVER feed Sulcata insects, animal matter or table
foods (their digestive system is not designed to process these types of food).
Baby Sulcata seem to favor chopped up Romaine lettuce and this will be fine if sprinkled with Rep-Cal
Calcium and Multi-vitamin powder 2-4 times per week. It’s good to try a variety of green leaf vegetables
at this stage and chopping/mixing them up like salad works best. Shredded carrots can also be added.
To ensure strong, hard shells, we recommend feeding prickly-pear cactus pads, de-thorned and diced into
very small mouth-size pieces. (Cactus is more commonly found in Mexican food stores). Good for all ages.
NEVER feed iceberg lettuce to your tortoise at any age as this can cause diarrhea and dehydration.
Grass, Hay and Dark Greens (80-90% of diet) can include any type of grass, including Rye, clover,
timothy hay, alfalfa hay, dandelion greens, green & red leaf lettuce, romaine, collard greens, cabbage,
escarole, etc. DO NOT feed Iceberg lettuce to any reptile.
Vegetables & Fruits (10-20% of diet) can include tomatoes, carrots, beans, peas, corn on the cob,
zucchini, apples, bananas, strawberries, peaches, melons, etc. (always remove pits and seeds from fruit).
Supplements: Always supplement your tortoise diet with calcium and multi-vitamins in powder form,
sprinkled on their food 2-4 times per week. We have good results from supplementing (babies & adults)
with Mazuri Tortoise Diet. This can be purchased at feed stores. For babies, place a few nuggets in a
shallow lid and fill with water. The nuggets will soften and expand as the water is absorbed. Prepare the
same way for adults in a larger dish. Tortoises love this treat but never feed more often than once or
twice per week as it is high in protein. Sulcata are vegetarians and diets too high in protein can be
unhealthy, causing faster growth and pyramiding of their shell. Note: For safety, never place your
tortoise’s food on top of small rocks or gravel as these can be accidentally swallowed while eating.