Sulcata tortoises, also referred to as the African spurred or African spur thigh tortoise is one of the most common tortoises kept as pets. Hatchings are 1.5-2in in length, but with proper conditions, they can gain 5-10lb a year. Older adults can reach over 100lbs! Sulcata tortoises in captivity can live an upwards of 70 years.
Sulcata tortoises are veracious eaters, and are constantly grazing. A majority of their diet should be fresh grasses and hay; treats can include: mulberry leaves, hibiscus flowers and leaves, and grape leaves. If fruits and veggies are fed it should be very sparingly. Tortoises need an extremely low protein diet. Many fruits and veggies have significantly more than they need. If fed in large quantities, this can lead to “pyramiding” of the shell. Tortoises should have access to a small, low-sided water dish to drink from and to enjoy having access to a soaking pool.
Because the size of hatchings to adults is so variable, housing needs to be based on the size of the animal. Smaller tortoises can be kept in an aquarium tank, or even a large storage container, with suitable substrate (reptibark, newspaper, reptile carpet, etc.). Always provide appropriate water sources and hidey-holes. As tortoises grow, they will need to be moved outside. Tortoises require a sturdy wall at least 2 feet tall, as well as 1-2ft buried below the ground (to prevent them from digging out). Their outside enclosure should provide access to shade, housing from the elements (such as a large doghouse), and ample grass for grazing. Tortoises naturally dig and will often make mud wallows; these can be filled in when they become too large. Sulcatas that live outdoors are tolerant to temperature changes. They are an African desert species, high temperatures are not a problem, but when the temperature drops below 50oF a heat lamp should be provided, if temperatures drop below 30oF they should be taken inside to warmer temperatures. Tortoises that live inside should have a temperature gradient of 80-100oF during the day, the temperature can be lowered to 70oF at night. They should be provided with a 12-14hr light cycle and should have a UVB light.
Contrary to what many sellers may advise, tortoises should not be handled regularly, as they are easily stressed out. Adult Sulcatas, especially males, can become territorial. They like to patrol the fence line of their enclosure and may even charge at someone entering their territory. Males often times cannot be housed together, as they will fight and attempt to flip each other. A tortoise that becomes stuck on its back cannot breath and will suffocate if not flipped upright. Digging and burrowing is a natural behavior, if a tortoise is continually attempting to burrow out if their enclosure flagstones can be placed in those areas to encourage them to dig elsewhere.
Tortoises, like all reptiles, should have yearly physical exams by a veterinarian; this is a time to correct husbandry issues, trim beaks/nails (if necessary), and ensure the overall health of the animal. Tortoises are prone to respiratory infections, imbalanced diets (resulting in metabolic bone disease or shell pyramiding), dystocia (the difficulty of passing eggs), and shell damage/wounds.