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Sulcata Care Sheet

Many thanks to Annie Lancaster and Melissa Kaplan for their information below edited some by yours truly.

 
Diet
The African Spurred is a herbivorous tortoise, thus a high fiber intake of grasses, hay, weeds or roughage should form the bulk of its diet. Wild tortoise feces are generally well compacted, well formed, and very high in varied grass content. In captivity a variety of dark green leafy vegetables like romaine, turnip greens, dandelion greens and others (no kale and no spinach) can be offered.

Although sulcata will eat animal protein, do not offer as it will cause carapace deformity. It should be noted that excessive quantities of beans, bean sprouts, peas and similar rich protein rich vegetables can lead to scute pyramiding. An overall high protein diet will cause rapid growth, kidney failure and a shortened life span. Other cautions are goitrogenic vegetables such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale and varieties of cabbage which can lead to goiter and hypothyroidism. Feeding too many greens high in calcium oxalate such as parsley, spinach, collards and carrots can bind calcium which could lead to metabolic bone disease.

The mixed green-leaf vegetable base should comprise > 90% of the diet
which includes course mixed grasses such as Alfalfa hay, Timothy hay, sow thistle, clover, dandelion, edible flowers, dark green lettuce such as romaine, (no iceberg), escarole, endive, chard, squash, pumpkin, corn, and turnip greens.
A lack of dietary fiber or roughage will lead to diarrhea as will feeding fruit which should be avoided. Occasionally cucumber, zucchini, red and green sweet peppers may also be included.

Try to provide a wide range of suitable foods as possible, avoiding too much of the right type or staple food as tortoises can become addicted. To summarize, the ideal diet for herbivorous tortoises should be:
LOW in fats, oils and protein
RICH in minerals, trace elements and vitamins
HIGH in fiber
ADEQUATE in water content

For the first year sulcatas should be fed daily, thereafter 3 times weekly. Remembering this tortoise comes from the sub-Sahara where habitat is semi-desert and where food is not always plentiful. Overfeeding these enormous eaters in captivity will cause problems.
Clean water should be made available at all times. We use dishes that go under plants pots - they should be heavy enough as they turn them over when they step in them. You can also dig a one foot deep mud bog - fill it with water - they like to go bathing on hot days. Young individuals should be soaked at least once a week for 15 minutes in a shallow bath of warm water to prevent dehydration. This will also encourage the elimination of waste products.

 
Health
A healthy tortoise will have good weight, muscular vigor, and a good withdrawal response when a hind limb is gently pulled. The eyes should be wide open when awake, slightly rounded cheeks, and a bilaterally symmetrical head. The vent area or cloaca at the base of the tail should be flush, not swollen or crusty and without smears of watery feces. If a tortoise appears healthy but has watery feces it could be a sign of a parasitic disease and should be checked and treated. A nasal discharge and watery eyes may be a sign of a respiratory infection. Gaping and forced exhalation are common symptoms of pneumonia. Such cases require antibiotic therapy, warmer temperatures and possible hand feeding in the case of lethargic or anorexic animals.

Breeding
Don't!!!!!!!
We do not recommend breeding as there is an enormous number of sulcatas for adoption.
Spurs are prolific breeders in captivity with males reaching sexual maturity at about 14 inches (35 cm.). Aggressive behavior may take place with repeated ramming by the males sometimes ending up in bloody limbs and heads. In southern California breeding usually occurs during hot days and months of the year with egg-laying occurring during the following late winter or spring.
 
Hatchlings
Hatchlings measure approximately 45-50 mm long, weigh between 25-30 grams, and are a uniform pale yellow-ivory color. However, much darker examples may be encountered. The scutes have narrow brown borders with a serrated periphery of the carapace. When housing hatchlings, the enclosure must have a warm side and a cool side for thermoregulation with a provision for UVB producing fluorescent lights. Temperatures are much the same as explained earlier or slightly on the warmer side. Growing tortoises, when not provided with enough heat and fed excessive calcium, vitamin D3, and or protein, may develop deformed shells. This disproportionate growth may be linked to protein availability in relation to calcium and D3, but temperature is now considered a critical factor in this syndrome.

Offering a balanced diet and providing a heat source are main factors for successfully raising healthy tortoises. Diet is similar to that of adults. Chop the food into bite-size pieces, approximately the size of the head.

Clean water should be made available at all times. Young individuals should
be soaked at least once a week for 15 minutes in a shallow bath of warm water to prevent dehydration. This will also encourage the elimination of waste products.

Sulcatas come from some of the Sahel, the hottest, driest area in Africa. Some regions may not get rain for years. To make the most of available moisture, their skin is resistant to fluid loss but, when exposed to moisture, may become highly permeable. Towards this end, they will excavate pallets or burrows in the ground to get to areas with higher moisture levels; in the wild, they may spend the hottest part of the day in these microhabitats. Burrows may average 30 inches in depth; some dig tunnel systems extending 10 feet or more underground. Sulcatas are, like most turtles and tortoises native to dry areas, extremely efficient in their use of water. A sulcata may urinate just 0.64 ml a day, significantly less than their spur-thighed cousins living in the relatively lush Mediterranean countries who may urinate 1-2 ml a day. A danger, then, in captivity is that too much water may be given or made accessible which may lead to health problems including skin and shell infections and kidney problems.
In captivity, a similarly hot and dry environment must be provided year round. Unlike the California desert tortoises, the sulcatas do not hibernate. While they can tolerate some surprisingly low temperatures, they cannot be allowed to get both chilled and wet or kept outdoors in chill, damp weather.

Housing
Daytime temperatures during much of the year should range from 85-105 F (29-40 C) during the day. At night, temperatures can drop into the 70s F (21-26 C) in their enclosure. They must be dry. Provisions must be made to house them indoors during rainy weather and in places where the nights are cold and/or damp. We built a large house out of cinder block with a door. We use Jane heat pads from www.beanfarm.com and an overheat radiant heater. Never never use lights as they cause fires (we had one and learned the lesson the hard way).

Outdoors

Sulcatas can be housed outdoors only if they are provided dry, heated housing into which they will retire at night and during inclement weather. If they will not come out and go in on their own, they will have to be directed or physically moved. (Note that while this may not be a problem when the tortoises weigh less than 25 pounds or so, it can become quite problematic when they weigh 90 pounds or more.) In sufficiently dry areas that are protected from predators and humans, sulcatas may be kept outdoors at night as well, with living in-ground trees and shrubs providing the shelter over their pallets they require. Some owners recommend making sure that fencing surrounding the compound be opaque: if the sulcatas can see through it, they will try to plow through or burrow under it.

A dog house or, for younger sulcatas, a trash can laid on its side, make suitable houses for sulcatas. They must be raised up off the ground and must be supplied with heat during colder weather. A wide ramp must be constructed for them to move easily in and out. Make a curtain to cover the opening; a couple of layers of plastic drop cloth, cut into 2-3 inch wide strips, will create a curtain that can easily be pushed through but will keep out draughts. It will also help insulate the house by reducing heat loss. During the winter months, insulating layers of plastic, sod or wood can be used to cover the top and sides of the house. Red lights or ceramic heating elements, suspended from the ceiling of the house and safely out of reach of the tortoise, may be used during cool weather. A pig blanket or Kane heat pad (also called a farrowing pad, these are rigid heating pads made for pigs to lie upon) can be used inside on the floor.

Sulcatas like to burrow and they are quite good at doing so. They feel more comfortable when they can feel their environment around them. When a pig blanket on the floor is enough for heat, a trash can may work just fine as they can feel the sides of it around it. The curtain across the doorway helps as well by providing not only insulation by a physical, albeit passable, barrier. Fresh mounds of alfalfa hay or pesticide- and pest-free leaves and grass can be placed inside to also give them a burrowing medium. Check regularly and replace as necessary.

A shallow water bowl, with sides low enough for the tortoise to reach into, should be available at all times if there is no wallow available. Tortoises do not swim, they sink. You need to make sure they can easily access the water but that it is not any deeper than the tortoise's bridge, the section of shell that joins the carapace (top shell) and plastron (bottom shell). A bowl or flowerpot saucer (plastic or glazed ceramic) may be find for a larger tortoise; it may need to be sunk slightly into the substrate for smaller tortoises. Be prepared to refresh daily and clean frequently.

A note on predators and other harmful species:
Animals such as raccoons and opossums may prey upon sleeping tortoises. Dogs and cats may harm tortoises just by being inquisitive or playful...small tortoises look, smell and taste too enticing to not be a chew toy! Tortoises kept in front and easily accessible side yards are enticing to unscrupulous members of a two legged species: many tortoises have been spirited out of their yards by humans. Make sure all fencing is secure, both to prevent the tortoise from barging through it or digging under it, and to prevent unwanted visitors from coming in or accidentally letting them out.

Indoors

Given the tremendous amount of room these tortoises need to roam, maintaining them inside year round is not advised. Temporary indoor housing, as for hatchlings (see section on hatchlings below), sick individuals or during inclement weather, can be set up. Such indoor housing must include both basking and cooler retreat areas, and a den box in which to burrow. An area for feeding and a shallow water dish must also be provided. Ultraviolet B lighting must be provided as well as suitable temperature ranges during both the day (80 F (27 C) with a basking area (100 F (39C)) and night (72 F (22 C)).

Behavior

Sulcatas like to move around and are very strong -- they must have a large area in which to freely and widely roam. Whether housed indoors or out, Sulcatas roam about and are voracious eaters. Like many tortoises, they are also climbers. Care must be taken to assure they are not given the opportunity to climb things that are too steep resulting in their toppling over. If they flip onto their backs and are not able to right themselves, they may die of hyperthermia if they do it during the hottest part of the day. They may also choke or drown on their own vomit if they panic. They may lose precious water by voiding urates and thus become seriously dehydrated. Suffocation is also a possibility if they are left upside down too long as their lungs, which are near the top of their carapace, are compressed by the weight of their internal organs. Sulcatas also need to burrow away from the heat and do so by retreating to their pallets or into muddy wallows where they will stay for hours, flipping cool mud up onto their backs. When temperatures exceed 104 F (40 C), they will begin to salivate heavily, smearing the saliva on their forearms to help cool themselves down.

Keep dangerous objects out of their area. Steps, dogs, raccoons and children (children can have their fingers pinched off by a scared sulcata) are among some of the dangers that must be guarded against. So too are thorny cacti, human and animal hair, pesticides and herbicides, small plastic, glass and metal toys, and toxic plants. Sulcatas are voracious, if not always smart, eaters and will ingest anything small enough and colorful enough.

Provide variety and security. Tortoises do not bask on the bare open ground. Provide a cluster of sturdy, low growing plants they can crowd in amongst. Provide an interesting terrain by leaving (or building) some low hummocks, smooth rocks, pieces of wood, clumps of weeds and edible plants.

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