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Sulcata, African Spurred tortoise, Geochelone Sulcata Care Sheets
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Care Sheet for Tortoises

Average Rating Given To This Care Sheet Is 4.46    (1=lowest, 5=highest)    Last Updated: 12/16/2006

Main Category:

Aquatic/Land

Sub Category:

Tortoises

 Care Sheet Submitted By:

Soldiermedic

Years Experience:

1 to 2 Years

Species:

Sulcata, African Spurred tortoise, Geochelone Sulcata

Other Species or Phases this Care Sheet May Cover:

Sulcata, African-Spurred tortoise, Geochelone Sulcata, or commonly mispelled as Sulcatta and commonly confused with the Spur-Thigh which is its mediteranean counterpart.

I am going to use this section for information that I couldnít fit in other sections of the care sheet:

If you plan on letting your Sulcata run wild in your back yard, you need to remove any poisonous plants.
A brief list of some of these plants is:
Bird of Paradise, Bottlebrush, Calla Lilly, Christmas Cactus, Common Privet, Dieffenbachia, Dogwood, English Ivy, Foxglove, Hemlock, Impatiens, Iris, Jasmine, Larkspur, Lily of the Valley, Marijuana, Milk Weed, Mistletoe, Morning Glory, Mushrooms, Oleander, Poinsettia, Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac, Pokeweed, Potato (Leaves), Privet, Rhododendron, Rhubarb, Sage, Snapdragon, Sweet Pea, Tomato (Leaves), Tulip, Verbena, Wisteria, Yew.

Sulcatas arenít picky and will eat anything regardless of its content. If you have other pets, then you need to make sure you pick up their stool because Sulcatas are fond of dog stool. Dogs are also fond of licking the hair off your carpet. The hair in the dog stool will bind your Sulcata up!

Sexing and Characteristics:

Its not easy to determine visually in a young tortoise, but at about 10" to 14" (usually 3-4 years) a Sulcata starts to show some signs of its sex. Typically at this size it is another 5" to 8" (2-4 years) away from breeding age. What is the difference?
Male Sulcatas have a wider flattened anal notch, a longer tail that is usually folded to the side, noticeable concavity to its plastron (bottom shell), and gular projections under the head that are bigger, thicker, and more flared than those of a female. Males usually mature at 15" to 16" which is usually
around 5-6 years of healthy growth in captivity.
Female Sulcatas anal notch is rounded allowing for easier passage of eggs, they have shorter tails, the plastron is flat or somewhat convex, the gular projections are small, thin, and less flared then that of a male. Female Sulcatas
usually mature at 17"-18" which is usually indicative of 7 to 8 years of healthy growth in captivity.
Males exhibit aggression during mating season which is both common and occasionally violent. As males mature they begin to ram, flip, and mount other males to establish dominance. During the breeding time, overly aggressive males will attack other tortoises, pets, and even people, ramming them with their gular projections with incredible force. They also use these flared gulars to flip their opponent. Male Sulcatas also tend to ram females when it comes time to mate. This encourages the female to submit and also starts the ovulation process. During copulation, the male will usually raise and lower himself, scraping the females carapace (top shell). There is usually some tail stimulation and vocalization during mating that sounds like a loud quacking. In the wild females tend to lay one clutch per year, while in captivity have been known to lay multiple clutches.

Mostly Active During:

Day

Substrate and Water Needs:

Depending on who you speak to, you can get a huge variety of answers. Some examples are paper towels, rabbit pellets, cypress mulch, hardwood mulch, sand and peat mixtures (make sure to feed your tortoises food on a Tupperware lid if you use sand because your tortoise can ingest the sand and get an impaction), personally I have a sand box for my tortoises and hay in their bedding area, but do not use substrate in their entire 90 sq ft habitat. I have tried it in the past and they donít even seem to notice it. The previous owners of my largest Sulcata used red mulch, so when I got him he looked like someone painted him in a rust color because the red dye in the mulch rubbed off on him, so watch out for any products with dyes in them.
Water is another subject that I have read many conflicting articles about. One person says to keep water out of the habitat because it will cause respiratory problems, another says make sure they are never without water, some say to soak them daily, some say to use distilled water only and others say it doesnít matter.
I soak my smallest Sulcata twice a week in a bath tub with water no higher then the bottom of his mouth when his head is in his shell. My adults are put in their water dish every morning (the plate that you put under potted plants) and they decide if they want a drink, or want to go off wandering to find food.
I think some people stress to use distilled water due to the chlorine content in tap water, but I have never had a problem with it. Besides it would get EXTREMELY expensive filling a bath tub with distilled water twice a week.

Lighting and UVB:

I canít stress enough how important UVB lighting is to a Sulcata. It helps them produce vitamin D3 and enables the mixture of calcium and phosphorus (calcium phosphate) to be absorbed in the bones so they grow strong and healthy.
These lights can be bought at just about any pet store that sell reptiles. Be careful that you are not only getting a quality light but also getting one that produces enough UVB. These light bulbs need to be changed out bi-annually. It is a misconception that if the light is on it is producing UVB. The more the light is used, the less UVB it gives off. Lack of calcium, too much calcium, and lack of vitamin D3 are three major causes of pyramiding and metabolic bone disease. Some people think if they put their aquariums close to a window that natural sunlight can be used instead. The glass of the window and that of the aquarium greatly diminishes the UVB from the sun and would not allow an adequate amount of UVB to get to your tortoise.
The best UVB light is that of direct sunlight from being outside. Keep in mind that even though these tortoises like it hot, that there can still be too much of a good thing. You donít want to scorch them!

Temperatures and Humidity:

It is suggested that during the day, you have an area that is between 90-95 degrees for basking and another area that is between 80-85 degrees available to your Sulcata to have a chance to cool down. At night it is okay to drop the temp to 70-75 degrees on one side and 80-85 degrees on the other side of your enclosure. Sulcatas usually prefer it to be slightly cooler at night then they are during the day. Although, they like it cooler at night, do not allow their habitat to get below 55-60 degrees. Keep in mind that heating not only provides comfort for your Sulcata, but plays a big part in the digestive process. Keeping your Sulcata in too cool an atmosphere will slow down the digestive tract. My local pet store suggested a red heat lamp, because it is so easy on Sulcataís eyes. I gave it a shot and they have been loving it. They tend to sleep right under it on cooler nights. I would suggest to get a clamp heat lamp which normally costs about $12-$20 and the light bulbs can range from $15-$80.
Humidity: I live in southwest Florida. It gets pretty humid here and I havenít had a problem with my Sulcataís. I have also read books that referred to people raising Sulcatas in Florida with no problem what so ever.
It does rain quite a bit during the summer months and this will be kept in mind when I build their outside habitat. Their sleeping quarters will be off the ground, so they wonít be sitting in a puddle for long periods of time. It will also have the heat lamps to aid in drying and for warmth. From what I have read, everyone has suggested to have some sort of refuge from the weather. You can construct something of your own, or I have heard of people using trash cans, sheds, dogloos, etc.

Heating and Equipment:

I already went over heating in the temperatures section, so maybe I can go over pricing.
A hatchling (<1yr old) can cost between $50-$120 depending on the company, business, or breeder you are buying from.
A yearling (>1yr/<2yrs old) can cost between $80-$140 depending on the company, business, or breeder you are buying from. Shipping for both is usually $40 or so.
2-4 yrs old are normally $120 to $350 and shipping goes by weight, generally $70
5-6 yrs old are normally $350 to $500 and shipping can be well over $100
and 6+ yrs old can range from $500 to over $3,000 depending on if you are getting a proven breeder Sulcata or not. At this point most people wonít ship. It would cost way too much.
If you have a rare albino Sulcata, You just bought yourself a new car!
There are a lot of rip-off artists, but sometimes paying more is worth it. Some companies and private breeders play it straight from the hip and require a vet fee to make sure the Sulcata is completely healthy, worm free, and mite free before they are sent out. So unless you know a vet that will do it cheaper, it might be worth spending an extra couple of bucks to make sure it is healthy.
Get a picture! See if there are any deformities, pyramiding, signs of malnutrition, etc. Some Sulcata have an extra, or irregular scute. People tend to sell these for less money, but they usually donít exhibit other health problems. This is caused when a breeder incubates an egg at too high of a temperature.
Now you will need supplies. You need to make sure you have the available diet, lights, substrate, housing, heat lamps, etc.
The diet can be very inexpensive. Go to the store and spend $10 on various seeds, plant them, and voila you can have food for a year.
Lights: UVB lights can cost anywhere from $20-$70 depending on the brand/size/etc. Then you need bulbs which can range from $8-$10.

Caging Provided:

You can go from cheap to expensive in a glimpse of an eye. Before I knew better I bought a baby Sulcata for $85 and a ten gallon tank for $5. Not knowing that in less then a year it would be too small of a habitat. So I should have bought the 20 gallon one right? WRONG, In less then 1 1/2 years the 20 gallon tank is too small and that one was more like $50. A Sulcata can be kept in an 50 gallon aquarium up until it is about 4-5 years old and then needs a bigger space. But why would you spend >$800 on something you probably wonít be using in 4 years and who has the space? Keep in mind that you cannot put an aquarium outside because the glass will heat up and will make it unbearably hot in the tank.
A tortoise table will last you a lot longer. You can build one yourself out of plywood from your local lumber yard, or depot store. Keep in mind when you are building your own habitat that tortoises arenít great with tall obstacles. I.E. stairs, or drop offs. It is better to build ramps and make sure everything has a lip, or they will try to get over it. A Sulcata can easily over-turn and then all of the internal organs push up against its lungs making it difficult to breath. They can also vomit if they get too excited and can aspirate. I read that you can do the heimlich maneuver on a turtle by putting it on its back and pumping its front two legs in and out, then flip it right side up with its head to the ground and shake them to get the water out. Not sure if it works on Sulcatas, but if they look like they have aspirated I am sure it wonít hurt.
A tortoise table would be inexpensive, easier to view through, and would work for quite a while. I took some wood & transformed 1/2 of my lanai, 90 sq/ft is dedicated to 3 Sulcatas with 3 ramps, a mirror, 4 separate sleep areas, a water hole, a sand box, and edible plants.

Diet:

Herbivorous

Description of Diet:

Most commercial diets are more suited for Red-footed, Yellow-footed, and Hinge-backed tortoises. Their diet calls for a higher protein content and should only be fed sparingly, or as part of your Sulcataís diet.
A Sulcataís diet should mirror the following:
80% pesticide free: grasses, hays, weeds, and leaves including: Mixed grasses, orchard hay, timothy hay, optunia pads and berries, hibiscus leaves and flowers, clove, prickly pear pads, dandelion greens/flower, Dutch clover, rose leaves
and petals, sow thistle. You can also give mulberry leaves and grape leaves in limited quantities.
15% pesticide free: vegetables including:
Romaine lettuce, Arugula, Mustard Greens, Collard Greens, Turnip Greens, Dandelion Greens, and Chicory
5% pesticide free: fruits including:
Apples, strawberries, chunks of organically grown bananas with skin, cantaloupe with rind attached, berries; peaches (no pits), apricots (no pits), pears, apples (no seeds) may be offered. Oranges and tomatoes may be fed, but not to hatchlings. Figs are a great source of calcium, but must be rehydrated if you canít find fresh ones out of season.
Sulcatas can be like children. You cannot JUST feed them what they want to eat. My Sulcatas would love me if I gave them romaine lettuce every day, but they only get it twice a week as a treat. They mostly eat grass, hay, and weeds from the yard. I add supplements to their treats which is covered in the next section.

Supplements, Nutrition and Usage:

Supplements:
I have had a lot of luck with "Tortoise Dust." I have not tried any other products. Generally, you want to use a supplement that has 2:1 calcium to protein. It should also contain vitamin D. I sprinkle tortoise dust on their romaine lettuce treat twice a week.
Recently I have had to research calcium and vitamin D pills at GNC for my tortoise with metabolic bone disease. It is difficult to find vitamins with a 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus, but I got as close as I could find. He hasnít been eating very well, so I called the Vet. He suggested to add the tortoise dust to baby food and use a needleless syringe to feed him. He has now gained and appetite and his shell seems to be strengthening. "Lucky" grazes for about 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon now. In the first month he had a 7% growth. You might have to experiment with different flavors. He didnít like the Apple/Sweet potato one, but ate the Apple/Banana/Strawberry one with little difficulty. Keep in mind that metabolic bone disease can be caused by a diet with too much calcium, although it is rare it can happen, so do not use too much added supplements in your Sulcataís diet unless instructed to do so by a vet.
I didnít have room to add the subject of "Flashing." This is a term that is used to describe when a maleís penis comes out while basking. I also wanted to add that I didnít expect a tortoises urine to be almost like scrambled egg whites. It is normal for it to be thick like this.

Maintenance:

We covered bath time in the water section, but I would like to add that Sulcatas arenít the cleanest pets. Zoe was out in the sun today and dug herself in a hole. She was covered in dirt. I give them a bath and scrub gently with a toothbrush once a week. This keeps them clean and allows me to see any areas that might have been hindered by the outside world. Be careful around dogs! Although my dog is very well trained and I didnít think that she would ever harm any of our pets, she got a hold of Dakota, the smallest Sulcata we have. Dakota had two puncture marks in her shell; I cleaned the wound daily with betadine swabs. He is doing great now and you can barely see where the marks were. It was a real eye-opener though that we need to keep a close eye on the tortoises when our dog is allowed to roam. There are many other predators out there too! A raccoon, hawk, owl, opossum, etc can surprise a sleeping Sulcata and the results would be devastating.
Maintenance: Sulcatas are very forgiving when it comes to husbandry. They can sustain pretty drastic life changes. However, that doesnít make them impervious to getting sick. Watch out for runny stools, physical changes (although it is often too late when they physically show problems), respiratory distress (consistent mouth breathing), lethargy, refusal to eat or weight loss. Call your vet immediately if you see any of these symptoms. Keep in mind that vet costs for checkups alone can run from $35-$100. You will also have to find a vet that makes house calls. How are you going to get an adult Sulcata with a carapace of 36 inches that weighs 200 in your vehicle to go to a vet appointment?
Respiratory problems can normally be cured by an increase in heat and decrease in humidity, but a Sulcata can easily get pneumonia if you let things go too long.

Some Words on this Species:

Respiratory ailments continued from above: Signs are labored breathing, nasal discharge, gaping mouth, puffy eyes, lethargy, and loss of appetite.
External parasites: If you see any ticks on your tortoise remove them in the same manner that you would use for yourself, or dog.
African Heartwater Disease: This is caused by a sinister tropical tick that carries a microbe that can kill a large animal by causing their pericardium (the membrane around the heart) to fill with fluid. This tick has caused the USDA to ban any importation of Sulcata tortoises since March 2000 for fear that it would infect US livestock.
Internal Parasites: Worms, I have read many places that your vet should check for worms in your Sulcataís stool once a year, unless it is blattently obvious by the naked eye. My vet doesnít bother. He said that there is usually some type of worm and to charge to find this out yearly isnít worth the money. He treats yearly regardless.
Injuries: If they can see through it, they will try to get through it, whether they injure themselves in the process or not. Also, DO NOT have a habitat near your house. Sulcatas burrow and if they do so under your foundation it could cost big bucks to fix. They are extremely big diggers!
In closing, I am not pretending to be an expert, so if you would like to add anything let me know and I would be happy to add any information I can. This care sheet was made up from hours of research, mistakes that I have made with my own Sulcatas, and mistakes others have made.
If it helps even one owner to avoid any misfortunes, avoid malnutrition, or even just to help their Sulcata live a happier healthier life then it was worth putting this care sheet together.
Remember to consider all your options before choosing a Sulcata as a pet. They live up to 150 years. And consider adopting a tortoise.
Thank you for your interest.
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