Saturday, July 7, 2012

Mini Series on Pets-Week 1: Sulcata Tortoises

As I was browsing the Stepford Sister's Blog, I realized that to date there are only a few posts regarding pets, and one of which instructs you to leave your toilet seat up so your pet can drink during a power outage! I know the three of us Stepford Sisters have fond places in our hearts for our pets, so I will begin a series of helpful pet blogs with regards to the pets I have experience with and have or currently own.

First up, something a bit exotic, my Sulcata Tortoise. I got this tortoise last year around October and it was just a few months old. Now, if you know anything about this tortoise, it is in the top 5 or so for size when they are full grown, or around 150 pounds.

For now he is in a 20 gallon tank with coconut bark, a hollowed tree hide out and a sun bathing rock. The cheapest way to get coconut bark is to buy the dehydrated solid-packed bricks. Once you get it home, you place the brick in water according to directions on the package and reconstitute the bark. My tortoises and turtles like it best if I let the moisture evaporate out of it after reconstituting it.

When the weather is permitable, he really enjoys grazing in the yard. Since he fits in one hand, he is far to small to allow outdoors without constant supervision. We have lots of neighborhood cats and very large birds that would kill this tortoise instantly.

The sulcata has scutes (the individual scale looking pieces that make up the top shell pattern). One way to tell if your tortoise is being fed and cared for properly is the pyramiding of these scutes. If each of these scutes has a pyramid look you are likely feeding them too much and they are growing too fast.

Lighting is also very important. Tortoises are cold blooded and can not regulate their own body temperature. That is why it is important to have basking lights and a hide out for the tortoise. With both available, the tortoise can determine if they need refuge from the lamp by hiding or if they need to warm up under the lamp. During the summer a night lamp is not necessary because the room I keep the tortoise in is warm enough. However, during late fall through early spring I keep on a night lamp to assure the tank does not get too cold.

I'm not getting into the very specifics of basking lamp wattage because this is very subject to change based on the size of your enclosure, the size and age of the tortoise, the height from the tortoise to the lamp, etc. I have found that generic pet stores are not typically able to answer questions on this topic because their sales staff just can't know about every single reptile and tortoise's needs. I am lucky enough to have a pet store that exclusively deals with snakes, turtles, tortoises, geckos, etc., and even an occasional alligator....which I SWEAR they will let roam the store on the floor out of a cage. The days the alligator roams are the days I come back another day ;-)

My tortoise's two favorite foods are kale and pumpkin. Fall is the best time EVER for my little guy (we think it's a boy, but it is too young to properly identify at this point). All those pumpkins the kids MUST have at Halloween and Thanksgiving are super great to cut up for the tortoises. They also save in zip lock bags in the refrigerator. Zoos do this all the time with used jack-o-lanterns.

The sulcata also likes clover, grass, mustard greens, and sometimes dried grasses like timothy and alp-alpha (they are great with canned pumpkin puree).

I have done so much research on the internet about sulcata torts, and many of them say they don't drink water and that is bologna! I try to "soak" my tort once a week (more if it is hot or he just looks like he needs it). Soaking him usually encourages him to go to the bathroom so I keep a constant eye on him because I don't want him drinking the water if he contaminates it. But my tortoise puts his whole head under water and drinks from it. I have heard that soaking him allows the skin on his arms and legs to absorb water as well. Regardless, my tortoise is noticeably heavier after soaking him and I can visibly see the skin around his legs inside the shell are much fuller because of the water. Be careful to give the tortoise water that isn't hot but isn't cold either. I try to get it at room temperature. If it is too cold your tortoise will lose body heat and obviously too warm is not good for anyone.

One thing to be careful about with a smaller turtle or tortoise is that they don't get lost while grazing in the yard. The old saying about how slow tortoises and turtles are would surprise you how untrue it can be. If your turtle or tortoise has their mind made up they need to get somewhere they will go very fast. I have heard of people putting flags on the top of their pets to be able to see where they are. I haven't tried it, nor have I thought of a good way to get it to stay on them without falling off! Once I have a better idea I will share that too.

Tortoises are a really great pet. They don't have to be cared for quite as regularly as cats and dogs, so if your family has a busy schedule this pet can work. Don't get me wrong, they do require maintenance and work, but if you want to go out of town for 3-4 days, you can likely get away without needing a pet-sitter. If you are gone for a week, you might only need them once mid week to give the pet fresh water and something to eat.

One last thought on Sulcata Tortoises: they price difference between a "baby" (less than a year) and one that is 3-7 is typically not that much money. One would think the older they got the more they would cost, but because people underestimate the growth rate these tortoises have many people want to get rid of them or realize they don't have the ability to care for them. So, don't get a baby sulcata just because you think it will cost less....pick an age that feels right to you. Ours is right around a year old now, and we picked a young one so we could watch it's growth progress and so that it would be used to us handling it. Once it gets bigger, we will need to know we can trust it when we need to pick it up and move it.


  1. It's a pleasure to meet another sulcata tortoise lover! Your sully looks like me when I was little :) Glad to join your site! Please "follow" my blog, too :)

  2. I'm glad to post about him! I think it has been long enough since the last post that I will think about something interesting to post about him again. He has grown since the last pictures so I will include new photos as well! I love your name, I almost named my sulcata "Goomba" but princess peach was also one of the runners-up. My sulcata (the ones pictured on my hand) ended up being named Bam-Bam from the Flintstones :-) I envision him stomping around at his full grown size, then his name takes on a life of its own!
    -Stephanie Stepford


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