Sulcata tortoises are one of the most popular pet tortoises to keep. One of the reasons why is that they are extremely adaptable to different living conditions. Native to the harsh arid climates of Africa, Sulcata tortoises are hardy animals, but certain requirements must be met in order for them to live long, healthy lives. One that is essential to get right is their diet.
So, what do you feed a Sulcata tortoise? Sulcata tortoises are vegetarians, so they don’t need protein-rich diets. Their diet should primarily consist of hay, grasses, and plants, with the addition of select vegetables a few times a week. While they are a fruit-eating species, fruit should be offered sparingly and infrequently.
Understanding the nutritional needs of a Sulcata tortoise can take a little bit of time, but once you do, you’ll have a tortoise that can thrive in your care.
With this in mind, let us now look at what an optimal diet looks like for this species, along with some dietary do’s and don’t!
Optimal Diet for A Sulcata Tortoise
The optimal diet for a Sulcata tortoise is a high fibrous and low protein one. Sulcata tortoises are herbivores as well as grazers, so their diet should be 80-85% hays, grasses, and weeds. The remaining 15-20% can be made of vegetables, occasional fruit treats, and pellet-type foods.
Hays and Grasses
The main sources of a Sulcata tortoises’ diet should be from hays and grasses though it’s important to get the right types for your tortoise’s needs.
If your tortoise is housed outdoors, they can comfortably graze on the grass in their enclosure if it’s pesticide-free.
Adding in oat hay or timothy hay will help round out their grazing needs when grass growth is low (i.e., during winter months).
If your tortoise is kept indoors, you can take some grass cuttings from your yard and use them in their enclosure with the hay.
That being said, you need to be careful with the amount of alfalfa hay you give your tortoise.
Alfalfa hay has a high oxalate content which causes kidney damage and kidney stone formation in Sulcata tortoises.
Suitable Greens & Vegetables
When it comes to greens, the top picks to choose from include dandelion greens, turnip greens, kale, and spring mixes.
You can also include mulberry leaves and grape leaves (though make sure it’s not grape ivy).
Avoid giving too many greens that are high in oxalates, such as spinach, parsley, and collard greens. These greens are safe to give your tortoise but make sure they are part of a mixed salad.
Vegetables should make up about 10-15% of their food intake. Adding in vegetables such as grated raw carrots, broccoli, and winter squash will help boost that variety in your tortoise’s diet.
The remaining 5% of their diet can be made up of occasional fruit treats such as strawberries, apples, peaches and apricots (with removed pits), and pears.
However, fruit is not a common part of a wild Sulcata tortoise’s diet, and their captive diet should be as similar to the wild as possible, so only give in small amounts.
It’s best to give these fruit treats twice a month, at most. Fruit is high in sugar and will negatively affect their gut bacteria, causing diarrhea and other health issues.
As you prepare your tortoise’s meal, keep in mind that Sulcata tortoises respond well to bright colors, so make sure to add at least one colorful food in their meal.
When it comes to water, you can provide a shallow bowl in their enclosure to help hydrate your Sulcata tortoise.
However, this bowl needs to be changed frequently as tortoises tend to defecate while bathing in the water.
A lot of Sulcata hydration comes from the water content in their food and, because they are used to arid conditions, they don’t need as much supplemental water as you’d think.
Bathing helps maintain good hydration and healthy skin. Some Sulcata owners choose to give their tortoise a bath outside of their enclosure two or three times a week for at least 15 minutes.
What Foods Should You Not Feed Your Sulcata Tortoise?
Seeing as Sulcata tortoises are herbivores, they shouldn’t be fed high-protein foods like dog and cat food. All grains should be avoided as well as human food and high quantities of pellet food.
High Protein Foods
Dogs and cats require much higher protein content and nutritional compositions in their diets than most species of tortoise do, so it’s best to avoid their foods.
Additionally, watch out for hidden high protein foods like nuts, legumes, and beans which might feature in some salads.
Too much protein in a Sulcata tortoise’s system will wreak havoc on their kidneys as they try to break down the excess protein causing urinary obstructions.
Also, the excess protein will cause pyramiding (abnormal growth of scutes), especially in growing tortoises.
Grains need to be avoided (including bread and pasta) because Sulcata tortoises cannot digest these foods properly.
They are detrimental to a tortoise’s health as they interfere with vitamin D absorption.
Human foods (either cooked or uncooked) shouldn’t be fed to your tortoise as they tend to contain too much protein as well as ingredients that will do more harm than good to your pet.
Most human foods are processed and will undoubtedly contain too much salt, sugar, and fat for your tortoise to handle.
Certain Pellet Additives
Although pellet foods can be a great addition to make up the rest of your tortoise’s diet, you need to be mindful of the ingredients of the type you choose.
Some pellet foods contain cereals and rice, which need to be avoided.
Another food to be mindful of is fruit.
Even though it’s safe to give fruit as a treat, too much can cause your tortoise’s good bacteria to die.
If large amounts of that bacteria die, they will release toxins into the digestive system.
This will cause Toxic Shock Syndrome and can be fatal if untreated.
How Much Should I Feed My Sulcata Tortoise?
How much you should feed your Sulcata tortoise depends on their age and activity level. The general guideline is to give them the same amount of food as the size of their shell.
Judging how much food is too much or too little is a guessing game in the beginning.
Even though the guideline amount of shell size amount is there, it will depend on how active your tortoise is.
Sulcata tortoises have evolved to travel long distances to find food. They’re not used to having easily accessible food without this long-distance travel.
A good base to build from is to feed your tortoise their shell size amount of food and see how much they eat.
If they demolish it, they need more food. If they leave some behind, there’s too much food.
Another way to judge the correct amount of food is to check their appearance for weight.
If they’re overweight, they’ll look like they’re bulging from the shell, or they won’t be able to retract fully.
If they’re being underfed, their shell will look too big for their head and body.
Understanding your tortoise’s portion size will take a little time but is easy to manage once you do.
How Often Do You Need To Feed Your Sulcata Tortoise?
There is no set frequency on when to feed your Sulcata tortoise. They can be fed daily or every other day. As long as they have daily access to grazing foods, you can use your best judgment on when to feed your pet.
Other factors that will affect how often you need to feed your tortoise include their age, activity level, and health.
Most owners tend to feed their tortoise a salad meal daily, while a few owners feed theirs every other day.
Tortoises have very slow metabolisms, so they don’t digest their foods as quickly as humans do.
Discovering how often suits your Sulcata tortoise to be fed will take a bit of trial and error.
Whichever routine you settle on, always keep your tortoise’s enclosure well-stocked of hay and grasses for easy grazing.
The Importance Of Calcium In A Sulcata Tortoise’s Diet
Calcium is crucial for maintaining your tortoise’s good health. It is involved in their ability to absorb vitamin D from UV lights or the sun. Without sufficient calcium, your Sulcata tortoise is vulnerable to developing conditions like Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD).
In the wild, Sulcata tortoises get the calcium levels they need by feeding on roots, snail shells, soil, and bones.
To mimic that calcium content in captivity, you can give your tortoise cuttlefish bones or a calcium/vitamin D combined supplement.
Sprinkling your tortoise’s salad with calcium powder two or three times a week will maintain the necessary calcium level to prevent unhealthy conditions such as shell softening and metabolic bone disease.
MBD occurs when the phosphorous to calcium ratio in your tortoise is tipped towards phosphorous, resulting in soft bones and deformities and can be fatal.
Make sure the calcium/vitamin D combined supplement you choose doesn’t contain phosphorous, so your tortoise won’t absorb any more.
Sulcata tortoises are loved for their dog-like personalities, which is why they are a popular choice for a tortoise pet.
And while this sounds like an odd comparison, it isn’t actually that far afield when we consider their size!
However, they do require specific needs to be met.
Your Sulcata tortoises diet is one of the most important.
A poor diet can result in poor health conditions like renal failure, obesity, and gout – all of which have a drastic impact on their quality of life and ultimate longevity.
And while it can take some trial and error to find how much food and how often to feed your tortoise, so long as you keep within their dietary requirements, you can provide the support your tort needs to thrive!
I am a practiced pet owner with decades of experience owning a number of different pets. I am also the main writer and chief editor here at Pet Educate; a site I created to share everything I’ve learned about pet ownership over the years and my extensive research along the way.