Basic Care: Leopard Tortoise
The leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) is found in central and southern Africa. Leopard tortoises have very distinct individual personalities. Some may be shy and retiring while others are outgoing and friendly. They live for decades and seemingly become quite bonded with their owners. Most will outlive their owners if given the right care.
Females often reach weights over 30 pounds while males typically are about half that size or smaller. Some exceptionally large individuals have been found that weighing more than 100 pounds!
Most leopard tortoises are acquired as hatchlings which can be simply kept indoors in a 20 gallon aquarium. With proper care a leopard tortoise hatchling will quickly outgrow this original cage. For larger tortoises we recommend moving them to an outdoor enclosure. Adult leopard tortoises need a lot of space, at least 50 sq ft of floor space per adult tortoise. They can be kept as breeding trios of one adult male and up to four adult female tortoises, but there may be fighting depending on the individual personality.
A bright white basking light on for 12 hr a day, and ultraviolet-B emitting bulb (e.g., Reptisun™, Powersun™, or Mega-ray™ UVB) on for 12 hr a day. For more information on UVB lighting, click here.
The cool end of an indoor cage should be around 80°F with a basking spot of 88-92°F during the day. For hatchlings, use an under tank heater that always provides a warm spot of 85F even at night when the daytime heat lamp is off.
Outdoor enclosures should have a day-night fluctuation of around 15°F, with a spring/summer/fall daytime high upwards of 95°F and a nighttime low of 80°F or lower. Areas that are much warmer are fine as long as the tortoise has an appropriate retreat from the intense heat and sunlight. At all times, there should be a cool/hot zone of 85°F for the tortoise to retreat to if it is too warm or too cold. Leopard tortoises need a shelter against wind and rain in the Phoenix area when the temperatures drop into the 60s (°F). Leopard tortoises should be put in warm dry shelters when the weather gets colder or there are long period of cold rain.
Leopard tortoise hatchlings may be kept on rabbit food pellets (compressed timothy hay or alfalfa hay) or cypress mulch.
Outdoor enclosures should have a nice bed of sod, usually a mix of Bermuda grass, rye, and fescue.
Provide hatchlings a hide box that has high humidity, such as may be provided by filling the bottom with damp sphagnum moss or moist soil. A hollow half log soaked in water can also be used to create a humid area. This humid shelter is very important so the tortoise develops a normal shell. One study has shown that pyramiding of the shell, a disorder where the individual scutes start to develop into pyramids that deform the profile of the shell, is caused primarily by being raised in too dry of an environment.
Adult leopard tortoises will graze throughout the day. Prickly pear cactus pads, mulberry and hibiscus leaves, and other fresh browse are relished. Leopard tortoises eat fresh grass and leaves (hibiscus, mulberry) in the enclosure at all times. Many other ornamental plants are safe for tortoises to eat. For more a list of edible plants, click here.
Outdoor tortoises benefit from having their produce fed on a bed of timothy hay. This hay provides lots of fiber and extra nutrients that are beneficial. Some tortoises are reluctant to eat the timothy hay but will eat alfalfa hay. Try mixing about one part alfalfa hay to three parts timothy hay to get your tortoise switched over to hay. The salad mix recipe for hatchlings listed below may be adjusted to provide a larger volume to feed larger tortoises.
Baby tortoises can eat similar diets to adults but need to have the food chopped into smaller pieces. Avoid giving hard vegetables like carrots or sweet potatoes to baby tortoises unless they have been shredded. Small chunks of chopped hard vegetables have cause intestinal impactions in young tortoises.
“Salad Mix” Recipe for Hatchlings:
· 1 cup of dark green leafy vegetables (e.g., romaine, escarole, green leaf lettuce, mustard greens, dandelion greens, kale, collard greens, etc.) It is important to rotate what you are using as any one of these greens lacks everything needed for optimum tortoise health.
· 1 tablespoon raw beans (lima, pinto, garbanzo, or mung)
· 1 tablespoon yellow, red, or orange produce (sweet potato, strawberry, carrot, etc.). Hard produce should be shredded rather than chopped.
· 1/8 cup of Zoo Med™ Grass Tortoise Food, soaked in water for at least 15 minutes
Place ingredients in a container and shake so that they are thoroughly mixed
The recipe is a guideline only. Other produce can be fed in addition to the kinds listed, but care should be taken to balance the diet. It is a good idea to make up a week’s worth of salad, refrigerate it, and dole out a small amount daily. Enough salad should be offered every day so that there is a little bit left over each night. This ensures the young tortoise is eating enough to sustain a healthy gastrointestinal flora which helps with proper digestion and growth.
Can I Feed Oranges and Other Citrus Fruits?
A common question is whether or not the oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, and other citrus fruits that are grown in the backyards of Arizona are safe for tortoises to eat. There are a lot of internet myths about citrus fruit and even some books warn about the hazards. Citrus fruit does appear safe in moderation. As with any other sugary fruit, citrus may cause diarrhea if consumed in large amounts.
Baby leopard tortoises should be soaked in warm shallow water two to three times a week. As they grow, the soakings may be less frequent. Eventually the soaking may be replaced by offering a pan of clean water once or twice a week. Do not leave standing water in the enclosure for more than a day or two to prevent it becoming dirty and a haven for certain protozoan parasites that may make your tortoise ill.
Cleaning and Disinfection
Be sure to throw out any soiled or moldy pellets daily and regularly change the entire substrate when using rabbit food pellets. Spot clean mulch daily. The cage should be thoroughly cleaned and substrate changed at least once a month.