Animal Information

What Is The Best Diet For My African Sulcata Tortoise?

We are often asked what sort of diet we provide. For the most part, we provide grass, weeds, and flowers. Then we add cactus, succulents, Mazuri Food products, and produce.

close up shot of a turtle
Photo by Radovan Zierik

But how much produce and how often you ask? the answer might surprise you. Not even once per week with many delicious edibles.

Many foods you find at the grocery store in the produce isle carry high water content that proves to be too much for these desert tortoises and their tiny livers.

Five common dietary problems

  1. Not providing enough fiber
  2. Providing too much protein
  3. Giving fruit or other sugary foods too often
  4. Not providing enough calcium, or the right calcium/phosphorus balance
  5. Generally overfeeding the tortoise

Sulcata tortoises have evolved to deal with harsh life in a semi-arid environment, Where the only food available for much of the year is dry grasses and weeds. Sulcata tortoises require a very high-fiber, grass-based diet to stay healthy. If you feed the wrong foods to your tortoise, it will grow too quickly, develop a bumpy, pyramided shell, and may develop other health problems that could drastically shorten its lifespan.

brown turtle
Photo by Adrijana

Grazing tortoise species such as leopard and sulcata rely on beneficial bacteria in their intestines to help them digest and extract nourishment from the grasses that they eat.  

If you give your tortoise large amounts of fruit, the acids and sugars in the fruit can actually change the pH of the tortoise’s digestive tract, and this pH change can cause the beneficial bacteria in the tortoise’s gut to die off. When large quantities of gut bacteria die, they release toxins that can cross the gut wall and enter the tortoise’s bloodstream, causing the tortoise to experience a form of Toxic Shock Syndrome that can be fatal.

Grasses and Hay 100% Of The Time!

Sulcata tortoises NEED access to grasses and hay on which to graze.  The bulk of their diet should be from pesticide and herbicide-free grass and grass cuttings, cheatgrass, clover, edible flowers (nasturtium, geraniums, hibiscus, rose petals), and shrubs.

wood light vacation picnic
Photo by Pixabay
  • Avoid feeding predominately alfalfa hay, as this is high in oxalates and can cause stone formation within the bladder, kidney failure and decrease life-span.
  • Grass hays to offer include Timothy, Meadow Grass, Oat Hay, Orchard grass.

Warning! It Is Harmful To Give Your Torts Hay That Has Mold! 

This Includes Food & Bedding!

Greens and Vegetables: 60% Of The Diet!

Leafy greens can be offered often. We suggest 40% of the veggie diet should include collard greens, kale, mustard, turnip, and dandelion greens. Limit greens that are high in oxalates, such as parsley, spinach, rhubarb, beet greens, and collard greens.

variety of vegetables
Photo by Ella Olsson

You have to be careful with Spinach, and collard greens. It is okay to feed these. But it should NOT be the only or bulk of the veggie greens! It is perfectly okay to feed these items one to five percent of the time. (1-5 times out of 100 times)

Other vegetables should be about 20% of the veggie diet. These can include grated raw carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, broccoli, corn on the cob; greens such as collards, dandelions, escarole, romaine, kale. 

You have to be careful with kale, and broccoli. It is okay to feed these. But it should NOT be the only or bulk of the veggie greens! It is perfectly okay to feed these items one to five percent of the time. (1-5 times out of 100 times)

Watch to see more!?

Fruits: 20% Of The Diet!

Fruits should be fed sparingly, as a treat. These tend to be high in sugar and water content, both of which sulcatas are not accustomed to receiving in the wild. 

apple apple tree apples branch
Photo by Tom Swinnen

Fruits that are appropriate to offer as treats include strawberries, chunks of organically grown bananas with skin, cantaloupe with rind attached, berries; peaches (no pits), apricots (no pits), pears, apples

Sulcata tortoises require a great deal of calcium in their diet to help them grow healthy bones and shells. The Sahel area of Africa where sulcata naturally occur is a semi-arid region that has calcium-rich soils. African Sulcata tortoises, therefore, get sufficient calcium by eating the grasses that grow in these calcium-laden soils.

Cuddle Up To A Cuddle Bone!

Sprinkle Some Extra Love!

In choosing a calcium supplement, make sure you choose one that does NOT contain Phosphorus. Calcium (CA) and Phosphorus (P) are both necessary to build healthy bone tissue.

However, the phosphorus available in most food items is used much more readily by the tortoise’s body than calcium, so you really don’t need to supply any additional phosphorus to your tortoise.

We recommend using a multivitamin supplement twice weekly.

Baby and smaller sulcatas have a harder time eating the tougher grass and hay because of their less powerful jaws.

Sulcatas respond to bright colors, so always include at least one vividly colored food in your selection. This also means that you must keep inedible brightly colored things away from them!

What Is Mazuri All About?

Mazuri is a world leader in quality exotic animal nutrition for virtually every living exotic animal.

All I know is we trusted this food source even before our veterinarian told us it was one of the most important things to include in the diet of tortoises, especially desert species. Click here to go to the Mazuri website to learn more about this diet.

What Foods Should You Avoid?

Certain foods contain oxalic acid compounds that prevent the body from absorbing calcium from food. You should AVOID feeding your African tortoise the following foods regularly because of the oxalic acids in them:

  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Mustard Greens
  • Cauliflower
  • Regularly is the keyword. If you have a small amount of any of these, you can feed it on occasion,

Avoid over-feeding your tortoise. Sulcata tortoises can experience a variety of health problems when they are fed the wrong food’s. Equally, they can also have problems when they are fed too much of the right foods.  Overfeeding is the single biggest mistake that most tortoise keepers make. Reptiles have slower metabolisms than mammals like dogs and cats, so they really do not need to take in as much food as you might think.

You should also consider the activity level of your tortoise. Can he go outdoors and walk around a secure yard every day? Or does he stay indoors on a small tortoise table? If your tortoise is mostly sedentary, he doesn’t need to be fed every day. Really! Every other day is fine, even though he may look up at you with pleading eyes in between feedings.

Click here to read our blog page that lists Bad Plants For Animals.

Click here to see why Soaking Your Tortoises is important!

RECAP!

Good choices to use as the main bulk

  • Collard, turnip, rape, and mustard greens
  • Kale, cabbage, kohl rabi, chard
  • Endive, Escarole, green-leaf, red-leaf lettuces
  • Red or curly lettuces
  • Arugula, rocket, ‘corn salad’, ‘lamb’s lettuce’
  • Parsley, watercress
  • Carrot or radish tops
  • Sprouts
  • Cactus pads
  • Mushrooms
  • Edible flowers
  • Fresh leafy spices- basil, etc.

Good choices to use occasionally

  • Papaya, figs, mango, kiwifruit, pomegranate and other ‘tropical‘ fruits
  • Pineapple
  • Melon, all kinds, including horned melon
  • Strawberry 
  • Cactus fruit
  • Cherries
  • Bell peppers, any color
  • Corn, especially on the cob
  • Squash, pumpkin

OK choices to use sparingly for variety

  • Iceberg, Romaine, Boston, bibb, and butter lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Celery
  • Peas, bean pods
  • Carrot (chopped or lightly cooked)
  • Zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower
  • Yams, sweet potatoes (shredded or lightly cooked)
  • Blueberry, blackberry, mulberry
  • Apple, pear, peach, plum, apricot
  • Banana, grapes
  • Cucumber
  • Tomatoes

Bad food choices. For one reason or another, we should avoid the following foods…

  • Hot peppers (too hot, they usually avoid these)
  • Most citrus fruits- other than occasional naval oranges (while some acid is fine, too much causes problems)
  • Fatty, salty, or sugary foods
  • Processed foods in general, unless meant for tortoises
  • Dairy products- milk, cheese, etc.
  • Bakery goods- other than occasional bread to treat protozoans, etc.
  • Tofu, soybeans
  • Olives, avocados, artichokes (Fatty, and avocados are dangerous for birds, so MAY have some risk for reptiles)
  • Root vegetables, such as beets, potatoes, etc.- other than occasional yams, sweet potatoes, and carrots
  • Citrus!!!

Free Range Grazing Tortoises Will Encounter 

  • Dandelions, chicory, plantain (the yard plant)
  • Purslane, clover, alfalfa, Timothy or other hay
  • Grape leaves
  • Mulberry and other fruit tree leaves, flowers, fruits
  • Leaves from ‘forest trees’ other than Oak
  • Mallow, rose, hibiscus, and pansy leaves
  • Flowers from any edible flower- rose, pansy, violet, dandelion, etc.
  • Cactus pads, fruits or flowers
  • Mushrooms, fungi
  • Worms, snails, slugs, millipedes, insect larvae, ‘bugs’
(Important: Avoid areas that may have been sprayed or treated with hazardous chemicals!)

Pet or feed store foods

  • Prepared tortoise chows, especially Mazuri Tortoise Diet, Zoo Med Natural Grassland Tortoise Food, Repcal Food, or Zoo Med Natural Forest Tortoise Food.
  • Freeze-dried plants, cactus, fruits or insects
  • Fresh, dried, cubed, or pelleted hay
  • Live or frozen baby or young mice and rats
  • Live or freeze-dried worms, slugs, snails, crickets, ‘Superworms’ or other invertebrates
  • Cuttlebone
  • Feeder fish
  • Canned, moist, or dry cat or dog foods (low fat)

Feed Your Tortoise Five Days Per Week Out Of Seven. Skip Any Two Days In Any Week.

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4 comments

    1. Well I’m no expert, but I think it would consist of mostly the same items, but skimp on the crunchier things because of their less powerful jaws. Hope this helps!

      1. You do not have to be an expert to care and have knowledge. I would say that is a great answer. But I am not an expert either.

        I had sent an answer to this question when it was asked but it went to the submitter via email and not on this page.

        I just fixed it if you are curious what I said to her question using what we have learned over the last few years. At one time we were told to toss some lettuce to little baby tortoises. Thankfully there is more good info out there than bad.

        Have the best night!

    2. Hi.

      For a baby sulcata I would feed Mazuri two times per week. It is just a few kibbles that are needed each time but this will bring the most health. We moisten the food for baby tortoises to make it easier to eat. Here is a link to show you the diet I recommend…
      https://amzn.to/3gT7WyF.

      We occasionally feed Repcal just to change things up. However, with the sulcata being a grassland species, I find Mazuri what I trust the most. Here is a link for Repcal incase you want to check it out… https://amzn.to/2Z6tn98

      After that, we feed Opuntia Prickly pear, thistles, leafy greens, flowers such as hibiscus, and then maybe two or three times a month we will provide something like Papaya or squash.

      You can feed any of these as much as the sulcata wants to eat at any time and in any order. I recommend five days our of seven days a week and it does not matter which two days you skip.

      For the most part, we forage around our own yard for what this type of tortoise needs and oddly purchasing a bunch of foods from the grocery is not the best option. They would be far healthier on weeds than on produce.

      Never feed the baby sulcata things like fruit as it turns into sugar much like a diabetic human. Try to avoid things like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and bok choy.

      Do not feed too much cucumber as it has too much water for the desert species.

      Thank you for the question, it is awesome to raise a sulcata. As you know they are really a remarkable species of animal. But many grow them with pyramiding shells. Most important is that skipping of a day or two each week as an overfed tortoise will grow wrongly.

      Feel free to ask other questions as you grow with your sulcata!

Let us know your ideas and comments below!

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