Erica Mede, CVT
and edited by Susan Horton, DVM
and large, these gentle giants will move furniture, plants, and
anything that they find to be in their way.
The Swahili call these animals, “tortoise of the
elders” due to their long life span and others refer to this
grassland tortoise as the Mountain tortoise.
This animal will grow to be a large and long lived pet that
will need large amounts of room and food to remain healthy in your
and shelters are inundated with these animals and most are no
longer accepting new animals due to over crowding.
If you are interested in this tortoise, consider adopting a
juvenile or an adult from a reptile shelter or supporting a local
are two subspecies of Leopard tortoise: the Stigmachelys
pardalis pardalis which is
the most common species found in captivity, and the Stigmachelys pardalis babcocki.
Leopard tortoises are found in eastern and southern
The climate is dry and hot and the terrain is rocky with
plains of dry or moist savanna, dry forests, thorn brush and
grass. A burrowing
tortoise, the burrows can be 30 feet deep with chambers to turn
around in. The burrows
protect the tortoises from temperature change, predators, flood,
and brushfire. This is
not a hibernating species!
carapace (top shell) is domed with steep sides with conically
domed vertebral scutes or “humps” to assist the tortoise in
righting itself if it is knocked over on to its back.
The carapace is generally whitish, cloudy yellow to light
brown, reddish brown, or olive with scattered dark brown to black
spots, speckles, and streaks.
The pattern does however fade with age.
The plastron (bottom shell) is a yellowish color with black
speckles and streaks radiating from the center.
The average carapace length for this species is 12-18
inches long but has been known to grow up to 31 inches.
The skin of the Leopard tortoise is generally yellow or
the skin will have black spots.
The rear legs have large, conical spurs on the heel.
The back side of the rear legs also has two very large
Juveniles have a rounded and relatively flat carapace.
The carapace is generally a dull yellow with reddish brown
to black margins. Growth
during the first few months of life is slow with accelerated
growths around 21-33 months of age.
At three years of age most will weigh around a kilogram
(2.2 pounds) and five kilograms at 12 years old.
Once the tortoises are sexually mature the rate of growth
The Leopard tortoise has three defense mechanisms.
The first is to retract the limbs under the shell.
The second is to hiss loudly.
If the tortoise is picked up it will urinate copiously
which is the third defense mechanism.
male Leopard tortoise has a longer, thicker tail and the plastron
scutes directly above the tail are pointed and appear to be the
letter “V’. The
female has a shorter tail than the mail and the plastron scutes
directly above the tail are long and rounded like the letter
“U”. Males are
also notably smaller than females.
tortoises are diurnal often retreating to shelter once dark.
Logs and bushes make excellent shelters as do turned over
cement mixing trays with a door cut out, wooden hide boxes, etc.
All enclosures should be tortoise proof.
Solid wood trim or ram resistant bricks are essential for
indoor and outdoor enclosures larger than aquarium tanks. As
the tortoise grows, a custom built wooden enclosure will be
Substrate for young tortoises should be rather simple and
easily cleaned. The
most recommended substrate for juveniles is reptile carpet or
butcher paper with hay on top of it. Rabbit
pellets are frequently used in the pet trade for hatchlings to
juveniles but recently has been found to cause deformities in
these fast growers due to improper positioning of limbs in
adults should be housed with hay substrate for their outdoor and
indoor enclosures as well. Daily
spot cleaning is required with a complete substrate change every
2-3 weeks. Gravid
females (females with eggs) may require a dig box of dirt and sand
to lay their eggs. Rocks,
tree trunks, boulders, and roots create obstacles and mental
the rainy season, the temperature is between 82° and 95°
F. This is best
reproduced in a green house set-up or with circulatory heaters.
Metal vapor bulbs are excellent for the bright lighting and
F basking spot for large adult enclosures.
At night the temperatures should be around 68-86°F. Proper
ventilation will prevent over heating but drafts need to be
The lighting in the cage should replicate the lighting of
the wild. There should
be a high level of illumination and heat.
Adults with large pens will require several UVB bulbs.
All tortoises should be exposed to UVB light or natural
sunlight for at least 8 hours a day and total illumination for
10-14 hours. Relative
humidity of 40-60% is ideal during the day and 70-80% at night
which can be accomplished by misting the substrate at night.
Hatchlings can be kept in a 10 gallon tank and increased in
size from there. Remember,
as your tortoise grows he will need a custom enclosure!
This is not a species that can be kept in aquariums all
their lives. Many
people think they will not outgrow their cage like goldfish.
In both instances, of the tortoise and the goldfish, this
is false and they will continue to grow despite cramped
hatchlings grow they will need a two foot by two foot cage up to a
four foot by eight foot cage.
A turtle table is an excellent set-up and many plans for
these enclosures can be found on the internet.
Indoor enclosures should be spacious and heated.
Adults will require brick, concrete, and armored glass.
Some people use heated basements or attics where the whole
or at least most of the space can be dedicated to the tortoise
enclosure space should be at least four times the carapace length.
If two animals are being kept together, double the size of
the enclosure and add an additional 10% for each animal after
enclosures should be large, sunny, and protected from the wind and
adjoining spacious and heatable building is required if the
tortoise is to remain outdoors year round.
Remember, the driest season in the mid-western
is like the
rainy season in its natural African habitat.
Some people use a green house to house their tortoise.
Leopard tortoises can learn to use a rubber flap dog door.
The enclosure should be free of large trees or high shrubs
that will create large areas of shade.
Check with your local authorities before constructing any
outdoor pen as permits may be required.
If the temperature is constantly below 60°F
degrees bring the tortoise inside.
The fence to any out door area should be at least 12-24
inches into the ground and at least 18-24 inches in height.
A word of caution, escape attempts never cease and these
tortoises will climb wire mesh fences.
is the most important aspect of tortoise care and sadly, one of
the most neglected and misunderstood.
Remember, you are what you eat, if you want a healthy and
fully developed tortoise you must feed it healthy and appropriate
foods. Feeding foods
to high in fat and protein will cause accelerated growth, shell
deformities, and other health problems that will severely shorten
the life of your pet. Never
feed bread, cookies, oats, pasta, rice, or cat/dog food!
These are harmful to your pet’s nutrition and health!
The primary portion (85%) of the Leopard tortoise diet
should be grass and hay high in fiber.
Grasses, weeds, leaves, and flowers are essential to good
deficiency leads to metabolic bone disease and diarrhea while also
making them susceptible to parasites.
A pasture of grass, dandelion, herbs, and clover outdoors
is the best option for these animals.
If a pasture is restricted due to size, fresh cut works as
grass/hay, timothy grass/hay, and Bermuda grass/hay are excellent
especially during those winter months when the tortoise may be
housed inside. Leopard
tortoises should be given as much opportunity to graze outdoors as
Vegetables and fruit should be fed out in smaller portions.
Vegetables should make up no more than 10% of the diet and
fruit never more than 5% of the diet.
Too much fruit will cause diarrhea and colic.
Chopped salads are an excellent way to ensure a tortoise
does not pick out their favorite foods only.
Vegetables for human consumption are high in protein and
fruits are high in sugar both of which in excess are harmful to
your tortoise. Moderation
is key in this case. Dark
leafy greens, endive, and cactus pads are favorites as well as
Calcium supplements should be given to adult tortoises two
times a week. Actively
reproductive females should be given the calcium every day while
gravid until they lay their eggs.
Calcium supplements should not have phosphorous in it.
Juveniles should be given calcium four times a week and
vitamin-mineral supplements once a week until growing slows.
Hatchlings are given vitamin-mineral supplements once a
week and calcium daily.
Clean, fresh water should always be available to Leopard
tortoises have an ability to store substantial amounts of fluid
and also to discharge the substantial amounts of fluid as a
defense mechanism as well. Soaking
weekly is recommended. Water
should be provided in a shallow water hole, pan or bowl depending
on the enclosure.
(Metabolic Bone Disease) – This disease occurs for many reasons
with the most common being hypocalcemia (decreased calcium in the
body). This can cause
shell deformities, bone deformities, constipation, and even death
in your tortoise. This
dietary disease is correctable but the damage to the body may not
be reversed. Please,
make an appointment with Chicago Exotics if you notice any shell
- Leopard tortoises typically feed well until mid-December when
they will retreat into the corner of the enclosure and sometimes
refuse food. This is
natural and normal. When
this happens make sure that all temperatures are appropriate.
If this persists past February, nasal discharge is seen, or
diarrhea occurs, contact Chicago Exotics for an appointment.
Your tortoise can become infested or already have endoparasites.
These, if left untreated can be destructive to the health
of your pet. If you
notice anorexia, diarrhea or extreme lethargy please contact
Chicago Exotics for an appointment.
– This is a form of MBD. The
shell has a build up of keratin becoming tall pillars before
becoming soft and flattening.
Liver and kidney disease can occur with this as well.
Avoid lack of exercise, dehydration, grain based diets,
fiber deficiency, and too much food.
This is common in the
If you see signs of pyramiding call Chicago Exotics for an