Laurie is an animal lover who enjoys observing, researching, and writing about both pets and wildlife.
Basic Diet of a Sulcata Tortoise
Sulcatas need a high-fiber, low-protein, calcium-rich diet. Along with fresh water, the most important staple in your sulcata's diet is grass. They are grazers, much like a cow, and they love to walk all day lazily munching on it. Try to feed them at least 80% grass and 20% flowering plants, succulents, and weeds.
In the summer months, you can easily go out into your own yard (untreated with chemicals) with scissors and a bucket and simply cut your own grass! Most types of grass that grow in yards are fine.
In the winter months in places where grass stops growing, you can replace your sulcata's grass with timothy or orchard hay. Most pet stores and large department stores like Wal-Mart will carry these hays, although the cheapest route is buying in bulk at a farm supply store. You can also shop online and have them delivered.
Another good grass option in the wintertime is Mazuri Tortoise Diet, a dried grass pellet type food that sulcatas love. You can simply put these pellets in a dish and spray them lightly to soften them up for younger sulcatas if you wish.
In addition to grasses, it is important that calcium be supplied to ensure good bone and shell growth. In the wild, sulcatas will eat plants found growing in calcium-rich soil, thereby getting the calcium from that. Often they'll eat bits of soil that contains calcium while eating plant roots. They also seek out and eat bleached bones and desert-dwelling snail shells to supplement themselves.
As our pets, they only have what we give them. You can give them a powdered supplement, but it's easy to overdose them. The safest bet is giving them access to cuttlefish bones as they will eat them as they need it.
There are many other plants and flowers that can be fed on a regular basis (following the 80%–20% rule) to provide valuable nutrients and variety. Some of these safe foods are listed below.
- African Violet Saintpaulia
- Air Plant Tillandsia
- Astilbe Astilbe spp.
- Boston Fern Nephrolepsis exaltata
- Campanula Campanula persicifolia, Campanula medium, Campanula lactiflora
- Cat Grass
- Carex carex spp.
- Coleus Coleus spp. Now - Solenostemon/Plectranthus
- Couchgrass Elymus repens, syn. Elytrigia repens; Agropyron repens; Triticum repens
- Creeping Thistle Cirsium arvense
- Purple Dead Nettle Lamium purpureum; Lamium maculatum (Don't confuse with Henbit or Black Horehound)
- Diascia Diascia spp.
- Echeveria (Hens and Chicks) Echeveria spp.
- Forget-Me-Not Myosotis spp.
- Friendship Plant Pilea mollis; P. involucrata; P. crassifolia
- Gasteria Gasteria spp.
- Geranium Geranium
- Ground Elder Aegopodium podagraria
- Haworthia Haworthia spp.
- Heartleaf Iceplant Aptenia cordifolia
- Hibiscus (Rose of Sharon) Hibiscus syriacus & spp.
- Hollyhock Alcea rosea
- Ice Plant Sedum spectabile; Hylotelephium spectabile
- Kidney Weed Dichondra spp.
- Knapweed Centaurea scabiosa; C. nigra; C. stoebe and spp.
- Lady's Purse Calceolaria spp.
- Lamb's Lettuce Valerianella locusta; syn. Valerianella olitoria
- Lavatera Lavatera plebia
- Lilac Syringa spp.
- Maize (Leaves only, not the corn)
- Mallow Malva spp.
- Marigold Calendula spp.
- Marjoram Origanum majorana
- Millet Panicum miliaceum (No seeds)
- Mind-Your-Own-Business Soleirolia soleirolii
- Mint Mentha sachalinensis; M. spicata, M. sauveolens
- Mulberry Tree Morus spp.; Broussonetia papyrifera
- Musk Mallow Malva Moschata
- Navelwort Umbilicus rupestris
- Opuntia Cactus Opuntia spp.
- Oregano Origanum vulgare spp.
- Pampas Grass Cortaderia selloana
- Pansy Viola x wittrockiana/Viola tricolor hortensis
- Plantain Plantago spp. (Not the banana-like fruit)
- Prayer Plant Maranta leuconeura; Calathea spp.
- Red Valerian Centranthus ruber; Centranthus ruber 'albus'
- Scotch Thistle Onopordum acanthium
- Sedum Sedum spp
- Spear Thistle Cirsium vulgare
- Spider Plant Chlorophytum comosum
- Spiraea Spiraea spp.
- Thyme Thymus ssp
- Viola Viola spp.
- Violet Viola spp.
- Water Hyacinth Eichhornia spp; esp. Eichhornia crassipes
- White Petunia
- Yellow Archangel Lamium galeobdolon; Lamium galeobdolon argentatum
- Zinnia Zinnia spp.
There are far more plants and weeds that are toxic to your tortoise. To see a complete list, please visit The Tortoise Table.
Never feed your sulcata most fruits or vegetables as they have too much water, vitamins, and/or sugars for the sulcata to digest properly! Pumpkin is okay as a special treat along with yellow zucchini, grape leaves, and watermelon rinds.
Absolutely do not feed your sulcata dog or cat food (yes this happens). While wild sulcatas may occasionally eat carrion, they are herbivores and only need vegetation to thrive. Their bodies cannot break down proteins.
Feeding your sulcata the right foods is imperative to their good health and long life. The results of poor diets can be seen in the photos below.
When to Feed and How Much
Feeding a sulcata is pretty simple! You let him/her graze in their yard all day and supply them with their additional foods (listed above) a few times a week. They should grow slow and steady, too much or too little can cause pyramiding. If your tortoise is still indoors, feed them a pile of the approved foods as big as they are daily.
Always make sure your sulcata has access to fresh water (not including daily soakings). There is a myth that, because they're a desert species, they don't require water and this is simply not true and can cause illness in your pet.
To learn more about caring for your sulcata, check out this article! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post it below!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2017 Laurie Bennett
Laurie Bennett (author) on May 22, 2019:
Chopped grass dampened with water :) You can also feed him a smaller bit of chopped dandelion greens, ribwort plantain, dandelion flowers and white mulberry leaves. His main diet should consist of grass
Rick A. on May 03, 2019:
I have a smaller baby Sulcata what would be the best greens ro feed him?
Laurie Bennett (author) on September 14, 2017:
So glad you enjoyed the article Bill! Keep in mind that all tortoise species have different needs and this article only applies to the sulcata. Sulcatas grow to over 180lbs! To learn more about them before adopting one, check out this article https://pethelpful.com/reptiles-amphibians/Caring-...
Bill on July 04, 2017:
Thanks a lot its very helpful now I mite get one
Laurie Bennett (author) on June 20, 2017:
Oh wow! What an awesome find!
Blitzy Cain on June 17, 2017:
My cat Brutus kept charging the base of a plant after landscaper used a brush hog to mow down 4' weeds covering back yard ~~ when I investigated I found a small (.4 lbs.) African tortoise!! My niece has a 35 pounder "Tank" she received as a gift a year ago and she is thrilled for me. So in addition to 4 rescue cats and 1 rescue dog I now welcome a tortoise! ;))