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Leopard Tortoise Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

Common Name:Leopard Tortoise
Scientific Name:Stigmochelys pardalis
Life Span:Up to 100 years
Size:From 2 inches (hatchlings) to 18 inches (adults)
Habitat:Savannas
Country of Origin:Africa

Physical Description

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The Leopard Tortoise is appropriately named. It actually gets the “leopard” in its name because of the yellow-brown markings that can be found on its attractively-designed shell or carapace. The markings on the individual scutes (or plates) may vary from tortoise to tortoise but they are mostly yellowish rectangular patterns that have smaller inner rectangular marks or blotches that can be dark brown or even black. These marks line a carapace that is dark brown or almost black in color. There are times that the marks can be dashes or stripes. In this sense, looking at a Leopard Tortoise will almost remind you of the spots of an actual leopard.

A Leopard Tortoise’s shell is high and domed and can vary in appearance from time to time. The shell actually resembles a pyramid because the individual scutes protrude in such a way that they can sometimes form their own structures on the entire carapace.  Some Leopard Tortoises have scutes that protrude higher while there are those that tend to have scutes that are quite flat. Meanwhile, the body of a Leopard Tortoise can be yellow or cream. The skin is lined with light yellow spots.

There is nothing really unique about the head of a Leopard Tortoise except for a mouth that is sharp and almost beak-like in terms of appearance. This feature is different from all other tortoise species that have rounder mouths or flat beaks.

Leopard Tortoises have paddle-shaped front legs and thick hind legs that are almost trunk-like in appearance. The strength of their legs, as well as the way they are built, allow them to move across rough rocky terrains with ease. 

Female Leopard Tortoises have plastrons (bottom side of the carapace) that tend to be flat. Meanwhile, the males differ in the sense that their plastrons are concave and rounder. The male Leopard Tortoise also has a longer tail, which is a common trait in most other male tortoise species.

Lifespan 

The Leopard Tortoise is one of the longest living species of tortoise in the entire world. You can expect these reptiles to easily outlive a lot of animals. So long as you provide them with a healthy diet that is composed of nutritious greens and vegetables, Leopard Tortoises can live at least 50 years. There have been reports of some of these reptiles to live about a hundred years. In that sense, a Leopard Tortoise can also easily outlive most humans so long as they are cared for well enough. The longer lifespan of a Leopard Tortoise also means that it goes through the different stages of its life slower than most other reptiles. It also tends to grow at a slow and steady pace and may need decades before it reaches its full mature size.

Eating Habits

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The Leopard Tortoise may look like an actual leopard when you look at its color and its blotches but it actually is far from one in terms of its diet. This reptile, like most other tortoises, prefers to eat grass,  vegetation, and the occasional fruit. That means that the Leopard Tortoise is an herbivore or a plant-eater. Its diet is mostly composed of any kind of green it can set its sights on. So long as it is green and healthy enough, a plant will be part of a Leopard Tortoise’s regular diet.

Leopard Tortoises, in the wild, are natural grazers. They love grazing in their natural habitat and will eat grasses or other types of greens and vegetables. These reptiles prefer to feed on grass that is high in fiber. That means that you should regularly feed them with pesticide-free grass and even the type of hay that horses love to feed on. As long as you have grass regularly growing in their enclosures, you can be sure that your Leopard Tortoise has a steady source of food it can munch on whenever it feels the need to eat.

In addition to grazing, Leopard Tortoises also love to eat vegetables. You can feed these reptiles with greens such as collard, mustard, dandelion, and even flowers. Grape leaves, mulberry tree leaves, squash, carrots, peppers, pumpkins, sweet potato, and even mushrooms can also form part of their diet. However, vegetables should only be secondary to grass in their diet. You should only feed them vegetables when you want to supplement their regular grazing with healthy and nutrient-rich options. Fruits can be an occasional treat. You can feed them with apples, tomatoes, watermelons, honeydew melons, strawberries, grapes, and bananas. However, fruits should be composed of no more than 5% of your Leopard Tortoise’s regular diet.

There are commercial tortoise feeds that you can also use as a source of food for your Leopard Tortoise. However, a lot of experts would discourage you from using commercial feeds as the main source of nutrients for your Leopard Tortoise because they are mostly starch. You can still use commercial feeds to add a bit of variety in your Leopard Tortoise’s diet but make sure that you stay natural as much as possible by letting them graze and feed on grass and other types of healthy and fiber-rich greens. Also, try to avoid feeding them with protein-rich animal food because this can potentially damage their kidneys since they were not built to metabolize larger quantities of protein.

To make sure that your Leopard Tortoise gets a lot of calcium and vitamin D3, it is important for you to supplement their diet with calcium powder or vitamin D3 products. This helps them develop strong and healthy bones and avoid suffering from metabolic bone disease, which can potentially do a lot of harm to their bone and carapace health. However, there are certain experts that believe that calcium and vitamin D3 supplementation is no longer necessary as long as you are providing your Leopard Tortoise with ample exposure to an ultraviolet B light source. 

Hatchlings or young Leopard Tortoises should be fed regularly and daily. Meanwhile, as they get older, these reptiles should be fed less often. Mature adults can be fed once every other day or so. You can opt to feed them daily but you may want to decrease the servings.

Water

The Leopard Tortoise loves drinking water from pools or dishes. In an outdoor environment, you can dispense the need to use a water dish if you happen to be living in a climate that has constant rainfall. Your Leopard Tortoise will be able to get its water from puddles or from leaves that caught water. They also love soaking their bodies in water to keep stay hydrated. The puddles of water also add some much-needed humidity in their outdoor enclosures.

But if you are housing your Leopard Tortoises in an indoor enclosure, the best way to provide them with the water they need is a water dish that is big and shallow enough for them to use it for both drinking and soaking. Having a dish that is large enough also helps control the humidity level in the enclosure. Make sure that the water dish is not too deep because there is a danger that your Leopard Tortoise will end up getting stuck in it. Meanwhile, for hatchings, it is best that you soak them with warm water about twice a week because they tend to get dehydrated quicker than bigger and more mature Leopard Tortoises.

It is important to regularly change the water in the dish with a fresh batch because Leopard Tortoises love to defecate in their water source. To avoid infections, keep an eye on the water dish and make sure you not only replace the water but also sanitize the dish by using a commercial solution or simply vinegar and water.

Development and Reproduction

Leopard Tortoises have a really long lifespan. That also means that these reptiles tend to grow at a slow and steady pace compared to other species of tortoises and reptiles. In that regard, it will take some time for the Leopard Tortoise to reach sexual maturity. When kept in captivity, they will need about 6 to 8 years to reach sexual maturity. In the wild, they will need about 12 to 15 years to reach sexual maturity because they tend to grow slower when they are not kept in captivity. However, that also means that they tend to live longer in the wild as there are reports of wild Leopard Tortoises living up to a hundred years.

Having a Leopard Tortoise of about 6 to 8 years old does not mean that you should try to breed them at those ages. You may have to wait until they are longer than 12 inches before you start to think about breeding them. After all, the size of the Leopard Tortoise is a much more important determinant than its age when it comes to knowing when they are ready for breeding. In that case, there might be a need for you to wait at least a decade especially if your reptile is not growing at a quick pace. It is important that you wait for them to reach a certain size before you try to have them reproduce. In the same way, just because your Leopard Tortoise is already big enough, it does not mean that it is ready for breeding if it has not yet reached a mature age. Both size and age must coincide with one another. 

How to Breed

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Before you start breeding your Leopard Tortoise, make sure that you are choosing two reptiles that are both mature in age and size. They should be healthy as well as free from any kind of disease or infection to make the breeding process easier.

Because the Leopard Tortoise does not brumate or hibernate and are most active throughout the entire year, you do not have to wait until after the hibernation season to try to make them reproduce. They usually are sexually active from October to May however, there are certain factors that come into play when it comes to inducing their need to reproduce. The rainy season, temperature changes, and the change in the photoperiod all play a role when it comes to the reproduction cycle of Leopard Tortoises.

Normally a very quiet and peaceful creature, the male Leopard Tortoise will try to fight off other males for the female’s attention especially if you are housing your tortoises in one single enclosure. This is probably the only time when the Leopard Tortoise becomes an aggressive reptile. Once it gets the attention of the female, it may also try to ram the female in an attempt to court.

Eventually, the female Leopard Tortoise learns to submit to the advances of the male and will allow him to mount her. During the mounting process, the male will once again show a different side in the sense that he will be extra noisy even though he normally is a very quiet reptile. 

Common Health Problems

Though very hardy regardless of whether they are kept in captivity or are left alone in the wild, these resilient and healthy reptiles still do have some common health problems that can cause different types of illnesses and could potentially shorten their lifespan or lead to an early death. As such, here are some of the common health problems that Leopard Tortoises often encounter:

Respiratory diseases

It is extremely common in a lot of different reptiles species to be suffering from respiratory diseases. Illnesses in connection to this are often caused by bacterial infections in the Leopard Tortoise’s enclosure or habitat. So if you do not regularly clean the reptile’s enclosure, there is a good chance that they will suffer from respiratory diseases. Cold weather and too much humidity in the air can also affect their health and cause different types of respiratory infections.

If your Leopard Tortoise is often wheezing and is breathing heavily from the mouth because of the presence of mucus in their nose, then there must be something wrong with them. There are times when they will feel lethargic and will refuse to eat when they are suffering from respiratory infections.

Anorexia

Leopard Tortoises are often heavy eaters all year long and will most likely eat as much as they can. However, for one odd reason or another, they usually fall into an odd state from December up to February. During that time, there will be moments when they will refuse to eat and will often retreat to a corner doing nothing. This might be caused by the fall of temperatures.

This kind of behavior can potentially lead to anorexia and other serious health concerns because of their refusal to eat. In some cases, this might be an offshoot of respiratory infections caused by falling temperatures.

Parasites

It is common for Leopard Tortoises to be suffering from internal and external parasites. They can easily contract these parasites from different sources. Internal parasites usually infest the reptile from the food that they eat or from the wild if you have a tortoise that was just recently caught. Meanwhile, external parasites can be acquired from other reptiles and from poor sanitation.

While usually resilient against internal parasites, the Leopard Tortoise’s immune system can easily weaken when they are in the middle of a stressful condition. That is why wild-caught Leopard Tortoises often suffer from internal parasites because adjusting to a new environment can be very stressful for them.

Metabolic bone disease

Metabolic bone disease is a common illness in a lot of reptiles. This happens when they are not getting ample calcium or vitamin D3. Those left in the outdoors can get ample calcium and vitamin D3 from the rays of the sun. However, Leopard Tortoises housed indoors can easily suffer from this disease if they are not getting ample ultraviolet B lights or calcium and vitamin D3 supplementation. Metabolic bone disease can lead to weak bones and shells.

Preventing Illness

The best way to actually make sure that your Leopard Tortoise is not exposed to the risk of suffering from different types of illnesses is to give them living conditions that are suitable for their species as well as clean and sanitary as well. Keep their enclosures clean and free from harmful bacteria by regularly cleaning it and by sanitizing their water dish. This prevents different types of bacteria and parasites from entering your Leopard Tortoise’s internal systems. Providing them with a good diet and enough supplementation may also be essential to keep them healthy and thriving.

In all other cases, it might be better to bring your Leopard Tortoise to a vet that specializes in reptiles and other exotic pets. You can do this as early as when your reptile shows any signs or symptoms of illnesses. You may also bring them to a nearby vet for preventive reasons even though your Leopard Tortoises might be healthy.

Behavior

Leopard Tortoises are very peaceful reptiles that almost never show any signs of aggression not only towards humans but towards other males or females as well. That means that it is safe for you to house more than one Leopard Tortoise in the same enclosure to save time and money. These reptiles are also very shy and will more than likely retreat to a corner. They are also pretty defensive and will try to find any ways to feel safe whenever they are in the company of other animals. Leopard Tortoises typically do not like being in the same room with dogs and cats.

Here are some of the other things that Leopard Tortoises are known to do

Withdrawing

The most common way for Leopard Tortoises to feel safe is by withdrawing their heads and limbs into their carapaces especially when they feel like they are being threatened by an incoming attacker. These are shy reptiles that do not only like getting handled but are also pretty afraid of humans and other domesticated pets.

Hissing

It is very common and normal for Leopard Tortoises to be hissing whenever they withdraw into their shell. This is not a way of scaring off attackers but is really most likely the result of air escaping from the carapace when the lungs get squeezed while they are retracting their limbs into the shell.

Biting

If you are not careful when feeding your Leopard Tortoise using your hand, one of your fingers might end up getting bitten. While these reptiles are not aggressive, it is very easy for them to mistake a finger for food while you are feeding them. As such, it is common for bigger and more mature Leopard Tortoises to accidentally bite your fingers. But keep in mind that they do not bite as a result of aggression.

Hibernation Cycle

Because Leopard Tortoises are native to places with a warm and temperate climate, these reptiles do not hibernate. There is no winter season from where they are from. Instead, they are active throughout the entire year even during the winter season.  That said, Leopard Tortoises can undergo a period of decreased activity and poor appetite especially when the season gets cold. You better watch out for them during the winter season because they get extra lazy and lethargic. At some points, they might even refuse to eat. In that case, you should keep the temperatures up to make sure that they do not fall into such a state during the cold seasons.

Shedding

Leopard Tortoises are still reptiles. That means that they will normally undergo a period of shedding especially when they are still young and constantly growing. The younger Leopard Tortoises will shed more commonly than mature adults because of how they are still growing into their bodies. Although slow, a juvenile Leopard Tortoise will add an inch or two every year. That means that it is normal for them to shed their skin from time to time, although it can be a rare sight because of how slow the Leopard Tortoise is at growing. To help make shedding easier for your reptile, try to keep the humidity levels up so that their skin will not end up too try for them to shed.

Habitat

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For those living in a region with a warm climate that is almost tropical, it might be a good idea to house Leopard Tortoises in an enclosure outdoors. Creating an outdoor habitat for a Leopard Tortoise is as easy as putting up wooden fences about a foot and a half high in an area that has a lot of space. You can opt for an enclosure that is at least 10 feet in length and in width to make sure that your Leopard Tortoises have enough space to roam around.

The great thing about an outdoor enclosure is that you will have more space for your Leopard Tortoise and that you will be relying a lot on nature to provide everything that your reptile needs. You can use the outdoor soil as your substrate and you can also rely on naturally growing grass for the greens that your Leopard Tortoise needs. The most important part here is the sunlight they are getting because it not only saves you a lot of money since you no longer need to invest in lighting but it also provides them with the ultraviolet B lights they need to develop strong bones. So, if you are housing them outdoors, you also do not need to supplement their diet with calcium and vitamin D3.

An outdoor enclosure also requires a more natural feel to it. Go and create a hide box where your Leopard Tortoise can go to retreat whenever it feels unsafe or shy. You can also provide them with shrubs, grasses, or other greens to not only provide them with a constant supply of food but to also give them a way to protect themselves from the elements. 

If you are housing your Leopard Tortoise indoors, you can use a large plastic tub or an aquarium that is about six feet long and wide and is a food and a half tall. Indoor enclosures require the same kind of greens and shrubs as outdoor enclosures but you might not be able to find a lot of success growing such plants indoors because of the lack of available lighting and moisture.

Lighting and Humidity

Leopard Tortoises are mostly active during the day and are sedentary and asleep during the night. They require a light schedule of 12 hours a day. That means that those that are housed outdoors can benefit from the natural light schedule of the sun. In fact, Leopard Tortoises that live in outdoor enclosures do not need extra lighting because the sun is all that they need to get the ample amounts of ultraviolet B lights their bodies require to stay strong and healthy.

For those who house their Leopard Tortoises indoors, it is best to use two light sources. The first one should be an ultraviolet B lamp that should be placed in the cooler part of the enclosure. This light source provides the Leopard Tortoise with ultraviolet B supplementation but it might not be as ample as what the sun provides. The other type of light should be a heat lamp to provide your Leopard Tortoise with the heat they need to thrive well. It should be placed in their basking area.

As to humidity levels, outdoor enclosures usually rely on the rain to provide the Leopard Tortoise a habitat that is humid because it may leave behind pools of rainwater or damp soil. For those housed indoors, it might be best to use different methods to keep humidity levels over 50% but not more than 60% as it might cause respiratory infections. Use a large yet shallow water dish to improve humidity levels. Also, you can mist the enclosure with water from time to time to make sure that the conditions do not get too dry for your Leopard Tortoise.

Temperature

Leopard Tortoises rely on external heat to keep their cold-blooded bodies warm. In the case of these reptiles, they also come from warm and temperate regions. That means that it is best to provide them with an enclosure that is quite warm. You should make sure that their habitat has daytime temperatures of over 80 degrees Fahrenheit but not more than 90. At night, temperatures should never fall below 65 degrees. In case the season gets too cold, use a heating pad instead of a heat lamp at night to keep the heat up.

Sanitation

It is essential for you to keep the Leopard Tortoise’s enclosure clean and sanitary to keep it away from illnesses associated with poor living conditions and bad hygiene. For starters, indoor enclosures should be kept tidy. Their water must be replaced regularly because of how they tend to defecate in it. You should best use cleaning solutions to sanitize their water dishes. The substrate must also be replaced from time to time to make sure that no parasites or bacteria stay in place.

Natural Environment – Substrate

Using a good substrate is a great way of giving your Leopard Tortoise a natural feel in its habitat. In that case, you may want to rely on outdoor garden soil when housing them outdoors. You can line their enclosures with newspapers. Meanwhile, indoor enclosures can also rely on garden soil but grass and hay are also good options. Try to avoid using sand and gravel because they might damage your Leopard Tortoise’s shell.

Hydration

The best way to keep your Leopard Tortoise hydrated when they are housed indoors is by using a large water dish that is quite shallow to prevent them from getting stuck in it when they are soaking their entire body. However, if you are housing them outdoors, you have can still use a large water dish but you can also rely on puddles from rainwater if you happen to live in a region with constant rainfall. Keeping your Leopard Tortoise well-hydrated is important when it comes to their overall health because they are often exposed to heat.

Availability – Where to Get One?

There are plenty of captive-bred Leopard Tortoises available for sale in many exotic pet shops and reptile specialty stores both in your locality or online. It will be difficult to look for imported wild-caught Leopard Tortoises because it was banned almost two decades ago due to some glaring concerns. Before the ban, most people got their hands on their Leopard Tortoises through import. However, today, the best way to get them is from breeders who were able to breed Leopard Tortoises imported to the United States prior to the ban.

How to Care for a Russian Tortoise?

Here are some tips on how to care for a Leopard Tortoise:

  • Leopard Tortoises are shy creatures that are easily afraid of other household animals. That means that you should best keep them away from other domesticated pets such as cats or dogs. At times, they will also be afraid of you. So make sure to give them their space so as to prevent a stressful situation for them.
  • Housing your Leopard Tortoise outdoors is the most affordable way of taking care of these reptiles because you are merely relying on nature to provide them with most of their needs. However, only do so if you are in a region that has a climate suitable for Leopard Tortoises.
  • If you want to save money, you can house multiple Leopard Tortoises in a single enclosure because these are typically peaceful creatures that only get aggressive with one another during mating season.
  • To prevent diseases that come from water-borne bacteria, always keep an eye on their water dish because they love to defecate in them while soaking. It is best to sterilize the dish using a solution to make sure that it is bacteria-free.

FAQ Section

What should I feed my Leopard Tortoise?

Leopard Tortoises are herbivores. They will only eat greens, vegetations, and the occasional fruit, so you best be sure to keep them away from grains and meat because their bodies will not be able to digest such food.

Can Leopard Tortoises swim?

Leopard Tortoises actually love to swim while they submerge their bodies in the water. They can stay underwater for about 10 minutes and they can use their thick paddle-like legs to swim around.

How humid should a Leopard Tortoise’s enclosure be?

Leopard Tortoises need to be in environments that are humid so that they can stay hydrated. They need humidity levels of above 40% but not more than 60% so as to prevent illnesses brought about by damp conditions.

Can Leopard Tortoises live together in the same enclosure?

Leopard Tortoises are generally peaceful reptiles that are not territorial. In that sense, they can safely live with other Leopard Tortoises in the same enclosure without much trouble at all.

Can you handle Leopard Tortoise?

You can handle a Leopard Tortoise but these reptiles are generally very shy. They will most likely retreat into their shells when you try to handle them.

How long can a Leopard Tortoise go without food?

Leopard Tortoises need to be constantly fed. That means that they might be able to go without food for only a few days.

Do Leopard Tortoises hibernate?

Since Leopard Tortoises come from warm climates that do not experience winter, they do not hibernate. But it is normal for them to have some sort of decreased activity when the seasons get cold.

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