Sulcata and Leopard Tortoise Hatchling Care Sheet

I am in the process of updating my care sheet and making some major changes to the way I care for hatchlings due to some interesting somewhat new information. I say somewhat new because this information has been out there a few years but I just discovered it a few weeks ago and it has me rethinking my current care sheet instructions. During this transition I will share with you the way I was advising care and the changes I am considering regarding that care. The standard lettering that follows is from my old care sheet. The bold italicized lettering will be the changes I am implementing. This is all in the experimental stage so I can’t say for sure which way is better. I will leave that for you to decide. At the end of this transitional care sheet will be a few links to the web pages that have caused me to make these changes.

Hatchlings should be soaked in 1/2" warm water for 15 minutes every other day. This allows them to drink their fill and usually causes them to relieve themselves in the bath water. It allows all tortoises to get fresh unsoiled water, keeps the   substrate in the enclosure cleaner longer and it hydrates the tortoise and prevents their eyes from sticking shut. A shallow dish with fresh water should be available at all times.

I now believe hatchlings should be soaked every day. If you can dedicate 20 minutes a day to your new tortoises care these care instructions will be a breeze. Soak your hatchling for 15 minutes every day. While your tortoise is soaking, spot clean any poops you can see in the enclosure and remove any uneaten food from the day before, empty, wash and refill the water dish, mist the substrate with fresh, clean water (especially in the hide box, and check your temperatures and humidity levels. Check your temperatures and humidity levels with a temp. gun or digital probe thermometers.

DO NOT use a glass aquarium to house baby tortoises. I strongly recommend using a plastic under bed storage box for their enclosure. They are big enough (18" x 36") to use for the first 2-3 yrs., they dissipate heat better than an aquarium, and they are easy to clean. If you're displaying the torts in your living room, just build a decorative wooden frame around the plastic box to make it look nice.  Crown molding works well for this.

There has been considerable debate on this subject. There is relatively new information out there that a closed chamber environment is better for the hatchling tortoise. This goes against everything I was told years ago but a lot of it makes sense so I’m trying it. It is not as pleasing to the eye as my previous setup so if you are displaying your tortoise in a room in your house you may need to get creative to make this type of setup look nice but it’s only necessary while your hatchling is small so if you can make it work for a year or two your tortoise should benefit from it. My previous setup focused primarily on what looked good to the eye, what was convenient, inexpensive to construct and maintain and what I believed to be best for the tortoise based on the information I had. I now believe I was wrong on several key components to the enclosure and I want you to have the information so you can decide what will work best for you. Here is a link to a website page that describes the closed chamber process.

The substrate I recommend is a 1" base layer of dampened coconut coir or a 1” layer of a 50/50 mix of peat moss and play sand, topped off with a 1" layer of Orchard grass hay or Timothy hay. The peat moss is like dirt, not fluffy green moss. The hay can be eaten as food and gives essential traction needed for flipping themselves back over. Baby tortoises have a knack for getting flipped on their backs. If they can't get flipped back over they will suffocate. The grass hay top layer prevents this and is a MUST.

I now recommend using a 1”-2” base layer of dampened coconut coir or organic peat moss topped with a 1” layer of cypress mulch instead of the hay. This is a major shift for me because I had a hatchling choke on a piece of cypress mulch when I first tried it many years ago. That was, however, an isolated incident and I now realize the benefits of the cypress mulch outweigh the remote possibility of that happening again. The hatchling can grip the cypress mulch well enough to turn itself back over if it gets flipped upside down and the cypress mulch holds moisture which is beneficial to your hatchling. The hay substrate I have realized is just too dry and tends to mold when gotten wet.

The temperatures in the enclosure should be upper 70's to low 80's on the cool end and 95 degrees at the basking site. This allows the tortoise to thermo-regulate themselves. The heat can be provided by a porcelain socket clamp lamp with a regular incandescent bulb. The wattage of the bulb will be determined by the distance it is from the basking spot. Night heat is not required as a night time temperature drop to upper 60's - lower 70's is beneficial in preparing the tortoise for what it will experience living outside. Do Not let them get below 60 degrees for any extended period of time or they will get an upper respiratory infection (URI)(runny nose).

Here is another major change I am suggesting and implementing myself. I now recommend the ambient temperature on the cool end of the enclosure remain between 80-90 degrees and never get below 80 degrees and a basking spot of 100 degrees instead of 95 degrees. A night heat source should be provided to assure the enclosure temperature does not go below 80 degrees. This somewhat new research has shown that the benefits of a warm enclosure outweigh the effect of night temperature drops to prepare the hatchling for when it moves outside. Our primary goal is to raise a vibrant, vigorous, and healthy hatchling so it is strong enough to thrive when moved outside. I still recommend the same heat sources to provide the heat.

They should also be provided an Exo-Terra 10.0 UVA/UVB light to simulate natural sunlight. The lights should be on 14 hrs. per day to simulate a summer light cycle. Tortoises will become less active during shortened winter days and we want our babies active and growing strong so we do not go below the 14 hr. light cycle. Both lights should be plugged into a timer to keep them regulated.

Here is another major change I am suggesting and implementing myself. I can no longer recommend using the coil UV bulbs as they have been shown to produce inconsistent output that has caused eye problems in baby tortoises. I now recommend using the tube UV lights or the Mercury Vapor bulbs if they are not too hot for your situation. If you can get your hatchling outdoors an hour or two, 2-3 times per week you don’t need a UV light at all. If you live in a climate that experiences cold winters you will need a UV light for those times. I, personally, think using an 18” Exoterra UV tube fluorescent light is the best scenario because you can locate it at one end of the enclosure and the basking light at the other end of the enclosure. This way, your hatchling can choose to be under either light without being subjected to the effects of the other. I now recommend using a 12 hour daylight cycle with your UV light and basking light set on the same timer. The night heat light should be on its own timer so it comes on after the other two lights turn off. You can run both heat source lights through a thermostat so that they don’t overheat your enclosure.

Hide boxes should also be provided. You should provide 2 hide box areas where the tortoise can get out of the light and into a darkened area. One of the hides should be dry and one should be humid. The dry hide can be accomplished by cutting one side off a black plastic frozen entrée container and placing it on the substrate upside down. The humid hide can be accomplished be cutting an entry hole in the side of a large cool whip type container (half way up) large enough for the tortoise to pass through easily. Pack some moistened coconut coir or sphagnum peat moss in the container to the bottom of the entry hole and place the lid on the container. Partially bury the container in the substrate so the tortoise can walk right in the entry hole without having to climb in. Cover the top of the container with peat moss or cypress mulch to block light from passing thru the lid.

No changes here. I still recommend the same hides.

   I feed each hatchling chopped romaine, red leaf or green leaf lettuce mixed with chopped hay every morning at 7am. I alternate greens frequently for diet variety. I chop timothy or orchard hay into ½” pieces and add a cup of hay to a gallon sized Ziploc bag full of dampened greens and shake. The greens come out fuzzy looking. The portion size is equal to the size of the tortoise. I dust the greens every third day with Zoo Med Repti Calcium w/D3 powder.

The only changes here are that I also use Zilla calcium supplement food spray occasionally instead of the powder and I feed them more fresh grass and plants growing in my yard such as dandelions, roses and rose leaves, plantain, and spineless optunia cactus pads.

Whenever weather permits hatchlings should be allowed time outside in the sun. It is necessary to protect them from predators when they are outside. I've built portable "playpens" that work very well. I constructed a 3' square frame of 2x12's and stretched chicken wire over the top. I can move it anywhere in the yard and it’s heavy      enough to keep cats or dogs out. The chicken wire keeps out birds of prey and land predators as well. Be sure to place it where they get sunlight and shade. When kept outside they should have water available at all times. This is easily done using  small ceramic or glazed terra cotta drip trays from potted plants. The drawing is of a 3’ x 3’ pen. A small piece of plywood can be placed on the top to provide extra shade.

Nothing really changes here. I still recommend the outdoor pens and use them often.

Here are some links to websites that can provide you with a lot of additional info. – This website has many enclosure ideas as well as an edible plants list which shows you dozens of plants you can plant in your yard to supplement or replace the grocery store part of the diet as well as a toxic plants list that tells you which plants you might have in your yard are toxic.,  and – These websites also offer many enclosure ideas as well as health and illness information and breeding and incubating information. – This website has a lot of information shared by other tortoise owners and has info on nearly every topic you can imagine.

I hope you find the information on this transitional care sheet helpful. I am in the process of implementing these changes to my current setup and will update this as my experience with the new changes grows.


Thanx for your business!

James, Woody’s Reptiles


Phone: 602-309-5711  9am to 9 pm every day (AZ time)