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General Captive Desert Tortoise Care


General Care
Responsibility for feeding, veterinary care, safety and general well-being of the tortoise rests with the adoptive family.  Children should not be solely responsible for the care of the tortoise. 

Dogs can pose a deadly threat to your captive desert tortoise.  There have been many cases where even well behaved dogs have mauled desert tortoises, resulting in severe injuries and expensive veterinarian bills.  In some cases, the injuries were so severe that the tortoise had to be euthanized.  If you have a dog, please provide time for your dog to acclimate to the tortoise. If your dog expresses any interest in the tortoise, you will need to construct a barrier that is high enough to exclude the dog.  Desert tortoises must be housed separately from other species of turtles or tortoises, as potentially fatal diseases and parasites can be spread among species.  The desert tortoise is a reptile, and so it cannot regulate its body temperature like warm-blooded animals.  Instead, your tortoise needs to spend much of its time in a thick-walled, insulating shelter which will provide refuge from temperatures that are too hot and too cold.  To keep cool in the summer, it remains in its shelter most of the day, but will come out briefly to feed in early morning and early evening.  In the winter, your desert tortoise will hibernate and emerge only on the very warmest days.  If your tortoise does not hibernate in the winter, this could be a sign that your tortoise is sick, and you should take it to a veterinarian for a health check-up.

You can adopt one tortoise per person in your household, as long as they are all the same gender (so all males or females).  This means that if you already have a desert tortoise, you can only adopt another if it is the same gender.  If you have a male and female pair, it is very important to create two separate enclosures, or have one sterilized so they cannot breed.  A female desert tortoise can store sperm for several years, meaning that mating once can result in several years of hatchlings.  Each year there are approximately 400-500 desert tortoises available for adoption throughout the state, including hundreds of unwanted hatchling tortoises, resulting in an excess of adoptable tortoises. Caring for this many young tortoises uses resources that would otherwise help with the state’s desert tortoise conservation efforts.  Remember, hatchlings from captivity must be either given away or turned over to a state-sanctioned adoption facility within 24 months of hatching.  Caution: desert tortoise hatchlings are often given away to friends who have not received the proper information on how to care for them.  Those hatchlings frequently acquire chronic diseases, or die.  The Department is proposing a rule change that would make it unlawful to breed desert tortoises in captivity because caring for too many young tortoises uses resources that would otherwise help with the state’s desert tortoise conservation efforts. The final decision will be available no later than April 2015. 

You can distinguish males from females only after they have reached about 6” in length.  The plastron, or bottom part of the shell, is concave towards the rear in males, while it is flat in females. 

The underside of a male desert tortoise, showing
the concavity towards the rear (right of picture)

The flat underside of a female desert tortoise.

Be aware that tortoises, like all reptiles, carry the bacteria salmonella in their digestive tractsHumans can become infected with a disease, salmonellosis, through contact with feces of a turtle that has the salmonella bacteria.  Children are at a high risk of salmonellosis infection from turtles because children are more likely to play with turtles, especially small turtles, as though they are toys, and put them in their mouths.  To learn about risks associated with turtles and salmonellosis, visit the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine website

return to Caring for a Captive Desert Tortoise

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Click on the image above to download a printable brochure on native plants for desert tortoises (Adobe Reader required).
Captive Desert Tortoise Downloads

NOTE: The following files are PDFs and require the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.

- Desert Tortoise Adoption Packet [pdf, 56kb]
- Desert tortoise adoption application [pdf, 16kb]
- Desert tortoise adoption facilities in Arizona
- Desert tortoise adoption checklist [pdf, 256kb]
- Captive desert tortoise food list [pdf, 13kb]
- Shelter construction directions for greater Phoenix and Tucson areas [pdf, 259kb]
- Shelter construction directions for greater Bullhead City, Lake Havasu, Kingman, and Yuma areas [pdf, 653kb]
- Information on artificial full spectrum lighting
[pdf, 16kb]

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