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Captive Desert Tortoise Care for Hatchlings

Special Care for Hatchling Desert Tortoises

Hatchling Enclosure
We discourage breeding of captive tortoises because of the number of young tortoises already available for adoption.  Occasionally, an adult female desert tortoise may lay viable eggs from mating years earlier, resulting in tortoise hatchlings in your backyard enclosure.  If you have hatchlings, it is very important that they are kept outside so that they can receive sunlight, which helps them develop their shell and bones.  A smaller version of the adult burrow should be prepared for warm weather shelter and cold weather hibernation. Several young tortoises can use the same burrow.

The hatchling enclosure should provide both sun and shade throughout the day.  Because young tortoises must be protected from predators such as cats, dogs and birds, the enclosure must be covered. The covering must allow sunlight into the enclosure.  Wire fencing or poultry netting is appropriate provided the openings in the mesh are of a size that the tortoise will not get its head or legs stuck in.  It should either be too small for the head or limbs to penetrate or large enough to allow the head and limbs to freely enter and exit.  To protect the hatchlings from ants, keep the tortoise burrow away from grassy feeding zones which may attract ants because of the extra water.

Hibernation in Hatchlings
If healthy, hatchlings should be allowed to hibernate during their first winter, just like they would do under natural conditions.  As the weather becomes cooler in the fall, the appetite of the hatchlings should naturally decrease.  Do not provide any supplemental food after approximately October 1.  If a hatchling attempts to hibernate outside the burrow, move it inside the burrow.  During hibernation either inside or outside, some mortality can be expected, but survival of hibernating captive hatchlings is usually considerably higher than in the wild.

An inside hibernation is acceptable if the same methods outlined for adults are used. Approximately 10 days prior to placing hatchlings in hibernation, feeding should be stopped to allow the digestive tract to empty.  During hibernation hatchlings should be soaked in a shallow dish containing approximately ½ inch of water for 30 minutes every 2-3 weeks.  When the hatchlings become active in the spring, they should be removed from hibernation and placed in their enclosure to resume regular feeding.

If your hatchling is not healthy enough to hibernate, you can bring it inside and prevent it from hibernating.  Keep it in a plastic shoe or sweater box, or similar container filled with a substrate of gravel ¼ - ½ inch in diameter.  Sand and fine gravel should be avoided since they may ingest it, causing fecal impaction and gastrointestinal infections.  The daytime temperature for hatchlings should range between 80-85°F with a temperature drop at night to 68-75°F.  A normal day/night light cycle (11 hours day/13 hour night) using artificial lighting should be maintained.  Hatchlings must receive regular solar radiation to ensure proper vitamin D synthesis and calcium assimilation.  The required ultraviolet radiation in the UV-B range is filtered by glass, but the minimum requirements can be met by artificial lighting.  A shelter box of some type should be provided for resting from heat to prevent dehydration.  Hatchlings can easily tip over onto their backs, usually by climbing against the wall or over siblings, so it is best to keep only one hatchling per box to reduce this problem. 

Hatchling Diet
The same foods offered to adults should be made available to young tortoises; however, in different amounts.  The hatchling diet should contain about twice the protein and half the fiber content of the adult diet until the third year.  A tortoise that does not receive adequate protein will develop a thin shell, become stunted, and have a greatly reduced life expectancy.  Good sources of protein for young tortoises include natural forages like mallows, primroses, and rock hibiscus, cultivated plants like clover and dichondra, and produce like kale, collards, turnip greens, beet greens, mustard greens, spinach, bok choy, dandelion greens, parsley and cilantro. Chopped Timothy or Bermuda grass hay is another good option. Hatchlings eat frequently and should be provided food daily. It is always a good idea to mix several food items in each feeding and feed a variety of these foods.  

Several plant species should be established in the enclosure to allow browsing.  If the hatchling must be housed inside, a grazing box is recommended.  A shoe box can be planted with a mixture of alfalfa and clover.  After the plants are established, the tortoise should be placed in the box several times a day and allowed to browse.  Shade must be available in the container at all times.  For inside and outside enclosures, to prevent overgrazing, fourteen days of plant growth is recommended before allowing the tortoise access to the plants.  If supplementary foods are offered, remove uneaten portions from the enclosure at the end of the day to avoid attracting insects.

No insecticide, pesticide or any toxic agent should be used near the hatchlings, as they are especially susceptible to these compounds.

Hatchlings require a shallow water dish containing about ½” of water for drinking and soaking. The shell is relatively soft but will harden over time if the tortoise has access to an appropriate diet and sunlight.

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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 Phoenix, Prescott, 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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