Desert Tortoise in Native Habitat
This page will be an ongoing project designed to provide the best, most up-to-date information on the care of Desert Tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) possible. There is a Basic Care Sheet here, more
detailed information is available via the links above.
There is NO ONE WAY to care for our shelled friends but the two sheets will contain the best/most agreed upon information available ; resources to be listed at the end of the sheets.
PLEASE utilize the Plants and Foods link and also the Native Plant Diet vs. Grocery link to fill in the "blanks" of the care sheets to more fully provide proper, healthy nutrition for our shelled friends.
Please check back often and of course feel free to contact us if you have comments/feedback on the presented information.
May You Walk In Beauty
Fokkerdon, Family and The Torts
DESERT TORTOISE (Gopherus agassizii) CARE INFORMATION
This care sheet is intended to provide only general, basic care of this species; further research and planning is necessary to provide optimum care. More detailed information:
(this care sheet PLUS info on natural, native diet/care and reasons for)
(main CTTC desert tortoise care sheet, was rewritten late 2009 for publication early 2010).
Info, seeds and plants for proper nutritional needs may be purchased at
Desert Seed Store Desert Tortoise Seed mix - (Old Turtlestuff.com Desert Tortoise Seed Mix is now Desert Seed Store.)
Theodore Payne Wildflower Foundation Desert Tortoise Seed Mix.
It is illegal to remove a Federal Protected Threatened Desert Tortoise from the wild in AZ., CA., Nevada, or Utah; as well as illegal to return a captive bred to the wild. In California, captive bred tortoises may be adopted from CTTC after filling out an adoption application and meeting the required care guidelines, including habitat and registration. Other states have adoptive organizations also.
It is unlawful to touch, harm or harass a wild desert tortoise. Should you come upon one in its natural habitat, observe from a distance BUT DO NOT TOUCH AND DO NOT PICK IT UP. This can cause them to expel the contents of their bladder as a defense measure and should they be unable to replace their water reserves (there is no standing water in the desert and rains are very infrequent), can result in a slow death. EXCEPTION: If found in imminent danger on a road, keeping it very low to the ground, pick up and place off side of road in same direction noted as traveling. If fluids are expelled, please provide water before leaving. If unable to provide water, carefully note location, take home or to nearest Fish and Game office and seek placement help.
INDOOR HOUSING - Desert Tortoises thrive if kept outdoors as this provides a much more suitable environment ; i.e. UVB rays from the sun, natural foraging of foodstuffs, more natural ability to self regulate temperature , etc. It is difficult to properly provide for them indoors, however, if outdoor accommodations are not practical, predator safe or environmentally unsuitable, (especially with hatchlings and small juveniles), indoor facilities may become necessary.
3ftX5ft outdoor tortoise table
An aquarium is not a suitable habitat as they can see out and will stress themselves trying to “escape”, as well as being difficult to provide appropriate temperature gradients to
allow for thermal self regulation.
A more acceptable indoor accommodation is a “turtle table”, instructions found at :
2 ft X 3 ft is suitable for a hatchling, increasing in size as the tortoise grows. Shallow food and water containers can be sunk into the floor of this unit for easy access.
The food container is necessary to prevent excessive ingestion of sand which can lead to impaction. The water area must be shallow enough to prevent drowning and large enough to allow the tortoise to soak and drink as it wishes. (We cannot exactly duplicate the micro-climate of the burrows where these creatures spend much of their life to preserve their water stores, thus water must be made available).
EASIER: A bookshelf unit flipped on its back is also an easy way to construct a turtle table.
Indoor "bookcase" table but DON'T USE rabbit pellets. Dirt is the best substrate.
NOTE - DO NOT use rabbit pellets as they break down and get very dusty or mold too easily if they get wet, causing respiratory and eye problems. The food should
be placed on a slate or tile to assist with controlling beak growth. Provide cuttlebone for calcium, just the softer part. This allows them to self regulate calcium intake. Powder
calcium on foods does not allow self regulation.
Although Bermuda grass or Orchard hay can be used in the dry part of their environment as a substrate, to more closely mimic their natural habitat I recommend just using plain old
If needed, a mixture of 50% clean topsoil (without herbicides, fertilizers or other additives like perlite or vermiculite) and 50% coconut coir may be used.
I NO LONGER RECOMMEND USING ANY TYPE OF PLAY SAND MIXTURES DUE TO REPORTS OF IMPACTIONS FROM INGESTION.
Care must be taken to remove waste products regularly and the substrate should all be replaced every month to six weeks or so; if using one of the types of hay, wet or soiled hay must be removed
quickly to prevent mold problems.
which provides UVB rays as well as a basking light must also be provided. One corner should contain a basking light (@ 100 watt spot lamp) positioned to provide a basking spot of 85 - 90 degrees F (use a thermometer). A UVB fluorescent (ReptiSun 8.0) at 6 inches height should also be provided as UVB rays are necessary for Vitamin D3 synthesis, which is needed for calcium metabolism. An better alternative is to utilize a 100W Mercury vapor flood type UVB bulb (T-Rex , Mega-Ray) which can provide both the heat and UVB on one end only. ( http://www.reptileuv.com/
is excellent source).
NOTE: UVB bulbs generally need to be replaced every 6 months as they lose the UVB output fairly rapidly.
A dark, dry retreat (hide box) located in the corner away from the basking spot should be provided to provide an artificial “burrow” or hiding place, although it will not provide the natural micro-climate humidity of a burrow unless you cover it with a damp washcloth. This end of the habitat should be in the low to mid 70's F.
Desert tortoises can handle cool weather but cold combined with wet conditions will result in respiratory distress, sometimes causing URTI (Upper Respiratory Tract Infection) or exacerbating URTD (Upper Respiratory Tract Disease). See a qualified chelonian veterinarian if this occurs. A good source for vets http://groups.yahoo.com/group/vets_for_herps/
which is a non-mail group, only containing files listing vets world-wide that are recommended by turtle and tortoise keepers.
OUTDOOR HOUSING – Some form of predator proof outdoor housing, especially during summer months, is much better than strictly indoor housing. Since these tortoises burrow, the walls should be sunk well below the surface and should be at least 1 & ½ times as high as the tortoise is long. They do not fare well in areas of high humidity and rainfall; if such conditions prevail care must be taken that a large portion of their habitat does not become overly wet by utilizing proper landscaping and providing proper drainage. Water should not be allowed to stand in the enclosure, instead turn on the sprinklers once or twice weekly and allow them to drink from puddles that form. This is a natural way to trigger their instincts to exchange old water stores for fresh.
Habitat ideas/examples, hatchlings to adults::
Hatchling burrows outdoor pen
Outdoor hatchling Table
Juvenile habitat ahove ground burrows
Concrete form tube and PVC above ground burrows
Desert Tortoises adapted to the desert not by tolerating the heat but by learning to escape the heat. They regulate their temperature by moving about to provide the desired effect, i.e. basking in
the sun to warm the body to support foraging and digestion and then moving to a place cooler than its body to prevent overheating. Shade areas must be provided. If the tortoise cannot dig its own
burrow, artificial burrows may be constructed. (Dog houses and sheds do not provide the insulation of burrows and can become “ovens”). Instructions for burrow construction are available on
the internet at:
DIET - A high fiber, low protein diet rich in calcium will ensure good digestive tract function and proper smooth shell growth. Desert tortoises in the wild may consume up to 150 different plants in a season. Captive desert tortoises are prone to pyramiding ("stacking") of the scutes as well as bony imperfections and metabolic bone disease. Using mostly "supermarket" greens should be avoided as most of them have been cultivated to appeal to human taste which results in a "green" that have inadequate fiber levels, contain excessive pesticide residues and are high in sugar. A diet consisting mainly of supermarket greens may appear to sustain a tortoise for a long while but physical damages are slowly mounting up and can eventually result in illness and even death. The only recommended fruit is the cactus apple; other fruits are too high in sugar and will cause an upset in the digestive tract leading to excessive parasite/worm problems.
A diet composed of an assortment of the following foods is nutritionally complete, requiring no vitamin or mineral supplementation (other than cuttlebone for optional calcium supplementation).
Suggested foods (which can be planted to allow natural grazing choices) include:
Cacti – spineless prickly pear and opuntia pads (and cactus apples as a treat).
Grasses – Bermuda, Orchard, Indian Rice Grass, Desert Galetta Grass, Mexican Feather Grass, Desert Needle Grass, curly mesquite, Az. cottontop.
Assorted weeds , leaves and flowers – dandelion, chickpea, common (cheese) mallow, desert chia, desert plantain, herons beak, owls clover, desert globemallow, desert thistle sage, sowthistle, sheperds purse, cassia (senna), spurge, rock hibiscus, trailing 4 0’clock, sweet alyssum, nasturtiums, goldfields, plains and lance leaved coreopsis, desert marigold, California poppy, fruitless mulberry leaves, tidy tips, endive, grape leaves, etc.
(For Desert Tortoise foods and seed mixes, see http://www.desertseedstore.com - also Desert tortoise seed mix at http://www.theodorepayne.org/ ).
Calcium supplementation is essential for shell and bone growth. Cuttlefish bone (cuttlebone) with the hard, thin side removed is excellent to leave in their habitat and they will munch on it as they ‘feel’ the need for calcium. (If you are keeping them indoors, calcium with vitamin D3 is recommended once weekly but DO NOT USE VITAMIN D3 if they are kept outdoors).
MEDICAL – Desert tortoises are extremely susceptible to respiratory diseases, especially URTD (believed to be caused by Mycoplasma agassizii). They should never be mixed with other species of tortoises. Extreme care should be taken to prevent cross contamination of other tortoises in your care; if you have an ill tortoise, take care of the well ones first and then the ill one last. Whether they seem well or ill, always wash thoroughly after handling each tortoise.
Any tortoise with a runny nose, bubbles from the nose, swollen eyes or wheezing difficult breathing should be kept separate and taken to a chelonian qualified veterinarian immediately.
Swollen eyes are not always an indication of Vitamin A deficiency; if fed a natural growing forage diet, avoid Vit. A injections.
NEVER ALLOW A VETERINARIAN TO INJECT IVERMECTIN, IT CAN KILL THE TORTOISE.
Tortoises kept in captive environments are also susceptible to parasite problems, they should have a fecal test done yearly by a veterinarian to determine if they need treatment.
(It is actually a good idea to have a yearly check-up done by your vet to ensure continued good health of your tortoise).
SAFETY - Tortoises should have no access to swimming pools, spas, ponds, and stairs. They also need protection from raccoons, ravens, skunks and most dogs; for hatchlings and small juveniles, protection from cats is also necessary.
Males generally cannot be housed with other males, ‘combat’ will ensue and if flipped over in sun/heat and if not caught early and the flipped tortoise is not ‘righted’, the loser of the ‘battle’ could expire from hyperthermia and dehydration. At times, a male can be too aggressive even with a female and they may need to be separated. Remember please, it is against regulations to intentionally breed desert tortoises in Ca., other states may have differing regulations.
HIBERNATION – This species hibernates in nature, after careful research and provision of a cool dry location this can be provided for your tortoise. DO NOT HIBERNATE IN PLASTIC OR RUBBERMAID CONTAINERS, AIR CIRCULATION/BREATHING IS REQUIRED. Instead, use a “double box-in-box” method with insulating material (newspapers) placed in between the two boxes. Tortoises that have been sick should not be hibernated but should be kept up through the winter with @ 13-14 hours of UVB lighting and temps @ 80-90 F. on the “hot” side of enclosure and @ 70-75F. on the “cool” side, with night temps @ 10 degrees lower.
HIBERNATION (Actually Brumation, an extreme slowing of metabolism, regulated by temperature and hours or daylight.)
******Do not hibernate a sick or injured tortoise or one that has been treated that summer for illness. It is also generally not recommended that you "hibernate" a new tortoise since you may not know it's health history.*****
Usually in September or early October as the days become cooler and the hours of daylight shorten, the tortoise will eat less, bask less and appear sluggish. If they are naturally grazing, they should slow down and stop on their own, often eating dried brown grasses.
If you are feeding grocery items (Not recommended), you will have to stop giving foods for @ two weeks prior to hibernation but water should continue to be provided. A hibernating tortoise needs to have an empty digestive system; undigested foods can/will rot and cause illness or death during hibernation.
A healthy tortoise should show a fat reserve or plumpness around the shoulders and legs.
(If for some reason you do not wish your tortoise to hibernate, it must be brought indoors and kept at a warm temperature. You should have a large enough area to provide room for exercising and feeding and so that one side of the tub or enclosure will be @75-80 degrees and the other side will be@85-90 to assure its activity and digestive processes. The night temperature should be @10 degrees cooler.
Hibernation can be done in a variety of ways.
Some areas (with desert type, well draining soils) allow hibernation outdoors in the burrows, being sure to prevent possible flooding of burrow.
Another method is to use a dog house or dogloo filled with grasses or straw, again making sure the tortoise stays dry inside. (Straw and grasses can mold easily if wet so check often if nights or days are rainy, damp or foggy). If using these housing methods, be sure they are placed in cool shady places out of direct sunlight to maintain fairly constant cool temperatures; also be sure they are closed in such a way that predators such as raccoons, skunks, rats, coyotes, etc. cannot enter and injure the tortoise.
The caretaker must assist in providing a suitable place for hibernation. The desert tortoise hibernates best at temperatures from 40 - 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but must not to be allowed to freeze. (Check periodically with a thermometer, remote max/min temp sensors work very well). Temps above @50 degrees allow the metabolism to run too high and deplete the tort's reserves.
(In captivity people used to not hibernate hatchling desert tortoises until @ 3 years old, however in the wild hatchlings do hibernate. To hibernate hatchlings successfully you must understand how they hibernate in the wild. The burrow temperature is a stable 40 to 50 degrees in winter. If you can maintain a stable environment for 2-3 months at 50 degrees you can hibernate them. If you have the temperature going above or below 40-50 degrees do not hibernate hatchlings. Hatchlings kept inside should be cooled down slowly over a 2 week period before hibernating).
CAUTION: Hibernating at above 60 degrees (like inside most houses) is very dangerous and is a major cause of disease.
Some owners prefer to store their tortoises in the garage but only if the temperature can be maintained @40-50 degrees. One of the most common methods is to provide dual layer insulation via what is called “box-in-box” method. Line the bottom of a larger box with layers of newspaper or other insulating material, then place a smaller, more snug for the tortoise box inside the larger one and fill the area around the smaller box with crumpled newspaper. (This will help the temp stay more constant in the hibernation box.) Place the tort in the smaller box and fill the box with crumpled clean newsprint (unprinted) or newspaper. Simply interlock fold the tops of both boxes, do not put ventilation holes in boxes as this negates temperature stability.
The box should be placed in an area which is free from drafts and rats or mice. It should not be placed directly on the concrete floor as the cold of the floor will leach warmth from the tortoises and can allow moisture to *wick* up into the box. DO NOT place on a shelf as larger tortoises can move around and topple the box off and be injured.
If you use the garage for vehicle storage, be sure to move the vehicle outside quickly after starting, do not poison your tortoise with carbon monoxide.
Alternatively, some owners use an unheated closet or room where the temperature is @50 degrees; check with a thermometer. In either case, the tortoise should be checked periodically. A sleeping tortoise will respond to a touch of a foot with movement and an intake of breath. Listen to the breath sound for clear, easy exhalation of breath. If, however, the sound is raspy or wheezing, you must awaken the tortoise and keep it up for the remainder of the winter as outlined above. Check for runny noses or discharge and if noticed, get veterinarian attention immediately.
(If the tortoise should waken prematurely, it should be encouraged to return to sleep, but if it persists in staying awake, water should be offered and it should be moved to an area inside as outlined above for non-hibernating tortoises. Then food and water should be offered.)
CAUTIONARY NOTE: If the tortoise is being kept in an area of very low humidity, dehydration is a very real risk. Many advocate offering water to hibernating tortoises under these conditions, at least every two weeks for hatchlings/juveniles and once a month for adults.
As the days begin to warm, around March or April, the tortoise will become active in its storage box. At this time, a barely warm, very shallow bath should be given, and the tortoise will usually take a long steady drink. Within a week or two it should resume its normal activity of eating, exercising, and sunbathing. If the tortoise does not begin to eat normally at the end of one or two weeks, begin a daily soaking to help stimulate the appetite. Dry and immediately place the tortoise before food.
To soak, use barely warm water no deeper than the bottom of the tortoise shell. Tortoises drink by placing their heads under the water. Soaking usually stimulates the appetite. It also prevents dehydration when tortoises are receiving medications.
Compiled by Don Williams, California Turtle and Tortoise Club
Corrections, questions, comments may be directed to