Desert Tortoise Care Sheet (By Vet Technician)

Desert Tortoise Care Sheet

Desert tortoises are large and long-lived reptiles. These tortoises can be found in both wild populations and in captivity. Wild desert tortoises can be found spread throughout the U.S. and Mexico. While these reptiles might make an appealing choice for a pet, it’s important to know their history before trying to acquire one!

It’s worth noting that in many states, it’s not legal to own a desert tortoise without a permit.

While working as a wildlife rehabilitation technician, I came across these animals every once in a while. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay with us long and usually went on to live the rest of their captive lives at a sanctuary or a zoo. From my experience, desert tortoises are gentle giants who need plenty of space and sun to thrive.

This care sheet will give you an overview of desert tortoises. From their ecological status to their care, we hope that you can find some valuable information about desert tortoises here!

Desert Tortoise History & Facts

Desert tortoises are a species of tortoise found in the Southern U.S. and in Northern Mexico. While there is still some disagreement on subspecies, it’s generally agreed that there are two species of desert tortoise found in the Americas.

Agassiz’s desert tortoise and Morafka’s desert tortoise are separated not only by the Colorado river but also by some genetic markers and species-specific behaviors.  As we move through this care sheet, we’ll talk about desert tortoises in general.

Desert tortoises are highly adaptable reptiles and can survive both freezing and boiling-hot temperatures.  Although these tortoises can’t swim they can traverse miles of hot desert habitats with almost no water!

Desert tortoises are considered to be critically endangered. Because this species is slow to reproduce, any threat to the population should be taken seriously.  This, among other reasons, can make it very difficult to acquire a desert tortoise as a pet.

Can I Have A Desert Tortoise As A Pet?

In the U.S., there are federal laws regarding the ownership of desert tortoises. The federal Endangered Species Act protects these tortoises from becoming victims of the pet trade.

On top of federal laws, many states have their own guidelines to desert tortoise ownership. Most states prohibit the transport of desert tortoises over borders. Some states like California, allow for ownership as long as the pet was obtained legally and is permitted.

If you’re seriously considering having a desert tortoise as a pet, or happen to already own one, I highly recommend looking into the rules and regulations where you live.

Desert Tortoise Lifespan

Like many other herptiles, desert tortoises are incredibly long-lived. On average, desert tortoises live 50 – 80 years.

This long lifespan may be due to the incredibly slow metabolism of the desert tortoise and the brumation they do every winter. If you do end up as the proud owner of a desert tortoise, just know that it may end up being a lifetime commitment!

How Big Do Desert Tortoises Get?

Desert tortoises are medium to large-sized tortoises. These reptiles grow to be about 14 inches long across the lengths of their carapace.

Males of this species are usually a bit larger than females. Adult tortoises are about 6 inches tall from the ground and can weigh anywhere from 10-15 pounds. Although these tortoises aren’t completely giant, they need tons of space to move around.

Desert Tortoise Appearance and Anatomy

It’s hard to deny how cute desert tortoises are. They’re wrinkly, slow, and seem to have soft smiles on their faces at all times.

Desert tortoises have brown skin with black scales on their legs. Their shells are also usually a brown color and all of the scutes are lined in dark brown or black.

Even though these tortoises can be very striking and beautiful, you’ll usually find them covered in dust and looking, well, dusty!  Males usually have longer tails than females do.

Anatomically, desert tortoises are similar to many other tortoises. One of the most distinguishable features of a tortoise is, of course, its shell. Tortoise shells are amazing and more complicated than you might already know.

A tortoise’s shell provides this reptile’s greatest defense mechanism. The shell is made up of two parts, the carapace, and the plastron. The carapace is the upper part of the shell and is attached to the plastron by hinges. Desert tortoises can use these hinges to open and close their shells as needed.

Surprisingly, shells are living tissue made up of bone and keratin. The shell is part of the tortoise’s exoskeleton and tortoises still have many other bones inside of their bodies that make up their endoskeleton.

In most other ways, tortoises are anatomically similar to other reptiles. They’re cold-blooded and have three-chambered hearts and modified lungs.

Desert Tortoise Health Concerns

While captive animals usually live longer than their wild counterparts, they’re still at risk of disease and illness. Certain breeds and species can be more prone to some things and immune to others. For desert tortoises, there are a few things to look out for.

Respiratory Diseases

Desert tortoises are susceptible to contracting respiratory infections or diseases like pneumonia.

Luckily, respiratory issues are pretty easy to spot in a tortoise.  Their noses may run and produce a clear discharge. Tortoises with respiratory issues will probably have swollen eyes and will have difficulty breathing or audible “raspy” breaths.

We’ll talk more about this later but desert tortoises need to be kept in dry climates.  They’re not equipped to handle humidity and high levels can often lead to respiratory illness.

Bone Diseases

Sadly, many of the desert tortoises we saw at the animal rescue I worked at were plaques with bone disease. Bone diseases in tortoises come from long periods of malnutrition.

Bone disease can cause weak or deformed limbs. “Pyramiding” describes a symptom of bone disease that causes the scutes on the shell to grow like pyramids. In addition to pyramids, bone disease can also result in a soft and spongy shell.

Bone diseases can be easily avoided by providing the proper nutrition for your tortoise. But, if you’ve already adopted a tortoise with shell pyramiding, there’s nothing you can do to change it.

Vitamin A Deficiency

Vitamin A deficiencies are heartbreakingly common amongst both tortoises and turtles. What’s so sad about this ailment is that it is 100% avoidable!

Vitamin A deficiencies are serious because vitamin A is important in maintaining skin health. Not only does vitamin A affect the skin but it also affects things like the eyes and the linings of the internal organs. Tortoises with vitamin A deficiency will start to show similar symptoms to tortoises with respiratory illnesses.

Vitamin A deficiencies are easily avoided by feeding a properly balanced diet and including dark leafy greens in your pet’s meal plan.

Parasites

Parasites are almost always something you’ll have to deal with as a pet owner. Dogs get tics, cats get fleas, and tortoises get worms!

Tortoises are pretty immune to external parasites. Things like mites love to burrow into fur and feathers but have a more difficult time navigating scales.

Desert tortoises have especially tough skin that protects them well. However, tortoises can still get intestinal parasites like roundworms. Since many desert tortoises are kept outdoors, they’re prone to pick up anything and everything.

Keep an eye on your desert tortoises stools. If they become soft and mucousy, you’ll want to take a sample to your veterinarian. Treating parasites is usually quick and easy once a diagnosis is made.

Behavior And Temperament Of Desert Tortoises

If you’ve ever spent time with a desert tortoise, you probably found them to be sweet and relaxing. Owners report bonds with their scaly pets. It’s not unheard of for tortoises to follow their owners around the yard or to just want to spend time sitting near them.

In the wild, desert tortoises are often found alone or in couples. Male desert tortoises do not get along. These animals are territorial and you should try to avoid housing two males together if at all possible. They’ll fight to protect females or burrows, especially during the breeding season. Larger tortoises are also aggressive and bully smaller tortoises into submission.

One of the coolest things (and potentially most annoying things) about desert tortoises is their innate instinct to burrow. Tortoises from limbs have evolved to serve not only as legs but also as shovels.

Tortoises can burrow deep down into the tough ground. Unless temperatures are optimal, desert tortoises spend most of the year inactive and hiding in their burrows. In captivity, desert tortoises will burrow and need to burrow.

Desert Tortoise Housing And Habitat

The name of this reptile gives away a lot regarding their care. Desert tortoises are truly desert dwellers and their habitats and diets need to match that. Plus, you’ll want to factor in the insane amount of burrowing one of these large reptiles might do.

Natural Habitat

The desert is a cruel and unforgiving place and it’s hard to think of anything thriving there. Desert tortoises are one of the few animals that can withstand the extremes of the desert.

Desert tortoises can survive in both freezing temperatures and temperatures up to 140F.  They do this by burrowing deep into the ground. Actually, it’s estimated that desert tortoises spend 95% of their lives in their burrows.

When temperatures are ideal, desert tortoises emerge to travel in search of food and mates.  Desert tortoises walk slowly but can travel great expanses of dusty desert in one go.

Housing And Tank

As a keeper, one of your primary goals should be to imitate your pet’s natural environment as closely as possible. The only time a desert tortoise should be kept indoors is when they’re very young, ill, or hibernating.

When keeping a tortoise indoors aim to use a pen or a tortoise box. Otherwise, desert tortoises should be kept outside. Even though desert tortoises can withstand the elements, their outdoor enclosure should always provide them with a safe place to sleep at night.

Ideally, adult desert tortoise housing is created by enclosing a large area of land. There should be plenty of dirt for the tortoise to dig into. Eventually, your tortoise will create burrows and hiding spots for itself.

You should make sure to plant native flora in your desert tortoise habitat and avoid harmful plants. Some examples of reptile-safe plants can be found in our article here.

To give you an idea of what an ideal tortoise habitat looks like, check out the video below.

Hibernation

Desert tortoises in cold climates may hibernate or brumate for months. Hibernation can be difficult to maintain as tortoises need to be kept in a very specific temperature range (42F-55F).

However, you might find that your tortoises naturally go into hibernation themselves and disappears into a burrow for months. If you’re planning to hibernate your tortoise yourself, make sure to check with your veterinarian to make a plan that fits your pet and your climate.

Substrate

If you’re keeping your tortoise in your backyard, you’ll soon find that green grass won’t last long. Not only will tortoises eat grass but they’ll also dig it up within days of arriving.

Ideally, the substrate for a desert tortoise will mimic a desert. Lose rock and dirt are the best for this species because they can easily traverse it and burrow into it.  You can also add larger plants that they won’t eat or dig up to provide shade, shelter, and enrichment.

If you’re keeping your tortoise indoors for a short period of time, you can line their area with something as simple as a newspaper.

Lighting

Desert tortoises are diurnal and need UVA/UVB rays to function (like these 14 other pet reptiles). If you’re keeping a hatchling indoors, you’ll need to provide them with a broad spectrum UV light.

Though tortoises spend a lot of time in their burrows, sunlight is really essential for this species in maintaining health. The best way to ensure this is to keep your tortoise outdoors as recommended. Even if it’s not always sunny in your area, your tortoise will soak up enough rays just by sitting outside.

Heat

For adult desert tortoises, heating usually isn’t necessary. What is important is that you live in an appropriate climate for them to survive and thrive. Super warm and tropical climates aren’t well suited for desert tortoises.

Cold and snowy climates aren’t either. However, if you live somewhere temperate or with distinct seasons, your tortoise should do well without supplemental heat outside.

Hatchlings may need additional heat and generally need to be kept in a space that has a heat gradient from about 70F to 90F during the day.

Humidity

Obviously, humidity can be tricky to control if you’re housing your desert tortoise outdoors. But, since these reptiles are native to the desert, they do much better in lower humidity.

Too much moisture in the air might cause respiratory issues. If you live in a very humid environment it’s probably not ethical to adopt a desert tortoise.

While hibernating or indoors, you should aim for a relative humidity of around 30% – 40%. Tortoises indoors will be able to maintain hydration well in this humidity. During hibernation, keeping humidity down can still be tricky, but we have some tips to help out in this article.

What Do Desert Tortoises Eat?

Desert tortoises are herbivores and like many other pet reptiles, don’t need any live food.

In the wild, desert tortoises will eat just about any plant that they come across. Tortoises eat dry grasses, bushes, flowers, and cacti.

In captivity, their diet is the same. Tortoises should have a diet made up of about 85% grasses and greens with about 15% made up of crunchy vegetables.

For the bulk of your tortoise’s meal, you can offer alfalfa hay, clover, cactus pads, or timothy hay. You’ll also add in dark leafy greens like collard greens, mustard greens, and dandelion greens. For the vegetable portion of your tortoise’s diet, offer them chunks of squash, zucchini, and bell peppers.

Variety is key for maintaining a balanced diet for your tortoise. After discussing which supplement is right for you, you can sprinkle a vitamin powder on top of your tortoise’s plate.

Even though tortoises don’t usually have access to water in the wild, you should still provide them with some.  Give your desert tortoise a large shallow dish of water that they can drink out of or soak in as they desire.

How Much Do Desert Tortoises Eat?

A rule of thumb for tortoise portions is that their plate should be as big as their shell. Though this may seem like a lot, tortoises are grazing vegetarians and need a large volume of food when active. In captivity, tortoises are often more active than they would be in the wild and need more food to make up for it

Most desert tortoises can be fed 5 days out of the week, with two “fasting days.”

It’s important to note that your tortoise may snack on the plants found in their habitat.  As long as the plants aren’t toxic for them, this is totally fine and even encouraged as enrichment!

So, How Difficult Is It To Keep Desert Tortoises?

Keeping desert tortoises actually isn’t too difficult. On a scale of 1 – 10 desert tortoises night be a 4/10.  Getting a desert tortoise in the first place might be difficult depending on the rules and regulations in your area.

Husbandry for a desert tortoise is simple if you live in a climate similar to their natural habitat and have land to house them.  Then, it’s just a matter of feeding them the correct diet and maintaining a nice habitat for them.

However, if you don’t have a large outdoor space or live in a very cold area you’ll have to make adjustments to keep your tortoise happy.  You may need to offer supplemental heat to your tortoise or store them in hibernation for the winter.  Maintaining hibernation isn’t impossible but it’s not easy, especially for beginners.

If you find yourself as the proud owner of a desert tortoise, you’ll have time to figure things out, as this long-lived animal will be around for many years.

How Much Do Desert Tortoises Cost?

Desert tortoises aren’t easily bought or traded in the pet world.

Since these reptiles are federally protected, buying them can be a grey area. If you do find one available for purchase, the animal alone will cost hundreds with the permits also adding a few hundred more on top of the grand total.

Most of the time, you’ll find desert tortoises available for adoption from sanctuaries. These adoptions usually come with a small fee and a serious vetting to make sure you’re a good adopter. If you’re really interested in having a desert tortoise, try reaching out to some sanctuaries within your state.

Frequently Asked Questions

Now, let’s answer a few quick questions before we wrap this care sheet up!

How To Take Care Of A Desert Tortoise

Taking care of a desert tortoise isn’t difficult if you live in the right climate. Desert tortoises can be kept outdoors in many states. They’re herbivores and only eat once a day.

Some tortoises might need to be hibernated or winter or might do it on their own as needed. Always take your new pet to the exotic pet veterinarian for an initial exam so you can address any existing issues your pet might have.

How Cold Is Too Cold For A Desert Tortoise?

If you live somewhere where it freezes for days, weeks, or months, it’s too cold for your tortoise to be out and about. Luckily these reptiles have been around for a long time and usually have the sense to burrow and hibernate. But, some owners prefer to “store” their tortoises and hibernate them indoors.

If you see that it’s staying below freezing during the day and your tortoise hasn’t burrowed, it’s too cold for them and you’ll need to take action!

Should You Soak A Desert Tortoise?

Captive care is never perfect and soaking reptiles is a good way to help them maintain proper hydration. You can try soaking your tortoise once a week.  Simply set your tortoise in a shallow tub of water for 15-20 minutes.

Not only will this help keep them well hydrated but it will also clean off some of the dirt and poop that inedibly get stuck in their toes.

At What Age Is A Desert Tortoise Full-Grown?

Desert tortoises reach maturity around 15 – 20 years of age.  Until then, tortoises may need supplemental food to encourage growth.

Closing Thoughts

Desert tortoises are hardy reptiles that can make wonderful additions to a home. These desert dwellers can be kept outdoors and can be a joy to take care of and spend time with. If you end up adopting a desert tortoise, we hope just like our other tortoise care sheets, this care sheet will also come in handy!