Care of California Desert Tortoises

CARE OF DESERT TORTOISES

Desert tortoises are known to live as long as 60-80 years.  Growth varies with food availability and other environmental conditions.  In general tortoises grow faster in captivity, therefore it is impossible to determine the exact age of an adult tortoise.

FEEDING

Healthy tortoises have enormous appetites! Growing grass, weeds, dandelions, nopales (Opuntia), and rose and hibiscus flowers are excellent food sources. You may supplement with dark leafy vegetables such as collard greens, escarole, turnip greens, carrot tops, kale, mustard greens, dandelions and greens, endive, beet greens, and Swiss chard.  Spinach and alfalfa contain oxalates which can inhibit calcium absorption and should therefore be avoided or fed in very limited quantities.  Other vegetables such as squashes, zucchini, chopped carrots, etc can also be offered in small amounts.  For baby/juvenile tortoises:  once or twice a week sprinkle the food with calcium carbonate (crushed Tums) or offer a calcium-rich source such as boiled chicken eggshells or cuttlefish bone for them to eat. Occasionally (once a week) sprinkle the food with a suitable vitamin preparation.  As adults, if the diet is well balanced and they have outdoor grazing time, vitamin supplementation should not be necessary.  In general, I suggest allowing tortoises to graze in the yard as much as possible.

Provide a shallow dish of water for drinking and soaking. Most supermarket fruits and vegetables have a lower Ca:P and a low % dry matter (high water content). Desert tortoises in the wild eat a diet with a high Ca:P (greater than 1:1) and a high % dry matter (often greater than 30% dry matter).  Thus consider fruits to be a treat food only.  Too much fruit could lead to shell and bone problems from a low Ca:P, and kidney problems from a diet high in water content (low % of dry matter).

HOUSING

In order to thrive, adult desert tortoises must be kept outdoors in a large area. They should be provided with shelter from the sun and cold, and a place to retire at night. They need plenty of room to exercise and browse. If possible, give them the run of your entire yard. Make sure that the yard is escape-proof and that pools are fenced off. Eliminate any poisonous plants, and do not use chemical pesticides or fertilizers in the area. It is cruel and inhumane to tether a tortoise by the legs or by holes drilled in the shell. Natural sunlight should be given without filtration of a window  (or even screening) at least half of the year. Full spectrum light bulbs also help and should be used when kept indoors.  Tortoises have a relatively high uvb requirement, so a high quality mercury vapor bulb is recommended (www.reptileuv.com).

Directions for HEALTH

It is important that the keeper gets to know the normal behavior of his/her tortoise because behavioral changes are often the first sign of illness. Tortoises are susceptible to respiratory ailments, such as the Upper Respiratory Tract Disease that has decimated the wild population in California and Nevada. Warning signs are a runny or bubbly nose, loss of appetite, and gasping. Respiratory disease can often be cured if treatment is begun immediately. For swollen eyes, wounds or injuries contact a veterinarian immediately. Sick or wounded tortoises must be moved inside away from flies. Worms and other parasites are sometimes a problem in desert tortoises. Symptoms such as loss of weight and lack of energy for no apparent reason are an indication.

As with any pet, annual examination and consultation by a qualified veterinarian is paramount for optimal care and longevity.

HIBERNATION

Usually by late October as the days become cooler, the tortoise will eat less, bask less, and appear sluggish. A suitable hibernation place may have to be provided. Some tortoise owners use a dog house insulated with a thick layer of dry soil, leaves, or shredded newspaper. The entrance should be covered with a tarp to protect it from flood or rain.

Many keepers prefer to “store” their pets in the garage. The tortoise is placed in a stout cardboard box that is deep enough that it cannot climb out, and is covered with insulating layers of newspaper. The box is placed up off the cement floor in an area free from drafts or rats. If the box is placed in your garage, remember not to run automobile engines because of the risk of poisoning from the fumes. A cool closet is also a safe place for hibernation.

Some tortoises will build a burrow, and in some areas may successfully hibernate themselves. However, before allowing this, consider the location of the burrow. If there is a significant risk of flooding from heavy rainfall do not allow your pet to hibernate there.

A hibernating tortoise should be checked periodically. A sleeping tortoise will usually respond if its foot is touched. If the tortoise should waken, encourage it to return to sleep. When the days begin to warm, around March or April, the tortoise will become active in its storage box. At this time, a warm bath should be given, and the tortoise will often take a long steady drink. Within a week or two it should resume its normal activity of eating, exercising and sunbathing.

It is important that a tortoise be plump and in good health before hibernating; otherwise, it may not survive the winter. By the end of the summer, a well fed tortoise will form fat reserves around its shoulders and legs.   A pre-hibernation veterinary exam, fecal testing and blood work should help to make the decision if your tortoise is healthy enough.

DO NOT HIBERNATE A SICK OR INJURED TORTOISE!

If for some reason you do not wish your tortoise to hibernate, it must be brought indoors and kept at a warm temperature (75-85° F) for it to remain active. It will require room for exercising and regular feedings.

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Veterinarian/Owner of Pismo Beach Veterinary Clinic

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