Caring for a desert tortoise requires a long-term commitment from the adopter. They assume responsibility for the general well being of their tortoise, including feeding, veterinary care and safety. These creatures can teach many life lessons to children, including responsibility, compassion and commitment. Children can participate in the everyday care of the tortoise with adult supervision.
Desert tortoises are solitary animals, and they do not require a second tortoise to keep it company. Per the Tortoise Adoption Program Guidelines, you may adopt one desert tortoise per household. If you already have a desert tortoise, you will not be permitted to adopt another. If you already care for more than one desert tortoise, please house them separately because eventually they will fight and/or breed. Fighting between tortoises creates a stressful environment for both tortoises.
The problem with breeding captive desert tortoises
We strongly discourage breeding captive tortoises because the hatchlings often end up in one of our adoption facilities, and caring for them uses resources that would otherwise help with the state's desert tortoise conservation efforts. A female desert tortoise can store sperm for several years, meaning that one mating can result in several years of hatchlings. Each year there are approximately 300-400 desert tortoises available for adoption throughout the state, not including hundreds of unwanted hatchling tortoises. Uncontrolled breeding results in more tortoises than there are good homes to adopt them. If you already care for a male and female pair, it is extremely important that you house them separately so they cannot breed.
The sex of a tortoise can only be determined after it has reached about 6 inches in length. The plastron, or bottom 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.
Captive hatchlings can never be released into the wild. Each wild population of desert tortoises has a unique genetic makeup that is specially adapted to the environment in which it lives. Captive hatchlings, which have an unknown or varied genetic makeup, have the potential to disrupt the unique genetics of a wild population if released. Additionally, captive hatchlings can acquire the same diseases as adult tortoises in captivity, which can spread into wild populations upon release. By law, hatchlings must either be given away or turned over to a state-sanctioned adoption facility within 24 months of hatching. If you give hatchlings away to friends, rememeber that the possession limit is one tortoise per person, and please make sure that they understand how to for a hatchling properly. Hatchlings require special diets, and they are difficult to care for in captivity. See our website on hatchling tortoise care for more information.
Desert tortoises require some special acommodations to help them thrive. Even kind, well-behaved dogs can pose a deadly threat to captive desert tortoises. Adopters that have a dog must keep them in separate fenced areas. A dog mauling can result in severe injuries and expensive veterinary bills, and possibly even death for desert tortoises.
Desert tortoises also need to be housed separately from other turtle or tortoise species to avoid spreading potentially fatal diseases and parasites among species.
The desert tortoise is a reptile. They cannot regulate their body temperature like warm-blooded animals. Tortoises need to spend most of their time in a thick-walled, insulating burrow to protect them from temperatures that are too hot or too cold. To keep cool in the summer, they remain in their burrow most of the day, feeding briefly in the early morning and early evening. In the winter, desert tortoises will hibernate, emerging only on very warm days. If a tortoise does not hibernate in the winter, it could be a sign that it is sick, and it should be taken for a veterinary health check-up.
Like all reptiles, tortoises carry the bacteria salmonella in their digestive tracts. Humans can become infected with the disease salmonellosis through contact with the feces of a turtle that carries the bacteria. Children have a higher risk of salmonellosis infection from turtles because they are more likely to play with the animal, putting their hands or the turtle near their mouth. To learn more about the risks associated with turtles and salmonellosis, visit the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.
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