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How To Build A Desert Tortoise Habitat

So you’ve been thinking of adopting a desert tortoise, or maybe you have one already and want to build a desert tortoise habitat as close to nature as possible. It’s important to provide the proper shelter, natural foraging plants, and a safe environment for your pet.

A desert tortoise, as its name suggests, lives in arid, hot areas and should have a habitat that closely resembles its native home. Here we will go over what materials are needed, how much space is needed, and how to set up the best desert tortoise habitat for your new pet.

Keep reading as we go over how to build a desert tortoise habitat step by step.

About the Desert Tortoise

Desert Tortoise on dry land and sticks taken by Renee Grayson
Desert Tortoise on dry land and sticks taken by Renee Grayson.

The desert tortoise comes from the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and lives in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of Mexico.

They are considered endangered and it’s illegal to take them from their native habitat. Before you purchase or adopt your own desert tortoise, be sure it has come from a reputable agency or breeder.

Adult desert tortoises grow to about 12 to 15 inches long and tall and can live in captivity from 30 to 80 years. These tortoises will definitely become lifelong companions.

They are herbivores, so their diet will consist of fresh vegetables and plant matter. Fruits can occasionally be offered as treats but should not be their main source of meals.

The high sugar content can cause health problems.

Building Your Desert Tortoise Habitat

Desert Tortoise hiding in a dirt hole taken by Renee Grayson
Desert Tortoise hiding in a dirt hole taken by Renee Grayson.

Building a desert tortoise habitat doesn’t take a specialized degree.

All you really need are a few basic tools, the right materials, and a little bit of know-how. The last thing you will need is time and plenty of physical labor because you will be doing a lot of digging.

Desert tortoises require 10 to 12 hours of sunlight a day, so an outdoor enclosure is best for them, especially during the summer. They can be brought in during the winter if you live in an area that sees wet, or very cold winters, but they really need to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

Can You Keep a Desert Tortoise Indoors?

Desert Tortoise staring at a cactus in its enclosure taken by Jim the Photographer
Desert Tortoise staring at a cactus in its enclosure taken by Jim the Photographer.

It’s not advised to keep adult desert tortoises indoors. They need a lot of space to explore and forage.

They also need very warm temperatures and a lot of sunlight every day. Juveniles and babies can be kept indoors, but should eventually be moved outside.

Materials Needed For the Habitat

  • Proper Space

Before you even get started you need to know if you have enough space for your tortoise.

For an adult desert tortoise, you should be able to provide at least an 18’ by 18’ space to roam. While this is sufficient for your tortoise, if you have the extra space, 600 square feet (approximately 20’ by 30’ space) would be ideal.

  • Fencing

To keep your tortoise inside and safe from outside dangers and predators you’ll need some type of fencing material. This can be made of lumber, landscape timbers, bricks, chain link, or whatever fencing material you decide to use.

If you’re using lumber for your fencing material, make sure you get treated lumber to it will last longer. Untreated wood could rot in less than a year.

You tortoise can’t be able to see through the fence though. If a tortoise sees something it wants through the fence, it can spend hours trying to get through the fence.

  • Burrow Materials

You’ll need material for a burrow. This can be accomplished by using a 12” diameter PVC pipe that is at least three feet long, a couple of 5-gallon buckets, or approximately six cinder blocks.

If you choose cinder blocks as the basis of your tortoise’s burrow, you will also need a few sheets of Wonderboard or Hardibacker for the top. You will also need a piece of tile—approximately 12” square or larger—or slate for the back of the burrow when using the PVC.

When looking for a burrow site, look for an area away from tree roots that are raised up higher than the rest of the enclosure. The burrow needs to stay cool and especially dry. A wet burrow can cause a host of illnesses in your desert tortoise.

He comes from a dry, arid environment and will not do well in wet, cool, or humid enclosures or burrows.

  • Shallow Water Dish

Your tortoise will need a shallow water dish. It needs to be big enough so it can fit comfortably inside, but not so deep he can drown. A wide plant saucer would work perfectly.

20-Inch Classic Round Planter Saucer is a great choice. It is big enough for your adult desert tortoise to fit comfortably and not deep enough that it can’t get out, or drown inside.

  • Shade

Your tortoise habitat will need some shade as well as open sunny areas. A small tree or shaded trellis will work for a shady area.

  • Dry Substrate

Desert tortoises also need a dry substrate. Dry, natural soil or compacted topsoil works perfectly.

You can also use a mixture of cypress mulch and coconut fiber, but if you have dry, natural soil, you don’t have to buy extra materials.

  • Plant Some Plants

A desert tortoise also needs plenty of natural foraging plants they can munch on. Approximately 90 percent of their diet should come from plants that are native to their habitat and foraging.

These plants can include but are not limited to: Spurge grasses, dandelion, dichondra, hibiscus, mallow plants, mulberry, passionflower, astors, buckwheat, and wild grape.

Tools Needed to Build Your Desert Tortoise Habitat

Desert Tortoise getting some sunlight from it's outdoor enclosure taken by Verde Canyon Railroad
Desert Tortoise getting some sunlight from its outdoor enclosure taken by Verde Canyon Railroad.

First off, you’ll need some digging tools such as sturdy shovels and maybe post-hole diggers and hoes. Your fence needs to be dug into the ground and you’ll need to dig to create the burrow.

This Hooyman Shovel with Heavy Duty Carbon Steel Head will make short work of hard, compacted ground.

You’ll need a hammer and nails or a drill set and screws if you’re building a wooden fence. That’s it. There will be a lot of digging initially, but once everything is set up, you’ll only have to do occasional maintenance and clean up of the habitat.

You’ll need a good tape measure, one that is at least 25’ long. In order to dig a straight line and to get a visual for the space needed, you’ll need to find four wooden stakes and string to mark out the territory.

Step-by-Step Instructions to Build Your Tortoise Habitat

Desert Tortoise sitting in its rocky enclosure taken by Grant Avenue Baptist Church
Desert Tortoise sitting in its rocky enclosure taken by Grant Avenue Baptist Church.
  • Mark the Habitat

Use a few wooden stakes or fence posts and some string to mark out the habitat. Remember you need at least an 18’ square or approximately 324 square feet for your tortoise.

  • Dig Around the Perimeter for the Fence

Once you have it marked, start digging. Dig out a foot-deep trench along the perimeter of the enclosure. Desert tortoises are great diggers, so they can easily dig under a fence placed directly on the ground.

  • Install the Fence

This step will take up the majority of your time, and needs to be sturdy. The fence should be at least 24” above the ground. Meaning you need a fence that is 36” total.

If you are using any kind of fence your tortoise can see through, you’ll have to use something to block the view. An opaque fence mesh or privacy fence tape weave will be essential.

You don’t want your tortoise trying in vain to cross through the fence because she sees something she wants on the other side.

  • Build the Burrow

There are several ways you can build your desert tortoise’s burrow.

You can go simple and functional, or you can go all out and make it a luxury burrow with all the amenities. It’s up to you and how much time and money you want to spend on it.

For this tutorial, we will focus on three, inexpensive but very functional burrows. The main amenities your tortoise needs are a gently downward-sloping burrow that is tight, very dry, and cozy, and keeps her cool in the summer and warm in the winter when she hibernates.

How to Build a PVC Burrow

Desert Tortoise hiding it its underground burrow taken by Joshua Tree National Park
Desert Tortoise hiding it its underground burrow taken by Joshua Tree National Park.

First, you need to find an area in the enclosure that is higher than the rest of the enclosure.

This is because the burrow needs to stay dry as possible and be up above the flood line. When a desert tortoise’s burrow gets wet it can cause respiratory problems and an expensive visit to the vet.

Another consideration for the burrow is how it’s positioned. It needs to face north to the northeast so it doesn’t get the hot southern sun. Facing the burrow toward the north helps to keep it cooler and more comfortable for your tortoise.

The proper temperature for a burrow in the summer should be between 68 to 85℉ and between 50 to 68℉ during the winter months. The PVC burrow needs to be dug down about 16” at one end of the pipe, and slope upward at a 45-degree angle.

You can dig the burrow deeper if you want. Digging deeper helps to increase the insulation and regulate the temperature better.

When you place the pipe into the ground, cover the back end with tile, slate, or other material. This will prevent your tortoise from digging deeper into the ground.

With the back blocked and the PVC shelter in place, cover the back end of the PVC with at least 5” of dirt. This keeps the burrow cool in summer and warm in winter. The ultimate goal is to cover the entire plastic pipe with dirt.

Next, fill the pipe about halfway full with dry dirt. This provides a flat surface for your tortoise to climb in and out of, as well as fill in the space. Desert tortoise’s like to stay in a close-fitting burrow; this helps them feel safe and secure.

Now, gather up more dirt and mound it up in front of the burrow. You’re building a berm or hill in front of the entrance. This will further help to keep it dry during rain showers.

Congratulations! Your desert tortoise’s burrow is complete.

How to Build a Cinder Block Burrow

Desert Tortoise walking out of its hide into the sun taken by Renee Grayson
Desert Tortoise walking out of its hide into the sun taken by Renee Grayson.

This method requires a little less digging and may be slightly easier to build than the PVC burrow. You may need to purchase soil for this build though unless you can get dirt from another area of your property.

Make sure you follow the directions above for the placement of the burrow. Now, take your six cinder blocks and lay them out in an open square, two for each side. Dig out the area inside the cinder blocks to a depth of approximately six inches.

Take that dirt and fill in the holes of the cinder blocks. You want as much insulation as you can get for your tortoise, plus the added dirt helps to secure the cinder blocks even more. Once that is complete, take your Wonderboard or Hardiebacker and place it over top of the cinder blocks to create a roof.

You need something on top of the cinder blocks that won’t rot and will remain sturdy so that it doesn’t collapse. Any type of wood such as plywood or OSB board is not a good idea as it will eventually rot out.

Wonderboard and Hardibacker is a type of cement board used as a backing for ceramic tile. It is made of concrete and other materials that will not rot and come in different thicknesses. For the top of your desert tortoise burrow, you will need two to three, half-inch thick sheets.

With the top over the burrow, cover it with dirt. This is where you may need the extra dirt because you need at least six inches of dirt on top of the burrow, and enough dirt to cover up any trace of the cinder blocks. Now finish off your tortoise’s hideaway by building up a berm in the entrance.

Other Burrow Materials

Desert Tortoise basking in the sun under shrub taken by USFWS Endangered Species
Desert Tortoise basking in the sun under shrub taken by USFWS Endangered Species.

If you want, you can also build a burrow using two 5-gallon buckets fastened together. Just cut off one or both ends and build the burrow by following the directions for the PVC option.

You can build a burrow out of wood, just make sure it’s protected from moisture and will not rot or mold. You can also use bricks, slate, or other materials and get as fancy as you want.

Just make sure it’s slanted downward, is nice and tight for your tortoise to remain dry, and maintains the right temperatures.

  • Plant Some Tortoise Edibles

You can feed your tortoise nutritious food such as kale, mustard greens, green beans, carrots, and endive, but most of their diet (80 to 90%) needs to come from foraging on native grasses and plants.

You should plant plenty of grasses they can eat such as spurge, bermuda, alfalfa, buckwheat, and deer grasses. Include some flowering plants as well such as globemallow, and dandelions. Desert tortoises will munch on the leaves, flowers, and stalks of all of these plants and more.

If your tortoise’s enclosure is void of shade while you are building it, now would be a good time to plant a few shade bushes or trees so your tortoise can get out of the hot sun occasionally.

  • Add Substrate if Needed

Most yards won’t need any extra substrate as they typically have compacted soil that is fine for your tortoise to walk and live on.

If you feel you need to add substrate, use clean topsoil and pack it down. You can also use a mixture of cypress mulch and coconut fiber if you so desire.

The substrate, if you add it, needs to be about six inches deep. Sometimes desert tortoises like to dig on their own. They do this to cool off, dull their claws, and because it’s in their nature.

Stay away from the sand, reptile bark, wood shavings such as cedar chips, and small gravel as your tortoise could accidentally ingest these materials as they eat and graze. These materials can cause intestinal blockages and impaction, and the dust from gravel and sand can cause respiratory illness.

Stay away from straw, hay, and other materials that will mold when it gets wet. These materials are not healthy for your desert tortoise as they can hold too much moisture and end up decaying quickly.

  • Introduce Your Tortoise

Now that you have your enclosure set up, the only thing left to do is introduce your tortoise to its new habitat. There are a few cautions and things to look out for that we want to mention here.

Make sure the habitat is clean, pick up any litter that may find its way inside, and be sure there are no hazards for your new pet. Firepits, pools, holes, or natural or unnatural steps need to be avoided.

Firepits need to be relocated or covered so that your tortoise can’t fall in. The same goes for any medium to large holes.

Be aware of anything your desert tortoise can climb on that will enable it to escape its pen. Rocks, dirt, or plants that offer a kind of step could all be ways your tortoise could escape. Tortoises may be slow-moving, and clumsy looking, but they can climb well.

Keep dogs and small children out of the enclosure. Excitable and excessively energetic dogs could inadvertently hurt your tortoise.

Don’t add pelletized or chemical-laden fertilizers to keep your plants growing healthy. Your tortoise could accidentally ingest the fertilizer which could be very harmful or even fatal if they consume enough.

  • Provide Water

Be sure to provide water for your tortoise a few days out of the week by filling up the shallow dish and laying it in the shade somewhere. Always replace it in the same place or just leave the dish there so your tortoise knows where it can get the water.

Desert tortoises will get most of their water needs from the food they eat, so you won’t see them drinking very often, nevertheless, offer water about four to five times per week. Your tortoise may like to soak in the dish on occasion so make sure it’s big enough that he can fit in, but can easily climb back out when he needs to.

The reason you don’t want to offer water every single day is that occasional waterings encourage the desert tortoise to drink more often, and completely empty its bladder instead of holding onto its urine. In the wild, desert tortoises will keep from urinating during extended dry spells in case they need moisture.

You can also soak your tortoise with a warm spray of water on occasion for 10 to 20 minutes at a time.

  • Hibernation

A healthy desert tortoise should be encouraged to hibernate when the temperatures start to dip and stay in the low 60s.

This is a natural behavior of some species. As the days get closer to winter, you’ll see your tortoise slowing down and not being as active as usual.

As long as your tortoise has been healthy, and the burrow remains warm enough for hibernation you don’t need to do much here. If the outside temperatures reach below 39℉, then you’ll need to bring your tortoise indoors as these temps can be dangerous to your pet.

If there is no place to keep your tortoise cool during the winter you may need to wake her up out of hibernation. Remember the temperature inside the burrow while the tortoise is hibernating should be between 50 to 68℉.

When waking your desert tortoise out of hibernation, you need to warm them up very slowly. Once your desert tortoise is away and fully active, offer it fresh water and food, then keep it inside until the outside temperatures stay above 60℉ during the night.

Wrapping It Up

A desert tortoise can be a great pet that will stick with you for a very long time with the right care.

It all starts with the right enclosure and a well-built burrow. All you need is a good fence that is at least a foot into the ground, some dry earth, and a proper, dry burrow where your pet can hide from the heat and cold winters.

Grab your shovel, get some solid fencing and a wide piece of PVC pipe and get to digging that desert tortoise habitat. Don’t forget to leave us a comment and maybe some pictures of your desert tortoise setup.

We love to hear from our readers!

References: 

Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital 

Arizona Game and Fish Department

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