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Texas Tortoise Care Guide

The Texas tortoise is one of the few tortoise species endemic to North America. As a North American tortoise, the texas tortoise is well adapted to living outdoors in places with a dry temperate climate.

The species is protected by the Endangered Species Act. As such, to adopt a member of this species, it is imperative that you obtain a permit and follow all the necessary rules and regulations set in place with regard to the species.

Texas Tortoise Facts

  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Gopherus berlandieri
  • Average Adult Size: 9.06 to 15.24 inches (230 to 387 cm)
  • Lifespan: 50 to 85 years
  • Clutch Size: 6 eggs
  • Food: Vegetables
  • Tank Size:  Outdoor housing recommend
  • Average Temperature: 85°H/70°L
  • UVB Lighting: Needed
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern on IUCN Redlist
Texas Tortoise Head
Texas Tortoise Head

The biological name of the Texas tortoise is Gopherus berlandieri. The genus Gopherus contains all other tortoises native to North America. Species of the genus include the Texas tortoise, the Mojave Desert tortoise (or Agassiz’s desert tortoise), the Sinaloan desert tortoise, the Bolson tortoise, Sonoran desert tortoise (or Morafka’s desert tortoise) and the Gopher tortoise. Collectively, they are referred to as gopher tortoises.

This texas tortoise is only found in the south of North America with a geographic range which includes Southern Texas and the northern Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosi. They occur from sea level to an elevation of about 2900 feet (884 m).

The Texas tortoise is the smallest of the gopher tortoises, making it an excellent pet for a lucky few. However, it is important to remember that they are federally listed under the Endangered Species Act in the United States.

As such, it is illegal to collect or keep specimens without a permit. As with any wild species, it’s important to check with your local wildlife agency before adopting a specimen.


In the wild, the Texas tortoise can be found in dry savannas and grasslands. They prefer well-drained sandy soils as well as open scrub woods. While they can dig, they prefer to use pre-dug mammal burrows. They tolerant heat and dry conditions.

Texas Tortoise Care Sheet

Outdoor enclosure

The best enclosure for this species is a fenced outdoor habitat. The outdoor enclosure needs to be predator-proof to ensure the tortoise is safe.

Regardless of where you live, an outdoor enclosure must be considered especially when the weather is warm.

Because the turtle likes to burrow, the perimeter walls need to extend into the ground (several feet into the ground). Also constructing an artificial burrow is helpful as the tortoise prefers to lodge in pre-dug burrows.

In areas where humidity and precipitation are high, provisions (such as the use of proper drainage and landscaping) need to be made to ensure large portions of the enclosure is kept relatively dry even after rains.

When the weather gets cold, the tortoises can be transferred indoors, however, it is recommended that specimens of this species are kept outdoors most of the year.

Indoor enclosure

Since most Texas tortoises are adopted within their natural range, it is usually not necessary to house them indoors. However, it may become necessary, if the tortoises aren’t safe outside, or when the climate makes outdoor housing impossible.

The best indoor enclosure for the species is a turtle table. For hatchlings, the enclosure should be 3 feet (90 cm) long and 2 feet (60 cm) wide. As the turtle increases in size, you’d need to acquire a much bigger turtle table. 

You need to provide a dark and dry retreat for the turtle. This is an absolute must. It keeps the turtle comfortable and stress-free. The hide box needs to be large enough to completely contain the tortoise.

Some turtle tables come with a hide preinstalled. If there is no hide box, acquire one. The hide box must be placed as far from the heat lamp as possible.

The enclosure needs a water area large enough for the tortoise to soak in but shallow enough so it doesn’t drown.


The best substrate to use in the enclosure is orchard grass hay or environment grass hay. This is ideal as it doesn’t hold moisture well. Grass hay also doubles as a food source. It is important to remove wet and spoiled hay every day.

Another good substrate choice is 1-part clean topsoil free of any additives and 1-part play sand. This substrate must be replaced every 4 to 6 weeks.

Temperature and Lighting

In one corner of the enclosure, you need to install a 100-watt heat lamp such as the Zacro Reptile Heat Lamp. This basking bulb provides the needed heat.

The temperature of the basking spot needs to be 90 to 95 F (32 – 35 C). You can use a thermostat such as the Zoo Med ReptiTemp RT-600 Digital Thermostat Controller to regulate the heat produced by the basking bulb.

To provide the Texas tortoise with all the needed UVB, install a full-spectrum fluorescent light such as the Zoo Med Reptisun. UVB is needed for vitamin d3 synthesis which in turn is needed for calcium metabolism.

A mercury vapor bulb can be used to provide both UVB and heat. A drop in temperature during the night should not be an issue.

However, if humidity levels are high and the temperature is low, the tortoise can develop respiratory distress.


Texas Tortoise Eating
Texas Tortoise Eating

As herbivores, the Texas tortoises must be fed a diet high in vegetables and grass. As already mentioned,  orchard grass hay is a good source of fiber for this turtle.

As this is the substrate, the tortoise can dine on it as needed. To supplement the grass and weeds, feed the tortoise natural grown plants such as hibiscus leaves and flowers, dandelions, nasturtium leaves and flowers, wandering Jew, young rose leaves, rose flowers, grape leaves, zucchini leaves, and fruits, yellow crookneck, banana squash, and many more.

The Texas tortoise also enjoys cacti and succulents such as prickly pear cacti, the pads, and fruits of the beavertail, and aloe vera. Make sure to remove all spines before feeding the cacti to the tortoise.

90 percent of the Texas tortoise’s diet must be composed of the weeds, grasses, and flowers like the ones mentioned above.

Alternatively, some keepers feed their tortoises dandelion greens, endive, and collard greens as the main diet. This makes up about 90 percent of the tortoise’s diet.

In addition to this, the tortoises are fed tomatoes, rapini, and broccoli occasionally. As a treat, the turtles may be melons, melon leaves (except watermelon), apples (with seeds removed as they are poisonous to the tortoise), and strawberries.

These treats should be fed sparingly (once every two weeks). In addition to this, you can mix romaine lettuce into the main diet occasionally. Iceberg lettuces should be avoided as they contain little nutrition.

For tortoises that insist on eating lettuce only, blend fruits and vegetables and spread it on lettuce. Also, place thin slices of vegetables and fruits on the lettuce. As time goes on, gradually reduce the lettuce content until the tortoise is eating healthy.

The diet must be supplemented with calcium powder. This should be sprinkled on all the foods fed the Texas tortoise. For Texas tortoises maintained indoors, supplement the food with calcium and vitamin D3. For Texas tortoises maintained outdoors, just calcium is adequate.

Lastly, to promote beak growth, provide the Texas tortoise with cuttlefish bone.

Foods to avoid include bananas, sprouting seeds, beans, peas, cabbage, chard, and spinach. Do not feed these to the tortoise. It is best to avoid supermarket greens. Wild foodstuff is preferable.


Texase Tortoise Walking
Texas Tortoise Walking

The Texas tortoise is best left alone. Holding or touching a Texas tortoise can be very stressful. However, as they come to associate you with food. The Texas tortoises would rush towards you whenever you approach the enclosure.

As a North American tortoise, the Texas tortoise hibernates. It is important that conditions are right so the tortoise hibernates safely. The Texas tortoise usually slows down around October to November.

If the tortoise doesn’t come out for about a week, then it’s likely hibernating. It is important to check on the tortoise to ensure it’s okay.

Here are two ways to keep the tortoise comfortable during hibernation.

  • If the tortoise is housed in a turtle table or tortoise house, switch the heat lamp for a 25-60 watts bulb, and ensure the temperature of the heat lamp is 50 to 55 degrees.
  • Place the Texas tortoise in a newspaper lined cardboard box and place a single layer of newspaper over the tortoise. Place the tortoise in a dark cool place, such as the garage, the box must be placed above the floor to avoid drafts.

The tortoise may try to hibernate in a burrow. Do not allow this. Relocate the tortoise. The burrow may become damp over the winter which can lead to respiratory distress. The tortoise can even drown while in the burrow.

Don’t allow sick tortoises to hibernate. Keep their enclosure warm all winter. This ensures it doesn’t hibernate. The Texas tortoise must display good health for at least 12 consecutive months before you allow it to hibernate.


These long-lived tortoises can live up to 70 years in captivity and in the wild.

Common Health Concerns (Issues/Solutions)

The main health problem that the Texas tortoise faces are upper respiratory tract disease (URTD). This is caused by a pleomorphic bacterium with no cell wall. These bacteria are caused mycoplasmosis.

This disease affects many other gopher tortoises. Symptoms include discharge from the eyes and nose and swollen eyelids. An infected tortoise may have difficulty breathing, lose appetite, be lethargic, and even lose weight. When not treated, the disease can cause deformation of the beak and nostrils.

The only way to cure a tortoise with this disease is to see a vet who will administer long-term antibiotic injections, and flush the nose and choana of the Texas tortoise with antibiotics, saline, and steroids. The treatment takes about one and a half months to two months.

Prevention is best. A dry habitat inactivates and kills the Mycoplasma spp. Additions clean the enclosure and all bowls and utensils with a 0.15 percent bleach solution. Remember to rinse the enclosure and utensils with clean water. Also, quarantine all infected individuals as the disease is contagious.

Pricing and Availability

These turtles are not sold online as the species is classified as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife since 1977. As such being found in possession of the Texas tortoise without the proper authorization can lead to a $10,000 fine.


While the Texas tortoise is considered a species of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List, this species is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and is listed as a threatened species in the State of Texas.

As such, keeping and collecting specimens of the species is illegal and punishable by law. You need a permit to keep the Texas tortoise. The species is also listed on Appendix II of the CITES. As such, a permit is needed for international trade.

The major threats to this species include highway mortality as well as the loss of habitat (due to the conversion of its habitat to other land uses such as housing, commercial uses, and farming). These threats coupled with the species’ low reproductive rate makes them a very vulnerable species.


The Texas tortoise may be a cute pet but its care requires a lot of work. In addition, they are considered threatened and are illegal to adopt unless under certain conditions.

If you do come across a wild Texas tortoise, it is best to leave it alone. Touching a Texas tortoise can be extremely to the species as it empties its bladder when threatened.

This can easily lead to dehydration and even death. If you have any comments or questions, we would love to hear them. Kindly leave a comment.

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John Schuetze

Tuesday 25th of October 2022

I think the danger of being run over would be the greater risk. I would move it.

Mikel Parkhurst

Saturday 9th of January 2021

I enjoyed the article on the Texas Tortoise. I have one question though:"Touching a Texas tortoise can be extremely to the species as it empties its bladder when threatened." Can you tell me what "can be extremely to the" means? If you come across one in the middle of the road that may be run over, do you advise not to move it out of the road? Thank you again for the read.