Practical - Index > Urban Wildlife > Wild Animals > Tortoises

Frequently Asked Questions about the
Desert Tortoise & Box Turtle Adoption Program


1. I found a tortoise, can I keep it? Can I release it into the wild? Where should I release it?

It is illegal to collect tortoises from the wild. Wild tortoises will often hiss and urinate on you if handled. Tortoises naturally occur on the lower slopes of mountain foothills, in fairly rocky terrain. If you determine that the animal you found is wild, within 24 hrs. return it to a safe location close to where you found it. If it has been removed for a longer period of time, you must contact the local Game & Fish office (628-5376). However, if you find a captive tortoise, which commonly occurs in Tucson (including densely populated areas), it is best to try to find the tortoise's owner. If this fails, you may keep the tortoise.


2. My tortoise is lonely, can I get another one?

Tortoises probably do not get lonely, they tend to be solitary reptiles. Even so, the Arizona Department of Game & Fish allows one tortoise per household member, so being a caretaker for several tortoises is possible. However, the TAP will not place males and females together (see above), and males may fight. So, we recommend female tortoises if you want to care for more than one.


3. My tortoise loves to eat fruit, especially bananas, melon and grapes. He also likes lettuce, and he will eat our dog's food. Is this okay?

No. These foods are bad for the tortoise. It should eat grass primarily (a roll of sod is okay if you don't have grass) and occasionally produce such as kale, mustard greens and spinach. Don't feed lettuce, fruit (except from prickly pear cactus when in season), any meat products, or dog and cat food.


4. When can I breed my tortoise? When are they sexually mature?

Tortoises are sexually mature when their carapaces (top shells) reach ~6 inches in length. We prefer that you do not breed your tortoises. There are always hatchlings in need of homes, and more breeding leads to more tortoises without homes. For this reason, the TAP will not place male and female tortoises together.


5. When should my hatchling be moved outside and what should I be feeding it?

It is best to keep tortoises outside, regardless of their age. Please see hatchling information for food items. If a tortoise is kept inside, artificial lighting that provides ultraviolet light, is necessary to keep it healthy.


6. Will my dog/cat/hamster/three year old child hurt a tortoise?

Dog bites can be fatal to tortoises. A dog that tends to attack animals would not be a good tortoise companion. Cats and birds can damage/kill tortoises up to about three years in age. Rodents may chew on tortoise shells or limbs. Children that pick up tortoises may drop them, which may crack their shells. Tortoises should not be handled by children, and only periodically by adults.


7. I found a tortoise or a box turtle, how can I tell which one it is?

Take a look at these digital photos, they should answer your question. If not, look at the plastron of the animal. If it has a 'hinge' between the first third and the remainder, which allows it to close up against the carapace, then it is probably a box turtle. If it does not have this hinge, it is probably a tortoise. Keep in mind that there are many exotic turtles and tortoises that people purchase and keep, as well as a few other types of turtles that may be found wild in Arizona (including some introduced exotics).


8. How do you tell boy tortoises from girl tortoises?

Male tortoises have an indentation in their plastron (lower shell) near the tail. Females have a flat plastron.


9. I just noticed that my tortoise is blowing bubbles from his nose. Is this okay?

Probably not. A runny nose and/or swollen eyelids are symptomatic of respiratory infections. The only time bubbles may occur that are okay, is if the animal just got a drink and has water in and around its nostrils, which may form bubbles upon exhaling. Otherwise, contact a veterinarian.


10. My tortoise is still asleep and it's June! Is it dead?

Depending upon the weather, some tortoises may go straight from hibernation into estivation (kind of a hibernation during the hot, dry months) without emerging in between. If you are concerned about your tortoise, gently remove the animal from its burrow and look for signs of illness or dehydration (see Care and Husbandry pamphlet). If the animal is okay, return it to its burrow.


11. I have had two tortoises since they were hatchlings. Now they are grown up and starting to fight each other. What can I do?

They have probably reached sexual maturity and are both males. Males will fight each other even when there are no females present. It helps to separate them in your yard. Sometimes a brief separation is adequate, other times you need to provide them completely separate spaces permanently. If this is not possible, and they continue to fight, it is better to give one of them up for adoption. If you don't know of anyone who can provide a good home, call the Desert Museum Tortoise Adoption Program.


12. I built this great hibernation den for my tortoise, but it has dug a hole elsewhere in my yard. Should I leave him there for the winter?

No. Move him to the den after he goes to sleep. It will provide more protection.


13. I have two female tortoises and they are starting to fight. I thought females were supposed to get along.

Especially in the fall, just before hibernation, females will fight sometimes. It is usually a short-term problem, and they will calm down before hibernation.


14. My tortoise excreted some white or grayish material. I have never seen this before, is he sick?

Tortoises occasionally eliminate a gray to whitish, chalky substance. This is normal, unless it occurs continuously. If it does, you should contact a veterinarian familiar with tortoises.


15. My tortoise came out of hibernation for a couple of days and then went back to bed. Is this normal?

Yes, sometimes in the spring tortoises don't wake up all at one time. If the tortoise doesn't become active fairly soon and the weather is still warm, you might want to check him/her to make sure he/she is healthy.


16. How long do Desert tortoises live?

Desert tortoises may live up to 80 years or more.


For more information, contact the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's Tortoise Adoption Program at 520-883-3062.