Captive Desert Tortoise Enclosure and Burrow
Desert tortoises require a safe enclosure, designed to prevent the tortoise from escaping and also protect it from any harm. They also require a burrow which will protect it from extreme summer heat and dryness, and provide it a place to brumate in the winter.
Enclosures must meet the following minimum size requirements for the size of the tortoise:
Adult tortoise – 18′ x 18′ or 324 square feet
Juvenile tortoise – 8′ x 8′ or 64 square feet
Hatchling tortoise – 4′ x 4′ or 16 square feet; must include a predator proof top
- Enclosure must be secure to prevent escape
- Solid barrier around the enclosure that is at least 24” tall and a dig proof barrier buried 6-8” is recommended
- Ensure that pools, ponds and in ground fire pits are gated or secured
- Ensure that dogs can’t freely access the tortoise without supervision
- Ability to restrict or monitor access to artificial turf (tortoises may try to eat it, resulting in costly vet bills)
Burrows should be well insulated by adding at least 8″ of soil to the top, sides and bottom. In the wild, desert tortoises prefer a snug burrow to wedge themselves into a corner near the back.
When building the burrow, orient it towards the north or northeast facing. These burrows tend to be cooler and provide a good refuge from summer heat.
The optimal temperature range for the burrow is 68-85 degrees during the summer and between 50-68 degrees in the winter. Shelter temperatures should always be kept below 90 degrees, to prevent the tortoise from overheating.
During mild weather, a tortoise may dig a shallow depression (pallet) in the soil, usually beneath a shrub or other low-growing vegetation. This will give it the option of either a warmer or cooler environment at different times of the year.
- The burrow should be in a high and dry spot, above the flood line or away from areas where rain water collects. You can construct a flattened mound of dirt 8 inches high to build or set the burrow, which will protect it from runoff. Be sure to include a small berm at the opening to the burrow which will help keep water from flooding the burrow.
- The tortoise burrow MUST stay completely dry during rains. A damp burrow will cause your tortoise to become susceptible to various respiratory ailments that require costly veterinarian treatment. These ailments , if left untreated, will most likely result in the death of your tortoise.
Types of burrows
Stationary burrows can be constructed out of:
- Large heavy duty plastic trash can (cut in half) and placed lengthwise
- Two 5 gallon buckets (one bottom cut off) joined together and placed lengthwise
- Large PVC pipe with a tile placed at the end
- Cinder blocks (six blocks placed into a “U” shape) covered with a ceramic tile backer board (e.g., wonderboard or Hardieboard™) or a piece of flagstone