Captive Desert Tortoise Shelter
Desert tortoises require a shelter to protect it from extreme summer heat and dryness, and to provide a place to hibernate in the winter.
Shelters should be well insulated by adding soil to the top, sides and bottom of the structure. In the wild, desert tortoises prefer snug shelter to wedge themselves into a corner near the back so don’t make the shelter too roomy.
Proper shelter temperature
When building the shelter, keep in mind that its orientation to direct sunlight has a direct impact internal burrow temperature. North and northeast facing shelters tend to be cooler and provide a good refuge from summer heat. South facing shelters warm up quicker than north facing shelters and are generally better suited for hibernation in winter.
Optimal temperature range for the shelter is 68-85 degrees during the summer and between 50-68 degrees in the winter. Shelter temperatures should always be kept below 90 degrees, this will keep the tortoise from overheating and suffering brain damage.
During mild weather, a tortoise may dig a shallow depression (pallet) in the soil, usually beneath a shrub or other low-growing vegetation. Providing more than one shelter for the tortoise will give it the option of either a warmer or cooler environment at different times of the year. Shelters with different orientations and for seasons are helpful, but a single shelter will suffice if strategically placed.
Types of shelter
Stationary shelters can be constructed out of a five-gallon bucket, large metal trash can or cinder blocks covered with a ceramic tile backer board. A bucket or trash can needs to be cut in half and placed lengthwise so that it sits level on the ground. If opting for cinder blocks, arrange 6 blocks into a “U” shape, and cover with a piece of ceramic tile backer board (e.g., Hardieboard™) or a piece of flat rock such as flagstone. For either stationary shelter, rocks can be placed around the sides and back to prevent erosion. Add an 8-inch layer of soil on the top, sides and back for stabilization and insulation.
- Shelters can be incorporated into existing landscaping and can be the focal point of the backyard or they can be inconspicuous.
- The shelter 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 shelter, which will protect the shelter from runoff.
- The tortoise shelter MUST stay completely dry during rains. A damp shelter 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.
The type of shelter you construct for your tortoise will depend largely on the local climate. Because of greater rainfall, and the increased likelihood of flooding, those living in Phoenix or Tucson should provide an above-ground shelter.
Creating shelters in Phoenix, Prescott, and Tucson
Those in Bullhead City, Kingman, Lake Havasu or Yuma should dig a shelter below ground to offer the best thermal protection due to the extreme heat in these regions, and have an eave to keep rain from falling in it. However, it should still be built in a high area of your backyard enclosure to prevent flooding during heavy rain.
Creating shelters in Bullhead City, Lake Havasu, Kingman, and Yuma