Desert Tortoise Diet Help

AmberViolette

New Member
Joined
Jun 23, 2021
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1
Location (City and/or State)
Arizona
Hello. We moved into a new place where we discovered the previous owner left us their Desert Tortoise. There are a few pens and he lives in one and just came out of hibernation I am assuming.

I’ve been researching what to plant to get his habitat established, and have a good list. However on the internet there is so much confusing contradictory advice as to what to feed him from the grocery store until we get these grasses/flowers established in his pen for him to eat.

Currently in our yard we have grass, clover, and a mulberry tree. We do let him roam around and forage while we keep an eye on him but we have dogs so we can’t leave him out for hours. Can I pick some clovers and mulberry leaves and add them to his salad we give him when we comes out of his hole? What should I buy from the grocery store to make a salad to provide him with enough to eat?

Also we live in AZ (hot as heck) is it normal he only comes out at dawn and dusk? He seems to like people or at least he knows people = food lol.

Thank you!
 

RosemaryDW

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Newport Coast, CA
Welcome!

A desert tortoise may forage for only around fifteen minutes at dawn and dusk while it’s really hot so don’t worry about that. They will have done the majority of eating in the spring, when it’s cooler and the flowers and juicier plants are growing. I’ve read they tend to be more chill than some tortoises so it’s not unusual for them to hang out near you, food or not.

You can pick all of that for him, including the grass.

You will have a Mexican grocery nearby, I’m sure. They will sell cactus, labeled as nopales, which is a great food for him and hopefully something he’s used to. Don’t worry about the prickles, desert tortoises eat them “as is” in the wild; it won’t hurt their jaws. My grocery store also sells squash flowers (flor de calabaza) and turnip tops (no need to bother using up the turnips themselves!). Both are good food. They will probably also sell aloe vera. Seems like something close to an agave, which they may eat in the wild (I’m really not sure on that one). A Mexican grocery store might also sell dandelions, although be aware they look very different from the ones you and I are used to. A desert tortoise can have a prickly pear fruit (tunas) or two from the store as well when he comes out of hibernation or a month or so later. This is contrary to the no sugar advice you will have read but your tortoise’s digestion system is okay with eating a few these in season; he would do so in the wild.

From the more “American” grocery store you can feed him the bitter chicories which will be (of course!) the more expensive lettuces, down toward the end of the display: escarole, radicchio, endive, frisee are all good. They may also sell the dandelions I mentioned above. If your store sells Ready Pac salad the Santa Barbara mix is composed solely of bitter chicories, which makes it handy.

You can mix in (maybe twenty percent of the diet for now) brassicas. This is a very large plant family that contains mustards, turnips (feed only the tops), radishes (feed the tops, kale, bok choy, collards and much more. He won’t like all of these but keep offering the ones that aren’t favorites now and then; tortoises do change what they’ll eat over time. You might try some carrot tops although it’s a bit iffy whether he’ll eat them. The occasional bite of winter or summer squash; a small chunk of cucumber; the very top of a carrot; a strip of bell pepper; a green bean or two; a single okra, are foods that contain some nutrients he might not be getting solely from greens and grass. They are all relatively high in sugar, which is while we don’t feed much of them. If you’ve got an unsprayed rose or hibiscus, some flowers are also nice to offer. I usually offer my Russian one of these items every week or so; other experienced owners feed them more often.

I know these lists can be overwhelming! You definitely don’t need to feed all of these at once; work in two or three at a time, perhaps, and get used to the humans in your house eating more greens. :)

Since he’s a grass eater I would look for a way to work some in. I don’t own a hay eater but I know some owners will ask a feed store if they can have a couple of handfuls of the grass that’s fallen out of the bales (or whatever the layout is) onto the ground. I‘m sure it will feel weird but I usually find that if I say something is for my tortoise people are okay with my asking for scraps. It would be just a little to mix in; if he’s used to fresh grass from your yard he may not take to it.

I suppose you can grow some of the cat/human wheat grass that is sold and mix that in as well. I’d get a bag of the seed somewhere if you find he likes it and grow it in something larger than those little pots they sell.

If you would like to make a little more of an effort, buy some cheap zucchini plants from the nursery (they don’t have to be organic) and give them a shot. The stems, leaves and flowers are all great food with lots of fiber and given how cheap they are to buy it doesn’t matter if they don’t live long. Or perhaps you have a neighbor who has zucchini who has it coming out of their ears and would be delighted to cut you some.

You seem like you’ve done quite a bit of reading but I’m just going to double check you’ve given him a couple soaks to ensure he’s hydrated; that’s actually more important than food.

You are going to get feedback from others about never ever letting your tortoise free roam (I can’t tell how secure your fence is, although since your tortoise has obviously been around for a while it may be just fine). Also that you should never let dogs near it, period. I’m generally in agreement with that. I’m okay with them hanging out in the yard so long as it’s secure; my Russian is fully outdoors when she’s not hibernating but our small yard is really locked down and it’s well set up for her safety (no scary plants, no pesticides, plenty of hiding spaces and shade).

Good luck! Your tortoise seems to have been doing just fine in its current surroundings so don’t worry about getting this all “right” overnight. Your tortoise is going to live decades more so you have time. :)
 

Tom

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Location (City and/or State)
Southern California
Hello. We moved into a new place where we discovered the previous owner left us their Desert Tortoise. There are a few pens and he lives in one and just came out of hibernation I am assuming.

I’ve been researching what to plant to get his habitat established, and have a good list. However on the internet there is so much confusing contradictory advice as to what to feed him from the grocery store until we get these grasses/flowers established in his pen for him to eat.

Currently in our yard we have grass, clover, and a mulberry tree. We do let him roam around and forage while we keep an eye on him but we have dogs so we can’t leave him out for hours. Can I pick some clovers and mulberry leaves and add them to his salad we give him when we comes out of his hole? What should I buy from the grocery store to make a salad to provide him with enough to eat?

Also we live in AZ (hot as heck) is it normal he only comes out at dawn and dusk? He seems to like people or at least he knows people = food lol.

Thank you!
Here is the correct care info, including diet. Most of what you find for this species is just plain wrong and if followed will likely result in the tortoises death in one of several ways.
 
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