So you want to adopt a desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

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Yvonne G

Old Timer
TFO Admin
10 Year Member!
Platinum Tortoise Club
Jan 23, 2008
Location (City and/or State)
Clovis, CA
You really like desert tortoises, but acquiring one has been influenced by what you’ve heard people say about them being hard to keep…or that they are all sick…or they all have the dread UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT DISEASE (URTD)!!

Well, let me put your mind at ease. Yes, some of the tortoises I receive here at the Clovis Turtle and Tortoise Rescue have symptoms of a respiratory infection, but then again, some do not. URTD is not necessarily a death sentence. You may have heard that it kills off the native populations in the desert, and that is true. But a tortoise with URTD in a captive situation has a good chance of living a long and healthy life.

URTD is caused by a mycoplasma that has no known cure. Once your tortoise becomes infected with this mycoplasma, it lives forever inside the tortoise. Antibiotics will clear up the symptoms, but the mycoplasma never dies. Once the symptoms have been cleared up, the tortoise, for all intents and purposes, can live a completely healthy and long life. If you allow him to be a tortoise, and don’t stress him out, chances are good that the symptoms may never recur. Studies are underway that reveal that some tortoises are developing antibodies to the mycoplasma.

Tortoises are not the easy-to-keep pet that most people think they are. They are very fragile and get stressed-out easily. This is when the symptoms recur. Stressors that can trigger an outbreak include hibernation, breeding, moving from one home to another, a change in scenery of the tortoise’s habitat and probably more. So, the answer is: provide your tortoise with a safe and comfortable habitat and allow him to be a tortoise, that is, leave him alone! He is there for your “viewing pleasure” he is NOT a pet. A tortoise is a wild animal and hasn’t suffered years of human intervention to make him be domesticated.

So, you bring your new tortoise home and next thing you know, he has bubbles coming out his nose. This is not a cause for concern. It doesn’t necessarily mean he has the dreaded URTD. What it means is that the poor tortoise has been uprooted yet again, and plunked down in yet another new habitat, and yes, folks, he’s stressed out! What you do now is adopt a wait-and-see attitude. You leave him alone to wander his yard and eat the grass and weeds that are planted there for him. You leave him alone to go into his shelter to cool off from the sun. You leave him alone to nap under the tree. But you keep a close watch to be sure he is eating. After he settles into his new environment, more than likely, the bubbles will clear up.

If the nasal discharge doesn’t go away in two weeks, or if it turns thick and colored and he stops eating, it’s time for veterinary intervention. The usual treatment is Baytril injections every other day for 10 days. Some vets inject every day for 5 days. Baytril is very invasive and causes the tortoise quite a bit of pain, so it should be used as a last resort, after you have given the animal a chance to heal on its own.

A good tortoise yard includes:
1. A safe fence. If the tortoise can see light shining under the fence, that is the place where he will start to dig. They always want to get to the other side of an area they can see through. So naturally, a chain or wire fence isn’t good.
2. A gate with a spring so it closes on its own. Or a padlock so it can’t be opened by someone without a key.
3. No access to the whole yard unless there are people there to keep an eye on the tortoise. Especially no access to an area where there is a built-in pool. Tortoises can’t swim and they seem to have poor depth perception, walking right off the edge of the coping and into the pool. A good place for a tortoise pen is along side of the house. Usually your neighbor has a cement walk on the other side of the fence, and on your side is your house. But if not, you can place bricks along the fence or other obstructions to keep him from digging. Just be sure to provide shade so he can cool down, water and plants.
4. Safety from the dog. Eventually a dog WILL chew on your tortoise. So keep the dog out of the tortoise pen.
5. Grass and weeds to graze on.
6. A dry pen. During the summer, being dry isn’t as important as it is during the winter. Warm/wet = ok Cold/wet = deadly
But his hiding place should be dry and away from where you water the yard.
7. Don’t put more than one male in a pen. Males will fight, and even if they don’t tip one another over to die in the sun, just living within the same boundaries will cause them stress. In the wild two males stay out of each other’s territory, but in a pen, they have no way to keep out of each other’s territory.

The last point I want to make is a very important one: DON’T EVER MIX SPECIES!!! If you have a desert tortoise and want to buy a Sulcata or a Russian, build a separate pen. Tortoises that come from other continents have different micro organism which occur naturally in their bodies. Over the years each species of tortoise has developed an immunity to his own naturally occurring micro organisms, but when you place tortoises from different continents together, these little pathogens could kill the tortoise from the other continent…either the desert tortoise or the one from Africa or Afghanistan. DON’T DO IT!!! It’s not worth the chance of killing your tortoise. I like to use the Native American/Pilgrim analogy. It’s not exactly the same thing, but you get the idea: when the Pilgrims came to America, quite a few of the Native Americans got sick and died from diseases brought here from over seas. It might not happen today or tomorrow, but it will happen. It could take years for those pathogens to compromise your tortoise, and then just when you think all is well, he doesn’t wake up from hibernation…or he dies in his sleep…or he develops URTD and doesn’t bounce back from it. DON’T MIX SPECIES!!!

I hope I haven’t killed your enthusiasm for adopting a tortoise. They can be so rewarding and with the proper care and habitat, will live a long life. Adopt a tortoise and let him be free in his habitat…free to be a tortoise.


The member formerly known as captain awesome
10 Year Member!
Aug 15, 2008
Location (City and/or State)
So I can get one and just keep it in a box under my bed and play with it once in awhile right?
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