Desert and other land tortoises are becoming popular pets. In captivity, many tortoises do not thrive because of lack of information on their proper care and feeding. This handout will provide basic guidelines for the proper care of your tortoise. We encourage you to further research these pets at the library or on the web.


Tortoises raised in captivity frequently become ill and can even die due to inappropriate diet. The major problems we run into relate to inappropriate amounts of calcium, phosphorous and protein, as well as severe vitamin deficiencies (particularly vitamin A). This handout lists the types of foods that are appropriate for your tortoise and which ones to avoid. A desert tortoise’s diet is comprised mainly of leafy greens, grasses and weeds, with small amounts of hard vegetables and moist fruits. A good salad can be prepared a week in advance and fed daily along with selections from the following lists served in addition to it.

Basic Salad

  • 1/2 cup shredded raw green beans •
  • 1/2 cup shredded raw squash (acorn, butternut, banana, kaboucha, pumpkin, summer) •
  • 1/2 cup shredded raw parsnip •
  • 1/2 cup alfalfa pellets •
  • 1/4 cup fruit

Mix thoroughly together. Add in or sprinkle on salad daily a multivitamin supplement and a calcium supplement. Store in a sealed food storage container. Stays fresh for 6-7 days. Additional quantities may be frozen. Add a tablespoon of brewer’s yeast to the defrosted salad to replace the thiamin lost through the defrosting process.

75% of the additional diet should consist of dark, leafy greens, cactus, grasses, and weeds selected from below:

Leafy Greens

  • Chard*
  • Collards
  • Dandelion greens & flowers
  • Endive
  • Grape leaves
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Parsley*
  • Spinach*
  • Turnip greens*
  • Watercress

*These are high in calcium oxalates that may bind calcium causing metabolic bone disease, and may cause visceral gout (mineralization/crystallization of the soft tissues and internal organs). Feed sparingly.

Grasses and Weeds

  • Alfalfa hay or pellets
  • Bermuda grass
  • Fresh clover
  • Clover hay
  • Rye grass
  • Rice grass
  • Mallow
  • Sowthistle


Opuntia Cactus pads and flowers

Don’t feed the following at all as they have little or no nutrition:

  • Iceberg lettuce
  • Boston lettuce
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Red-leaf and Green-leaf lettuce

Make 15% of the rest of the diet vegetables from the following list:

  • Acorn squash
  • Bell Peppers, red and green
  • Broccoli
  • Butternut squash
  • Carrots
  • Cabbage
  • Corn
  • Green beans
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Potatoes (cooked, plain
  • Pumpkin
  • Rice (cooked, plain)
  • Snow peas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Turnip

Avoid or feed sparingly the following items, as they are low in nutrition:

  • Cucumbers
  • Radishes
  • Sprouts (alfalfa, bean, and grain)
  • Zucchini

Make 10% of the rest of the diet fruits.

  • Apples (no seeds)
  • Apricots (no pits)
  • Avocados (no pits or leaves)
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Cantaloupe (with scrubbed rind)
  • Figs
  • Grapes
  • Mangos (no pit)
  • Oranges (not for hatchlings)
  • Papayas (ripe, no seeds)
  • Peaches (no pit)
  • Pears (no seeds)
  • Plums
  • Tomatoes (not for hatchlings)

Flowers and houseplants for grazing treats:

  • Fichus Benjamin
  • Geraniums
  • Hibiscus
  • Petunias
  • Pothos
  • Rose petals
  • Snail vine (vigna caracalla)
  • Violets


Sunlight is critical for proper growth and development of Tortoises. Pets that do not have appropriate lighting will develop diseases of the bones and shell, which can be fatal. The Ultraviolet component of sunlight promotes normal behavior, appetite; and enables the animal to synthesize vitamin D3, a substance crucial to calcium metabolism. Tortoises should be allowed to bask in the sun for 2-3 hours 3-4 times weekly. Provide an area of shade in case it becomes too hot in the sun. If you cannot arrange sunning time, then you must provide a full spectrum “grow light” available at most pet stores. These lights must provide both UV-A and UV-B light. They should be no more than 18 inches from the pet. They should be left on for 10 to 12 hours per day and turned off at night. Bulbs must be replaced every 6 months to ensure adequate amounts of ultraviolet radiation.


Always have fresh water available for drinking. A large shallow bowl is best, one they can access but not accidentally tip into and possibly drown. Leopards, radiated and all hatchlings are at risk for drowning or suffocating if they tip over onto their backs and are unable to right themselves.


Desert Tortoises have developed to live in a desert environment. They are “cold blooded” (poikilotherms) and rely on the external temperature to keep them warm. Tortoises have an optimal temperature range in which they thrive which is between 75 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Above or below these temperatures and the pet may develop problems. You must use heating systems to generate this heat range in your pet’s environment. Undertank ceramic heaters are the safest to use. Heat rocks should not be uses as they may cause burns. Heat lamps can be set up on one side of the tank to provide a basking area. If you are going to use a heat light at night, it must be of the type that doesn’t produce normal light. You should place several thermometers in the tank to determine what the actual temperature is inside. Adjust your heating devices until the optimal temperature is reached. Remember, the settings may need to be changed as the weather changes, as the colder the environment, the more heat will be needed to maintain these temperatures.


Tortoises are prone to infection if the environment is not cleaned appropriately. All food and water dishes should be disinfected with dilute Clorox (1-oz chloral in 1 quart of water) daily. In warm weather, food with a tendency for spoilage should not be left out more than a few hours.