Arid Tortoise Care Sheet

Maria Zayas, DVM
By Maria Zayas, DVM on Jul. 24, 2023
Greek tortoise

In This Article


Arid Tortoise Species Overview

Arid tortoises are friendly, active reptiles that are native to dry climates. This care sheet outlines basic care needs for a variety of arid tortoise species, including: 

  • Greek tortoises 

  • Russian tortoises 

With proper care, arid tortoises reach their adult size within 3–4 years and can live for 50 years or more, making them hardy, lifelong companions. 

Arid tortoises are excellent at digging. They use their strong, shovel-like feet to burrow underground, creating a safe space to regulate their body temperature and hide from predators. 

When properly socialized, arid tortoises are friendly reptiles that can enjoy some handling time and interaction with their human family members. Always approach tortoises slowly, calmly, and quietly to avoid startling them. Do not approach or try to pick up a tortoise from behind. 

Tortoises can sustain serious injuries if dropped, especially if the fall occurs on a solid surface. In case of a fall, the tortoise should be seen by a veterinarian right away. Children of all ages should be supervised closely while handling a tortoise.  

All reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases including Salmonella bacteria, which is zoonotic (transmittable to people). Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their tortoise or its habitat’s contents. 

Arid Tortoise Characteristics 

Difficulty of Care 


Average Lifespan 

Up to 50+ years with proper care, depending on species 



Minimum Habitat Size 

24” L x 48” W x 12” H for indoor enclosures; 48” L x 48” W x 24” H for outdoor enclosures 

Arid Tortoise Supply Checklist

To keep an arid tortoise happy and healthy, pet parents should have these basic supplies on hand: 

  • Appropriately sized habitat 

  • Timothy hay 

  • Substrate  

  • Food & water dish  

  • Hideaway place  

  • Plants  

  • Heat light & fixture  

  • UVB lighting and fixture  

  • Multivitamin supplement  

  • Calcium supplement without vitamin D 

  • Commercial tortoise food for herbivorous tortoises 

  • Thermometers 

  • Humidity gauge  

  • Soaking bowl 

Arid Tortoise Habitat

Choosing the Right Enclosure 

Arid tortoises can be kept indoors in a large, well-ventilated glass, wood, or plastic habitat. Ideally, indoor enclosures should be at least 36” L x 18” W x 16” H for a single tortoise. The habitat should be secured with a screened lid to prevent escaping. Always provide the largest habitat possible. As tortoises grow, the size of the habitats should increase, accordingly.  

Glass enclosures can trap air and increase the habitat’s humidity levels outside the ideal range, putting the tortoise at greater risk of developing respiratory tract infections. If using a glass tank or aquarium as an indoor habitat, pet parents must ensure the enclosure is well-ventilated and measure its humidity level each day using a humidity gauge.

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In warm, dry climates, arid tortoises should be housed outdoors in an escape-proof, predator-proof enclosure whenever weather permits. An outdoor enclosure for a single tortoise should be at least 48” L x 48” W, with a wall height of 24” or more so the tortoise can’t climb out. Outdoor habitats must be enclosed with a sturdy mesh lid to keep predators out while still allowing in sunlight. The enclosure should also have sturdy, opaque walls to lessen the temptation to explore and escape. As with indoor habitats, outdoor habitats should increase in size as a tortoise grows. 

Outdoor habitats should be buried at least 12” into the ground to prevent the tortoise from digging under the enclosure’s walls and escaping. They should also be slightly raised to prevent rain from flooding the enclosure and have a shaded area away from direct sunlight. 

Setting Up Your Habitat 

Males tend to fight with each other,  so male arid tortoises should not be housed together. Male tortoises may also be aggressive towards females when they want to breed. Female arid tortoises of the same size can usually be kept in the same enclosure, but they also may fight on occasion. When introducing tortoises to each other, they should be monitored to ensure they are compatible. If the tortoises fight, separate them. 

If more than one tortoise is kept in the same enclosure, the habitat’s size must increase accordingly. Remember: each tortoise needs at least 4.5 square feet (36” L x 18” W) of floor space in an indoor enclosure, or 16 square feet (48” L x 48” W) of floor space in an outdoor enclosure. Individual tortoises should also have separate hiding spaces in the habitat. Never house different species of reptiles in the same enclosure.  


For indoor enclosures, tortoises need a thermal gradient in their habitat so they can warm up and cool down as needed. The recommended temperature for the warm end of an indoor arid tortoise habitat is 85–95 degrees F, while the cooler end should be kept around 70–75 degrees F.  

If an arid tortoise’s environment is too cold, it will dig itself into a burrow and begin to hibernate. Tortoises are more susceptible to infection during hibernation, so pet parents should keep their tortoise’s habitat at a constant temperature (no lower than 70 F) year-round. 

Pet parents must check the temperatures of their tortoise’s indoor habitat daily. Two thermometers—one in the warm area and one in the cool area—should be placed in the enclosure so that both zones can be checked at once. A digital point-and-shoot thermometer can be used to read habitat temperatures instantly.  

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Lighting & Heat Sources 

An incandescent light or ceramic heater should be used to supply heat to a tortoise’s indoor habitat during the day. At night, switch to a nocturnal or infrared light, like the Exo Terra Infrared Basking Reptile Spot Lamp or Zoo Med Nocturnal Infrared Reptile Terrarium Heat, to ensure the tortoise can rest. A thermostat should be attached to heaters to keep the habitat’s temperature within a safe range and prevent the tortoise from getting burned. Hot rocks should not be used because they can get too warm and cause injury. 

The wattage needed for the heat bulb will vary depending on the size of the enclosure, the distance of the bulb from the tortoise, and the ambient temperature of the room in which the enclosure is kept. Adjust the wattage and placement of the bulb to keep the tank within the recommended temperature gradient.

Note: Some light bulbs provide not only light to the tank but also heat and/or ultraviolet (UV) light. Pet parents should check the light sources they are considering to be clear of their function in the tank. 

Recommended Products: 

  • Light Fixtures & Hoods 

  • Heat Emitters 

  • Thermostats 

Tortoises also need daily exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light to produce vitamin D in their skin and absorb dietary calcium. Without adequate UV exposure, tortoises are at a greater risk of developing metabolic bone disease and other serious illnesses.  

Tortoises can get natural UV exposure by spending time outside in an escape-proof, predator-proof outdoor enclosure whenever weather permits. To supplement UV exposure in indoor enclosures, pet parents can shine UV light on their tortoise’s habitat for 10–12 hours each day. UV lights should be placed about 12-18" from where the reptile sits. Replace lights every 6 months as their potency wanes over time. 

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Although arid tortoises are native to drier climates, they still need some humidity in their environment to stay hydrated, support their respiratory systems, and encourage healthy shed cycles. Maintain humidity levels under 60% in their habitat. Indoor enclosures kept in humid climates may need a dehumidifier to sustain proper humidity levels, while outdoor habitats in dry, hot climates can benefit from daily misting. 

Use a hygrometer (humidity gauge) to measure the enclosure’s humidity every day. 

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Tortoises are known to eat their substrate, so it’s best to use a digestible substrate material in their enclosure. The substrate should cover the entire floor area and be deep enough for the tortoise to create a burrow.  

Alfalfa pellets, hay, and paper-based bedding products are all suitable choices for indoor habitats. In outdoor habitats, untreated soil or cypress mulch can be used. Outdoor habitats should be planted with a variety of edible grasses (such as Bermuda grass, rye, or fescue) and plants (such as hibiscus and mulberry) that are safe for the tortoise to graze on. Pet parents should make sure that there aren’t any pesticides or other harmful chemicals applied to their lawn or the plants in their tortoise’s enclosure. 

Coarse substrates (like sand or gravel) are not recommended, as they are indigestible and can cause life-threatening gastrointestinal obstruction if ingested. Dusty substrates should also be avoided, as they can irritate tortoise’s eyes and respiratory tracts.  

If the tortoise is kept on soil, the pet should be fed off the ground in a separate enclosure. Otherwise, the tortoise may accidentally consume the substrate’s fine particles, which are indigestible and can cause life-threatening gastrointestinal obstruction. 

Recommended Products: 

  • Substrate for Indoor Habitats 

  • Substrate for Outdoor Habitats 

Décor & Accessories 

Water dish: Since reptiles absorb water through their skin to stay hydrated, their water dishes should be large and shallow enough to allow them to soak. Tortoises will urinate and defecate in their water bowls while soaking, so food and water dishes should be disinfected daily to prevent parasites from spreading. Ramp bowls are specially designed to allow easy “in and out” access for reptiles. 

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Hideout box: Arid tortoises should have at least one hiding area, such as a cave or hideout box, placed on the cool end of their indoor enclosure. In outdoor habitats, trees (like desert sage, willow, or prickly pear cacti) and small bushes can also be used to provide tortoises with a shaded place to hide. 

Pet parents should watch their tortoise to ensure they are not spending all their time hiding and missing the benefits of UV light. Arid tortoises are strong, hardy reptiles, so hideout boxes should be sturdy enough to not tip over if the tortoise accidentally bumps into it. If more than one tortoise is kept in the same enclosure, each reptile should have its own dedicated hiding area.  

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Rocks: Pet parents should add several flat rocks to their tortoise’s enclosure. Climbing and walking on rocks will gradually file down a tortoise’s nails and help keep them at a manageable length. 

Hot rocks should not be used because they can get too warm and cause injury. 

Arid tortoises need free open space to roam and climb. Be sure that their enclosure isn’t too cluttered for them to explore comfortably. 

Outdoor burrows: Tortoises that are kept in an outdoor habitat year-round should have two burrows in their enclosure—a summer burrow (with an eastern exposure) and a winter burrow (with a southern exposure). 

The summer burrow will act as a retreat that the tortoise can use when temperatures get too hot. The winter burrow will give the tortoise a warm place to rest when the weather begins to cool. 

Pet parents can create DIY burrows using bales of hay, buried garbage cans laying on their side, or cinderblocks arranged in a square with a plywood roof and dirt for insulation. 

Arid Tortoise Cleaning & Maintenance

A tortoise’s indoor enclosure needs to be cleaned and disinfected at least once a week, while outdoor habitats should be cleaned monthly. Enclosures of any kind should be spot-cleaned daily, removing any droppings, soiled material, and uneaten food. Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their tortoise or its habitat’s contents. 

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Indoor habitats should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week. To clean a tortoise’s indoor habitat, take these steps: 

  1. Move the tortoise to a secure environment. Remove any old substrate, décor, and accessories from the habitat. 

  1. Scrub the empty tank and any furnishings with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution. The bleach solution should stay on the habitat for at least 10 minutes to ensure that the surfaces are disinfected properly. If using a commercial habitat cleaner, follow the manufacturer's instructions. 

  1. Rinse the habitat and accessories thoroughly with water, making sure to remove any trace amounts or residual smells left by the cleaning agent or bleach solution.  

  1. Allow the habitat and its contents to dry completely before placing new substrate and clean accessories into the habitat. 

  1. Return the tortoise to the clean habitat. 

Outdoor habitats should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a month. To clean a tortoise’s outdoor habitat, take these steps: 

  1. Move the tortoise to a secure environment. Remove any old substrate, décor, and accessories from the habitat. 

  1. Check the condition of the habitat’s walls and mesh netting to ensure the enclosure is still secure. 

  1. Check the condition of any décor and accessories kept in the tortoise’s habitat. Discard of any accessories that are worn or impossible to disinfect. 

  1. Disinfect décor and accessories using a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution. The bleach solution should stay on furnishings for at least 10 minutes to ensure that the surfaces are disinfected properly. If using a commercial habitat cleaner, follow the manufacturer's instructions. 

  1. Hose out the enclosure using hot, soapy water. Rinse the habitat and accessories thoroughly with water, making sure to remove soap residue. 

  1. Place fresh substrate into the habitat and replant any destroyed/eaten plants. Make sure the habitat still has adequate drainage.  

  1. Return the tortoise to the clean habitat. 

Arid Tortoise Diet & Nutrition

Arid tortoises thrive on a diet that’s high in fiber and calcium. Leafy green vegetables and hay are the mainstays of a tortoise’s diet, while other vegetables and fruits should be offered sparingly. Tortoises need to be fed daily and should always have access to fresh, clean water. 

A nutritious and well-balanced diet for arid tortoises consists of: 

Dark green leafy vegetables and grass hay (alfalfa or Timothy), which should make up 80–90% of a tortoise’s diet. These foods include:

  • Romaine or red/green lettuce

  • Escarole

  • Endive

  • Collard

  • Dandelion

  • Mustard

  • Turnip greens

  • Prickly pear cactus pads

  • Spring mix

  • Bell peppers

  • Squash

  • Carrots

  • Kale

Try to include a wide variety of different vegetables and grasses in the tortoise’s diet, rather than feeding the same foods each day. 

Tortoises that are housed outside can also graze on non-toxic live grasses, including Bermuda, fescue, and rye grasses. Make sure that no pesticides or other harmful chemicals are applied to your lawn or the plants in the tortoise’s enclosure. 

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Other vegetables and fruits, offered in limited quantities. Non-leafy and “hard” vegetables can be fed occasionally. These can include:

  • Carrots

  • Broccoli

  • Alfalfa sprouts

  • Beans

  • Bell peppers

  • Cabbage

  • Celery

  • Cilantro

  • Cucumbers

  • Pumpkin

  • Cauliflower

  • Corn

  • Peas

  • Parsley

  • Potatoes

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Radishes

  • Tomatoes

  • Swiss chard

Fruits should be fed sparingly, as a treat. Apples, apricots, cantaloupe, berries, bananas, grapes, oranges, peaches, pears, and watermelons are all tortoise-safe fruits that make excellent treats. Fruits and vegetables should be finely chopped into bite-size pieces. 

Pet parents should be sure to discard any uneaten fruits and vegetables after 10 hours, as they may spoil and cause infection if eaten.  

Since fruits are naturally high in carbohydrates, excess fruit in a tortoise’s diet can cause unhealthy weight gain and gastrointestinal upset.  

Vitamin supplements; before feeding, pet parents should sprinkle a small amount of a powdered calcium supplement without vitamin D on their tortoise’s food. A multivitamin supplement designed for reptiles should be used weekly. 

Young tortoises should be given a calcium supplement without vitamin D daily, while adult tortoises should have the supplement added to their food every other day. 

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Fresh, clean water; water should always be available and replaced daily. Since reptiles absorb water through their skin to stay hydrated, their water dishes should be large and shallow enough to allow them to soak in them. If they aren’t soaking on their own, pet parents should soak their tortoise for 10–15 minutes, 2–3 times a week. Tortoises urinate and defecate in their water bowls while soaking, so food and water dishes need to be disinfected daily. 

Young arid tortoises can benefit from a small amount of pelleted food designed for herbivorous tortoises in their diet, which will supply them with extra protein and carbohydrates for healthy growth. Young tortoises should only be offered pelleted food every 2 to 3 days, and these diets should not make up more than 25% of their total food intake. 

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Do not offer arid tortoises meat, cereals, onions, garlic, insects, bread, pasta, or yogurt. Avoid iceberg lettuce, as it is low in nutritional value and can cause gastrointestinal upset. Never offer an arid tortoise a pelleted food that’s not specially formulated for herbivorous tortoises, such as dry dog or cat food. 

Arid Tortoise Grooming & Care

Tortoises kept outside should be kept in an indoor enclosure during winter months if there are extreme temperature drops. Otherwise, the tortoise will dig itself into a burrow and begin to hibernate. 

Tortoises may also enter hibernation if they are kept in an inside environment that is too cold. Since tortoises are more susceptible to infection during hibernation, pet parents should keep their tortoise’s habitat at a constant temperature (no lower than 70 F) year-round to keep them from hibernating.

New foods should be introduced one at a time and served with familiar staples to encourage the tortoise to try them. 

Shedding: Tortoises will naturally shed their skin and scutes (the shield-like keratin plates on a tortoise’s shell) throughout their lifetime. To encourage healthy shedding, pet parents can add moistened sphagnum moss to the inside of one of the hideouts on the cool side of a tortoise’s enclosure to create a “humid hide.” Humid hides can be made with commercially available hideout boxes, or pet parents can make their own hide by cutting a hole in a plastic container. If choosing to make a DIY hideout, ensure the hole has no rough edges that could injure the tortoise. Moss should be replaced often to prevent mold from forming. 

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Soaking: Pet tortoises soak in water to stay hydrated, clean themselves, and defecate.  

If they aren’t soaking on their own, pet parents should soak their tortoise for 10-15 minutes, 2-3 times a week. 

Arid tortoises do not swim and can drown easily. Keep the dish’s water level low and ensure that the water dish is shallow enough for the tortoise to exit and enter easily. 

Since tortoises urinate and defecate while soaking, water and food bowls should be cleaned and disinfected daily to prevent the spread of gastrointestinal tract parasites. 

Beak care: Instead of teeth, tortoises have rigid “beaks” at the front of their mouths, which they use to break down food. Most tortoises will not need to have their beak trimmed, as they should wear down gradually with daily use. A healthy tortoise’s beak should be short with a slightly curved point at the end.

Pet parents should consult a veterinarian if their tortoise’s beak looks overgrown (hanging past its jawline) or misshapen, or if the tortoise is unable to open and close its mouth easily. 

Arid Tortoise Veterinary Care

Annual Care

Arid tortoises should be seen by a veterinarian once annually. They can be transported using a cat carrier or a travel cage. It is recommended to take pictures of their enclosure, diet, heaters, and lights so your veterinarian can assess their husbandry as part of the exam.

Signs of a Healthy Arid Tortoise

  • Clear, clean eyes

  • Clean ears

  • Clean, dry nares

  • Clean pink tongue and gums

  • Trim beak which is slightly longer at the front tip

  • Intact skin with no abrasions, ulcerations, growths, or parasites seen

  • Clean vent

  • Smooth, firm shell with no defects

  • Active personality

  • Good appetite

  • No swellings or bumps

When To Call a Vet

  • Eyes are swollen, sunken, stuck shut, or have discharge

  • Pink ulcerations or other lesions are seen on the skin

  • Refusing food (do keep in mind seasonal variances in appetite)

  • Failing to bask

  • Lethargy

  • Discharge around vent

  • Lumps or bumps

  • Cannot ambulate or posture appropriately

  • New trauma is seen to the shell

Common Illnesses in Arid Tortoises

  • Mycoplasmosis

  • Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism (NSHP)

  • Trauma from housemates such as dogs

  • Phallus prolapse or lacerations

  • Hepatic lipidosis

  • Bladder stones and other cystoliths (stones throughout the urinary tract)

  • Fecal impaction and GI obstructions

  • Herpes virus

  • Coccidia

  • Bacterial or fungal infections under scutes

  • Renal disease

  • Parasites

Arid Tortoise FAQs

What is an arid tortoise?

Arid tortoises are those that live in arid climates, meaning dry. Usually this is referring to deserts.

What is the best tortoise for desert climate?

Any arid tortoise species, such as desert tortoises, are good in desert climates. These tortoises can develop health problems when living in humid environments and are instead best for desert climates.

Are desert tortoises good pets?

Desert tortoises make great pets. They are small in size, friendly, food driven, and have adorable personalities.

Can you touch a desert tortoise?

Yes, and most that have been socialized enjoy being touched. Desert tortoises can often carry nasty pathogens like Salmonella and Campylobacter though so be sure to wash your hands after handling them and do not touch your face, especially your mouth until you’ve done so.

Why are desert tortoises illegal?

Keeping desert tortoises in some states is only allowed with possession of a permit due to the threatened status of the tortoises in the wild.

What is the difference between sulcata and desert tortoises?

There are many differences between these two tortoises. Sulcatas come from Africa and do not hibernate while desert tortoises come from North and Central America and do hibernate. Sulcatas are larger and come in different colors than desert tortoises.

Featured Image:

Maria Zayas, DVM


Maria Zayas, DVM


Dr. Zayas has practiced small animal and exotic medicine all over the United States and currently lives in Colorado with her 3 dogs, 1 cat,...

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