They’re not fluffy, they don’t play fetch, and they certainly don’t roll over. But there is such a thing as a lap tortoise.


Each year the Arizona Game and Fish Department makes hundreds of captive desert tortoises available for adoption. These tortoises cannot be released back into the wild because captive tortoises can transmit diseases that can decimate our wild population. Desert tortoises are nontraditional pets, but they’re fascinating animals. Families can gain an appreciation for desert wildlife by caring for a tortoise and watching its natural behavior.


Moreover, pet tortoises can wag their tails and greet you, and some can recognize their names. The surprising warmth of this ancient cold-blooded creature has made them popular pets for retirees and families with pet dander allergies.




In Arizona, the state runs a captive desert tortoise adoption program. The adoption is free but requires an application, including photos and a diagram of the tortoise’s new home. You can spend hours setting up their habitat in our backyard, digging out rocks, fashioning a burrow, and planting tortoise-friendly flowers.


Building the habitat takes time. But the tortoise itself is often a low-maintenance pet.


Tortoises sleep through the winter, a process known as brumation in the reptile world. They need a cozy den to keep them safe and warm. In the wild, they dig it themselves. You can build a burrow for them out of large PVC pipes, plastic garbage cans, or cinderblocks with WonderBoard as the roof.




  1. Habitat: Create an outdoor enclosure for your tortoise that offers plenty of space to roam and burrow. It should have secure walls and a top to prevent escapes and protect them from predators. Create sunny and shady areas to provide a range of temperatures. Use natural substrates such as soil, sand, or a mixture of both.
  2. Temperature: Tortoises require a warm environment to thrive. The natural heat can be beneficial in Arizona, but you should also provide a cooler area for them to retreat when needed. Use natural shade or create shelters using rocks or wooden structures. Ensure that the temperature gradient in their enclosure allows them to regulate their body temperature.
  3. Diet: Feed your tortoise a balanced diet of grasses, weeds, and leafy greens. Offer a variety of vegetables, such as dandelion greens, collard greens, and kale. Additionally, provide calcium-rich foods like calcium supplements and cuttlebone to promote healthy shell growth. Avoid feeding them high-protein and high-fat foods, which can lead to health issues.
  4. Water: Tortoises always need access to fresh, clean water. Provide a shallow water dish that they can easily access and soak in. Ensure the water is not too deep, as tortoises are not strong swimmers. Soaking also helps with hydration and shell health.
  5. Veterinary Care: Find a reptile-savvy veterinarian who can provide regular check-ups and care for your tortoise. Regular vet visits will help monitor their health, detect potential issues early on, and provide appropriate treatment if needed.


Remember, these guidelines are general, and different species of tortoises may have specific care requirements. It’s essential to research the specific needs of your tortoise species and consult with a reptile expert or veterinarian for personalized advice.