Desert Tortoises Are Becoming Surprisingly Popular Family Pets

by Britt
Photo credit: seasoning_17 /

Dogs and cats have long held the top spot when discussing the most popular family pet. But there has been a fascinating shift recently in the world of pets as animal lovers seek pets that better suit their lifestyles and the needs of their families. The result? A surprising increase in the number of desert tortoises joining households across the US.

“Captive tortoises make great pets,” stated Utah DWR Wildlife Biologist Ann McLuckie. “They have their own unique personality, they will gladly eat the weeds in your backyard, and they are fairly independent as long as they have shade and food. They also hibernate for roughly five months out of the year, making them a fairly low-maintenance pet.”

Not only are they easy to care for, but tortoises are an excellent choice for families with pet dander allergies.

Sure, they aren’t cuddly lap pets, and you can’t teach them to perform tricks. But that doesn’t mean your tortoise isn’t going to interact with the family. They have been known to wag their tails much like a dog and even to come running (okay, very slowly walking) in response to their name.

Of course, committing to any pet comes with responsibility! In the case of the desert tortoise, this commitment could last 60-70 years. This means that tortoise owners will need to consider what will happen to their pets if they cannot keep them for any reason. They also need to consider the cost of veterinary care for that length of time.

An ideal habitat for a desert tortoise is at least 120 square feet with a secure perimeter fence. They require areas of both sun and shade, as well as access to an above-ground burrow.

If you want to add a desert tortoise to your family and live in Arizona, you’re in luck! The Arizona Game and Fish Department operates a captive desert tortoise adoption program, adopting tortoises that have been illegally removed from the wild to suitable homes free of charge. To be considered, you need to submit an application, including photos of the habitat you have set up for the tortoise showing that you are prepared to provide the care they require.

Similar programs are available in California and Utah.

But why not simply release these tortoises back into the wild? Despite initially coming from the wild, tortoises that have been kept captive for any length of time may pose a serious threat to the wild tortoise population. 

“Tortoises that are removed from the wild cannot be released back into the wild due to a risk of introducing diseases, especially if they’ve been kept in a home with other animals,” explained McLuckie. “They are susceptible to a density-dependent disease called upper respiratory tract disease, which presents like pneumonia."

These adoption programs are the best possible solution, allowing the tortoises to live the rest of their long lives happy and well cared for. 


Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 3 dogs – Daviana, Indiana, and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.

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