The Russian tortoise is a popular pet that loves burrowing and being active, especially compared to other tortoises. If you are considering one of these shelled-reptiles as a pet for the first time, this Russian tortoise care sheet will provide all the information you need to know about caring for this animal. From how to house and feed them to the best ways to handle them, you will better understand how to be prepared for this pet tortoise.
They typically have brown or black shells with yellow lines and a brown or straw-yellow body. These small tortoises make them easy pets if you have limited space or want to keep them outdoors in warmer climates. Like most tortoises, they have a long lifespan, so you can expect them to be a friend for life.
With all that being said, let’s learn about how to take care of Russian tortoises.
Russian Tortoise Care Sheet
Common name: Russian tortoise
Scientific name: testudo horsfieldi
Range: Southeastern Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Lifespan: 40 or more years with proper care
Adult size: 6 to 10 inches in length
Temperament: active, tame, and friendly with gentle handling
Your indoor enclosure should be at least 36 by 24 inches in size for one adult Russian tortoise. Two adults may require a larger enclosure of at least 48 by 48 inches. Adults can also be kept in a 75-gallon aquarium. You can keep your Russian tortoise in plexiglass, wood, acrylic, or screened enclosures.
Make sure your enclosure has a wall high enough where they won’t escape since these tortoises are quite active. If you find your Russian tortoise is restless and constantly trying to get out of their enclosure, they may need a larger space.
Outdoor Enclosure Tips
You can keep your Russian tortoise outdoors in warm climates. While they enjoy the sunshine, outdoor enclosures should also have a screened cover so they can still remain protected. You can get a tortoise enclosure like this one designed with one side having a screen and the other blocked off so your tortoise can hide when they want.
Temperature and Lighting
In the wild, Russian tortoises can live in extreme weather conditions if they can hide underground. As a pet, they are most active when temperatures are between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure temperatures don’t fall below the low-50s degrees Fahrenheit.
Ideally, you should have heat lamps or heat rocks controlling one side of the enclosure to be cooler than the other. The cooler side should be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the warmer area for basking between 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
These tortoises need a normal day and night cycle, so keep lights on for 12 to 14 hours per day. Make sure the light bulbs are around 18 to 20 inches away from the tortoise and no closer than 12 inches.
For indoor enclosures, you should have an ultraviolet (UV) light to mimic the sun so your tortoise can create vitamin D for calcium absorption. They will need about 10 hours a day of exposure to UV lights. To provide both UV light and heat from one lamp, consider purchasing mercury vapor bulbs.
Since they are native to arid, desert habitats, Russian tortoises don’t need high humidity. The best conditions are between 40 and 50 percent humidity levels.
Russian tortoises can develop respiratory tract infections if the temperature is too cool or conditions too damp in their enclosures. Include a thermometer and a hygrometer in their enclosure to check temperatures and humidity levels daily.
Diet and Feeding
Russian tortoises are herbivores and need a varied vegetable diet with high fiber. They prefer wide-leafed plants or weeds and will try to eat anything in their enclosure. Examples of suitable food include:
- Mustard greens
- Sweet potatoes
Fruit such as apples and berries should be fed to them sparingly as treats. You should avoid feeding them grains, meat, or iceberg lettuce. If your tortoise is indoors, growing, or pregnant, it’s best to dust calcium powder with vitamin D3 on their food twice a week.
Russian tortoises love to burrow and will dig in their enclosure and hide underground to regulate body temperature. Whether you have them indoors or outdoors, make sure there is enough substrate of at least 12 inches into the ground.
These tortoises are also known for eating their substrate, so make sure you choose a digestible material for them. You can also mix different materials together for different textures. Suitable substrates include:
Avoid using soil, sand, or coarse substrates such as gravel, which can scratch their shell and are indigestible. Sand can also be hard for them to run around since their feet sink with each step.
Russian tortoises often soak and relieve themselves in their water bowls, so you need to clean the bowl daily. If you don’t have a water bowl for them to soak, you should manually soak them under warm water a few times a week for half an hour.
The substrate in the enclosure should also be spot-cleaned to remove discarded food and fecal material daily. Depending on the type of substrate you use and the number of tortoises you have, you should change the substrate completely once every week or few weeks.
It is best to disinfect the enclosure thoroughly during cleaning. Avoid using detergent or soap when you clean because it can harm your pet if you leave any trace behind. You can purchase non-toxic products especially for this purpose, such as:
- Oxyfresh Crate & Cage Cleaner
- Fluker’s Super Scrub Organic Reptile Habitat Cleaner
- Zoo Med Wipe Out 1 Disinfectant
When you clean the enclosure, move your tortoise to a clean container you set aside for this purpose only. Make sure to wash your hands after cleaning!
Don’t expect to cuddle with your Russian tortoise, and it’s best not to pick them up often. They prefer to interact with you on the ground. Having said this, these animals develop strong bonds with their owners, so they will tolerate being handled or picked up occasionally and will not bite. However, try not to move too quickly around them as you can easily startle them.
Like all reptiles, Russian tortoises might have Salmonella bacteria in their digestive tracts. After cleaning their habitats or handling them, make sure to wash your hands afterward. You can also wear gloves instead during these activities.
Other Things to Know
1. Water Dish Size
You should make sure to have water dishes in their enclosure for both drinking and soaking. Water bowls should be deep enough for the water to cover their leg joints or “elbows” when standing. Make sure the bowl is easy enough for your tortoise to climb in and out of. For example, you can burrow it into the substrate for easier access.
2. Include Hide Boxes
These tortoises will hide away to take naps. You can build hide boxes underground for them or purchase a rock hide cave. Make sure to have two hide boxes, one in a warmer corner and another in a cooler side, so your tortoise can choose the temperature they prefer.
3. Have Flat Rocks and Other Decor
You should include large, flat rocks in the enclosure so they have a clean surface for food and can file their nails. Other accessories such as plants and driftwood will also provide them with stimulation and enrichment.
4. Avoid Night Lights
Tortoises can see color and some infrared light, so avoid using black, red, or blue lights, especially at night. This can be stressful for your tortoise. If you need to control the heat in the enclosure, it’s best to purchase tank heaters or ceramic heat emitters that give off no light.
5. Signs They Are Sick
Russian tortoises can have nutritional deficiencies or respiratory illnesses. Some symptoms to look out for that can indicate they are sick include:
- Swollen or closed eyes
- Bubbling from their nose
- Loose stools
- Soft shells
- Abnormal shell or beak growth
- Lack of appetite for over 2 or 3 days
Russian Tortoise as Pets
Russian tortoises are popular beginner pets because they are active animals, can be easily tamed, and don’t require you to play with them. However, they aren’t pets you can expect to cuddle either. You should let them do their own thing as much as possible. While they are eager eaters and easy to feed, make sure to prepare their enclosures properly since they tend to eat the substrate and any plants in their enclosure.
These pets can be great for people who want a friendly and outgoing reptile that will live a long life. They are overall fun to have around. If you aren’t committed to taking care of them for decades, they may not be ideal options for you. You also need to be mindful of cleaning the enclosure and checking that temperature conditions are appropriate for them if you live in colder areas. So, although they are suitable for beginner tortoise owners, you still have to be committed to caring for them properly.