How to Care for Your Russian Tortoise
Russian tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii) are a small tortoise species native to central Asia. Despite their name, they are actually not very common in Russia — they are more likely to be found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. They prefer sandy steppes with sparse grasses and bushes for habitat, particularly grassy areas near springs of water.
Russian tortoises have a light tan to olive-colored shell, usually with dark markings on each of the scutes. The plastron usually features dark blotches, but in some cases may be solid black. The shell is oval-shaped with flattened vertebral scutes. These tortoises also have only 4 toes on their forefeet rather than the usual 5. Adults are typically 5-8” long, with females being larger.
Russian tortoises are among the most common pet tortoises in the US. Due to their relatively small size and preference for a more arid environment, they are generally easier to keep than others. With good care, a Russian tortoise can live well into its 50s — and possibly beyond!
How much space do Russian tortoises need?
A single Russian tortoise should have no less than 12 square feet of floor space. Like most tortoises, they are poor climbers and as such floor space is the most important consideration for an enclosure. If you can provide larger, do it!
Because of relatively low humidity requirements, it is possible to house this species in a “tortoise table” setup as long as they have access to areas of higher humidity, such as humid hides and burrows. Russian tortoises also do well when housed outdoors in climates appropriate to their needs. An outdoor Russian tortoise pen should be at least 36 square feet.
Russian tortoises are highly territorial, so it’s best to keep only one per enclosure.
Do Russian tortoises need UVB?
Yes. Aside from helping provide a day/night cycle and an infinite supply of vitamin D, UVB is also essential to your tortoise’s overall health. The best UVB bulbs for Russian tortoises are:
When the bulb is mounted in a Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO Terrarium Hood fixture without mesh obstruction, it should be placed 6-8” above the top of the tortoise’s shell in the basking area. Bulbs mounted in the Arcadia ProT5 fixture can be placed further away: 17-18” above the tortoise’s shell.
The UVB bulb and fixture should be roughly half the total length of the enclosure. All lighting should be on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter.
If your Russian tortoise is being housed outside and has access to direct sunlight, artificial UVB lighting is not required.
Because a large enclosure is required for Russian tortoises, if you are housing yours indoors, a single UVB bulb will not be enough to sufficiently illuminate the enclosure. Add a strong 6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow light to energize your tortoise and better simulate daylight.
What basking temperatures do Russian tortoises need?
Russian tortoises should have a basking temperature of 95°F, with a cool/shaded area on the other side of the enclosure between 70-80°F. Temperatures can get down to 60°F at night. Temperature should be measured with digital probe thermometers.
Because of their large, domed shells, it’s best to create a basking area for your Russian tortoise with a cluster of at least two halogen heat lamps placed on one side of the enclosure, mounted at least 8” above your tortoise’s shell to provide even heating.
Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), heat mats, red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.
What humidity levels do Russian tortoises need?
As an arid species, Russian tortoises can survive fairly low humidity levels, but they also need access to areas of higher humidity to stay hydrated. Offer a humidity gradient of 40-75%. One of the best ways to do this is by offering a humid hide for the tortoise to use as needed. Your Russian tortoise’s enclosure should not be consistently wet, as this can cause skin, shell, and respiratory problems!
Humidity should be measured by a digital probe hygrometer with the probe in the middle of the terrarium.
What substrate is good for Russian tortoises?
Substrate covers the floor of your enclosure and helps make the setup more attractive, but it also helps maintain higher humidity levels and provides something for your tortoise to dig in as desired.
It’s ideal to use a substrate that imitates what Russian tortoises naturally live on in the wild. In other words, you’ll need something that resembles sandy soil. It should have small particles, not be too dusty, and pack well enough for burrowing.
We recommend the following substrates for Russian tortoises:
Plain topsoil mixed 60/40 with play sand also works well.
Substrate should be as deep as possible — no less than 8”. It must also be replaced every 6 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
What décor can you use in a Russian tortoise enclosure?
It’s terribly boring for a reptile to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except substrate, a hide, and food/water bowls. It doesn’t matter how big the enclosure is if you don’t put things in it for your pet to use and interact with.
Here are some décor ideas that are appropriate for Russian tortoises:
- additional hiding places/burrows
- large hollow logs
- live, edible plants
- large, flat stones
You can also shape the substrate into hills to provide an extra challenge.
What do Russian tortoises eat?
Russian tortoises are herbivorous, which means that they require a high-fiber diet. In the wild, they eat a variety of grasses, leaves, twigs, flowers, and fruits when available. As pets, their diet should be mostly greens with occasional flowers.
Safe greens for Russian tortoises: cactus pads, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens + flowers, hibiscus leaves + flowers, nasturtium, alfalfa, clover, coreopsis, geranium, grape leaves, bluegrass, Bermuda grass, timothy grass, rye grass, fescue grass
Food should be offered daily. If your tortoise is starting to look chubby, reduce the amount of food that you offer per day.
Fruits should be only used as a treat, due to their high sugar content. Appropriate fruits include apples, berries, melons, papaya, guava, pineapple, bananas, cactus fruit, grapes, plums, and peaches.
You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your tortoise from developing a potential deficiency. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on each meal. A little bit of Mazuri grassland tortoise formula is also a good way to make sure your tortoise is getting enough vitamins.
Of course, don’t forget a water bowl for your tortoise to drink from! Russian tortoises like to soak, so it’s best to offer a shallow “puddle” of water for them to soak and defecate in. Flower pot saucers work well for this, but you can also use a large water bowl with a ramp. The water should be no deeper than your tortoise’s elbows.
Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.
Do Russian tortoises like to be handled?
Few reptiles actually “like” to be held, but Russian tortoises generally tolerate human interaction well, especially individuals that were bred in captivity. Never grab a tortoise from above, as that will scare it. Instead, approach from the side and scoop from below. Support as much of its body as possible. Start with very short handling sessions in the beginning, then gradually make them longer as your pet becomes more accustomed to you.
It’s best to keep the actual handling of your tortoise to a minimum. If you want to interact with your pet, trying hand-feeding or lightly brushing its shell.
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please do further research with high-quality sources to obtain additional information on caring for this species.