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How to Care for Your Russian Tortoise

How to Care for Your Russian Tortoise

 

Introduction

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!

Enclosure

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. 

Can Russian tortoises be kept outdoors?

Tortoises tend to do best when housed outdoors where local climate permits, even if it’s just during part of the year. Depending on where you live and how you’ve set up your pen, it may even be safe for them to hibernate through the winter out there. 

Benefits of housing your tortoise outdoors are that you don’t have to worry about heating and lighting equipment, and it’s easier to give them the space to thrive. However, it’s not a perfect arrangement. You will need to make sure the enclosure is well secured against both escape and potential predators, and temporary indoor housing may need to be provided during winter.

An outdoor Russian tortoise pen should be at least 36 square feet.

Can Russian tortoises be kept together?

Russian tortoises are known to have territorial tendencies, so it’s generally best to keep only one per enclosure. And they’re not particularly social, so you don’t have to worry about them getting lonely.

However, if you have the space for it, multiple females can be housed together as long as each extra tortoise gets at least 10 sq feet of extra space. Males should never be housed together, and males and females should never be housed with each other unless for the purpose of breeding.

Russian tortoise quarantine procedure

Note that it’s best to quarantine your new tortoise first. Quarantine is the practice of keeping an animal isolated and under sterile conditions in order to reduce the potential spread of disease.

Even if you don’t have other reptiles that could potentially get infected by anything the tortoise might be carrying, maintaining quarantine conditions for the first 3-6 months will enable you to more easily monitor for concerning symptoms and more easily treat them as well. You can do this with the enclosure that you plan to keep the tortoise in long-term, or you can do this with a tall, lidless plastic tub. As long as it is set up appropriately, a tub can make appropriate short-term quarantine housing.

Some rules for successful Russian tortoise quarantine:

  • Keep the tortoise in a separate room from other reptiles.
  • Do not use the same tools or equipment for the new tortoise as for your other reptiles.
  • Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
  • Get the tortoise checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
  • Observe for symptoms of disease or illness.

A Russian tortoise should be completely healthy before being transferred out of quarantine to its long-term setup.

Lighting

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:

  • Arcadia T5 HO 12%
  • Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 10.0

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.

How to measure UVB for a Russian tortoise

UVB strength is measured by UV Index, or UVI. This is most accurately done with a device called a Solarmeter 6.5. When you hold the Solarmeter vertically on the basking area at the height of the tortoise’s back, the device should read between 3.0-4.0.

Factors such as the density of the mesh over your enclosure and the exact fixture you’re using can affect exactly what basking distance is needed to achieve the right UVI.

Other lighting needs for Russian tortoises

As a diurnal (day-active) species, Russian tortoises are stimulated by and benefit from bright light in their environment. Heat and UVB lamps are not enough to simulate the brightness of sunlight. In addition to your heat and UVB lamps, it’s best to install a ~6500K LED or T5 HO grow lamp long enough to illuminate most of the enclosure. 

Heating

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.

How to heat your Russian tortoise

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. If you need additional ambient heating, a radiant heat panel (RHP) controlled via dimming thermostat is going to work best.

How to measure temperature

The best way to measure surface temperature is with an infrared thermometer, also known as a temp gun. Simply point the laser guide where you want to measure temperature. This also works for measuring temperatures in the rest of the enclosure.

Note that using surface temperature as a way to monitor the amount of heat in the basking area is unlikely to be accurate if the basking surface is made out of plastic, resin, or ceramic. The best materials for a basking surface are stone, wood, soil, and sand.

Humidity

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%. Your Russian tortoise’s enclosure should not be consistently wet, however, as this can cause skin, shell, and respiratory problems! One of the best ways to do this is by offering a humid hide for the tortoise to use as needed. However, if you live in a dry climate, using an enclosure rather than an open indoor pen will be best for your tortoise’s health. 

Humidity should be measured by a digital probe hygrometer with the probe in the middle of the terrarium.

How to make a humid hide

Keeping a humid retreat available for your tortoise available at all times is important to keeping them well-hydrated. The humid hide in your enclosure will function as a burrow would in the wild, offering a cozy, secure spot for your pet to hang out while minimizing the risk of dehydration.

Due to their size, you may be able to use a commercial option such as the XL Exo Terra Reptile Cave. Alternatively you can use a DIY solution, like a tupperware container with a hole cut out for an entrance. To keep the hide comfortably humid, use a spray bottle to routinely moisten the substrate underneath the hide and on the cool side of the setup.

Substrate

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 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.

Is sand safe for Russian tortoises?

It’s ideal to use a substrate that imitates the “substrate” that Russian tortoises naturally live on in the wild, as they evolved on this terrain. According to in-situ photos of Testudo horsfieldii in their natural habitat, they can be found on sand, stony ground, mud flats, grassland, and leaf litter. This means that they are likely to do well on similar substrates in captivity. Yes, wild Russian tortoises may occasionally accidentally ingest small amounts of substrate, but they’re perfectly capable of passing it.

Impaction is a common concern with tortoises, especially where natural substrates like sand are involved. The truth is that substrate is rarely a legitimate threat in the case of a healthy, well-hydrated tortoise with appropriate heating and UVB exposure. This is because impaction  is a symptom of poor health, not a standalone condition. In addition, loose substrates cushion the tortoise’s joints, doesn’t need to be regularly disinfected, retains heat well, and offers lots of enrichment value as a burrowing medium. 

Of course, if you are concerned about impaction, it’s best practice to serve your tortoise’s food on a plate or in a shallow dish rather than directly on the substrate.

Avoid sand “substitutes” like calcium sand, vitamin sand, crushed walnut, etc!

How to clean a Russian tortoise enclosure

When you replace your tortoise’s substrate, this is also a good opportunity to completely clean out the entire enclosure:

  1. Remove your tortoise from the enclosure and place inside a temporary, escape-proof holding container. 
  2. Remove all substrate and décor.
  3. Vacuum and wipe down the enclosure to remove leftover particles.
  4. Apply a reptile-safe disinfectant to the floor and walls of the enclosure and let sit for the disinfectant’s recommended contact time.
  5. Meanwhile, soak branches, rocks, hides, and other décor in a disinfectant rated for porous materials for the recommended contact time.
  6. If required, rinse the enclosure and the accessories with clean water to remove disinfectant residue. Allow everything to dry.
  7. Pour new substrate into the enclosure. Mix in water until uniformly moistened but not wet.
  8. Arrange décor.
  9. Reintroduce your tortoise to the clean setup.

F10SC, CleanBreak, and bleach solution (1:10 dilution) can be used for disinfecting porous materials. The same can be used for nonporous materials, although the concentration of bleach solution should be changed to 1:50.

Can Russian tortoises have a bioactive setup?

Yes! 

Russian tortoises are definitely compatible with bioactive when it’s done properly. Bioactive setups can work great with Russian tortoises because it gives them plenty of substrate to dig in and edible plants to forage from. It also helps prevent the enclosure from getting dangerously dry. Plus, bioactive eliminates the need for routine total cleanouts, tends to have a fresh, earthy smell; and is generally very attractive to look at. It’s especially easy to accomplish with outdoor tortoise pens.

On the other hand, bioactive setups can be inconvenient with Russian tortoises because the vivarium needs at least one month to get established before adding the tortoise and some tortoises will eat/trample their plants down to stubs. Setting up a bioactive enclosure is also usually more expensive than other options, and it’s best practice to partially replace the substrate on a regular basis to help reduce pathogen concentration and keep the soil healthy.

To create an indoor bioactive setup for your Russian tortoise, you will need all of the usual supplies mentioned in this article, as well as:

  • bioactive-ready arid substrate mix
  • clean leaf litter
  • live, edible succulents
  • semi-arid CUC (Clean Up Crew) organisms to maintain the soil

If it’s your first time setting up a bioactive vivarium, it’s best to use a commercial bioactive substrate mix, such as Bio Dude or Josh’s Frogs, rather than mixing your own, as this reduces your likelihood of error. Appropriate CUC for a Russian tortoise bioactive include dwarf white isopods, powder orange/blue isopods, springtails, mealworms, and superworms.

Bioactive outdoor tortoise pens typically do not need special substrate or CUC, as they are essentially pre-inoculated. Make sure live, edible plants are present, and take care to clean up excess waste.

Décor

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 live plants can be used with Russian tortoises?

Russian tortoises are herbivores, so any live plants you decide to use in the enclosure must be edible and sturdy enough to withstand nibbling. To prevent injury, they must also be spineless. Here are a few options that work well in a brightly-lit, low-moisture environment:

  • Aloe
  • Carex grass
  • Echeveria
  • Elephant feed
  • Festuca grass
  • Gasteria
  • Haworthia
  • Jade plant
  • Mexican feather grass
  • Opuntia (spineless variety)
  • Sansevieria
  • Sempervivum

Other plant options are listed on TheTortoiseTable.org.uk. Note that larger plants are usually sturdier and more resilient. 

Food

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.

Food should be offered daily in a large, shallow dish. This can be as simple as a paper plate, or more decorative, such as the Zoo Med Repti Rock Food Dish or Exo Terra Feeding Dish. If your tortoise is starting to look chubby, reduce the amount of food that you offer per day.

Vegetable options for Russian tortoises

Leafy greens and grasses should constitute the majority of your Russian tortoise’s diet. Here are some suitable options.

  • 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

Flowers make a nutritious seasonal addition. It’s best practice to grow your own tortoise food to supplement and add variety to your tortoise’s diet.

Treats for Russian tortoises

Fruits should be only used as a very rare treat, due to their high sugar content. Appropriate fruits include apples, berries, melons, papaya, guava, pineapple, bananas, cactus fruit, grapes, plums, and peaches. 

Do Russian tortoises need dietary supplements?

You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your tortoise from developing a potential deficiency. Sprinkle Repashy Superveggie on your pet’s salad at each meal, and provide a cuttlebone in the enclosure at all times to provide calcium.

A little bit of Mazuri grassland tortoise formula or Zoo Med Natural Grassland Tortoise Food is also a good addition to make sure your tortoise is getting enough vitamins, especially in winter. Make sure to moisten before feeding. 

How to provide drinking water for your Russian tortoise

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.

Handling

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.

How to tame your Russian tortoise

Taming your Russian tortoise means teaching it to trust and feel comfortable around you. This requires consistent positive interactions to build the trust relationship. While a negative experience or two won’t ruin your taming efforts, it can slow them down, so it’s best to be consistent. It’s best to encourage the tortoise to come to you, rather than forcibly grabbing it or chasing after it. Avoid removing it from its hiding places, as hides are supposed to be safe, private places.

Using treats, or tong-feeding, is a great way to bribe your Russian tortoise into interacting with you and learning to trust you!

Enrichment ideas for Russian tortoises

Enrichment is what good zoos use to keep their animals happy, active, and engaged. Some say that reptiles are too stupid to benefit from enrichment, but this is false. Reptiles, including tortoises, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in appropriate ways for a terrestrial herbivore.

Here are some ideas for enrichment activities that your tortoise is likely to enjoy:

  • Rearrange the enclosure. If total overhauls are too stressful, move one thing every so often at your tortoise’s pace. For some individuals, that may be once a month, for others they might like once a week.
  • Puzzle feeders. Try putting a piece of fruit in a puzzle feeder or hanging a bouquet of greens from the ceiling!
  • Scatter feeding. Rather than offering all of their food in one bowl, try putting it in various places around the enclosure. Make sure to keep the food off the substrate, wherever you put it.
  • Supervised explore time outside of the enclosure. Make sure to keep them away from situations that you can’t get the tortoise out of, and be particularly careful if you want to take them outside. For outdoor excursions, it’s best to use a pen to prevent them from running off.

Health

Signs you need to take your Russian tortoise to the vet

Veterinary care is an important part of having any pet, including tortoises. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet to get them checked out immediately.

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Open wounds
  • Discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Discolored urate
  • Shell discoloration
  • Shell softening
  • Unusual shell texture/shape
  • Swelling or bumps anywhere on the body
  • Lethargy
  • Twitching
  • Overgrown beak

 

*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.

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