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How to Care* for Your Russian Tortoise

How to Care* for Your Russian Tortoise


Russian Tortoises (Agrionemys horsfieldii, formerly considered to be part of the Testudo genus), are small (6”-8” carapace length; females are larger than males) , long-lived (up to 40 years), terrestrial, reptiles native to the open, grassy steppes of Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and neighboring countries.  They have been described by different caregivers both as diurnal (active during the day) and crepuscular (active in the early mornings and evenings). They are generally black and tan in color with a flattened top of the shell.  The tortoise’s long life and large enclosure size makes them an intermediate level pet.


Russian Tortoises can be housed indoors or outdoors in a large, penned enclosure.  An indoor enclosure for a single adult Russian Tortoise is recommended to be at least 2’x3’.  50-gallon Rubbermaid tubs are frequently used (43”x21”).  The substrate should be easy for them to walk on without sinking into it and firm enough so they can burrow; a mixture of cypress mulch, coco fiber and some sand is frequently used.  Indoor enclosures should also include a basking area, a hide area large enough for the tortoise to turn around in and a flat rock in the basking area which will retain heat and also allow for good toenail wear.  A shallow water bowl for soaking and drinking is also important and needs to be cleaned regularly. Some keepers prefer to soak their tortoises weekly if the water bowl is not big enough for them to soak themselves. 

The outdoor enclosure needs to meet the following criteria: at least 2’x4’, walls extending 8-12” above and below ground level to prevent escape through climbing or burrowing, safe from possible outdoor predators, hide box for colder weather, shaded area for warmer weather, growing grasses for snacking.  There should be a water bowl large enough for the tortoise to soak in, but shallow enough for them not to be submerged.  The bowl should be cleaned out regularly.  Russian Tortoises kept outside where winter temperatures drop below 50F will likely hibernate and need to be able to dig burrows to do so.

Heating and Lighting

In their native habitat, daytime temperatures may reach 120F with a night time drop-off below 70F.  They have been reported to tolerate even lower temperatures in captivity with proper accommodation to allow them to hibernate. It is crucial that they have areas in their outdoor enclosures to escape from bright sunlight and cold temperatures.  Indoor enclosures require a heat producing light for a basking area about the size of the tortoise that will reach 100F, and full spectrum lighting 12-14 hours a day to provide appropriate UV.  The recommended UVB light is a full-spectrum 10.0 florescent bulb that runs most of the length of the enclosure.  The fixture can be placed inside the cage underneath the cover or on top of a mesh cover.  If the fixture is placed on top of the cage, a glass cage cover should not be used, since the UVB will not penetrate through the glass.  Florescent bulbs decrease in the amount of UVB emitted with time.  It’s safest to replace the bulb every 6 months, though a more accurate schedule can be determined if a UV meter is purchased and used to check UV levels. Russian Tortoises  rarely require extra heat as long as the ambient temperature is comfortable for humans.

Food and Supplementation

Russian Tortoises require a high fiber, low protein diet.  Most of their intake should take the form of  broad leafed greens, grasses and hay.  They can be fed limited amounts of commercially available tortoise pellets which much be moistened,  as well as Repashy Grassland Grazer gel. Russian Tortoises enjoy cactus pads and flowers.  They should not be fed fruit.

Russian Tortoises require calcium to build strong bones, vitamin D3 to metabolize the calcium and a variety of other vitamins and minerals.  They are generally provided with the calcium, vitamins and minerals they need through the grasses they consume and with the vitamin D3 from the sun or full spectrum lighting if kept indoors.  If additional calcium is needed,  their grass and hay can be sprinkled with plain, powdered calcium carbonate (without phosphorous).

*This care sheet contains only very basic information.  If you are new to Russian Tortoises, please do additional research to obtain additional information from more detailed care sheets.

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