Russian Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii)
Russian tortoises are 5-10″ long terrestrial reptiles with a somewhat flattened, oval shell, enlarged scales on the tail and thighs, four toes on each forefoot, and a clawlike spur on the end of the tail. Coloring is generally olive or yellow-brown with a dark blotch on each scute. Males are typically smaller than females.
Russian tortoises are native to central Asia, where they can be found in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and the northeastern edge of Iran. They have adapted to a range of habitats, but their preferred habitat is dry steppe/rocky desert with sandy soil and sparse vegetation. They are most likely to be found near sources of water where vegetation is relatively abundant.
The Russian tortoise has many alternative names, including: Afghan tortoise, Horsfield’s tortoise, Central Asian tortoise, four-clawed tortoise, four-toed tortoise, and steppe tortoise.
If you pay attention to providing excellent Russian tortoise care, your pet is likely to live up to 50 years, or possibly more. Although this species is fairly hardy, their lifespan and care requirements make them a fairly high-commitment pet.
Shopping List: Preparing for Your Russian Tortoise
These are products I personally recommend for setting up a functional Russian tortoise enclosure. Because the equipment you will need varies based on the age/size of the tortoise and whether it is being housed indoors or outdoors, this shopping list is for setting up an indoor enclosure for Russian tortoises >4″ long.
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- 8’L x 4’W x 2.5’H enclosure
- 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulb, x2
- Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome Dual Lamp Fixture
- Lutron Credenza plug-in lamp dimmer, x2
- 46″ T5 HO Arcadia 6% or Zoo Med Reptisun 5.0 UVB bulb
- 48″ Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics T5 HO fixture
- 34″ Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar, x2
- Zilla 24/7 Digital Power Center
- Zoo Med Digital Combo Thermometer Humidity Gauge, x2
- Exo Terra Mister
- 16 ft³ 60:40 sand/soil mix
- Exo Terra Tortoise Cave, x2
- Misc. décor
- cork flats
- edible, drought-tolerant live plants
- Exo Terra Feeding Dish, X-Large
- 12″ diameter plant saucer
- Repashy Superveggie
- Exo Terra Sepia Bones
Russian Tortoise Enclosure Size Requirements
Russian tortoises, like other reptiles, require an enclosure that is large enough to give them adequate opportunity to explore, forage, thermoregulate, and generally exercise natural behaviors. They are also terrestrial, which means that they are a ground-dwelling species, so floor space is more important than vertical space.
A good rule of thumb for housing tortoises is to use the following calculation, based on the tortoise’s expected adult length:
- Length = 10x adult length
- Width = 5x adult length
- Height = 3x adult length
Considering that Russian tortoises generally max out around 10″/25cm, and the smaller males are more active than females, the minimum recommended enclosure size for one Russian tortoise is 8’L x 4’W x 2.5’H, or 32 square feet of floor space. In metric, that’s 2.5m x 1.25m x 0.75m, or 3.25 square meters.
While this means that you will need a large pen rather than enclosure for housing an adult Russian tortoise, young tortoises can be temporarily housed in a 4’L x 2’W x 2’H enclosure until they reach 4″/10cm long.
Indoors or Outdoors?
It’s generally agreed by tortoise experts that it’s ideal to house your tortoise outdoors whenever possible. This is especially true for Russian tortoises, as they are quite hardy and capable of growing large enough to become inconvenient indoors. The tortoise pen should be placed in a location that is not too wet, with access to both shade and sunshine, and it should have well-draining soil. The wall must be smooth enough to discourage climbing (concrete blocks work well), sunk at least 12″ into the soil to discourage burrowing escapes, and the top of the pen should covered with wide mesh to keep out potential predators.
If you live in an area where it’s not safe to house your tortoise outdoors year-round, you will need to have an appropriately-sized enclosure at the ready indoors. While you can buy an appropriately-sized enclosure custom, it’s most cost-effective at this point to build your own. I recommend checking out the Facebook group DIY Reptile Enclosures for advice.
Juvenile Russian tortoises up to 4″ long should be housed in an indoor enclosure to promote optimum growth and health during this delicate phase of their lives. Here are some enclosures that are appropriate for housing young Russian tortoises:
The enclosure may need to be customized to feature a 4-5″ tall opaque barrier on the front to discourage pacing behavior.
Can multiple Russian tortoises be housed in the same enclosure?
To house multiple Russian tortoises together, you will need to add an extra at least 10 square feet (1 square meter) per additional tortoise. Avoid housing multiple males together, and note that housing males and females together will most likely result in eggs. Fortunately, Russian tortoises are not a particularly social species, and can be housed individually without negatively affecting their mental health.
Lighting & UVB Requirements for Russian Tortoises
Russian tortoises are diurnal, which means that they are most active during the day. This also means that they need exposure to bright light and UVB during the day to maintain good mental and physical health. Light sources should be left on for 14 hours/day during summer and 10 hours/day during winter to replicate natural seasonal rhythms.
If you are housing your pet outdoors, artificial lighting of any kind is not necessary.
UVB lighting can be tricky, because in order to get the right strength of UVB (measured by UV Index, or UVI), distance must be considered. To provide appropriate UVB to a Russian tortoise, you will need one Arcadia T5 HO 6% or Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 5.0 in a reflective T5 HO fixture (preferably Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics brand for best performance). This bulb should be roughly half the length of the enclosure and placed on the warm side, close to the heat lamp(s).
If there is mesh between the lamp and your tortoise, the basking area should place its back 13-14″/33-36cm below the lamp. If there is no mesh, the distance must be increased to 17-18″/43-46cm.
(This recommendation is an approximation. It is strongly recommended to use a Solarmeter 6.5 to determine the best placement to achieve a UVI of around 3.0 – 4.0 in the basking area.)
A UVB bulb isn’t bright enough to replicate daylight. To get a little closer to this goal, you will need to supplement with a bright, 6500K T5 HO fluorescent or LED lamp, long enough to span 3/4 to the full length of the enclosure. This is particularly important if you are using live plants, but it is also valuable for supporting your tortoise’s general wellbeing.
Russian Tortoise Temperatures & Heating
Humans are warm-blooded, which means that our body temperature is regulated automatically. Tortoises, however, are cold-blooded (poikilothermic), which means that they have to move between areas of different temperatures to regulate their body temperature. In the wild, Russian tortoises warm up by basking in a sunny spot.
Indoors, you will need at least one halogen heat lamp to properly heat your tortoise. If you are housing your pet in an outdoor pen, artificial heating should not be necessary. However, if nighttime temperatures dip below 50°F/10°C, you will need to provide a shelter with lightless heating such as a ceramic heat emitter or radiant heat panel set to 60°F/16°C. You will also need to bring your turtle indoors for part of the year if you live in an area with winter temperatures below 25°F/-4°C.
- Basking area temperature: 95°F / 35°C
- Cool zone temperature: 75-85°F / 24-29°C
- Nighttime temperature: 70-75°F / 21- 23°C
To create an evenly-heated basking area, you will need a 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulb (one for juveniles, at least two for adults) and one or two Zoo Med Deluxe Porcelain Clamp Lamp fixtures. If you notice that the basking area is too warm, dial it down with a plug-in lamp dimmer. If your basking area is too cool, you will need a higher-wattage bulb.
To measure the temperature of the basking area, you will need a digital probe thermometer with the probe placed on the basking surface. There should be another digital probe thermometer on the other side of the enclosure to monitor the cool end of the temperature gradient. Most reptile-branded digital probe thermometers work well for this purpose.
Humidity Levels for Russian Tortoises
Russian tortoises may be native to a dry type of habitat, but they actually spend a lot of their time in burrows, which have much higher humidity levels than the surrounding environment. This holds especially true for juveniles, as they are particularly vulnerable to dehydration.
Whether you are housing your tortoise indoors or outdoors, it must always have access to a humid hideout. This should be a cave or hide box placed on the cool end of the enclosure and lined with moistened substrate to create a humid microclimate.
For juvenile Russian tortoises, the entire enclosure should be kept more humid than required for an adult. Target humidity should be between 40-75%, lower during the day and higher at night. You can monitor humidity levels with a digital probe hygrometer with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure.
To increase humidity levels in the enclosure, use a handheld pressure sprayer to moisten the substrate first thing in the morning. Avoid spraying the tortoise directly.
Juvenile tortoises should be soaked in shallow, lukewarm water for 10-15 minutes 2x/week to make sure that they are adequately hydrated.
Best Substrates for Russian Tortoises
For Russian tortoises, it’s best to use a well-drained, naturalistic substrate that is similar to what is found in their native habitat. This substrate should be layered at least 4″ deep to allow for burrowing behavior for juveniles, and 6″ for adults.
Here are a few options:
- DIY arid mix: 40% organic topsoil, 40% play sand, 20% Zoo Med Excavator Clay
- Zoo Med ReptiSand
- Exo Terra Desert Sand
New Russian tortoises should pass quarantine before naturalistic substrate is added to their enclosure.
Feces and urates should be removed daily, and contaminated substrate should be scooped out and replaced. Indoor substrate should be completely replaced once every 3-6 months, depending on how diligent you are about daily cleaning.
Decorating Your Russian Tortoise's Enclosure
Decorations play a vital role in your Russian tortoise’s enclosure as environmental enrichment. Enrichment items encourage exercise, stimulate your pet’s natural instincts, and help promote overall wellbeing. And, of course, they make the enclosure look nicer! Without décor, your tortoise’s enclosure is just a big box of dirt.
Hollow logs, cork flats, flat stones, dirt mounds, and edible, drought-resistant plants work well as décor in a Russian tortoise enclosure. To determine what plants are safe to use in your enclosure, The Tortoise Table is an excellent resource. Tortoise seed mixes are also a good way to stock your enclosure with appropriate plants.
Arrange these items in a way that encourages your tortoise explore, and provides a variety of places to sleep or shelter in during the day.
What Do Russian Tortoises Eat?
Russian tortoises are herbivores, which means that they eat plants. Young and growing Russian tortoises should be given as much as they can eat every day. Once they near adulthood, this should be reduced to a limited quantity (roughly the same size as their shell) daily to prevent obesity.
Russian tortoises require a high-fiber, low-protein, low-sugar diet for best health. This means that their diet should be primarily comprised of leafy greens, grasses, and edible “weeds” rather than the kinds of vegetables you get from the produce section of the grocery store. Believe it or not, while these are good for humans, they’re actually usually too high in protein and/or sugar for tortoises!
The key to providing your pet with balanced nutrition is VARIETY! So make it your goal to provide as many different kinds of foods to your pet tortoise as possible.
Food should always be offered on a plate or tray to prevent unnecessary ingestion of substrate.
Appropriate greens for Russian tortoises:
- Aloe vera
- Bermuda grass
- Celery leaves
- Grape leaves
- Mulberry leaves
- Opuntia cactus
- Plantain leaves
- Romaine lettuce
- Timothy grass
Feed the following foods only rarely, and in small quantities: beet greens, spinach, cabbage, chard, collards, kale, broccoli
Wherever possible, it’s best to grow your own tortoise greens, which helps ensure that 1) they’re getting plenty of variety, and 2) you have regular access to the right kinds of greens for your tortoise’s needs. Arizona Tortoise Compound has some excellent tortoise seed mixes! The Tortoise Table is also a good reference for whether something growing in your yard is safe to use as tortoise food.
Treats for Russian tortoises
Flowers make a nutritious tortoise treat that is safe to feed more frequently than what most people like to use for treats (i.e. fruit). Here are some options — just make sure to source your flowers from a pesticide- and chemical-free area.
- Squash flowers
Fruits and feeder insects can also be offered, but only as very rare treats.
Commercial diets for Russian tortoises:
To make sure your tortoise is getting the right nutrients in its diet, it’s a good idea to sprinkle its food with Repashy Superveggie supplement powder. You will also need to provide a cuttlebone in the enclosure. Aside from being a good source of calcium, it also helps keep your tortoise’s beak trimmed!
Your tortoise should have access to clean drinking water at all times. They tend to foul the water quickly, so you will need to replace the water daily and give it a good scrub with animal-safe disinfectant weekly. A large flower pot saucer, sunk into the substrate for easy access, makes for a good water dish. The water should be no deeper than your tortoise’s knees.
Handling Tips for Russian Tortoises
Generally speaking, tortoises dislike handling and prefer to be left alone. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t interact with your pet! Many Russian tortoises learn to appreciate a gentle shell rub, and they can also learn to take food from your fingers or a pair of feeding tweezers.
When handling is necessary, scoop them up from below with your palm rather than grabbing them from above. This will help them not to panic. Then grasp the shell with two hands, supporting both the body and the legs. Keep a firm but gentle grip — falling can do serious damage to a tortoise, and can even be fatal!
Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling your tortoise. When soap and water is not available, use a good hand sanitizer.
Baines, F. M., Chattell, J., Dale, J., Garrick, D., Gill, I., Goetz, M., Skelton, T., & Swatman, M. (2016). How much UVB does my reptile need? The UV-Tool, a guide to the selection of UV lighting for reptiles and amphibians in captivity. Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research, 1, 60. https://www.jzar.org/jzar/article/view/150/89
The Arcadia Reptile Interactive UV Index Guide: Full Sun Baskers. (n.d.). Arcadia Reptile. https://www.arcadiareptile.com/lighting/full-sun-baskers/
The ReptiFiles Russian Tortoise Care Sheet is a simplified care summary, not a full ReptiFiles care guide. While I have done my best to ensure that the information contained is accurate, due to time constraints, the research behind ReptiFiles care sheets is not as thorough as the research involved with my full-length care guides. I strongly encourage readers to do their own research from high-quality, reputable sources outside of just this care sheet as part of preparing for your new pet reptile.