A Russian Tortoise (sometimes called the Central Asian or Horsfield’s Tortoise) is an excellent choice for a beginner tortoise keeper. Russian Tortoise are highly adaptable and have less specific needs than many other tortoise species. Having said that, you should of course always aim to provide your Russian Tortoise with the optimum conditions close to what it would find in the wild.
This Russian Tortoise care sheet should cover all the basics for caring for your Russian Tortoise, but there are a few very good books we would also recommend to help you along. These are Russian Tortoises (Complete Herp Care) and Russian Tortoises as pets for highly targeted information on Russian Tortoise care. Tortoises: A Beginner’s Guide to Tortoise Care is excellent for general information on caring fortoises, and the Kindle-only book Russian Tortoises in Captivity is also worth a look.
Russian Tortoise Size
This is one of the smaller tortoise species, with males rarely exceeding 8″ in length and females are only a little larger, topping out at around 10″. This makes Russian Tortoises far easier to care for indoors (especially important if you live in an area with chilly winters) than some of the largest tortoise species, which can be pretty impractical to fit into your average house.
Russian Tortoise Lifespan
If cared for properly, a Russian Tortoise should certainly be able to live for at least 50 years, with reports of some living for more than double this amount! This is very much a pet for life, and it stands a reasonable chance of outliving even you, so make sure you’re ready for a long term commitment before purchasing a Russian Tortoise.
Outdoor Russian Tortoise Housing
Your Russian Tortoise is far more likely to thrive if it has a large outdoor enclosure in which it is free to roam and forage. Any outdoor enclosure should be a minimum of 6’x10′ to keep your tortoise happy, and planted with a variety of edible weeds and shrubs (more information in the Russian Tortoise Food section below).
Rusian Tortoises are not only inclined to burrow, but also make surprisingly good climbers. For this reason, your enclosure boundary should be at least a foot high and extend roughly the same distance underground, and it should be made of a material that won’t allow a tortoise to gain any purchase for climbing. Cinder blocks and wood make good choices, but never use cedar or pine woods, as these can lead to your tortoise suffering from respiratory problems. There should also be an inward lip at the top of the enclosure to further discourage any bids for freedom, and a mesh lid may be necessary if there are cats, dogs, raccoons or other predators around.
In the wild, Russian Tortoises use burrows for shelter. If your enclosure is not big enough to allow burrowing, or if your soil is unsuitable for digging, then you’ll have to provide a suitable alternative. This can be easily achieved with something as simple as a Rubbermaid deck box with a tortoise-sized hole cut into it and fitted with a heat lamp. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and there are many DIY alternatives.
Indoor Russian Tortoise Housing
An indoor enclosure is definitely second best, but Russian Tortoises can still live happily indoors if you have the right set-up. Young Russians are also normally raised inside until they’re ready for the big bad world waiting outside. Aquariums do not provide a suitable habitat and should not be used if at all possible. The better options range from the impressive Penn Plax Tortoise Palace to DIY options that may again include Rubbermaid boxes. Other possibilities are reptariums (which should be a minimum of 100 gallons) or a tortoise table, which can again be bought or made at home.
Whatever you choose to use, bear in mind that if your Russian Tortoise can see out, it may get stressed, so it’s sometimes necessary to tape over the bottom of the enclosure. They are also incapable of grasping the concept of a transparent solid, so will repeatedly attempt to walk through glass walls. The tape should prevent this from happening.
The substrate used indoors should be a few inches thick, and there are lots of possibilities for the substrate itself. A roughly equal mix of sand and something like coconut coir or topsoil, garden loam or cypress mulch should work well. While it shouldn’t be so damp it goes mouldy, Russian Tortoises use burrows with a high humidity, so you should also ensure that the substrate doesn’t dry out completely.
Your tortoise will thank you for including a few features in its enclosure to add some variety – just a few rocks, logs and the like will make a real difference. A cool, dry retreat should also be provided, along with a basking area: your Russian Tortoise will be happier and healthier if has a variety of microclimates to choose from.
Temperature and Lighting
As cold-blooded animals, Russian Tortoises have fairly specific temperature requirements. A good thermometer is a very good idea if you want to keep your pets alive and healthy! If kept indoors, the basking area should be kept at around 95F, with the cooler end of the enclosure kept closer to 70F. Russians require a lower temperature overnight, and around 60F suits them well. Outdoors, they seem to cope with slightly cooler temperatures, but anything below 50F and you should probably consider bringing your tortoise inside.
Kept outdoors, your Russian Tortoise should get all the UVB light it needs from the sun, and this is the best way for your tortoise to get the light it needs. If a Russian Tortoise is kept indoors all day, it will need to be provided with an artificial UVB light, using either a mercury vapor bulb or a fluorescent tube. The former will also give off heat, but a ceramic heat emitter may be necessary as well; with a fluorescent tube, the heat emitter is essential.
Russian Tortoise Diet
A large outdoor enclosure with lots of pesticide-free weeds and broad-leaved plants for your tortoise to graze on is best. While fruit should be avoided, a varied salad diet (mixed with a little grass hay for fibre) using grocery store produce will work well.
Sprinkling food with small amounts of ground up calcium tablets is often recommended to supplement this important mineral. An alternative is to provide a cuttlebone so that your tortoise can decide for itself when it needs more calcium, and can get as much as it needs.
It’s important not to overfeed a Russian Tortoise, as they are active for much more of the year in captivitiy than they would be in the wild, and often get less exercise. This has the potential to reduce life expectancy dramatically, but it’s not normally an issue in outdoor enclosures. One solution is to only let your tortoise gorge itself on food for 20 minutes a day, which should eliminate the problem.
More precise information on Russian Tortoise diet is available at this excellent page.
Russian Tortoise Water
Contrary to popular opinion, tortoises do need drinking water to avoid becoming dehydrated. A shallow water dish should be provided at all times. Bear in mind that Russian Tortoises are more susceptible to dehydration when kept indoors, where it may be necessary to soak them in warm, shallow (don’t drown them!) water for 15-20 minutes every few days.
Water should be changed daily, and cleaned regularly – Russian Tortoises will often defecate when they soak.
Russian Tortoise Hibernation
In the wild, Russian Tortoises hibernate for several months of the year over winter, but many owners of captive Russians choose not to hibernate them at all. The tortoises don’t seem to suffer any ill effects from this, but it’s hard to be sure of any long term effects as Russian Tortoises have such long lifespans.
If you do choose to hibernate your Russian Tortoise, you can either use a refrigerator or hibernate them outdoors, depending on temperature. A check-up with a good exotic pet vet is advisable beforehand to make sure your tortoise is in good condition, at a healthy weight and free of any infections or parasites.
For more detailed information on how to hibernate your tortoise, this link is very good.
Keeping Multiple Russian Tortoises
Generally speaking, male Russian Tortoises will be aggressive toward each other, and possibly also to females during the breeding season. The best choice is normally to have just one male and several females, and to provide a correspondingly larger enclosure with lots of hiding places and vegetation to break it up. Adding another male will usually require a larger enclosure still, although of course some variation in personality between different individuals is inevitable.
This Russian Tortoise care sheet should tell you everything you need to know to give your tortoise excellent day-to-day care, but we can never cover as much information as you’ll find in a dedicated book. At least one of the books listed at the top of the page should have a home in your bookcase as a handy reference guide.