Russian Tortoise Care Guide

Russian Tortoises

The Russian Tortoise, which is the name it is usually known by, was named after the naturalist Thomas Horsefield.

The species name of the Russian Tortoise is testudo Horsfieldii, or agrionemys Horsfieldii.

The Agrionemis Horsefieldii is a small-sized tortoise; the adult size between the male and the female of the species varies - the female is the larger of the two, having a length of 15 – 25cm. 

This larger size allows the female to hold a batch of eggs inside her body. The male Russian Tortoise grows to approximately 13 -20cm in size.

The coloration of these tortoises is a reddish-brown or black, which lightens to yellow in between the scutes. Female Russian tortoises will lay up to five eggs per clutch. Another identifiable feature of Russian Tortoises is that they have four toes.

They also have a carapace, known as the top or dorsal shell, and a plastron, known as the ventral or bottom shell.

Classification Table

  
Common Names:Horsfield Tortoise, Horsefield Tortoise, Russian Tortoise, Central Asian Tortoise, Russian Steppe Tortoise, Four-Clawed Tortoise, Afghan Tortoise, Afghanistan Tortoise and Steppe Tortoise
Scientific Name:Agrionemys horsfieldii or Testudo horsfieldii
Class:Reptilia
Order:Testudines
Suborder:Cryptodira
Family:Testudinidae
Genus:Agrionemys or Testudo ( a bit of controversy and debate over this)
Species:A. horsfieldii

 

Buying

Russian tortoise in the yard eating

The first and most accessible choice when thinking about where to buy Russian Tortoises in the United States is a pet shop.

As with most things, there are pros and cons with this decision. 

A reptile shop may be a clean and well-kept space for animals to live in while they are waiting to be bought or it may be dirty unkempt place in which is unpleasant, unhealthy and difficult for the animals to survive in.

If reptiles are to be bought from a reptile shop, check the reputation and the atmosphere of the shop first. A diet of pet shop food may not be the best Russian Tortoise diet, so it is also a good idea to find out what these reptiles are being fed.

Buyers are able to obtain Russian Tortoises from the internet thanks to shipping, from a private buyer, or from a reptile show. There are some important points to note wherever an animal is acquired from. These are:

  • Getting information or asking how the animal is or has been housed.
  • Obtaining references if tortoises are purchased from an individual buyer.
  • Being sure to get an agreement or certificate stating that the reptiles are in good health and that they will be handled carefully if it is being sent from a distance.
  • Checking the tortoise’s condition. This may include checking the eyes, the breath, the carapace and scutes, the nose, the feet, and the tail of the tortoise. Make sure to also check for parasites. Action should be taken right away if it is clear that the animal has difficulty breathing.

 

 

Care

Whatever method has brought a Russian Tortoise into the home to be kept as a pet reptile, it is very important to be well-informed about this finicky and refined little animal in order to give him/her the best care possible. As a first step, it is usually a good idea to take you reptiles to a veterinarian for a check-over. The veterinarian will know if the tortoise has any hidden parasites or diseases, such as salmonella bacteria, as well as weighing and measuring it so that its growth and health can be recorded.

It should be noted that salmonella bacteria can live on the shells or skin of tortoises.

Russian Tortoises are reptiles and herbivores; their diet consists of leafy greens, flowers, and weeds. Water is also a very important element in this creature’s diet.

Tortoises eliminate waste very economically through a white semi-solid paste; this is because their original home is the dry arid steppes where it is important to conserve liquids. Tortoises, like all reptiles, still need to drink water and it is suggested that a low-depth pan of water is placed out for them to drink from; this pan must be emptied every four days or so as to eliminate the accumulation of parasites. Parasites such as worms are very common in tortoises. If you seen worms in your tortoise's poop, then it most likely has parasites.

Russian Tortoises also enjoy being lightly soaked with water, from a garden hose or in a small pond, but they must not be kept wet continuously as this may result in shell rot.

Russian Tortoises need an environment that gives them the ability to burrow and that allows them to aestivate, to hibernate if they wish to, or to retire from the heat of the day.

 

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Housing

russian tortoise housing

This very special pet reptile requires a special environment to live in which is adapted to its needs.

Russian Tortoises need to be kept fairly dry in their living conditions, although they need to soak sometimes.

They also aestivate or hibernate and need a space where they can retreat from the heat of a summer’s day.

Don’t forget that Russian Tortoises are very active and that they will try to escape by climbing over or digging under their enclosure. The enclosure walls must be high enough to defeat the tortoise’s climbing skills and have a fence or something similar which has been dug into the ground by at least twelve inches. They also appreciate any living or non-living objects which can break their line of sight; Tortoises need to keep it interesting! The addition of clumps of live herbs (those that are edible by a Russian Tortoise.) logs or piles of stones will be a good sight-break for it. Another tip is that larger is always better for Russian Tortoises, as they like to move around and even hide in their enclosures.

An indoor enclosure or pen can be created by purchasing a large indoor storage box and larger really is better. The lid must be kept off this box; the addition of a substrate (See below.) and a source of water and heat can make this a suitable indoor living space for a Russian Tortoise.

The best option for a home is an outdoor enclosure. This can be landscaped with edible plants while the outdoor environment also allows the tortoise to bask in the sun if it is not too hot. A tunnel for the tortoise’s periods of aestivation &/or hibernation is necessary.

 

Temperature and Lighting

Russian Tortoise Temperature and Lighting

When it comes to their correct temperature and lighting, an indoor enclosure should be fitted with a basking area in which the daytime temperatures are approximately 90-95ᵒ F.

At the other end of the enclosure, temperatures should cool to approximately 70ᵒ F, while during the night time Russian Tortoises will feel comfortable with temperatures of approximately 60ᵒ.

These temperatures should be fairly strictly maintained and a thermometer may be used to ascertain this. Ceramic emitters and under-tank heaters may be used as primary sources of heat.

Russian Tortoises will thrive in a habitat enclosure that has twelve hours of light and an equivalent twelve hours of dark.

These equivalent periods of light and dark will keep tortoises in peak condition, whereas too much light and heat may cause aestivation; if kept in too cool a climate, Russian Tortoises will not digest properly.

A full spectrum UV light system with UVB rays is a necessity - the tortoise must have a good source of vitamin D3 in its body to keep them healthy and the body temperature at an optimal level – the UV light help to create Vitamin D3. Tortoises that are kept outdoors will absorb vitamin D3 from the sun.

 

Substrate and Bedding

zilla substrate

There is some debate about the perfect product to use to create a healthy substrate in the enclosure.

For some owners, the best possible substrate is a mix of play sand and coir or loam. 


A mix of sand and garden soil is also well-recommended, as is an admixture of peat moss.

The substrate should definitely be deep enough for tortoises to be able to burrow, so this depth can be from ten inches up to three feet. 

Organic topsoil over hay made from timothy grass or Bermuda grass is also a good option.

Russian Tortoises need some humidity in their habitat enclosure, but the substrate mix that is chosen should not be one that will easily become moldy. It is not advisable to use a substrate of a substance that holds water such as alfalfa.

We also recommend looking into getting a cage carpet, though make sure there is enough substrate on top for when it burrows.

 

Diet

russian tortoise food

Russian Tortoises are grazers whose natural behavior is to eat large amounts of weeds leaves and flowers before returning to hibernation.

These tortoises hibernate in the cold months and they may also aestivate because it is uncomfortable in high temperatures.

The term aestivation refers to a semi-conscious sleep period during the summer, while the term hibernation refers to semi-conscious sleeping period during the winter.

Some of the foods which are safe for Russian Tortoises and which keep them healthy are:

Edible Food List 
YarrowEchinacea
AgaveWild Rosemary
HollyhockFig Leaves
Ladies’ mantleSweet Potato
AloePerennial Ryegrass
MarshmallowPurple Loosestrife
Horse radishMulberry
Cow ParsleyWatercress
CeleriacOregano
Tall Oat GrassPetunia
English daisyRadish
Butterfly BushBlack Currant
Pot MarigoldBlackberry
Shepard’s PurseChia
ChicoryDandelion
ComfreyNasturtium
ArtichokeGrapes
Dahlia
Raspberry
MulleinWild carrot

 

 

It is a good idea to grow a supply of leafy greens for Tortoises that live indoors. This means it will not have to depend on greens and other items from the grocery store which may have been treated with pesticides. A Calcium/D3 vitamin supplement, such as calcium powder, should also be added to the indoor tortoise’s diet.

 

Never add meat to a Russian Tortoise’s diet – these animals are herbivores and they cannot digest meat. Fruit is also something to leave off this tortoise’s menu, as consumption of fruit can cause parasite blooms.

Russian Tortoise Food

Some foods are completely poisonous to Russian Tortoises. These anti-nutrients are foods which contain oxalic acid and/or phytic acid – they can cause a lack of adequate calcium in the the tortoise and thus cause deformities in the shell or severe weight loss. Some of these anti-nutrient foods are:

 

Inedible Food List  
Amaryllis BelladonnaCyclamenJuniper
Asparagus FernDaffodilLantana
Arrowhead VineDelphiniumLily of the Nile
Avocado leaves and seedsLarkspurLobelia
AzaleaCarnationLupine
BegoniaDumb CaneMarsh marigold
Bird of paradiseElephant’s earNightshade family of plants
Boston IvyEuphorbiaCowslip
BoxwoodAll Ficus speciesOleander
Buttercup familyFirethornPeriwinkle
CaladiumFoxglovePhilodendron
Calla LilyGardeniaPoinsettia
Candy TuftGrape IvyPothos
Carolina JessamineHeavenly BambooPrimrose
Castor beanHollyRosary bean
Chinese EvergreenHyacinthShasta daisy
China BerryHydrangeaSpider ‘Mums
ColumbineIvyPhilodendron
Creeping CharlieIrisString of Pearls
CrowfootJerusalem Cherry

 

 

If tortoises are living in a landscaped outdoor enclosure, do not use any of the above plants for the sake of Russian Tortoise health. Make sure also to weed these plants out of the garden if it is being left free to forage for some hours during the day.

Food is medicine for Russian Tortoises and this species must have the right types for their needs or else they could experience severe side effects, such as metabolic bone disease. Substitutes such as pet store foods are not really adequate and may contain too much protein &/or not enough calcium. A lack of calcium causes the tortoise’s carapace to become completely flat rather than healthy with well-delineated scutes. A lack of essential minerals may cause a top shell with pyramided scutes due to the thickening of keratin.

 

 

Hibernation

Russian Tortoises both hibernate and aestivate. The hibernation period is between October and March, when it is cold. This period of hibernation is followed by foraging for a lengthy meal which will help tortoises to build up enough nutrients to last through another long period of hibernation.

There is more than one reason why tortoises will aestivate – if it too hot for Russian Tortoises to feel comfortable, the animal will crawl into the same tunnel it uses to hibernate until the weather cools down. A lack of food or water may also cause this tortoises to aestivate, as the hibernation tunnel will usually provide high enough levels of humidity that the necessity for water will be slowed. The decreased levels of activity during aestivation also reduce the need for eating.

Tortoises that are domesticated pets may not experience the same cues of temperature that motivate them to hibernate, especially if they are kept indoors. Some reptile owners believe that it is not necessary for their domesticated tortoises to hibernate, because the temperature and habitat can be controlled.

Others believe that this natural habit should be maintained at least for two months of the year.

Hibernation does cause some strain on the tortoise’s system as it must eat copiously and then slow its metabolism down to survive a long period underground, but this a natural instinct in Russian Tortoises and they are biologically programmed to do it.

If domesticated Russian Tortoises do not appear to be in good health after their vital signs have been checked, then it is probably better not to encourage them to hibernate as poor health may not permit them to survive the winter.

Healthy Russian Tortoises may automatically slow down in their eating when they are ready to hibernate. Aestivation may not be at all necessary for pet Russians, unless a heat wave has driven up the temperatures.

 

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Breeding

Russian Tortoises may commence their breeding rituals when it is large enough in size rather than when it reaches a particular age. These animals are long lived so holding back their breeding by separating the males and females, until they are older larger and healthier is sometimes beneficial for the breeding of a healthy clutch of hatchlings.

Mating is not seasonal; tortoises may breed at any time of year. The males of the Russian Tortoise species can be aggressive and a little peculiar during the mating ceremony. They will circle the females again and again while nipping at their faces and legs. While doing this his gaze is fixated on the females and he jerks his head up and down as if saying yes, yes. Finally, the males mount the females from behind, producing wild squealing sounds as he does so.

If the females have become impregnated, they will lay a clutch of up to five eggs. These eggs must be kept in conditions which resemble those in the natural habitat for them to hatch successfully. For female tortoises who live indoors a box packed with substrate mix will make a good nest for the eggs. For tortoises who live outdoors, a large pile of sand mixed with garden soil will provide a comfortable place for the female to bury the eggs.

To maintain the eggs at a temperature of 29ᵒ-31ᵒ, it will be necessary to remove them from the nest and put them into a hovabator or artificial incubator into which a small metal bucket filled with water has been placed; this will help to create a good level of humidity for the eggs to hatch in. Eggs can be packed into a container filled with moist vermiculate after they have been removed from the nest; remove the eggs from the nest extremely carefully and do not turn them over or change their position at all. It has been said that low incubation temperatures produce male hatchlings, while higher temperatures during incubation produce female hatchlings. Whether this is true or not, the eggs should hatch within 8-12 weeks given the proper care. Candling the eggs can be done in dark room to determine if they are fertile or not.

The hatchlings are slow to break out of the egg and it may take them up to 2 days to complete this process even if they are using the special egg tooth which has grown in their mouth for this single purpose. If the hatchlings have a yolk sac still attached to them when they emerge from the egg, these little creatures should remain in the incubator until the sac has absorbed, giving them extra nutrients after the hatching process.

During the two-week period before the turtles begin to eat, they will continue to live off the reserve nutrients from the yolk sac. To encourage the tortoises to drink after they have hatched it can be a good idea to wash them gently in a container of warm water.

Healthy female tortoises may lay two to three clutches of eggs per year, although the processes of impregnation and laying can also be influenced by the habitat that the tortoises live in.

 

Conclusion

Although it demands a lot of understanding and care, Russian Tortoises, also know as Horsfield Tortoises, are a popular pet reptiles for reptile enthusiasts for many reasons. Some of these are: Tortoises are simply adorable and children love them. They don’t need to be taken for walks, and they can be in hibernation or aestivation but people find their slow, yet curiously active ways cute and fascinating. Russian Tortoises may be the only animal that eats flowers. This could be reason why they are so long lived that more than one generation in a family can enjoy their presence in the house or the garden.

Seriously, it’s good to remember that dogs and tortoises don’t mix as tortoises have no way to defend themselves against a dog. Such an ancient creature as Russian Tortoises are interesting to watch and maybe we can learn something from them about eating healthily and staying out of the heat and the cold.

Russian Tortoises are a threatened species in the wild due to the increasing size of the human population which reduces the number of locations where tortoises can comfortably hibernate. Some of the wild foods that Russian Tortoises eat are also becoming scarcer.

Pet owners who try these small-size reptiles out and help to keep them from extinction may find that it becomes a favorite and that the care and attention that these creatures must have becomes an interesting project rather than a chore. Buy a Russian Tortoise today and make sure to download our Russian Tortoise Care Sheet! 

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