Russian tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii) are a 5-8” long species of tortoise native to central Asia. Their common name is a bit of a misnomer, as they are uncommon in Russia, and more often found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. They can be found in sandy steppe areas with sparse vegetation, particularly grass areas near springs of water.
Russian tortoises generally have a light tan to olive-colored shell with dark blotches, and a blotched or solid black plastron. The shell is oval-shaped with flattened vertebral scutes. Interestingly, they only have four toes on each forefoot. Females are generally larger than males.
Russian tortoises are one of the most common pet tortoises in the US. With good care, they are capable of living 50+ years!
Minimum terrarium size for Russian tortoises
The minimum acceptable enclosure size for a Russian tortoise is 12 sq feet of floor space. Since tortoises are poor climbers, floor space is the most important dimension to pay attention to. Because Russian tortoises prefer a drier habitat, they can do well in “tortoise table” style indoor enclosures as long as they have humid retreats.
If your local climate allows, you can house your Russian tortoise outdoors. Make sure the pen is at least 36 sq feet, offers areas of both sunlight and shade, and has a concrete foundation to prevent the tortoise from escaping.
Cohabitation (housing multiple animals in one enclosure) is not recommended with Russian tortoises.
Do Russian tortoises need UVB?
Yes, a moderate level of UVB lighting is required for Russian tortoises to maintain good health. The best UVB bulbs for Russian tortoises are:
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: 15-24” above the tortoise’s shell.
Your UVB bulb and fixture should be roughly half the length of the tortoise’s enclosure, and left on for 14 hours/day during summer, and 10 hours/day during winter. However, if your tortoise is housed outdoors and has access to sunlight, you will not need a UVB lamp.
Since Russian tortoises need such large enclosures, indoor enclosures require more illumination than just a UVB bulb can provide. Use a 6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow light for this purpose.
Best temperature for Russian tortoises
Like other reptiles, Russian tortoises are cold-blooded, which means that they rely on external temperatures to manage their own body temperature and metabolism. A reptile’s enclosure should offer a range of temperatures to allow them to thermoregulate effectively.
Specifically speaking, Russian tortoises should have a basking temperature around 95°F. Ambient temperatures should be between 70-80°F. These temperatures should be measured with a digital probe thermometer.
Provide heat for your tortoise with at least two halogen flood heat bulbs, placed close together over the basking area to evenly heat the tortoise’s entire body. Heat lamps should be at least 8” away from the top of your tortoise’s shell. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.
Best humidity levels for Russian tortoises
Russian tortoises need a humidity gradient from 40-75%. This can be accomplished by providing a humid hide on the cool side, lined with moistened sphagnum moss. Humidity should be monitored via digital probe hygrometer, with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure.
Best substrate for Russian tortoises
Providing a thick layer of naturalistic substrate (“bedding”) will help maintain correct humidity levels and also provide something for your tortoise to dig in as desired. We recommend the following substrates for Russian tortoises:
Plain topsoil mixed 60/40 with play sand also works well.
Substrate should be at least 8” deep and completely replaced every 6 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
How to decorate a Russian tortoise enclosure
An empty terrarium makes for a bored tortoise, reducing its quality of life. Keep your pet entertained and engaged with its environment with the strategic use of décor items that encourage it to exercise natural behaviors!
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- additional hiding places/burrows
- large hollow logs
- live, edible plants
- large, flat stones
The more stuff you add, the more functional your enclosure is likely to become! As an additional feature, you can shape the substrate into hills to create more environmental variety for your pet.
What to feed to a Russian tortoise
Russian tortoises are herbivores, which means that they need a high-fiber, plant-based diet to stay healthy. Variety is key to good nutrition, but most of your Russian tortoise’s diet should be an assortment of leaves and grasses, with occasional flowers.
Safe greens for Russian tortoises: 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
Fruit should be only used as a treat, due to its high sugar content. Appropriate fruits include apples, berries, melons, papaya, guava, pineapple, bananas, cactus fruit, grapes, plums, and peaches.
You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your tortoise from developing a potential deficiency. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on each meal. A little bit of Mazuri tortoise diet also makes a nutritious addition.
Of course, don’t forget a water bowl! Russian tortoises like to soak, so you will need a shallow “puddle” of water for them to soak and defecate in. Use a flower pot saucer or a reptile water bowl with a ramp. Change the water daily and scrub the dishes weekly with a reptile-safe disinfectant, or whenever it becomes soiled.
How to handle your Russian tortoise
Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. That being said, Russian tortoises generally tolerate human interaction pretty well! When picking up your tortoise, be gentle and try to pick it up from the side or below rather than from above. They tend to appreciate gentle scratches and hand-feeding.
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet!