Russian Tortoise Care Sheet, Diet, Habitat & Enclosure

Russian Tortoises can be found all over Russia, the Middle East, and Western Asia. They love to dig, climb and eat leafy greens.

This species is also known as the Horsfield’s Tortoise, named after naturalist Thomas Horsfield, who also gives his name to its classification, Agrionemys horsfieldii.

Other names you may also see for this tortoise species are Afghan Tortoise, Central Asian Tortoise, Four-clawed Tortoise, and Steppe Tortoise. And the previous classification for Russian Tortoise – Testudo horsfieldii.

Russian Tortoises are one of the most popular pet tortoise breeds because of their small size, unique personalities, and ease of care in captivity.

When purchasing it is important to realize they can live for over 40 years. Buying one is a long-term commitment.

If you are ready for this commitment to one of the most popular pet reptiles, read our care guide to learn how to properly set up your Russian Tortoise’s enclosure, what to feed them, and what behaviors you should expect…

Russian Tortoise
These tortoises are inexpensive (costing between $100 and $200) when compared to other popular reptiles.

Russian Tortoise Overview

Russian Tortoises are one of the most popular species in the United States.

However, they are relatively new to the pet industry and were first discovered in 1966 by Khozatsky and Mlynarski.

They are found in the desert and grasslands of Russia, the Middle East and Asia. These harsh climates make them very hardy as they thrive in some of the toughest climates on the planet.

The Russian Tortoise’s olive and tan shell with dark markings make them very distinct.

They are heavy-built and round in shape, however, they are surprisingly agile and enjoy climbing and exploring. They have long claws that help with climbing and are known to be avid diggers too. They are known for burying themselves to avoid extreme hot and cold temperatures.

Docile and sociable, they are great for first-time reptile keepers, as long as they are understanding of the tortoise’s extensive lifespan. They are especially great pets for people with young children as they have a very calm temperament.

Russian Tortoises are easy to care for and don’t have the complicated husbandry requirements of many snakes, turtles, and lizards.

Their diet is pretty simple and is strictly herbivorous.

In the wild, they graze on a variety of grasses and other plants. In captivity, their diet can consist of many different types of leafy greens and vegetables.

What We Like About Russian Tortoises

Pros

  • Long lifespan (over 40 years) because of their hardy and durable nature.
  • Small size, ease-of-care, and low husbandry requirements in captivity.
  • Ability to live healthily both indoors and outdoors.

Cons

  • They need a hot basking spot of 90 degrees or more.
  • For their size, they need a large outdoor enclosure (5 square feet).

Species Appearance

Russian Tortoise Appearance
A quick way to identify this species is by their toes – they only have four toes on their front legs.

The Russian tortoise’s carapace, or shell, is tan to olive-colored with dark brown and black splotches. The bottom of its shell is usually much darker and can even be solid black.

There is a variation known as the “Black Russian Tortoise” that has black scutes with their typical tan to olive color outlining each scute.

Their skin is a uniform tannish color.

A well-built specieis, they are relatively stocky and females are larger than males. You can identify a male by their pointed tails.

There are five other specieis of tortoises from the same family tree (Testudo genus) which can appear similar:

  1. Horsefield Tortoise
  2. Hermann’s Tortoise
  3. Greek Tortoise
  4. Marginated Tortoise
  5. Egyptian Tortoise

However, you can distinguish the Russian tortoises because they only have four claws on each foot.

How Big Do Russian Tortoises Get?

They are smaller than most other pet tortoise species.

Adult Russian Tortoises are between six to ten inches in size. Males grow to about six inches and adult females grow slightly larger to about eight inches. Ten inches is considered large for this breed.

Russian Tortoise Care

Russian Tortoise Eating Cucumbers

Russian Tortoise Diet

Russian Tortoises are vigorous eaters and will eat continuously in the months leading up to summer to prepare for hibernation.

In the wild they are herbivores and eat grass, leafy vegetables, broadleaf weeds, edible plants and flowers. So in captivity they should be fed a high fiber diet mainly consisting of greens:

  • Collards (type of cabbage)
  • Dandelion greens
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Turnip greens

If they don’t eat their food within a few hours, it should be removed from their enclosure to ensure it doesn’t spoil.

Their diet should also be supplemented with vegetables such as peppers, squash, carrots, corn, and sweet potatoes. Once or twice a week you can also feed a small amount of apples or berries as a treat.

Pelleted diets, like rabbit pellets, are available but should be avoided as most of them contain too many nutrient deficient grains. Iceberg lettuce should also be avoided as it lacks necessary nutrients.

Russian Tortoises should not be fed meat or insects, since they are herbivores. Instead, you can use a calcium supplement to ensure they have adequate calcium. Give them calcium powder with their food twice a week. If they are housed outside, then calcium powder is generally not necessary.

They should have access to clean, freshwater. Their water bowls must be large enough to allow them to soak because they use soaking to regulate their body temperature.

The water should be shallow as tortoises can’t swim.

Russian Tortoise Lifespan

Horsfield’s Tortoise
They can be lifelong pets – they often live for over 40 years.

Russian Tortoises are hardy reptiles and typically will live for over 40 years in captivity.

They can live a long and healthy life provided you follow a consistent husbandry routine, proper care and give them a good enclosure.

Russian tortoises are susceptible to many of the same health issues as other reptiles kept in captivity that are caused by improper enclosures, unsanitary habitats or a lack of nutrients.

  • Respiratory infections are seen in captive tortoises, especially those kept in an indoor enclosure with poor ventilation or incorrect temperatures. These infections can be caused by a variety of organisms including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites.
  • Gastrointestinal parasitic infections are also common in Russian Tortoises. These infections are normally caused by unsanitary living conditions, expired food, or exposure to another ill pet. Antiparasitic can be prescribed by your veterinarian to treat these infections.
  • Metabolic bone disease is another health concern that can arise your tortoises don’t get a proper diet or enough exposure to specific light waves. Calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D are required by a number of different body systems for normal everyday function and are especially important to bone and shell strength.

If you suspect any of these health conditions then consult your veterinarian as many of the infections acquired can be zoonotic and transferred to people.

Signs They Are Healthy

  • A smooth and uniform upper shell free of irregularities.
  • Active and exhibiting normal behaviors such as soaking and basking.
  • A healthy and consistent appetite.
  • Urates that are white and semi-liquid in form.

Sickness Symptoms

  • Skin irregularities including bleeding from their shell.
  • Weight loss, listlessness, lethargy, or an inability to walk.
  • Discharge from the mouth, noses, or eyes.
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing.

Russian Tortoise Habitat

Russian Tortoise Habitat

Russian Tortoises are native to more countries than just Russia.

They thrive in numerous middle eastern countries including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and even the western provinces of China.

Their natural habitat includes the desert and barren regions of these countries. They have been known to survive in the harshest of conditions.

Russian Tortoise Enclosure

Russian Tortoise Bedding

There are a lot of options when it comes to your Russian tortoise’s enclosure.

You must first choose if you are going to have them housed indoors or outdoors.

An outdoor enclosure is better if your climate permits because it will mimic their natural outdoor environment and provide them with space to graze and roam:

  • For indoor enclosures, a plastic tub, glass tank, or wooden terrarium are all good options. The indoor enclosure should be at least 5 square feet but larger tanks are always better.
  • For outdoor enclosures, they should have at least a 3 foot by 3 foot pen with walls 1 foot tall and 6 inches deep. It is extremely important to ensure that a portion of their enclosure is shaded so that they have the ability to adequately regulate their body temperature.

Whether kept indoors or outdoors their enclosure must be secure as they have been known to escape.

  • Tank Type: glass.
  • Tank Size: 5 square feet with 12-inch walls.
  • Lighting: UVB lighting for at least 12 hours a day.
  • Bedding: mix of soil, hay, pebbles, sand.

If kept indoors they require a warmer and cooler non-heated side in their tank. The cool end should be around room temperature at 70-72 degrees and the warmer side should be no more than 90 degrees.

They will also need UVB rays to process calcium. Either use a UV light and basking light, or a mercury vapor bulb can be used for both.

At night, all lights and heaters should be turned off provided the enclosure remains above 60 degrees.

Tortoises need at least 12 hours of light per day.

There isn’t one best substrate for Russian Tortoises but instead a mixture of different substrates should be provided. Sand mixed with soil, coconut fiber, cypress mulch, peat moss, wood chips, hay, and pebbles can all be included in their enclosure.

The substrate should be dry and non-compact to allow for their natural burying behaviors.

Pre-packaged substrates can be bought from a store. If scavenging a substrate from the wild ensure that it is not contaminated with fertilizers, parasites, or animal feces.

Russian tortoises should have plenty of logs and rocks to climb on too. Large rocks can prevent them from digging under the borders and provide shade, and flat rocks are a good surface for them to eat from.

Tank Cleaning
Cleaning their enclosure is vital for their health.

Their water should be changed twice a day, as they tend to defecate while soaking. Their substrate should be changed weekly, and the entire enclosure should be scrubbed with soap and water on a monthly basis.

If housed outside, it is important to regularly remove logs and rocks and scrub them.

When cleaning their feces inspect it. It should have semi-liquid white urate and darker components. If it is firm, watery, or contains blood then consult with your veterinarian.

Typical Behavior

Pet Russian Tortoise

Russian Tortoises are very personable and make an excellent pet. A lot of reptile enthusiasts compare their behavior to that of a dog because they can recognize their owner and enjoy spending time with them.

These tortoise’s interact with each other and humans through a variety of behaviors.

Head banging, panting, hissing, and squeaking are all common:

  • Head banging is usually how they show dominance and how they start mating. Females carrying eggs also use head banging as a mechanism to scare off threats.
  • Squeaking is typically associated as a mating noise, however some will use squeaking as a form of general communication.
  • Panting and hissing are associated with tortoises that are about to eat.

Tortoises in captivity will spend most of their day buried, basking, or soaking in order to thermoregulate. However, other expected behaviors can include climbing and grazing.

Although sociable with humans, they shouldn’t be housed with other tortoises in captivity because of their territorial nature. Two males should especially not be kept together. If one male and one female are housed together then the male may become overly sexual and harass the female.

Russian Tortoise Hibernation

Their behavior in the wild is very basic.

They spend the milder months of spring searching for food and mating, are relatively dormant (i.e. aestivate) during the hot hospitable months, before looking for food again in the fall to hibernate for the winter.

This cycle continues every year.

Do Wild Russian Tortoises Hibernate?

Yes in the wild they do hibernate, but hibernation is unhealthy for tortoises in captivity. So their enclosure temperature and lighting should remain constant year-round.

Handling Advice and Tips

Russian Tortoises are docile in captivity and can be routinely held as long as it is done so appropriately.

With tortoises being prey animals, handling should be gradually introduced into their routine.

You should support them from underneath their shell, and keep them low to the ground. Avoid grabbing its legs, tail, or neck. If they show signs of fear or hesitation when trying to handle them then they should be placed back into their enclosure to relax for a few hours.

Every one is different and some do better with handling than others.

You must always wash your hands before and after handling them to protect them and yourself from infections. They can carry salmonella bacteria, which is harmless to them, but the salmonella bacteria is harmful to humans.

Baby Russian Tortoises

Two Baby Russian Tortoises
As hatchlings this species measures just one inch in length.

Russian Tortoises lay eggs that eventually hatch into a baby tortoise after 60 to 75 days.

These hatchlings are born just an inch in size and will grow very slowly over the course of their lifetime. They won’t reach their adult size of 6 to 8 inches until around 20 to 30 years.

Russian Tortoises reach sexual maturity around 15 to 20 months of age when they are around 4.5 inches in length.

Males initiate breeding by circling the female and bobbing their head. The mating process will last between 10 and 20 minutes and females will lay up to 5 eggs.

Lower incubation temperatures are associated with males. The reverse is more associated with females.

How Much Does A Russian Tortoise Cost?

These tortoises typically range in price from $100 to $200. If you want to avoid spending a lot of money then try browsing local rescue groups. There’s a good chance one will become available because of their popularity and lifespan.

Species with unique patterns such as “Black Russian Tortoises” will cost more than typical colorations.

Captive-bred Russian Tortoises make better pets than wild-caught. Captive-bred tortoises are typically more docile and personable. If purchasing one from a captive breeder, you should inquire about how the tortoises were bred and raised to ensure that they are healthy and happy.

The ideal Russian Tortoise should:

  • Be bright and alert.
  • Free of any discharge from its eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.
  • Have skin and a shell free of blemishes or irregularities.
  • Show no signs of aggression when handled.

All of these conditions should be met when purchasing a Russian Tortoise.

Russian Tortoise Facts
Common NameRussian Tortoise, Horsfield’s Tortoise, or Afghan Tortoise
Scientific NameAgrionemys horsfieldii
Price$100+
Size6 – 10 inches (females are slightly bigger)
Lifespan40+ years
DietLeafy greens, vegetables, and occasionally fruit
Tank SizeFive square feet
Humidity & TemperatureBasking temperature: 90°F
Cool side: 70-72°F
Popular AlternativesRed-Footed Tortoise
Indian Star Tortoise
Mediterranean Spur-Thighed Tortoise

Summary

Russian Tortoises make excellent pets for just about anyone from first-time reptile owners to experienced enthusiasts.

This species is one of the most popular breeds because of its hardy nature, fun personality, small size, and low husbandry requirements.

When purchasing this breed you should consider their long lifespan and expect them to live for more than four decades. If this is too long, then consider the Indian Star Tortoise. They are similar-sized and also make great pets.

If you’re looking for a lifelong friend then the Russian Tortoise is the pet for you.

Let us know what you think about this pet below.

About Johnathan David 215 Articles
Johnathan leads the Everything Reptiles’ editorial team as our Editor in Chief. He has been a reptile hobbyist since childhood and after years in herpetoculture he has cared for many Geckos and Frogs.

11 Comments

  1. I just became a new owner of a Russian Tortious. A friend did not want her anymore. I am learning as much as I can to make a happy home.

    • Same here my children’s uncle didn’t want his and now we have the little sweetheart… I absolutely love it ?

      • Please beware they should not have fruit at ALL! There is alot of inaccurate information on this page. Do your research before purchasing…… I have a Russian and a Sulcata – Russians should NEVER have fruit as they can’t digest it…

        • Russian Tortoise cannot digest meat! They can digest fruits in small quantities and this is safely used as a food treat by thousands of people daily.

  2. I’ve just become the new owner of a Russian tortoise, he was given to me by a neighbour, he is 13years old * I love him dearly,.I am learning as much as I can so I can give him a good home..

    • They are fascinating, aren’t they?
      I never planned on having a tortoise, but one dropped into my life, anyway, it seems.

    • Ok, not sure if I should even post this. I live in central Cali, USA. I’m outside watering the garden, and see a rock, by the hen-house, moving. Seems it’s a tortoise, (according to google) It looks almost exactly like images of Russian tortoises, except the edges of it’s shell are all white, like they’ve flaked off, or something? It’s in a metal dogcrate, now, outside, where grass and succulent greens grow through, & I’ve given it Kale & tatsoi greens from the garden, & a large shallow dish of water. Since you seem to be raising two of them, is there anything you can tell me about how to care for them, what environment they need, diet, that sort of thing? Also, how do you distinguish between males & females? I think I’d like to give this one a name…
      Btw. Tortoises aren’t native to this area, and none of my immediate neighbors have lost one. This is not how we usually end up with…pets.

      • As in many tortoises, sexing is all about the tail: males have a larger, longer tail, often sitting to the side, which helps them during mating. Females have an only slightly protruding, much smaller and not elongated tail. which points straight behind them.
        In terms of setup and diet, you can follow our guide on this article for the most important things to consider!

      • Please place a local ad and put this fellow on lost and found pets on Facebook, if he seems used to people, for example he doesn’t hide his head when you give him food, then his owners are probably tortoise are accustomed to traversing large distances.

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