Small, feisty, ready to eat and more active than most other tortoise species, the Russian tortoise, or Testudo [Agrionemys] horsfieldii, is one of the most common pet tortoises and are readily available to own for yourself. Their appeal stems from many factors, one being the species’ high tolerance to temperature extremes, especially during the blistering summertime heat of Los Angeles.
Availability, Size and Lifespan
Though they are common household pets, most Russian tortoises you see for sale—adult or sub-adult— are wild-caught (imported). In fact, captive breeding of Russian tortoises is rare because the cost of a captive-bred baby is still very high. However, as the number of home breeders continues to grow, the market price will inevitably fall within the next decade.
Captive-bred Russian hatchlings will usually measure around 1 inch in shell length and can reach a maximum length of 8 to 9 inches. However, wild-caught Russian tortoises rarely surpass six inches in length. At full size, female Russian tortoises are slightly larger than males; however, the size difference is hardly noticeable. When they are about 5 inches long, females are ready to begin producing eggs and will produce better eggs at a higher success rate the larger they are. If raised on a high-fiber diet and in captivity, a Russian tortoise can live a long life with some living for more than 40 years.
Russian Tortoise Caging
As mentioned prior, Russian tortoises thrive in extreme temperatures, which is why the preferred setup for this species is an outdoor enclosure in a warmer climate. An enclosure for two or three adults should measure around at least 2 feet by 4 feet with walls buried into the ground 6 to 8 inches deep with wooden planks or large rocks under the soil in the corners to prevent them from digging under the sides Enclosures should also be set up a foot (12 inches) or higher above ground to prevent escaping.
While Russian tortoises thrive in extreme hot or cold temperatures, they compensate by going underground in order to protect themselves from the temperature extremes. This is why it is important to equip your potential new tortoise’s enclosure with underground hide boxes to help them maintain comfortable body temperature. If you plan to house your new Russian tortoise pet indoors, it (or they) should be accommodated in a 40-gallon (about) glass terrarium measuring 18 by 26 inches with sidewalls 8 inches or higher. Avoid keeping your tortoise in a small 10 or 20-gallon terrarium because small enclosures can cause Russian tortoises, or any species of tortoise for that matter, to become stressed and eager to escape its enclosure. If you have a baby Russian tortoise, starting it in a smaller enclosure is ok, but do upgrade its habitat as it gets older and grows in size.
Russian Tortoise Substrate
As for substrates, various kinds can be used, but we at Allan’s Pet Center recommend you use wood chips or coconut mulch for your tortoise’s terrarium. Using sand makes running around somewhat tricky for them as their feet sink with every step. You should also consider placing large, flat rocks inside the enclosure to help file down the tortoises’ nails. Including a heating pad or heat lamp (one that can heat an area to about 85-95 degrees) inside should also be considered if you live somewhere that experiences consistently colder temperatures. Russian tortoises also enjoy exploring, so try to provide caves, branches and other decorations in the enclosure to gives them the opportunity for exploration.
Russian Tortoise Lighting and Weather Temperament
Like most day-time reptiles, Russian tortoises require UVB light to help them properly process the calcium and vitamins in their diets. Owners should keep UV lights on 12 hours a day but should be turned off at night. These tortoises kept outside will try to hibernate during the winter but will need some time to dig a burrow before cold temperatures arrive. If no digging area is available for your Russian tortoise, consider bringing your tortoise inside during winter months. But if you live in the always-sunny and warm Los Angeles area, you can keep Russian tortoises outside year-round. But be smart, when the weather is over 100 degrees, it is not advised to keep them outside unless proper steps are taken to allow them to cool down, like providing a clean and shaded water source for them to soak and cool off.
Russian tortoises are easy to feed and will consume almost any leafy greens or vegetables offered to them (except for grass). They prefer wide-leafed plants and weeds; however, our pet experts here at Allan’s also suggest alternating between kale, collard greens, turnip greens and any of the darker lettuce types for your Russian Tortoise because variety is key. At Allan’s Pet Center, we can also provide timothy hay for your Russian Tortoise to snack on whenever they want. It’s worth mentioning that even though this species will eat any plant accessible to them in their enclosures, they can just as easily eat plants that are unsafe for them. So make sure you are aware of what is inside their pen at any given time.
For outdoor enclosures, make sure to provide water dishes that are shallow and glazed to make cleaning easy. Speaking of cleaning, it is important to clean your Russian tortoise’s dish regularly because they tend to soak in their dishes and “dirty” them. You can also bathe your tortoise in a small plastic container once or twice a week for 15 to 30 minutes by gently cleaning them with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Bathing your shelled friend also helps ensure they are adequately hydrated. This is also true for hatchlings as they tend to dry out much quicker than adults. Because of this, you should soak baby tortoises in shallow water up to three times a week, for 10 to 15 minutes each time.
Russian Tortoise Health Concerns
If kept in wet enclosures, these tortoises can develop severe respiratory infections, which can be easily detected if there are visual signs of nasal and eye discharge. Respiratory infections are probably the most common issue associated with Russian tortoises, however they relatively easy to prevent if kept in a clean, and warm environment.