Erica Mede, CVT
and edited by Susan Horton, DVM
Found naturally in the dry open landscapes of Aghanistan,
Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China this tortoise is also known as
the Steppe tortoise, the Afghanistan tortoise, the Russian Box
Turtle, and the Four-Toed tortoise.
Most Russian tortoises in the pet trade in the
are wild caught and imported.
Despite being wild caught, Russian tortoises seem to remain
active, friendly, and fascinating!
Russian tortoises are a small species of tortoise with a
brownish to black shell that fades to a tan color closer to where
the scutes connect to one another. The
amount of tan varies with individuals.
The plastron of the Russian tortoise is a brownish color
with large dark brown to black blotches. Their
thick, stocky limbs make locomotion across smooth surfaces
interesting but they are adept at moving over uneven terrain.
The shell length is typically between 6 and 10 inches with
females being on the higher end of the range.
Russian tortoises have a skin color of yellow to light
brown. These tortoises
are friendly and curious by nature and learn to enjoy human
The larger the enclosure the better!
Hatchlings and small juveniles can be kept in glass
aquariums but will out grow them.
Aquariums for adults must be large not only to offer the
appropriate space needed for daily exercise and enrichment via
foraging behaviors but also to allow for better air circulation.
A 75-gallon aquarium or larger is suitable for most adults.
Building custom enclosures with Plexi-glass, acrylic, wood,
or screen is possible and allows for custom sizing.
It is suggested to research “tortoise tables” on the
internet for ideas on materials and dimensions.
If wood is used it is recommended to seal the wood against
moisture and allow it to sit for 48 hours prior to introduction of
the animal. Custom
cages should be around 4 feet wide by 4 feet long and 8-12 inches
deep depending on the length of the tortoise.
Rubbermaid storage containers and under the bed storage
boxes are extremely popular options for housing tortoises of all
ages. An adult Russian
tortoise can be comfortably kept in a 50-gallon Rubbermaid
container. The large
open tops allow for better air circulation and the rounded corners
prevent escapes and make for easier cleaning.
These containers are easy to clean and inexpensive to buy
and can be modified to suit the tortoise’s needs.
Air circulation can be improved further by cutting square
or rectangular pieces from the sides and placing screening over
the holes. If this
method is used it is recommended to place the screening on the
outside of the container to prevent sharp edges from potentially
coming into contact with the tortoise.
There should be two hide boxes available for Russian
tortoises. One should
be positioned on the cooler side of the cage as well as the warmer
appreciate hiding places especially for their daily naps.
Hide boxes can be created from cork bark half logs, half
terracotta plant pots, large PVC pipes, and wooden huts.
It is necessary that the tortoise be able to turn itself
around in the hide area.
Rocks, drift wood, and plants (potted or fake) not only
make an enclosure aesthetically pleasing to the owner, it also
offers enrichment and stimulation to the tortoise.
Cage accessories should be changed every week during
cleaning to allow for the tortoise to explore a new surrounding
which not only stimulates their minds and feeds a natural behavior
but also gives them a reason to exercise.
Live plants should be potted to prevent up rooting and
destruction of the plants.
Water dishes should be offered not only for drinking but
for soaking. Russian
tortoises enjoy soaking themselves and relieving themselves in
their water bowls. Daily
cleaning will likely be needed.
The dish should be deep enough for the tortoise to cover up
to their “elbows” when standing.
If a water dish deep enough for soaking cannot be provided
it is recommended to soak the tortoise for 10 minutes in luke warm
water 2-3 times a week.
Russian tortoises thrive when their enclosures are kept
between 70° and 80°
degrees Fahrenheit during the day with a basking site reaching 95
time temperatures can be maintained with basking lights, under
tank heaters, heat cable, and/or heat tape.
It is recommended that under tank heaters, heat cable, and
heat tape be monitored and maintained with a thermostat to prevent
injuries such as burns. It
is strongly recommended that ALL heating implements be attached to
the outside of an enclosure and not inside despite the packaging
claims. Placing heat
cable or heat tape inside an enclosure can severely burn the
tortoise. During the
night, the temperature can drop as low as 70 degrees.
The night time temperature should be maintained with a
ceramic heat emitter or an under tank heater if needed.
Naturally being found in drier regions with open landscapes
the humidity in the enclosure should be 40-50%.
The dig box of dirt being maintained as a moist dig box
will have a humidity around 70% itself when the tortoise digs into
it and buries itself. The
moist dig box simulates the burrows Russian tortoises inhabit when
humidity needs to be increased.
Russian tortoises like all reptilian herbivores require
daily exposure to UVB lighting.
A 5.0 ReptiSun bulb helps prevent and correct calcium
deficiency issues by simulating the effects of natural sun light.
UVB lights should be on for the duration of the day light
cycle which should be 12 hours a day.
All UVB bulbs must be no more than 18-20 inches away from
the tortoise directly overhead and no closer than 12 inches.
The bulb should be replaced every 6-12 months even if it is
still working to insure that the proper amount of UVB radiation is
No lighting is needed at night and is actually
are capable of seeing color as well as some infrared light.
The use of black lights, red lights, and blue lights
although marketed for reptiles can be stressful to some tortoises
and should be avoided. If
extra heat is needed an under tank heater or a ceramic heat
emitter which gives off no light can be used.
Reptile carpet or indoor/outdoor carpet with timothy hay on
top is a great substrate for the Russian tortoise.
The timothy hay offers enrichment, foraging, and a little
extra toe exercise as the tortoise maneuvers over the textured
terrain. The carpet
underneath is an excellent barrier between the tortoise and the
enclosure floor especially when under tank heaters or heat cable
is used for heating the enclosure.
Other substrates to consider are newspaper/newsprint and
paper towel especially for the younger tortoises to monitor
Russian tortoises are known diggers and a
“dig box” of just top soil (no additives) should be provided
to all tortoises. Great
care must be taken that the substrate in the box is kept clean and
changed weekly to prevent mold and excessive bacterial growth.
These boxes of dirt fulfill a natural need for the tortoise
while maintaining humidity in the cage.
The substrate should always be moist enough to clump
together but not moist enough that excess water drains out when
pressed together in an owner’s hands.
Spot cleaning of feces and uneaten food should be done
daily as needed and a full substrate change done every week or as
Russian tortoises are grazers by design ingesting any dry
and fresh grass, leaf, stalk, or flower they come across during
their daily foraging. Their
natural diet is high in fiber and low in protein.
A stable diet of broad leafy plants mixed with grasses
(timothy, orchard, meadow, etc) is necessary such as escarole,
green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, endive, romaine lettuce,
turnip greens, chicory, and mustard greens.
Dandelion greens tend to be a particular favorite of most
tortoises are crepuscular which means they are the most active in
the early morning and evening.
Feeding should be done in the early morning.
Fruit should be avoided in the Russian
tortoise diet as this is not natural to their diet.
Additions of fruit can cause bloat and should be avoided.
Flowers are an excellent alternative to fruit in the diet
and can be offered as incentive to handling.
Hibiscus, hostas, roses, and mulberry leaves are generally
relished and these treats are may be taken from an owners hand
SIGNS OF A SICK TORTOISE
Tortoises are especially susceptible to respiratory ailments
and nutritional deficiencies. Signs to watch for include lethargy,
bubbling from the nose, wheezing, swollen or closed eyes, lack of
appetite for more than 2-3 days, loose stools, soft shell or
abnormal shell growth or beak growth. Pictured below is a Russian
with multiple problems related to husbandry and nutrition.
Pictured below is a Russian
with infected submandibular glands. This is not to be
confused with aural (ear) infections. These glands are
located under the jaw. Any abnormal swellings or discharge
from the nostrils or mouth should be checked out by your
veterinarian right away. We have been seeing a lot of
tortoise herpes in the Mediterranean tortoises lately.
Thank you from
. Please call if you
have any questions 847-329-8709.
Sources and Suggested
Russian Tortoises (Complete Herp Care)
Pet Owner's Guide to the Tortoise
Tortoises: A Beginner's Guide to Tortoise
Highfield and Nadine