By Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Varieties and Natural Habitat
Also called the Horsefield’s Tortoise, the Afghan, the central Asian, the Steppe, or the four-toed tortoise, these animals are found in rocky deserts in Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, often at very high elevations. There, they live in large underground burrows, where they hibernate for many months during times of extremes in temperature.
These tortoises are commonly captured in the wild and imported into the U.S. for the domestic pet trade. They are also bred in small numbers in the U.S. and can be found for sale in pet stores. Several may be found, too, for adoption from rescue organizations across the U.S.
Russian Tortoise Care Level
With a relatively small size but big personality, the Russian Tortoise is one of the most popular tortoises kept as a pet. They are very active and responsive to their owners, and they make great first reptiles when cared for properly.
They are relatively easy to care for, relative to certain other reptile species, and have fairly long lifespans, often living for more than 40 years.
Russian Tortoise Size and Appearance
Born at about an inch in length, these tortoises may reach 8-10 inches-long when they are mature, with females being slightly larger than males.
The Russian Tortoise’s carapace (top part of the shell) ranges from a tan to yellow to olive color, with brown to black markings. The plastron (bottom shell) is either solid black or has blotches of brown or black. Their tail tip is hard and bony and longer in males, and their skin is tan to yellow colored. One unique feature that makes Russian Tortoises stand out from other tortoises is the presence of four claws on each foot – hence, their other known name, the “four-toed tortoise.”
Russian Tortoise Diet
Russian Tortoises are herbivores (plant eaters). They love to eat and generally prefer leafy greens. Ideally, they should consume a high fiber diet of hay, dark lettuces, and greens such as collards, kale, and turnip, mustard, and dandelion greens, along with various vegetables, including squash, corn, peppers, carrots, prickly pear cactus, and sweet potatoes. They also can have a small amount of fruit such as apples and berries. Russian Tortoises should not be fed nutrient-deficient iceberg lettuce, grains, or meat.
While commercially available pelleted diets exist for Russian Tortoises, many of them contain excess levels of starch and are not nutritionally balanced. Although opinions on supplementation differ, a varied vegetable-based diet supplemented with a light dusting of calcium powder containing vitamin D3 twice a week is preferable, especially if they are housed indoors with limited UV light exposure, or if they are growing or pregnant.
Adult, non-breeding tortoises housed outdoors with full UV exposure and fed a varied diet generally do not need regular calcium or vitamin supplementation.
Tortoises should be provided with water in shallow bowls in which they can soak to stay hydrated and which should be changed daily. Tortoises often defecate in their water bowls when they soak; thus, it may be better to soak pet tortoises outside of their enclosures a few times a week for half an hour to prevent having to change their drinking water more than once a day. Baby tortoises in particular suffer from dehydration at high temperatures and should be soaked three times per week in a shallow pan of warm water.
Russian Tortoise Health
Although Russian Tortoises are generally hardy reptiles, they can suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) parasites that cause diarrhea and weight loss and that may be transmittable to humans. Most GI parasites can be eliminated with medication once they are identified by a veterinarian in a fresh stool sample under the microscope. Russian Tortoises also commonly develop respiratory tract infections when they are housed in excessively cool or damp conditions or are fed improperly.
Growing tortoises housed without UV light or not provided with adequate calcium are subject to developing metabolic bone disease in which they have an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus in their bodies, leading to soft shells, bone fractures, severe weakness, and death if left untreated.
Finally, all reptiles, including Russian Tortoises, may carry Salmonella bacteria in their GI tracts. Salmonella bacteria is transmittable to people but does not typically cause problems in the tortoises. Thus, anyone handling a Russian Tortoise, or anything in its enclosure, should be sure to wash their hands thoroughly.
When to Take Your Russian Tortoises for Veterinary Care
Too commonly, reptile owners do not bring their pets in for regular, preventive medical check-ups because their animals appear healthy and problem-free. However, most medical problems in reptiles develop gradually, with signs of illness becoming apparent only late in the course of an illness, after the disease has progressed and often is no longer treatable.
All reptiles, including Russian Tortoises, should be checked by a reptile-savvy veterinarian when they are first obtained and then annually after that, even if they don’t appear sick. They should have a stool sample checked annually for parasites and typically should be dewormed if parasites are detected. They should also be weighed annually to ensure that they are growing properly, as full size may not be attained for many years.
Certainly, if your Russian Tortoise is lethargic, has diarrhea or is not eating, has discharge from its eyes or nose, or has difficulty breathing, it should be examined immediately. Reptiles get sick slowly and get better slowly, so the key to good reptile health is preventive care to avert disease and rapid intervention when illness does occur.
Supplies for the Russian Tortoise’s Environment
When climate permits, it’s best to house Russian Tortoises outside in large, penned-off areas containing tortoise-safe plants such as prickly pear, cassia, various grasses, and morning glory. For one to two adult tortoises, pens should be no smaller than 2’ x 4’, surrounded by walls at least a foot-high above ground and no less than half-a-foot embedded below ground to prevent burrowing and escape. Pens should also have large rocks at the edges to deter burrowing out, and since they like to climb, several flat rocks should also be provided in the enclosure.
When the temperature gets very low or high, Russian Tortoises housed outside often burrow underground to protect themselves. Their pens should have easy access to shade and water to prevent overheating and should contain wooden hide boxes, into which they can take cover when temperatures are too hot or cold.
If climate extremes do not allow for outdoor housing, Russian Tortoises can be kept indoors in large plastic tubs or glass aquariums. The bigger the enclosure, the better, with a minimum of five square feet per pair of tortoises. Enclosure walls should be at least 8inches high to prevent escape.
Substrates that allow for digging, such as paper-based bedding, peat moss, Cypress mulch, and coconut fiber are ideal. Sand, calcium-sand, and soil are generally not recommended substrates for Russians, as they are indigestible if consumed, can lead to gastrointestinal tract obstructions, and are very difficult to keep clean. In addition, substrate should be spot-cleaned daily to keep it free of discarded food and fecal material. Depending on what substrate is used and how many animals are living on it, it should be changed completely once a week to once every few weeks.
Heat and Light
If housed indoors, Russian Tortoises should be provided both warm and cool areas. Warmth can be maintained with ceramic heat lamps at daytime temperatures no lower than 70°F at the cool end of the enclosure, with a basking area kept at 90-100°F at the warm end. Night-time temperatures when the lights are off should not fall below the mid-50s°F. The basking area should contain an ultraviolet (UV) light as well, to mimic the sun and to enable tortoises to manufacture vitamin D in their bodies, which is essential to absorbing calcium from food. Alternatively, mercury vapor bulbs may be used to provide both heat and ultraviolet light in your tortoise’s habitat. Light sources can be kept on 12-14 hours per day.
While wild Russian Tortoises hibernate in response to temperature changes and food availability, there is no need for them to hibernate in captivity. Indeed, temperature and light exposure should remain constant all year long in captivity to deter hibernation.
Captive hibernating tortoises have slowed metabolisms and sub-optimal immune system function, predisposing them to infections and other diseases. Thus, despite seasonal climate changes, captive Russian Tortoises’ enclosure temperatures should be adjusted accordingly by adding or taking away heat to remain constant.