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Russian Tortoise Care Sheet

Discussion in 'Russian tortoises' started by Tom, Oct 11, 2013.

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  1. Tom

    Tom The Dog Trainer 5 Year Member

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    Russian tortoises have great personalities, are very hardy, tolerate a wide variety of enclosure parameters, stay small, and are generally a good "starter" tortoise in my opinion. Here is how I like to set them up:

    Indoor Enclosure type and size:
    Most people want to know the minimum size enclosure that they can keep their tortoise in. Instead, I say figure out the maximum! Russians are a very active species and wild ones cover a lot of ground in very large territories. Any normal tub or tank is going to be too small for an adult. GO BIG! I like a minimum of a 4x8' table for an adult. Babies are fine in 40-100 gallon tanks or tubs. Adults do well in open topped tables. I like a damp, natural substrate that they can dig into. Plain soil with no guano, perlite or other additives, orchid bark, cypress mulch and coco coir all work. These substrates can be bought in bulk at most hardware or garden centers at a tremendous savings over pet store prices. Regular dirt from your yard will work too, if its of a suitable composition. I don't like to use sand in any amount for Russians, or any other tortoise species. It can be a skin and eye irritant and an impaction risk. Damp substrate will help to maintain moderate humidity and allow them to dig in and create their own little microclimate. I also like to offer a humid hide box for them to sleep in and retreat to. This will really help to maintain hydration and good shell growth in an open topped table. For babies I like to use large tubs or tanks and partially cover the top to maintain 50-70% humidity. I also offer a humid hide and my substrate of choice for babies is about 3-4" of damp coco coir. I hand pack it down to reduce the messiness. I don't worry about what the humidity level is for adults, AS LONG AS they have a damp substrate that they can dig into and a humid hide to retreat to. All russians should have water available and I like to use appropriately sized terra cotta plant saucers sunk into the substrate for this purpose. They are shallow, low sided and offer good traction to wet tortoise feet. This type of bowl greatly reduces the chances of your tortoise "high-centering" or tipping over when entering or exiting the water dish. I use 4" saucers for babies and 12-14" ones for adults. Here are a couple of my indoor baby enclosures. Keep in mind that my area has very low humidity. These are somewhat plain, but functional:
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Outdoor enclosures:
    Again the bigger the better. Babies do fine in kiddie pools or 4x8' covered brick pens. Planter boxes with wire lids can work well too. There are a lot of examples of good ways to do this here on the forum. Here are two ways I have done it:
    http://tortoiseforum.org/thread-14680.html
    http://tortoiseforum.org/thread-30683.html
    Outside time is VERY beneficial, but there are some dangers to be aware of:
    1. Escape.
    Russians are very good climbers, diggers and all around escape artists. Design and build your enclosure accordingly.
    2. Heat.
    Guess what? The sun is very HOT! Make sure they have adequate shade at all times, or even better, build an underground retreat for them. Dig out a section of dirt and place a flower pot or piece of plywood with 2x4 sides and a back in the hole. Make a nice gently sloping ramp in the dirt for them and then pile lots of dirt on top of the shelter. On hot dry summer days, I will even pour a cup of water down there to give them some evaporative cooling. My dirt covered plywood shelters stay 85-90 degrees, even on 100+ degree days. Laying wood or something opaque on top of the wire cover of your enclosure is usually not going to be adequate. It still gets too hot under it. You need deep over head shade like from a tree, bushes or even an umbrella.
    3. Predation.
    Small tortoises can be mauled, eaten or stolen by whole host of predators, including your loving family dog. Please take proper precautions for your area and situation. Chicken wire will not stop most predators, but hardware cloth or welded wire will.
    4. Dehydration.
    If you live in a hot dry area, your enclosure has dry substrate, and you don't have a humid underground retreat of some sort, dehydration is a real danger. Make sure your tortoise has an appropriate shallow water bowl. The bowl must be somewhere shady so it doesn't overheat, and you must be sure that your tortoise is actually drinking from it. There are a wide variety of reasons why a tortoise might choose to not use its water bowl. Because of all these factors, I think it is a good idea to soak them in a warm shallow tub of water once or twice a week for adults, more for babies. If your tortoise is drinking on its own and didn't need to be soaked, it will harm nothing, and it will still give you a good opportunity to look them over and make sure all is good.

    Here is where I currently sun my babies. It does not have good over head shade, but it does have underground retreats. I monitor temps with remote probes very carefully.

    [​IMG]
    Here is the inside showing the hide and the babies. This pic was taken right after I finished making the hide. I have since added the water dishes, more furniture and decorations.
    [​IMG]

    I do NOT recommend letting your russian tortoise outside to run around without a proper enclosure. Many have been lost that way.



    Heating and lighting:
    If your tortoise gets regular sunshine for most of the year, you do not need any artificial indoor UV. An hour outside a couple of times a week is enough to meet their UV needs, but more is better. If your tortoise must live inside all the time, then I recommend long tube style florescent UV lights or mercury vapor bulbs. No reason you can't use both. Since my Russians do get sunshine all year, I just use 65 watt incandescent flood bulbs from the hardware store to meet my heating needs. I hang my fixture over one end of the enclosure and raise or lower it to get a basking spot of around 100. I hang my lights over a flat piece of slate or sandstone, which spreads the heat out a bit and allows them to get some safe belly heat while they bask. This can be used in conjunction with a long florescent UV tube, if needed. I don't use any other heat for Russians, and I let the temperature of the rest of the enclosure fade to room temp away from the single heat source. In most cases night heat for Russians is not necessary. Night temps in the 60s are fine as long as they can warm up the next day. If your Russian is trying to hibernate as fall approaches and you don't want it to, upping your temps (including the night temps), lengthening the days on your light timer and brightening the enclosure with more lights, are all ways to help convince them to stay up. For most Russian tortoises of any age, its really that simple. Put a 95-100 degree basking spot on one end for 12-14 hours a day and that's it.

    Soaking:
    Some tortoises need it. Some don't. None of them are harmed by it. I recommend babies be soaked several times a week. I like to taper it off as they gain size. Some people choose not to soak their Russian tortoises. This is fine IF you have an established adult tortoise who is comfortable in its environment, your enclosure is very well designed with many microclimates available, your humidity is adequate in your area, and a suitable water source is available and obviously used regularly. Are YOU sure you meet all those criterion? If you are not 100% sure, then there is no harm in soaking your tortoise once or twice a week. I live in a very dry area. We have hot temps and single digit humidity most of the year. Most of my tortoises have humid underground retreats, but I still soak them once or twice a week depending on the weather. I like to use opaque tubs and warm water about a third of the way up the shell for 20-30 minutes. Here is soaking time at my place: [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Diet:
    Russian tortoises need broadleaf weeds. You will need to learn about the weeds near you and which ones are okay to feed or not. Pics can be posted here on the forum in the "Plant ID" section, or you can take samples to a local nursery. Look for dandelion, sow thistle, mallow, filaree, hawksbit, and many more. If you are not 100% sure that your source is free of pesticides and other chemicals, don't feed anything from there.
    You can grow your own food too. Here is one of my favorites: http://www.tortoisesupply.com/TestudoMix
    I also get lots of seeds here: http://www.groworganic.com
    If you must use grocery store foods I like to favor spring mix, endive and escarole heavily. Also add in carrot tops, cilantro, mustard, turnip and collard greens, and lots of other leafy greens.
    It is a good idea to add a product called "Salad Style" to grocery store greens to add some fiber: http://www.tortoisesupply.com/salad-style-food-topper/
    This is a new food topper and I like it a lot so far: http://www.tortoisesupply.com/HerbalHay
    You can also feed them grape, mulberry and hibiscus leaves, tender young spineless opuntia cactus pads, Mazuri tortoise chow and ZooMed Grassland tortoise food. Alternating and mixing up any of these foods will give your russian a good diet and meet its nutritional needs.

    Supplements:
    I like to have cuttle bone available for them to munch on at will. I also sprinkle some "MinerAll" on the babies food a couple of times a week and a reptile vitamin supplement once a week. I don't think adult males need any supplementation if they are getting a good varied diet, but I like to supplement egg laying females and babies with a pinch of calcium carbonate powder once or twice a week. I usually use either the ZooMed or RepCal brands.

    Hibernation:
    This is a controversial subject that deserves its own thread. Some people choose to do it, and some don't. If you do it, spend some time learning all about it first, and try to find a "mentor" who has experience successfully hibernating Russian tortoises themselves. If you don't do it, make sure your temps and lighting are all set up and adjusted appropriately for the season. Different people will have to make adjustments depending on where in the country they live and how the weather is at any given time, whether hibernating or not.

    What about "friends"?:
    Russian tortoise are a very scrappy, combative, territorial species. They do not generally want or need any cage mates and they do not get "lonely". They do best alone. Pairs almost never work for very long, regardless of sexes or ages. Groups can sometimes be maintained with careful observation and caution. Usually males are the bullies, but females will often get into the fray too with this species. Babies will usually get a long in groups, and adults will usually be okay with one male and several females. Very large outdoor enclosures with lots of sight barriers and hiding places usually help, but do not guarantee success. There are many forum members that will tell you how they've had to separate individuals out of their groups, both male and female, that refused to get along with others. It happens. Basically, if you decide to keep more than one russian, have a plan to separate them at any time. Don't wanna maintain two or three enclosures? Then don't buy more than one russian. :)


    This care sheet is intended to offer helpful guidelines and share my experiences with Russians over the years. They are a very adaptable species and will tolerate all sorts of care regimes. Every enclosure and every area is different and each enclosure will require some "fine tuning" to get things just right. It is my hope that typing all of this out will help someone successfully set up their first russian enclosure or improve their existing one, and better the life of russian tortoises in general.
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