Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Tortoises are among the most highly-desired of reptile pets, but their care is fraught with difficulties, and captive death rates remain surprisingly high. The plucky Russian, Horsefield’s or Central Asian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldi) is often promulgated as an ideal “first tortoise”.
A Cold Hearty Tortoise?
In many regards this is true. Unlike most of its relatives, the little Russian tortoise is quite cold hearty. Its range (three subspecies) extends from the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan to western China and south to Iran, and encompasses some very cold regions. Tortoises living in the north may be active for a mere three months each year.
Living on Little
The Russian tortoise’s adaptation to a Spartan diet also suits it to captivity. Generally, it subsists upon dry grasses, with only limited access to flowers, herbaceous plants and fruits. Individuals in some populations rarely encounter standing water.
Size also recommends the Russian tortoise as a pet…it tops out at 8.8 inches, and many are considerably smaller.
Nearly round in profile, the Russian tortoise is pleasantly colored in light to yellowish brown, and patterned with dark blotches.
For all of the above reasons, it is a Russian tortoise that is often taken home by those new to tortoise-keeping. Unfortunately, thousands perish each year, often because their owners were initially supplied with misleading advice.
Space and Cage Style
Despite their small size, Russian tortoises are far more active than other reptiles…even the largest of glass aquariums is inadequate. You must think in terms of a 4-6’ x 4-6’ enclosure.
Glass aquariums, unless ventilated via fan, also do not provide sufficient air flow. As humidity rises, respiratory problems are a near certainty.
Ideally, these tortoises should be housed outdoors throughout the warmer months. Outdoor bird aviaries work well, although you may need to install an opaque, plastic barrier along the lower wall edge to prevent climbing. If you must keep your tortoise indoors, a custom-build enclosure is needed (please write in for details).
Indoors or out, Russian tortoises require deep, dry substrates – grass and moist soil will not do. A mix of sandy soil and oyster shell is ideal. If unable to construct nighttime sleeping pallets (excavations), Russian tortoises become stressed and subject to dehydration-related disorders.
Pros and Cons
With proper care, the Russian tortoise can indeed be a most responsive and long-lived pet. However, they are by no means animals to be purchased lightly. Please consider your abilities carefully, and write in if you have any questions whatsoever.
I hesitate to discourage responsible people from keeping these fine animals…tortoises ranging from the tiny South African padloper to the massive giants of Aldabra and the Galapagos Islands have provided me with some of my most memorable herp-keeping experiences. Yet I hesitate to paint too rosy a picture. Please write in regarding your specific situation, and I’ll do my best to advise you appropriately.
The Russian tortoise owner must also take into consideration those other factors critical to the care of all tortoises – diet, UVA/UVB exposure, humidity levels, etc.. We’ll take a look at these and other subjects in future articles. Until then, please write in with your questions and comments. Thanks, Frank Indiviglio.
Please check out A Complete Guide to Russian Tortoises in our Reptile Books Department.
An interesting article detailing the natural history of Russian tortoises in a harsh environment is published in the journal Ecography at