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The Russian or Horsefield’s Tortoise: an Ideal “First Tortoise”?

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.

Some Cautions

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).

Environmental Conditions

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.

Further Reading

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



  1. avatar

    Thank you for all of your advice it has been very beneficial. If I have anymore questions I will be sure to ask you.

  2. avatar

    My son really wants a turtle/tortoise for his birthday. He will be turning 8 and he is actually a very responsible pet owner. I have done some research and found that most turtles available will bite and he won’t be able to hold them. I came across the russian tortoise and that seemed like it might be a good fit. I am am concerned about an enclosure for the tortoise. I was planning on having it live in my son’s room but it sounds like that won’t be enough room. Any suggestions?

    • avatar

      Hi Kristin,

      Tortoises do need space and quite a bit of specialized care; if you decide on one, a Russian would be best. One of the American Box Turtle species might be better…rare;y bite, need space but a bit less than tortoises, can be allowed to roam safe areas outside the cage. Hatchlings are available from breeders, easier to house for first few years. Please see this article for care info and let me know if you have any ques. All species are protected by law, so you’ll need to purchase a captive bred animal. You can find sources here.. Musk turtles are the best choice for an aquatic species. Like most, they bite at first when disturbed but settle in well..mine is 42 yrs old now! Handling really should be done only to move the animal, check for injuries etc. Some species will tolerate handling, but they do not “get anything” from it as might a dog or parrot, and it is very stressful for many. Best, Frank

  3. avatar

    The American Box Turtle is a little bigger than I want. We have a pool so backyard roaming is not an option. Maybe the musk turtle would be a better option for him at this point. I am very concerned with making a humane environment so I don’t want to stick a tortoise in an area it won’t be happy. Do you think he could keep the musk turtle in his room?

    • avatar

      An adult common musk can be kept in a 20-30 gallon aquarium; hatchlings are quarter-sized, very active and fun to rear. Several species are bred in captivity; all except 1 are small and easy to manage; mud turtles are closely related and require similar care. Please let me know if you need more info, links to suppliers, etc. Frank

  4. avatar

    Hi again Frank,
    I have decided to go with common musk turtle. Can you tell me what I need to set its tank up? I know a 30 gallon aquarium. I have read that I need a stronger filter than a 30 gallon to keep the water clean. Is this true? I know the water needs a heater and I will need a basking area with a heat lamp. Can you help me with the rest?
    Thank you!

    • avatar

      Hi Kristin,

      Good choice, you’ll enjoy. If you feed outside the tank (move turtle to a plastic sweater box, etc) it will be easier to keep water clean. Please see this article http://bit.ly/Vwvgnt clarity ffor details. This article describes some useful filters http://bit.ly/t6H0N5; the supreme ovation is easiest to service and comes in a size suitable for a 30 gallon. Water need only be heated to 74F or so in winter, heater not needed in summer; UVB not needed; most bask only rarely or not at all (at least not by leaving water, but good to position a 50 wt incandescent bulb over the land area in case. The PennPlax Turtle Pier is the best basking site…put bulb so that it warms ramp area as well as actual dry area, in case turtle want’s to bask while in shallow water. The info in this article is useful re general considerations, diet http://bit.ly/AzhWlX, (but musks do not need UVB and take little if any plant food, so ignore that advice); reptomin and freeze dried shrimp can form basis of diet, but add plenty of small whole minnows, which will provide Calcium and earthworms, occ. crickets; live blackworms if available. Enjoy and pl keep me posted, Frank

      supreme ovation http://bit.ly/t6H0N5

  5. avatar

    Hi I know it is best to feed a horsefield tortoise weeds and flowers firm outside but at times that isn’t possible what us the beast salad bag I can buy from the shop? Or anything that I could feed her from the shops?

    • avatar


      There are many types of produce that can be used; please see the note under “Feeding, desert/Grassland Species” in this article. In addition you can add dandelion, collared greens, sprouts, bok choy (small amounts of this) and others not listed as problematical in the article. Strive for as much variety as is possible. Pl let me know if you need further info, Best, Frank

  6. avatar

    Thanks for all the information. I do have another question. I have purchased the filter, heater and basking pier. What is the best substrate for the musk turtle? Do I need more areas for it to hide beside the pier?

    • avatar

      Hi Kristin,

      My pleasure, Best to use no substrate; turtles are messy, even when fed outside the tank. Substrate prevents the filter from picking up much of the waste, and contributes to poor water quality. With a bare-bottomed tank, you can see debris and scoop it up with a fine meshed-net (those sold as brine shrimp nets are esp useful). Turtles may also swallow gravel when feeding, which can result in blockages (not common, but possible).

      A shelter is useful, glad you brought it up. The pier will be enough for some individuals, but best to provide another as well, esp. for smaller specimens. A broken crockery flower pot with rough edges sanded or otherwise smoothed down is ideal. Most reptile shelters are designed for use on land, and so may leach harmful substances into the water (no evidence either way); those market for tropical fish are usually too small. I like to use 1/2 of a pot, so that there is an opening at front and back, allowing the turtle to exit easily. be sure to check size, watch that the turtle does not get stuck when you first introduce. Enjoy, pl keep me posted, Best, Frank

  7. avatar

    Hi Frank,
    Our turtle arrived. My son named him Shelly. 🙂 He is about the size of a quarter. I was wondering about feeding. How often should he be fed? We put him in a container yesterday and tried to feed him but he had no interest. Will it take a few days to become accustomed to his new home? I have the pellets and the freeze dried shrimp.

    • avatar

      Hi Kristin,

      Hatchling musk turtles are on the menu of everything from giant water bugs and frogs to larger fish and herons, and so tend to be very shy at first; shipment is also very stressful. be sure it has hiding spots and do not disturb for awhile; no need to worry about it starving, they are very efficient at utilizing their reserves, altering metabolism to suit needs.

      pre-killed guppies and live blackworms, if available, are great favorites and sometimes help to get them started (guppies impt as a calcium source in any event), but pellets/shrimp should be accepted once it settles in. Please keep me posted, Frank

  8. avatar

    Hi Frank

    I have a male Russian tortoise approximately 5 years old. He used to be a voracious eater, but recently hasn’t been eating much. I haven’t really changed his diet and I feed him various types of lettuce and other greens, sometimes sprinkled with bits of fruit. He has a 3ftx1.5ft enclosure with hot and cold zones. The hot zone is around 90F and the cold one around 70F. He has a log to hid under. His shell looks nice and shiny and his eyes are not cloudy either. I soak him in lukewarm water once a week.
    What might be the problem with him? He has become very inactive lately and doesn’t eat much.

    Appreciate your help.


    • avatar

      Hi Ashish,

      When behavior changes suddenly like that, when no changes have been made to diet, enclosure, etc., then a medical problem is likely…an internal infection (lung, digestive, etc), perhaps a blockage from something that has been swallowed; also, parasites that may not have been a problem can build up in numbers if not treated, and can weaken the animal over time. The only way to diagnose the problem is via a visit to an experienced reptile vet, as the symptoms you mention are associated with a wide range (almost all) of ailments. Please let me know if you need help in locating a vet.

      best, Frank

  9. avatar

    Hi… Ive bought an hosfield tortoise around 5 days ago… Its around 2 years old, and its settling very well. Today ive notice something which im not sure its normal or not. My tortoise twice whenever was approaching something it made scared noise, and at the same time put its head completely into shell. Is that normal?? Can it be breathing problems or it gets scared of something??? Thank u for ur help …

    • avatar

      Hi Monika,

      They hiss when frightened…nothing to be concerned about and will lessen as animal adjusts. Wheezing/whistling during normal breathing is usually a sign of respiratory distress and requires attention. Pl let me know of you need more info, enjoy, Frank

  10. avatar

    Thank u very much for ur last reply… The hissing stopped but im facing another problem with him… Basically he started making noise when breathing out… Its very quiet but ive noticed it when bathing him… Another thing is that there was something pinkish in his urine in water and on a top of that he also have something slight pink on his throat when head and throat meets… Im really scared it might be some kind of injury or overeating…??? Im taking him to vet … Thanks!

  11. avatar

    My 2yr old Russian tortoises she’ll is turning yellow between the plates. Why? Is it growth? Her diet is mainly mixed greens, ie: romaine,kale, an other lettuce varieties with the occasional carrott, radish.

  12. avatar

    Hi there,

    We have a 2 yr old male russian tortoise. We just got him and changed his bedding for the first time. I bought him the ground coconut fiber. He had bark. I don’t think he likes it. He has been sleeping in the corner where his basking light is not in his den. He is starting to worry my daughter. I did buy bark for him and we have plans to change out the coconut fibers tomorrow. He is eating and is active just won’t sleep in his den. any thought? Thanks Penny

  13. avatar

    Is there a type of tortoise I can get for a 20gal long tank?

  14. avatar

    Or would a 20gal tank be fine for a Russian tortoise? I could take it out and let it walk around my backyard and bedroom. I have a dog and cats so I would have to watch it. I have a guinea pig play pen for my guinea pig that has metal bars that are vertical so he/she couldn’t climb with extra metal bars my dad attached but those bars are horizontal so it’s climbable.I have a heating lamp from my leopard gecko he doesn’t use it be austere got him a heating pad for under his tank. If the 20gal tank won’t work I might get a skink, a bearded dragon, or some other type of reptile from my pet store.

  15. avatar

    Hi, Frank. I’m about to get a tortoise and I’m wondering about the pen. Is there a specific type of habitat that’s really good for a tortoise? Also, what kind of food would you reccomend? Thanks, Liam

  16. avatar


    I have a horsefield who I am told is 2 years old. He weighs in at 45 grams. Does this seem ok to you?

    • avatar

      Hello Jenny,

      Growth rate is influenced by a great many factors…seems light, but individuals vary, and diet, temperature, health, sex all play a role. No need to attempt to force growth at this point; please feel free to post details re diet, temperatures, UVB exposure etc, in case any changes might be useful. Best, Frank

  17. avatar

    Hi Frank,
    I am so excited to have found this blog! My husband and I just purchased a Russian Tortoise for my son two days ago. After reading through your articals and the questions / answers on this blog I have discovered that we were told very wrong information! All of my questions have been answered (for the most part) but I am curious to know if we need to keep a water bowl in his habitat with him. Or is just the soaking twice a week good enough?

    Thank you for your time!

  18. avatar

    We just got a Russian Tortoise on Sunday. I don’t think he has eaten yet, but he is pooping and peeing. Should I be concerned about him not eating?


    • avatar

      Hello Cara,

      Please send details so that I can check if anything may be affecting appetite: diet offered, size of turtle and enclosure, day/night temperatures, UVB exposure;

      Best regards, Frank

  19. avatar

    Thank you Frank! Your knowledge is so helpful! We really appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions. About how much should we be handling our little guy? We let him roam on the floor a few hours each night until we can get his new home built and the correct substrate put in. Is that okay?

    Thank you,

    • avatar

      Hello Holly,

      Exercise time is a great idea; as for handling, as long as it doesn’t seem to stress the animal, it’s entirely up to you (other than warmth on a cold day for a reptile, any benefit from handling is to handler only..sorry to say!). Best, frank

  20. avatar

    Good morning Frank! I’m having a hard time finding the proper substrate for our Russian Tortoise. I’ve read that pine bark was good but the best was sand and oyster shells. Where do I find that? It there a mix or do I purchase it separate? Also, this turtle is not interested in eating anything but baby Kale and a spring mix (that contains spinach, read that wasn’t good for him). I’ve purchase the supplement that you suggest in your article but he is not interested??? Any other suggestions?


    • avatar

      Hello Holly,

      Pine bark is not ideal for this species (retains moisture, and difficult to burrow into); you can use a sand designed for reptiles, i.e. see here, or regular playground/construction type sand; mix in some topsoil as well…i.e. 25% of the mixture. Oyster shell is available at outdoor garden supply outlets, but is bot necessary. Sand is marketed as edible, but it’s best to feed in large bowl so as to limit ingestion.

      Please see also these articles on tortoise care and diet; Russians are covered as a grassland species.

      Keep the tortoise hungry and mix items well in order to encourage it to try other foods…see notes re commercial pellets also, which can be mixed into salads. Please feel free to send info on temperatures and UVB exposure, as both will affect appetite. Best, Frank

  21. avatar

    Hi frank, I just recently got a red claw emperor and put him in with one other emperor (black) and that night I noticed they must of gotten into a fight. The claw of my red emperor has a Crack across the front , almost like a long scratch .. my question is.. will it heal? And being that that are both emperors. . Shouldn’t they get along? Thanks

    • avatar

      Hello Ken,

      The injury should heal fine w/o any care.

      The red claw may be a different species or subspecies (many are sold under the same trade names) but even among the same species, it can be difficult to introduce new individuals. They are social in the wild, but only within a known group, generally related. Also, captive conditions change everything…in small terrariums, fights are common. Best to keep apart, and make any future intros carefully. best, Frank

  22. avatar

    Hi Frank,
    We purchased a UVB 100 Repitle light from the pet store that sold us our Russian tortoise (Spike). We have it at one end of the habitat along with a heat lamp. The room temperature is kept at 68-70 degrees. We have had him for 1 week now and in the beginning he would bury himself or stay under the log we have for him but now I have noticed he is all out under the heat lamp several times a day. We are working on the substrate today so for now he is in a storage tub (also recommended by the pet store). We built a 6′ X 23″ X 1′ box out of wood for him. Large enough? Enough light? We are in Indiana so the availability of some of the plants are limited. You refer to their food as “salad”…it is okay to buy a few on the list and mix them in together right? Along with the commercial food?

    Thanks for all of your help!

    • avatar

      Hi Holly,

      My pleasure, glad info is useful,

      Cage size would be fine;

      Yes, mix greens and pellets, vary often and watch that it does not pick out favs.

      The critical temps are those within cage…under the heat lamp and at the cool end; please send info re this.

      Please let me know UVB bulb manufacturer, as they all use different number designations, and the distance from bulb to tortoise.

      Best, Frank

  23. avatar

    We have given him collard greens, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, kale, broccoli, just trying a variety of food. We even tried hay. He is about 4 inches. we are using a Rubbermaid 50 gallon container. Day temp 80 night temp 65-70, we use a basking heat lamp and UVB lamp 14hours per day.
    He still has not eaten as far as we can see. But he did have some poop.
    Any advice is great! Thanks.

    • avatar

      Hi cara,

      Be sure the basking sites is set at 90-95 F, as they need to warm up above 80F for normal activity etc. If the UVB is florescent , keep within 6-12 inches of the animal. It should have a secure hiding place and should not be handled until feeding well, to avoid stress. Soak 2-3 times weekly 2 encourage drinking and defecation. Try warming up a bit at night also…65-70 F is generally fine, but best to keep warmer until you are sure it is healthy and feeding. A vet exam would be in order if the animal is warm enough, able to hide etc and does not begin feeding soon. Please let me know if you need anything, frank.

  24. avatar

    Hi Frank! We are still in search of top soil to mix in with the sand that you suggested, we are just thawing out here in Indiana and most of our garden stores are slow in getting the product on the shelves. In the meantime…since our Russian Tortoise has been in his new environment I have only seen him burrow once (under his log)…he mainly stays out of his shell and in the light…are we to be shutting that off at night? Also, how many times a day to we feed this little guy? I have green leaf lettuce, romaine, bokchoy and kale that I have mixed together and we feed him at least once if not twice a day. On the days we soak him I mix the petstore food in with the greans. We soak him 3 times a week…I was trying to do 20 minutes each time but he wants to climb out of the bowl…his stools are good but he is turning green around his mouth…is that normal? Also, I noticed some dry skin on his head and his front right leg…I call it his “armpit”. Do they shed? I just want to make sure the little guy is happy!


    • avatar

      Hi Holly,

      Temps at night should stay at 70 F or above..they can take lower, but 70 or above is safest. Better to use a red bulb or ceramic heater at night, so as not to disturb the dark/light cycle. Some keep them with light 24 hrs day, but this is not ideal.

      They can be fed every other day, or smaller meals once daily, but best to insert at least 1 fast day per week. Within reason, they adjust to a wide variety of feeding schedules..can adjust metabolism somewhat.

      They shed bits of skin and scutes (carapace scales). The green may just be dried food, etc..I’ve not seen that. Best, Frank

  25. avatar

    As far as the temps you asked about…cool end is 65 and the warm end with the lights is around 85-90. I had thermometers hanging but this guy keeps knocking them down. I know you asked about the details of the UVB but I can’t seem to find any information on it. Any suggestions on what brand to use?

  26. avatar

    I can’t remember the last time my Russian tortoise pooped…i want to say it has been close to about two months. He is just about a year old, but I’ve only had him since August. His behavior hasn’t changed since I noticed that he hasn’t been pooping. Certain days he is very active and others he stays in his little log house and sleeps all day. His eating habits are normal. I feed him spring mix, cabbage, romaine lettuce, broccoli, hibiscus, and occasionally some carrots. He did go through a period of hibernation where he stayed in his house and slept and didn’t eat for a long time but i know that is normal. I am not sure what to do for him. Is this normal? I don’t want to waste money on a visit to a vet if everything is ok. Please help!

  27. avatar

    I have a three year old Russian tortoise, she is very sweet and friendly. I just recently found out that iceberg lettuce is not good for her. Will she get sick be use I have been feeding her mainly iceberg. I hope she will be okay,

    • avatar

      Hi Emily,

      Feed as described in this article…wild plants are a good food source, but you need not worry about that if you cannot ID them right now, can work up to that in time. Lettuce fed as the main diet long term will lead to severe nutritional deficiencies, but in and of itself will not make the tortoise ill. Best, Frank

  28. avatar

    I bought my Russian tortoise from a PetSmart and they said mulch is ok for a “ground” is that true? If not, what is best for her terrarium?

  29. avatar

    I have a pair of 9 year old horsfield tortoise who have the whole garden to roam round in the summer, in the winter they come in the house and roam around the house, in the winter months they spend weeks without eating or drinking even with access to food and do a lot of sleeping , i have seen on Tortoise Groups on Facebook that they hibernate there tortoises in fridges , i much prefer my idea of letting them sleep and have access to food and drink when ever they want even if they don’t take, what are your thought of putting tortoise in plastic boxes in fridge to hibernate

    • avatar


      Thanks for the interesting note…I’ve had a number of species – tortoises and well as other reptiles., amphibs, do the same. There are many factors involved, from ambient temps to natural circadian rhythms, but if all has gone well I would continue as you’ve been doing. Chilling in frig or basements etc is not w/o risks. Keeping animals as you mention poses the risk of an infection/illness occurring while the animal’s immune system is not working at full capacity – due to temps, low nutrient intake etc, but I would say still preferable to chilling them down. Let me know if anything changes – typical house temps in winter etc, and we can review, best, Frank

  30. avatar

    Hello, we have a male horsefield tortoise, approx 5/6 years old.he has always been healthy but recently his urine is slightly pink. This happened a few days after giving him red pepper and stopped for a few days. However it has just started again. He is absolutely fine except this. He usually eats romaine lettace. Any thoughts would be much appreciated. Thanks.

    • avatar


      It would be best to have the animal checked for an infection /blood in urine. Let me know if you need help locating an experienced vet.

      Please note that romaine alone is not an adequate diet…please let me know if you need info on nutrition, best, frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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