The Russian Tortoise 
Agrionemys horsfieldii ( Testudo horsfieldii)  

The Russian Tortoise Care Sheet

 (click here for a printer friendly version)

Russian Tortoise in tortoise heaven!

This is a small species. Adult females are 8-10". Males 6-8". With proper care they should out live their owners. There is a lot of conflicting information about the Russian Tortoise. I feel that this is due in part to the fact that they are very adaptable. This allows them to survive in many conditions. However the goal is to provide them with optimal environments. This is somewhat limited in captivity. The following should help.

Check Ups:

 When you get your tortoise, it is highly recommended that you take your pet for a check up. Most Russians are wild caught. And while yours may appear to be healthy (click here to learn how to select a "healthy" tortoise) the stress of being brought home and placed in strange surrounding may cause a hidden problem to surface. This is true even with long term wild caught and captive born animals. Make sure the Vet measures and weighs your tort. Also request a fecal to check for parasites. To see what may be hidden in your tortoise click here.


Russian Tortoises are grazers and enjoy broad leaf plants. The best diet is a variety of weeds (leaves and flowers). Dandelion is a favorite. For detailed diet information: for a list of edible plants: and  


Unfortunately, many believe that tortoises naturally acquire almost all of their fluid requirements from its food and that therefore they do not require additional drinking water. Russians tortoises are indeed adapted to a semi-arid environment and its system of eliminating waste via uric acid rather than via urea is clear evidence of this. Uric acid can be eliminated using substantial lower levels of water wastage than can systems based on urea, such as those of mammals. Therefore, tortoises, such as Russians, eliminate nitrogenous waste products with far greater water conservation. Its behavior is also programmed to reflect this need not to waste precious water. The semi-solid, white deposits are expelled urates. Tortoises are programmed not to use water in the bladder and to eliminate urates only if replenishment is available. Depriving the tortoise of water will result in urates being accumulated and quite often to dangerous levels. During a rain tortoises will often drink and urinate simultaneously. This behavior can be stimulated in hot weather by lightly spraying the tortoise with a garden hose.

In the wild, during hot and rain-free summers, aestivation or semi-aestivation occurs. There are several factors that will lead to aestivation. Lack of food and environmental water are major factors, as is temperature. During aestivation periods tortoises maintain themselves below ground, in burrows which provide a stable microclimate. In these burrows temperatures are much lower than those above ground and the relative humidity is very much higher. Combined with reduced activity, these factors result in a vastly reduced rate of fluid loss via exhalation and little or no need to urinate and prevent dehydration.

In a captive situation, many tortoises are not provided with a microclimate and easily become dehydrated, especially when water is not provided for drinking.


There are many choices. From the simple to the very elaborate. I will review some of the more common cages.

Aquariums: Aquariums are often recommended by pet shop employees. However, they are unsuitable for tortoises. Because of the shape (too tall and narrow) air circulation is poor. They are also hard to keep at the proper temperatures. They are heavy and hard to clean The clear sides are also stressful to the tortoise. They don't understand the concept of glass and will continually try to go through it. If you must use an aquarium, the minimum size is 75 gallon. It must be fitted with a circulating fan and a visual barrier.

Rubbermaid storage containers: These are an inexpensive indoor pen. The 50 gallon container is an ideal starting point for one tortoise. They are light and easy to clean. They are opaque so the animal can't see out. The best part is....they only cost $15 ! Keep in mind that bigger is better. I use this as a temporary set up for when I have to keep one inside. IMPORTANT: this setup keeps the humidity at around 60%. As the substrate dries out it is critical to add water. Don't let it get dry and dusty !!!  Sand alone makes a very poor substrate. Click on the picture to view it full size RubberMaid Start with a 50 gallon storage container.


A simple pen made from a Rubbermaid™  storage bin
(click on the photo to view full size)

Rubbermaid picture

RubberMaid: Start with a 50 gallon storage container. I bought this at Target for $12.99

Rubbermaid label

sand picture

Play sand from Home Depot $1.89
coir brick

Soak it in a gallon of hot water
until fully expanded.

the mix

One "brick" of coir and an equal volume of play sand by weight (about 2" deep)
clamp light

Basking light: This is a heavy duty clamp light with a ceramic socket. Notice I also use an additional clamp for safety. The bulb is a 100 watt Zoo Med Powersun.

The end product.


Reptariums: The 100 gallon and larger reptariums make great pens. I was first introduce to them by Tae on the Russian Tortoise Ya Hoo group. They have great ventilation. Pictures can be seen at Tae's setup click here You can also get a plastic liner that allows you to use a variety of substrates.

Build your own: This is by far the most versatile way to go if you plan on keeping the tortoise indoors. A popular choice is the Tortoise Table

Outdoor pens:  Outdoor pens are by far the best option. The tortoises get the benefit of sunshine (for the synthesis of Vit D3) and exercise. A pen can also be planted with a variety of edible weeds and plants (edible landscaping).  It is very important to keep in mind that Russians are escape artist. When building a pen a barrier must be dug around the perimeter at least 8" deep...deeper if the soil is easy to dig. They are amazing climbers. The pen should be a foot high with an in facing lip. Pay special attention to corners. Also of concern is predators. Raccoons are particularly notorious for getting into pens and eating turtles.

It is also important to provide a warm dry retreat. I have done this by using a Rubbermaid deck box. I mounted a ceramic heat emitter in the lid (hooked up to a thermostat) and cut a hole in the side. My Russians use this instead of digging a burrow. Deck Box Photos

More ideas can be found at  Indoor and Outdoor Enclosures

Substrates: Once again there are many choices. The ideal is considered to be a 50/50 mix of sand and garden loam. Since garden loam is hard to find here, I substitute coconut coir. For me this works well. Others have used peat moss....but it tends to be too dusty.

Keep in mind that the substrate shouldn't be bone dry. In the wild they live in very arid conditions. But their burrows have up to 70% humidity!

Other poor choices are: newspaper (easy to clean); rabbit pellets (tend to dehydrate the tort and are about the worst of the substrates). Also can get moldy fast if wet.); Care Fresh bedding (a recycled newspaper product in a pellet form) Alfalfa hay is too high in protein (torts love to nibble on it).

For more information visit Substrate.

Temperature: Temperature is critical for a healthy tortoise. The pen should have a cool end with the temps in the low 70's and a basking spot at 90-95°F. Night time temperature drops are needed. Mine do well with temps that drop down into the 60's at night. If they are kept too cool they can't digest their food. Too warm and they stop eating and aestivate (sort of like suspended animation).

Invest in a good thermometer with a probe. You can get one at Radio Shack for 20 bucks. Don't take chances by could end up with a cooked tortoise! Don't use heat rocks or under the tank heaters.

Humidity: Humidity is an important consideration with Russian tortoises. It is also very misunderstood. There are those that claim that high humidity will cause shell rot and respiratory infection. This is only partially true. High humidity, damp substrate AND cool temperatures cause problems. In the wild they live in fairly arid conditions although I have read some reports that they are often found near streams and small lakes. They cope with low humidity by digging long burrows where the humidity is as high as 70%.

In the typical indoor pen, with basking lights, air conditioning and dry substrates, humidity is often extremely low. Dehydration is a very real risk. When I must keep mine indoors I soak them at least weekly in chin deep....luke warm water. When kept outdoors, I keep clean water in the pens at all times (though I rarely see them drink). I also give them a very dry "house" and water the opposite side of the pen. This way they have a choice of micro-climates.

Lighting: Currently the best lighting is the Zoo Med Powersun . These are used extensively in zoo's. The 100 watt flood is the most commonly used. While they do put out heat you may need to add a ceramic heat emitter to get the right temperature. Also make sure to get a good clamp on light fixture with a ceramic socket that is rated for the wattage bulb you buy. The preferred fixture is the deep dome lamp fixture by Flukers or  Zoo Med'

An alternative is the Reptisun 10.0 straight tube. But since it doesn't give off heat you will also need a basking light such as the ESU Reptile Basking Spot BrightLight Incandescent Bulbs. Keep in mind that these bulbs should be replaced every 6 months.

There are many other bulbs out there. There is a basking light that provides UVA. But this doesn't have the UVB. There are colored bulbs...again no UVB. If it doesn't specifically say "UVB" it doesn't have it.

Keep the lights on 12-14 hours a day.

Hibernation:  Hibernation is a much debated topic. In the wild Russian tortoises hibernate up to 9 months of the year. In captivity they appear to benefit from as little as 8 weeks in hibernation.

Before considering hibernation, its important that you are absolutely sure its in good health. Have it checked by a vet and be sure to check for parasites. If there are parasites, or the animal is too light.....then don't attempt hibernation. There are many that I have talked to that don't hibernate there animals and haven't observed any negative consequences. I did not hibernate mine for the first 5 years. Its really not worth the risk if you are unsure of what you are doing.

Currently I hibernate mine outdoors. I have a heated "house" .....actually a Rubbermaid deck box with a ceramic heat emitter hooked up to a thermostat to keep the temps between 40-45°F. This works well for me since the temperatures here rarely stay below freezing.

My animals usually slow down on feeding in the fall. I find that in November they will start eating small twigs and dried oak leaves. I suspect this is to clean out their intestinal tracts.

In December they start digging in. They typically come out of hibernation in March.

For those that live in colder (or warmer climates) refrigerator hibernation is a great option. Here is a great article by Shelly Jones. Hibernation Journey , She is a member of the Russian Tortoise YaHoo group.

For more information and to talk to many that are hibernating their tortoises Click to subscribe to Russian Tortoise                                      

For supplies specific to Russian Tortoises visit Carolina Pet Supply




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