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Keeping Russian Tortoises

Russian tortoises are a popular animal in the pet trade. Always get a captive bred animal.
Russian tortoises are a popular animal in the pet trade. Always get a captive bred animal.
Aaron Shiller

The Russian tortoise or Horsfield’s tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii), is a popular pet because of its relative small size. Keeping these tortoises in Maryland is fairly easy because they do not come from tropical habitats like many other species.

Although small, they do need a lot of space to move around. A tortoise table, plastic container or cage 4 ft. x 2.5 ft x 1 ft. is a good size for an adult. Females get about 8-10” and males are smaller, at 6-8”. Russian tortoises are long-lived, up to 75 years. Make sure you really want one before you get one.

Russian tortoises can be kept in groups, but only one male should be in the group. Males will fight if housed in the same enclosure. One animal will do fine on its own.

Peat moss, finely shredded cypress mulch or shredded coconut bark are recommended substrates. Soil can also be used if it is free of pesticides. By mixing in sand, the substrate will hold more moisture.

The water bowl is an important piece of cage furniture. There are bowls specifically made for tortoises that allow them to walk up a ramp to reach the water. Tortoises use their water bowl more often as a toilet and less often for drinking, so change the water often.

Remove any waste when you see it in the cage. Tortoises eat a lot and defecate a lot too. Keep it clean and your tortoise will stay healthier.

The tortoise needs to have a place to get away where it can feel safe and secure. A hide box can be a hollow half-log or even a small cardboard box with a hole cut in the side of it. Tortoises tend to “redecorate,” so the hide box may need to be secured to keep it in place.

Russian tortoises like temperatures from 70-80° F with a basking spot between 90-95°F. At night, temperatures can go as low as 60° F. Tortoises need UV light to avoid medical issues. Light coming in through a window is not acceptable. Once it passes through glass or plastic, the UV is filtered out.

In captivity, Russian tortoises eat Romaine lettuce, red and green leaf lettuce, endive, turnip greens, mustard greens, collards, escarole, dandelion greens, packaged mixed baby salad greens and radicchio. Shredded sweet potato, parsnips and carrots can be given in smaller amounts as well as other vegetables like squash and green beans.

There are commercial diets for tortoises that can be used. Be sure you get food recommended for Russian tortoises and not species that eat more protein. Add water to make the food more palatable. It is important to offer a variety of foods so the tortoise gets all of the vitamins and minerals it requires. Add a sprinkle of calcium powder daily.

Tortoises do not require yearly injections like mammals. Even so, a wellness visit to the veterinarian once a year, is a good idea.

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