Russian tortoises are found throughout much of central Asia. They are especially common in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Iran. The climate of this region is harsh and variable, with extremely hot and dry summers and bitterly cold winters. As a result of such adverse conditions, these animals have adopted a spectacular survival tactic. They may remain safely burrowed underground for up to 9 months of the year, only emerging in the spring to breed and eat when food is plentiful.
Their rugged lifestyle and small adult size have made the Russian tortoise one of the most popular reptile pets in the United States. Most of the adult Russian tortoises currently available in this country are imported, as adults, from their lands of origin. Despite the seemingly traumatic trek, these animals seem quite resistant to the stress and illnesses often encountered with other collected species.
Captive born and bred Russian tortoises are becoming more and more common as a result of the increased demand for baby tortoises and as a means to lessen the strain on wild populations. Fortunately, Russian tortoises are extremely hardy, and will thrive when properly cared for, regardless of their origin.
Size and Longevity
Female Russian tortoises are typically larger than males once mature. However, even the largest female specimens rarely exceed 8 inches in length, making them easy to accommodate, regardless of gender. Nobody knows for certain how long a captive-born Russian tortoise can live. However, based on the longevity of animals acquired as adults, and that of similar species, life spans exceeding 50 years can be expected.
Tortoises are active animals, and should be provided with as much space as possible. Even when provided with a spacious enclosure, the use of an outdoor pen is recommended during the warmer months. These pens should be secure to prevent escapes. Tortoises housed outdoors, even if for only a few hours a day, will benefit greatly from the fresh air, natural sunlight, and opportunity to graze.
Indoor habitats should consist of the largest feasible enclosure. A single tortoise should have an enclosure that, at the very least, is equivalent in area to that of a 40-gallon terrarium. As mentioned earlier, larger enclosures are often warranted, especially when housing multiple animals together.
Glass enclosures with screen lids are acceptable, as are commercially available enclosures such as those manufactured by Vision Herpetecultural. Some keepers find that keeping these tortoises in enclosures with opaque sides will reduce pacing behavior. However, if given ample space, even clear sided (glass) enclosures work well.
Heating and Lighting
Russian tortoises fare best when provided with an ambient temperature in the low 80's and access to a basking spot that reaches 95 to 100 degrees. By providing only a localized hot spot, the tortoise may choose for itself where within the enclosure it is most comfortable at any given time.
Standard heat bulbs, infrared (red) heat bulbs, ceramic heat emitters, and under tank heat pads are all acceptable methods for keeping these animals properly warmed. The method(s) utilized and in what combinations will depend on the enclosure type, size, and the ambient conditions within the home.
Well-lit enclosures are vital to the well-being of these diurnal reptiles. Russian tortoises in captivity do well when provided with 12 hours of light followed by 12 hours of darkness. This photoperiod may be adjusted when cycling these animals for breeding.
Light should be in the form of a full spectrum bulb designed for reptile use. These bulbs, which are now available in a variety of forms and models, provide light in the Ultraviolet B (UVB) range of the spectrum. Rays of UVB light are needed by the tortoise to synthesize vitamin D3, and subsequently for the proper metabolism of dietary calcium.
Substrate and Furnishings
As obligate burrowers, Russian tortoises should be provided with a fairly deep layer of appropriate bedding. Reptile (orchid) bark, shredded aspen, clean soil, and cypress mulch are all acceptable choices. The substrate used should be easy to clean, and suitable for digging. Dusty substrates should be avoided as they may lead to ocular and respiratory ailments over time.
Russian tortoises are curious and active, and will test the sturdiness of anything placed within their domain. As a result of this unintentionally destructive behavior, excessive cage decorations are neither recommended nor necessary. The simple addition of a sturdy shelter (half-log, wooden box, etc.) on each end of the enclosure will provide adequate cover for the animals without over-cluttering their habitat.
Water and Humidity
Russian tortoises come from parts of the world with long and harsh dry seasons. As a result, they only drink water opportunistically when it is present. For this reason, most captive tortoises will rarely, if ever, seek out a source of standing water and drink from it. Instead, tortoises of all ages should be soaked once or twice a week in chin-deep, luke-warm water. When placed into a shallow tray of water most Russian tortoises will instinctively lower their heads and drink copiously.
Nonetheless, some keepers opt to provide a constant water source for their tortoises in the form of a wide, shallow, water dish. There is nothing wrong with this practice so long as careful attention is paid to keeping the water and the dish itself very clean. Contaminated water is a common cause of disease in captive reptiles, and could potentially cause harm to a tortoise.
Maintaining proper humidity for Russian tortoises should not be a primary concern. As discussed earlier, these animals are highly adaptable to a wide range of conditions. With very few exceptions, the ambient humidity within your home (or even outdoors) will be appropriate successfully maintaining these animals.
Russian tortoises are primarily herbivores in the wild, and a similar diet should be provided in captivity. The bulk of their diet should consist of a variety of dark, leafy, greens. Romaine lettuce, collard greens, carrot tops, kale, mustard greens, and beet greens are all excellent choices.
In addition to these staples, other veggies such as carrots, squash, and bell peppers can be offered to add variety. Fruits such as figs, apple, bananas, and strawberries can be fed occasionally as treats, but these foods should make up no more than 10% of the animals diet.
There are many excellent commercial tortoise diets available that when used in conjunction with the aforementioned foods can further vary the diet. Variety is key to tortoise nutrition, so every effort should be made to offer as many different food items as possible.
Grasses and hays, such as those fed to horses and other livestock, can also be fed to Russian tortoises. The willingness with which these foods are accepted will vary from animal to animal, but should be offered nonetheless as a source of added fiber.
All foods should be lightly dusted with a high quality calcium/vitamin D3 supplement. This is especially important for young animals and for egg-laying females. Growing tortoises should be given calcium often, while older animals will require less frequent supplementation.
A reptile multivitamin should be used as well. Again, immature tortoises will require more frequent supplementation than fully grown specimens. The provision of a widely varied diet will lessen, but not eliminate, the need for a multivitamin.
Formulas and dosing recommendations for both calcium and vitamin supplements vary from one manufacturer to another. For this reason, the manufacturer’s label should be read carefully to avoid both over and under-dosing.
Tortoises in general are gentle, passive creatures. Russian tortoises are no exception and can be safely interacted with little to no fear of personal harm. Like most turtles and tortoises, Russians can become frightened if lifted off the ground for extended periods of time. Instead, always make sure that all four of the animals feet are supported at all times.
Hand feeding and gentle petting are the safest ways to interact with these tortoises. Russian tortoises are intelligent animals, and with time will learn to recognize their keepers and respond to their presence.