Russian Tortoises

a Russian Tortoise walking through the grass

Russian Tortoises are native to the southern parts of most of Asia. They are herbivores, meaning they only eat plants. They are slow moving animals, and can grow up to 8 inches long.

Russian Tortoises are very hardy creatures, and can handle large temperature changes. They also have thick shells, which protect them from predators. These turtles are not as common as American tortoises, but are still available through breeders.

Russian Tortoises can live for decades, and are very slow growing. They are also very easy to care for. They are very calm and laid back, and will eat almost anything you put in front of them. They are also very friendly, and will enjoy interacting with people.

Russian Tortoises are among the few animals that have been around for over 100 million years, and yet they still haven’t changed much. They’re hardy, stubborn, and take a long time to mature. Unlike dogs, cats, or horses, they don’t require grooming, and they don’t require exercise. They hardly shed, and they don’t need to be bathed. 

In the past few years, the Russian Tortoise has gained in popularity in the US. This is thanks to its low maintenance, pretty color variety, compact size and great longevity. Now that these Tortoises are gaining popularity, the question is: are they the best choice for your family?

Russian Tortoise Information

  • Average Length: 6 inches
  • Average Weight: 2 pounds
  • Tortoise Type: Mediterranean Tortoises (Testudo)
  • Skin Appearance: Greenish-brown to black with brown to black markings
  • Skin Colors: Green, Black, Yellow and Brown.
  • Grooming Needs: Low Need
  • Shedding: Every few months
  • Sensitive to Touch: Yes
  • Biting Tendency: No
  • Tolerance to Heat and Cold: Yes
  • Good Pet: Yes, they are friendly but do not like frequent handling!
  • Safe with Children: Not with children under 6
  • Good with Other Pets: No
  • Suitable to live in an Apartment: Yes
  • Good for Less Experienced Pet Owners: No
  • Weight Gain: Normal
  • Health Concerns: Respiratory infections, fungal disease, dermatitis, and stomatitis
  • Allergies: None
  • Average Life Span: Up to 50 years

Physical Appearance of Russian Tortoises

a Russian Tortoise eating a strawberry, with srawberry all over their face, looking at the person taking the picture with a "what?" look

Russian Tortoises have a rounded carapace (hard upper shell) that can vary from greenish-brown to black and tends to have brown or black markings. The space between the scutes (scales on the shell) is a yellowish-brown. This color can slightly vary between the subspecies. The plastron or bottom shell of the tortoises can either be solid black or patches of brown or black.

Russian Tortoises are a small tortoise species with young hatchlings being only 1 inch long. When fully matured they can get up to 8 inches long. The males and females have different physical characteristics, making it easy to tell them apart. Females tend to be larger than males and will average between 8 to 10 inches while males average between 5 to 8 inches. Females also have longer tails and shorter claws than males.

While most tortoises have 5 toes on their feet, Russian Tortoises have only 4 on each foot. Some people call them four-toed (or clawed) tortoises because of this difference.

Temperament of Russian Tortoises

Russian Tortoises are active and sociable animals. Quite often when they see their owner they will start walking towards them. Many people like this and it is a reason they’re considered a great pet for families.

When in a new place or home, some Russian Tortoises have been known to act timid. This behavior only lasts for a few days in the beginning and will go once they’re familiar with their new environment. They can take some time to adapt to their new living enclosure. Gradually after getting used to their new home, the tortoises will become much more active.

They are also adventurous and can adapt well to both indoor and outdoor living. These tortoises like to dig a lot. They like to explore their enclosure which can be fun to watch. They also like to climb, so all decorations should be placed in a way to keep them from escaping.

Russian Tortoises can recognize their owners. It’s not uncommon to see them following you inside the house, or walk towards you when you come to their living enclosure.

a Russian Tortoise eating a purple flower

They don’t like being handled a lot, to keep them happy it’s best not to hold them very often. Holding them too much, or too long can stress them.

Russian Tortoises are very territorial. They like to stay alone and should not be housed with another tortoise species. Keeping more than one Russian Tortoise in an enclosure is also not recommended. Tortoises can get aggressive with each other. It’s not uncommon to see two males biting each other, and male and female kept together will mate. If you still want to keep a pair or more, make sure you have a large enclosure and set up barriers between them. It will keep them from fighting or mating.

Their Compatibility with Children

Tortoises are gentle and friendly but young children do not have an understanding of how to handle them. Young children can accidentally drop or hurt the tortoises while handling them. Another reason to not let children handle tortoises is that most reptiles like snakes and tortoises are carriers of infectious bacteria like Salmonella. Children under 5 should not handle your Tortoises due to an increased risk of contracting Salmonella. The bacteria can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain, and young children are at an increased risk of contracting the disease because they have weaker immune systems.

Older children can safely handle the tortoises but it should not be frequent because tortoises really do not like being handled.

All children should wash their hands after handling the tortoise. It should prevent them from contracting bacterial and fungal diseases from the tortoise.

Living Space for Russian Tortoises

The best place to keep your Russian Tortoises is outdoors. The outdoor space can be created using an outside fenced or penned area. For one or a couple of tortoises, the pen area should be at least 6×6 feet and be at least 1 foot tall. If there is room for a bigger pen your turtle will be much happier. 

You will want to have shaded areas to protect your tortoise from sunlight. Russian Tortoises love to burrow, so the fence should be buried at least 6 inches into the ground. The deeper your fence is, the better because it will keep your Russian Tortoises from digging and escaping from their pen.  

a Russian Tortoise walking through the grass so that they can eat a white flower

If you have the opportunity, rocks should be added about one foot below the surface along the fence. Placing rocks below the soil lets them dig, but stops them from digging under the fence and escaping. Because these tortoises like to climb, we don’t recommend putting any rocks near the fence or they can climb right out! 

Russian Tortoises burrow underground when the temperature gets too high or low. If you dig out a few hiding places for them it should keep them from digging a lot in other places. Several wooden hiding boxes should also be added inside their pen area for additional hiding places.

If you cannot place them outside, a glass or plastic tank can be used to keep your Russian Tortoises indoors. Containers like Rubbermaid or indoor pens can also be used. A 100-gallon container is the best option for a short term home. If you cannot keep them outside then plan on clearing a room for them to use. Russian Tortoises are active and love to move around and will be miserable if they are confined in a small space.

Substrate

An ideal choice for substrate is a combination of sand and dirt. If it is available, some fine coconut or peat moss can be mixed with the sand-dirt mixture. Mixing different soils helps to create a thick substrate that is easier for your tortoise to move around on. Avoid using sand only substrate because it will make walking difficult for your tortoises.

Best Climate for Russian Tortoise

The ideal temperature range for your Russian Tortoises is between 60 to 90°F. They can also withstand extreme temperatures for a few hours. If housed outside you may see that they have burrowed underground to escape from extreme temperatures. They can tolerate night temperatures as low as 50°F.

a Russian Tortoise walking along a dirt path

Tortoises should have access to both a warm and cool area when housed indoors. The warm area should have a basking spot with a temperature range of 90 to 100°F. A ceramic heat lamp can be used to generate the heat for their basking spot.

Try to keep the humidity level around 60%. Depending upon the climate in your area you may need to have a humidifier or dehumidifier to keep the humidity high or low enough.

In an outdoor set up the tortoise will have access to natural sunlight but when kept indoors they will need UVB lighting. The UVB lighting replicates the natural sunlight indoors. Your tortoise needs this lighting to create Vitamin D and absorb calcium from their food. The light and heating equipment should be kept on for 12 to 14 hours during the day and switched off at night. By using a timer it’s possible to set this up and never need to worry about turning lights on or off.

Russian Tortoises kept outdoors may hibernate during the winter months but indoor tortoises do not need to hibernate. If the temperature is kept within their temperature range there is no reason for an outdoors tortoise to hibernate unless there is a problem.

If a tortoise kept indoors hibernates, it will be because the conditions of their habitat are far from what it should be. Hibernating can cause them to develop diseases or have a slow metabolism. For indoor kept tortoises it is extremely important to maintain the conditions mentioned above throughout the year, irrespective of the climate outside to prevent them from going into hibernation.

The Attention a Russian Tortoise Needs

a Russian Tortoise eating some grass

Russian Tortoises do not need a lot of attention because they do not like to be handled. One or two times spent gently handling them a week will be more than enough for them and anything more can stress them out. Always wash your hands after handling the tortoises. This should prevent you from contracting harmful bacteria like Salmonella.

The best thing that you can do for them is to maintain the temperature and lighting inside their living enclosure. Keeping their conditions optimal will help keep them happy and healthy.

Russian Tortoises are also known to live long, up to 50 years. Their long lives make them a lifetime commitment and pet owners should consider this before getting a Russian Tortoise as a pet.

Health Issues

Like most reptiles Tortoises can suffer from a few common parasitic and bacterial diseases:

Gastrointestinal Infections (GI)

Gastrointestinal (GI) disease is a common parasitic infection found in reptiles, including tortoises. The disease can also be caused by improper feeding habits.

Symptoms of the disease include:

  • Weight loss 
  • Runny or smeared stools
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea 

A major cause of concern is that this disease can be transmitted to humans while handling the sick animal. This is why its important to wash up after handling each reptile you have.

If you find any of the above symptoms in your Russian Tortoise, take them to a vet immediately. Your vet will take a sample of your reptile’s stool to identify the parasite. In most cases medication will help treat the disease.

Metabolic Bone or Vitamin Deficiency

Metabolic Bone Disease is the most common disease found in pet reptiles. The disease is caused by your reptile not having enough vitamin D to properly absorb calcium. Being exposed to UV lighting helps them create vitamin D that they can use to absorb calcium.

Symptoms include:

  • Lower jaw swelling 
  • Limb swelling
  • Facial bone softening
  • Loss of appetite
  • Seizures
  • Lethargy

An X-ray can help identify the extent of the disease. Sometimes MBD can lead to fractures, thin bone tissue or thickened bone shafts. The disease is more common in reptiles less than 2 years old.

If left untreated the disease can also lead to death. Consult your vet immediately if you find any of the above mentioned symptoms in your reptile.

Treatments can range from injecting your reptile with mineral supplements to medication and dietary modifications. To keep your reptiles from having MBD, they should be fed a diet rich in calcium (or calcium supplements) and have daily exposure to UV lighting.

Respiratory Infection

Respiratory infections are a common health issue in reptiles. Poor enclosure conditions like excessive cold or humidity as well as stress can lead to respiratory infections or pneumonia. 

Symptoms include:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Bubbles in mouth
  • Labored breathing
  • Lethargy

Take your reptile to your vet if they have any of the above symptoms. Antibiotics are commonly used to treat the disease. If the infection is severe, they may need to be hospitalized.

Respiratory symptoms can become serious if not attended to in the initial stages. Maintaining the right temperature gradient and humidity levels inside their living enclosures can prevent your reptile from getting respiratory diseases.

Salmonella

All reptiles are potential carriers of salmonella bacteria. The bacteria is present on their skin and shells (for turtles) but doesn’t seem to harm them. A major concern is that the disease can be transmitted to humans. Salmonella can cause serious and life-threatening conditions in humans. 

Symptoms include: 

  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain in humans

As a preventive measure, we always recommend washing your hands after handling any reptiles. Pregnant women, young children and older people shouldn’t handle reptiles. These people are at an increased risk of getting infected because they have a weaker immune system.

a Russian Tortoise walking through their pen

Grooming and Care

Russian Tortoises like to soak in water and may defecate in the water bowls when they are soaking themselves. The only way to keep them from defecating in their water bowls is to use small raised water bowls. Having the smaller water bowls won’t stop them from drinking from filthy soaking water, which is why it’s important to keep their soaking water clean.

Giving them constant access to water is a must because without it they can become dehydrated if the temperature gets too high. Their water bowls need to be cleaned daily and the water replaced with fresh drinking water. Daily cleanings will make sure they have access to clean drinking water at all times.

Some Tortoise owners soak their Russian Tortoise in a separate bowl outside of their living enclosure. Soaking them outside of their enclosure will keep them from defecating in the water bowls. If you soak them outside their enclosure, their water bowls should stay cleaner for longer. The water level should be equal to the midpoint of your tortoise’s shell and should keep them happy.

Prevent their living enclosure from becoming too humid or damp because it can cause various problems like respiratory infections and also problems with skin shedding.

Place several rocks inside their living enclosure. Your Tortoise can rub their claws against the rocks, helping them wear down their claws.

Feeding A Russian Tortoise

a bunch of great leafy vegetables that Russian Tortoises love to eat including broccoli, collard greens, kale and turnip greens

Russian Tortoises are herbivores who need a plant-based and calcium-rich diet. The best option is to give them a variety of leafy green vegetables and plants. Russian Tortoises placed outdoors will eat almost any leafy green vegetable that is available in their pen. Because they will eat almost anything, it is important that only safe and non-toxic plants are planted in their living enclosure. If you do not want them to eat all the plants, build a barrier around the plants you don’t want eaten.

They can eat broadleaf weeds and leafy green vegetables like kale, collard greens, turnip greens and other darker lettuce type vegetables. Flowers like dandelions and clovers can also be fed to them. We recommend giving them a variety because it will help give them a well balanced diet.

For tortoises kept indoors, add calcium and vitamin supplements to their diet. The supplements can be added to every other feeding.

Finely chop their vegetables and feed them daily. Any uneaten food needs to be removed after 24 hours.

Make sure that they have access to clean and fresh drinking water at all times.

Related Questions:

Do Russian Tortoises Shed Their Skin?

Just like every other reptile, Russian tortoises also shed their skin. The process and the method of shedding are different in tortoises. While reptiles like snakes and some lizards shed their skin all at once, tortoises shed their skin in patches. You may see parts of the skin hanging from their body, which is perfectly normal and should not be touched. Avoid touching these areas while handling them because it may cause new skin to accidentally peel off. If new skin peels off it will cause them stress or soreness in the area. The skin will come off on its own, usually within a few days.

Do Russian Tortoises Shed Their Shells?

While some tortoises shed the top layer of their shell (called skutes) while growing, Russian Tortoises do not shed any part of their shell. They generally retain the shell from their birth and it is the same shell that keeps growing throughout their life. If you think that your Russian Tortoise is shedding their shell, take them to your vet immediately and find out what the problem is.

Should I take My Russian Tortoise to the Vet for a Check-up?

Since most Russian Tortoises are wild caught, We recommend you get them checked with your vet when you first get them. The vet can diagnose them and identify if they are carrying parasites that can cause infectious bacteria like Salmonella. We also recommend taking them for annual check ups, even if they are not sick. Since they grow slowly, your vet can check their weight and let you know if your tortoise is healthy.