a Russian tortois eating fruit

Russian Tortoise

Admit it, you’ve always had a little thing for turtles. Maybe you find their slow pace of life and hardy nature intriguing or maybe you just get scared by their chunky front shoulders. Either way, you’re probably envious of their “beautiful shell” and desire to hold one of these little guys. What you may not know, though, is that if you’ve got love for Russian tortoises, you’ll soon discover that they are available as pets.

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 don’t shed, and they don’t have to be bathed. And yet, they’re still a popular pet.

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: 4 to 8 inches
  • Average Weight: 1 to 3 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
  • Good 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
  • Suitable for First-Time Pet Owners: No
  • Weight Gain: Normal
  • Health Concerns: They tend to have respiratory infections, fungal disease, dermatitis, and stomatitis 
  • Allergies: None
  • Average Life Span: Up to 50 years

Physical Appearance of Russian Tortoises

Russian Tortoises have a rounded carapace (hard upper shell). The color of the shell 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 color. This color can slightly vary between the subspecies. The plastron or bottom shell of the tortoises can either have a solid black color or patches of brown or black.

Russian Tortoises are a small tortoise species with young hatchlings measuring only 1 inch long. When fully matured they can measure up to 8 inches long. The males and females have different characteristics, making it easy to tell them apart.  Females tend to be larger than males and can 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 for this reason. 

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.

a Russian tortois walking in a field of flowers

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 also 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 prevent them from escaping.

Russian Tortoises can recognize their owners. You may see them following you inside the house, or walk towards you when you come to their living enclosure. 

a Russian tortois walking through a field

They do not like being handled a lot, so avoid holding them very often. Holding them too much, or too long can make them feel stressed.

Russian Tortoises are also 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, or a male and female  mating (if a male and female pair are housed together). 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 prevent them from fighting or mating.

Their Compatibility with Children

Children below 5 should not be allowed to handle Tortoises. 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. 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. 

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

Living Space for Russian Tortoise

The best place to keep your Russian Tortoises is outdoors. This can be done by creating an outside fenced or penned area. For one or a couple of tortoises, the pen area should be at least 4×4 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 provide your tortoise protection from sunlight. Russian Tortoises love to burrow, so the fence should be buried at least 6 inches deep. The deeper your fence is, the better because it will prevent your Russian Tortoises from digging and escaping from their pen.  

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 prevents 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 could 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.


An ideal choice for substrate is a combination of sand and dirt. If it is available, you can also mix in some fine coconut or peat moss 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 as 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.

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.

a Russian tortois getting ready to eat some wild flowers

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.

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 would 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.

a Russian tortois walking in its enclosure outside

The Attention a Russian Tortoise Needs

Russian Tortoises do not need a lot of attention because they do not like frequent handling. One or two times of gentle handling a week should be enough 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 to keep them happy and healthy.

Russian Tortoises are also known to live long, up to 50 years. This makes 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 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 tortoise. If you find any of the above symptoms in your Russian Tortoise, take them to a vet immediately. The vet will take a sample of the tortoise’s stool to identify the parasite. In most cases medication will help treat the disease. 

Metabolic Bone or Vitamin Deficiency

Lack of UVB lighting can make it difficult for your tortoise to absorb calcium from their food. This can cause their bones to soften, lethargy or swollen limbs. 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 tortoise. To prevent your tortoise from having this disease, make sure they have access to a few hours of UVB lighting every day and include calcium supplementation in their diets.

Respiratory Diseases

Improper environmental conditions like cool or damp living enclosures can cause Russian Tortoises to develop respiratory tract infections. Symptoms include a runny nose and difficulty breathing. If your tortoise shows any of these signs, take them to your vet. Maintaining the right temperature gradient and humidity levels inside their living enclosures can prevent your pet tortoise from getting respiratory diseases.


While Russian Tortoises can be potential carriers of salmonella bacteria, the bacteria does not normally cause them any problems. However, the bacteria is transmittable to humans and can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain in humans. As a preventive measure, we always recommend everyone to wash your hands after handling Russian Tortoises. Pregnant women, young children and older people should not handle tortoises as due to their weaker immune systems, they are at an increased risk of getting sick.

Grooming and Care

Russian Tortoises like to soak in water and may also 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. This won’t stop them from drinking from any 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 could become dehydrated if the temperature gets too high. Clean the water bowls daily and replace them with fresh drinking water. Daily cleanings will make sure they have access to clean drinking water at all times. 

If you want to, you can soak your Russian Tortoise in a separate bowl outside their living enclosure. Soaking them outside of their enclosure will prevent them from defecating in the water bowls. If you soak them outside their enclosure, their water bowls should stay cleaner for longer. A weekly soak with a water level equal to the midpoint of the tortoise’s shell should be enough to keep them happy.

a Russian tortois walking in the grass

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

leafy green reptile food

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

Feeding A Russian Tortoise

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, construct a protection fence around the plants you want to save.

You can feed them 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. It is recommended to give them a variety as it will help provide them with 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 must be removed after 24 hours.

Give them 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. The shedding mostly occurs in the areas near the head and the neck. They may also shed the skin on their legs. 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 as 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 find your Russian Tortoise shedding its shell, take them to a vet immediately and find out what the problem is.

Should I take Russian Tortoises to a vet for a check-up?

Since most Russian Tortoises are wild caught, We recommend you get them checked with a 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. It is also recommended to take them for annual checks, even if they are not sick. Since they grow slowly, the vet can check their weight and let you know if your tortoise is healthy.

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