How to Care for a Russian Tortoise

Written by melissa voelker
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How to Care for a Russian Tortoise

With their sociable personalities and lively natures, Russian tortoises can be a great addition to any family. Though not difficult to take care of, they do require the proper housing, environment and diet to ensure proper health. With these considerations taken care of, a Russian tortoise can live with you for up to 50 years!

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Enclosure
  • Substrate
  • Water dish
  • Thermometer
  • Heat lamp

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  1. 1

    Set up proper housing. Russian tortoises cannot be confined to a small space, but need room to roam. An enclosure needs to be at least 10 feet long, 5 feet wide and 3 feet tall. Hatchlings can be housed in a 20-gallon glass aquarium or a plastic tub of roughly the same size--though clear enclosures are not always a good idea for tortoises, as many can't understand a clear barrier and will run into it or rub on it constantly. Custom-made wooden enclosures work well, but make sure the walls are at least twice as tall as the tortoise is long. Russian tortoises have no problem climbing, and will climb right out of their enclosure if given the chance. Substrate in the enclosure can be pine mulch, aspen bedding, hay, sand or soil. Because the natural environment for these tortoises is usually a mix of sand and soil, this might be the best choice. It will allow for them to dig a burrow, though you should also include a hide box or hollow log for the tortoise to go into as well. A water bowl must be included in the enclosure at all times, and should be large enough that the tortoise can soak in; however, it should not too deep, as the animals cannot swim. Many commercially available water dishes will have a ramp for easier access.

  2. 2

    Provide adequate heating. Like all reptiles, Russian tortoises need proper periods of light and heating in order to regulate their body temperature. The temperature in their enclosure should range from about 23.8 to 35.0 degrees C during the day. This means that part of the enclosure should be cooler than the other, with the basking spot maintaining the highest temperature. At night, the entire enclosure should be down to around 23.9 degrees C. A heat lamp can be used during the daytime to create heat, as well as give light to the enclosure. At night, a ceramic heat emitter can work well if the enclosure is getting too cold. You can also use an undertank heating pad, which usually comes in the form of a mat that attaches to the bottom of the enclosure. It is important to keep a thermometer in the enclosure at all times so you can make sure the temperature stays in the proper range.

  3. 3

    As the most natural way to keep an animal healthy is to simulate its natural environment, keep your tortoise outdoors as much as possible. This is only possible if the weather stays within the proper temperature range of 23.8 to 35.0 degrees C, so it may only be feasible during summer months or if you live in a warm climate. You must also have the proper kind of enclosure set up to keep tortoises outside. A wooden pen at least 6 feet long, 10 feet wide and 3 feet tall will work well for up to five or six animals. It must receive plenty of sunlight, but also include areas where shade is available at all times. Before putting tortoises into the pen, make sure there is constant access to water and that you have removed any poisonous plants or dangerous objects. Russian tortoises will graze on weeds and grasses within their enclosure, and you don't want them to get sick because they ate something they shouldn't have. If you are worried that other animals may bother your tortoises, close in the top of their pen with small mesh. You may also need to sink cement around the bottom of the pen, as Russian tortoises like to dig, and may dig themselves right out.

  4. 4

    Feed them appropriately. Russian tortoises are "browsers" that eat leafy greens and berries in the wild. They do not normally ingest a large amount of protein or fruit, and should thus be given them sparingly when in captivity. Dandelion, clover, mustard greens, dark green lettuces, kale, spinach, broccoli, okra, beets and carrots are good choices for a regular diet. Commercially produced tortoise foods are available at most pet stores, but tend to be heavy on protein, so you should only use them as a supplement to fresh greens, and not as a regular diet. If you are feeding your tortoises mostly vegetables, you can feed them every day, as long as it is in moderation. If you are feeding them nutrient-heavy items (such as food pellets), offer food only every other day.

  5. 5

    Maintain proper health. With Russian tortoises, as with all reptiles, it's important to wash your hands before and after handling--for your safety and the safety of the animal. Keep your tortoise enclosure clean by taking out all faeces and old food as soon as possible. Change the water every day, as many tortoises will go to the bathroom in it, and you don't want them drinking soiled water. Russian tortoises can fall prey to parasites such as ticks, mites and even maggots, so you must watch closely for these. There are sprays available to take care of mites and ticks, but if your animal is infested to a great degree seek veterinary help. You will also need to clean and sterilise the enclosure to get rid of any parasites you find. Tortoises are also susceptible to infectious diseases of the bacterial and viral kind, such as respiratory infections, the herpes virus and metabolic bone disease. It is important to monitor your Russian tortoise; if you detect any behavioural changes, such as loss of appetite, or physical symptoms of sickness, quarantine the animal immediately (away from any other tortoises) and take it to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

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