Horsfield (Russian) Care Sheet

Testudo (Agrionemys) horsfieldii

1. Diet

The Horsfield/Russian diet should be made up of leafy greens and flowers.

In the summer you can get most or all of their food for free from the weeds in your yard as long as you do not spray your yard with any chemicals. You can also buy weed seed mixes to plant in pots or planters.

Horsfields can also eat some pretty non-weed plants that many people already have in their gardens or can buy from a garden center. If you buy a plant from a garden center, take off as much of its dirt as you can, plant it in the ground or in plant topsoil, then wait six months before feeding it to your tort. Those six months will give the plant time to get any chemicals or fertilizers that may harm your tort out of its system.

If it’s winter, or your weeds seeds aren’t growing yet, or your yards was sprayed more recently than six months ago, etc. then you can find some food for them at the grocery store.

Some people will say they can have fruit as an occasional treat, but that is not accurate. Horsfields are not meant to eat fruit. Their stomachs have trouble digesting it, and they get an upset stomach, much like a lactose intolerant person eating dairy. Fruit also causes bad bacteria to flourish in their stomach and makes them more susceptible to parasites.

When in doubt, The Tortoise Table is an excellent resource for finding out what your tort can and can’t eat. If you know the name of a plant and want to know if your tort can have it, type it into the Tortoise Table. It will tell you if they can have a lot of it, if they can have a little of it, if they can have the flowers, and if they can have the leaves. If you do not know the name of the plant, you can also search plants by flower color. You can also search a list of weeds and houseplants.

2. Housing

2.1 Indoor Enclosure

Many people keep their tortoises in glass vivariums, but that is not recommended for adult Russians.

Vivariums are usually too small. Enclosures for adults should be at least 4 feet by 2 feet. The bigger the better.

Vivariums are usually too hot and humid for adult Russians. They need it hot under their basking lamp, but they also need a cool spot. Vivariums make it difficult to have a spot that is cool enough for them.

Russians also don’t well with enclosures that they can see out of. When a Russian can see out of his enclosure, he will want to wander. When he wants to wander, he will try to walk through the glass. This leads to him repeatedly bumping into the glass and getting agitated, confused, and stressed.

A tortoise table or Rubbermaid setup is much better for them. It gives them more room and more airflow, it’s easier to create a cool side and keep the humidity at a more appropriate level for them, and they can’t see out of it.

A water dish should always be in the enclosure, even if you never see them drink from it.

2.1.1 Substrate

The substrate should be a few inches of topsoil or topsoil and coconut coir. Sand used to be recommended because their natural environment is sandy. But now we know that sand is actually bad for them. It can causes eye problems and intestinal blockages. So sand is not recommended anymore. Natural does not necessarily mean better, or even healthy.  You wouldn’t introduce your pet mouse to an owl just because he’s likely meet an owl in the wild. You wouldn’t keep your cat intact just because there is no neutering in the wild. You wouldn’t forgo heartworm prevention meds just because wild dogs don’t have any. Our goal isn’t necessarily to recreate the wild; it’s to keep them as safe and healthy as possible.

2.1.2. Lighting

A 100 watt MVB (mercury vabor bulb) should be used as it provides the UVA/UVB the tortoise requires to be healthy and also the heat the tortoise requires for their basking area. The bulbs should be replaced every 6 months even if the bulb is still working as the UVA/UVB effectiveness degrades over time. Oil from our hands also decreases the effectiveness of the bulbs, so do not touch the bulbs with your bare hands. Use a towel or something similar to change them. These bulbs should be used with a dome style lamp that is hung facing directly downwards as mounting them at an angle can reduce their lifespan. Lights should be on for 12 hours and off for 12 hours. We currently use and recommend the Zoo Med brand of these products. Coil bulbs and red bulbs are not recommended. If the tortoise is kept outdoors in the summer, then no additional heat, light, or UV is needed. Tortoises should not be allowed to roam the house freely as, when roaming, they are not getting the heat and UV that they need.

2.2. Outdoor Enclosure

An outdoor enclosure should have solid walls that they can’t see through. A covering is recommended too. It should be something to keep your tortoise in in case he climbs the walls, something to keep predators out, and something that will let the sun in. Screen or chicken wire are common covers.

2.3 Temperature

The temperature under the basking lamp should be about 95 degrees.

There should also be a cool spot of about 70 degrees.

Creating a cool spot in an outdoor enclosure is not difficult, but it may take slightly more work. Aim for at least two layers of shade. For example, many people put a flower pot on its side for shade. That is good, but not enough. That is only one layer of shade. If the pot is in the sun, it will create shade, but it will still be a hot shade, too hot for him to cool down in. So instead of keeping the pot in the sun, create double shade by putting the pot under a shady plant.

3. Soaking

Hatchlings should be soaked every day for 20 minutes. The water should be quiet warm and should come up to their chin/where their top shell meets their bottom shell. If you get an adult Russian, soak him every day for the first two weeks that you have him. After that, adults should be soaked two to three times a week.

4. Keeping Multiple Tortoises

A lot of people want to get their Russian a friend. They assume he can’t possibly be happy on his own. But Russians are solitary, territorial, and aggressive. So they are usually much happier on their own. It is not recommended that they be kept in pairs. When kept in pairs, there will usually be bullying, fighting, and/or constant mating. This can lead to stress, injury, and even death. A lot of people say, “Well, I will put two together and just keep an eye on it.” But tortoise bullying isn’t the same as people bullying. So we often see it and don’t even recognize what it is. In fact, to us, it often looks like cuddling or like two tortoises enjoying each other’s company so much that they always want to be together. But in actuality, tortoises following each other around or climbing on each other is one of the ways that they bully and dominate another tortoise. If you do want to keep multiple Russians, they should either be kept separate or they should be kept in a VERY large enclosure, with lots of places to hide, in a group of one male with three or more females. All the tortoises in the group should be Russians; different types of tortoises should never be housed together as they have different care needs, can be carriers for different diseases, have different susceptibility to diseases, and have different bacteria in their digestive tracts. If you are going to keep a group of one male and three or more females, they should still be kept separate for at least the first six months. Any new tortoises that you bring in should be kept in quarantine for at least six months before meeting any other torts.

5. Illnesses/Health Concerns

Tortoises can very easily get respiratory infections if the recommended temperatures are not kept and they do not have adequate lighting to bask under.

Tortoises cab get stressed out easily by things like enclosures they can see out of, another tortoise in their area, being handled a lot, or even just their enclosure being rearranged. Try to minimize these things as much as you can.

Pyramiding/Metabolic Bone Disease is when a tortoise’s shell is bumpy or otherwise misshapen. This happens from improper humidity and/or improper diet.

Dehydration can occur if a tortoise is not given access to water and soaked enough.

Parasites are very common in tortoises. So it’s wise to take new tortoises to the vet to get them checked.

Tortoises have bacteria in their digestive tract. Different types of tortoises have different types of bacteria. Introducing two different types of tortoises can also introduce them to different types of bacteria, can make them sick and is therefore not recommended.

Tortoises and dogs should never be introduced. Even if your dog is very nice, most of them will not understand that your tortoise is part of the family. Your dog is therefore less likely to see your tort as a family member and more likely to see him as a chew toy. Many tortoises have been injured or killed this way.

Tortoises should also not be introduced to cats. Cats cannot bite through an adult tortoise’s shell the way that dogs can. But they can still bite a tortoise’s head, neck, legs, or feet. And even small cat bites can be very serious, and even life threatening, because of the bacteria that it is in cat saliva. Cats also often use tortoise enclosures as litter boxes, which can also make the tortoises sick. If you have cats, consider an enclosure with a lid or an enclosure that is kept in a cat-free room.

Your tortoise should also not be allowed to roam the house freely. Not only will he not get the heat and UV that he needs while roaming the house, he will be vulnerable to dogs, to cats, to get stepped on, to bacteria that was tracked in on the bottom of your shoes, dust, hair, chemical floor cleaners, etc.

6. Hibernation

This species does hibernate in the wild. In captivity, some tortoise keepers hibernate their Russians and some do not. So it largely boils down to your choice. Although most people will advice against hibernating a tortoise that you have had for less than one year. Because tortoises have to be very healthy for hibernation. And if you have had a tortoise for less than one year, you probably don’t know enough about his health yet to be confident that he is healthy enough for hibernation.

If you do decide that your tortoise is healthy enough for hibernation and that you do want to hibernate him, first you will need to wind your tortoise down and set up your refrigerator.

Even when kept indoors and warm, tortoises know what time of year it is and will usually start to wind down a bit on their own. They may sleep more and eat less. So don’t panic if your tortoise has started to become sluggish in the fall before you’ve even started to wind him down.

The fridge method of hibernation is the most recommended. With a refrigerator you can keep your tortoise at a very safe and very constant temperature (ideal hibernation temperatures are 37°F to 45°F). You can also be sure that he is safe from other animals (rats have been known to chew on and severely injure hibernating tortoises that are not in refrigerators). It is recommended that you use a refrigerator that does not have a freezer and that you set the refrigerator up at least a few weeks in advance to monitor it and keep an eye on the temperatures. If there is a lot of empty space in the refrigerator, fill it with bottles of water (but don’t fill it to the point that you restrict airflow). This will help stabilize the temperature. Monitor the fridge’s humidity as well. Russians like to hibernate with around 40% humidity.

The weekly wind down guide below is for an adult tortoise. If you have a juvenile, do all the same steps but do them over 5 days rather than over a week. If you have a hatchling under 35 gram, hibernation is not recommended.

Week 1: Stop feeding your tortoise. That may sound cruel, but it’s actually extremely important to have your tortoise’s digestive tract cleared out before hibernation. Soak him daily to help clear out his digestive tract. Keep him warm and keep his lights on for 12 hours a day as usual. This is also a good time to start setting up and monitoring your hibernation refrigerator if you haven’t already.

Week 2: Continue to not feed him. Continue to soak him every day or two. Cut his lights down to 8 hours a day. If he is still pooping regularly this week, then repeat this process for another or two.

Week 3: Continue to not feed your tortoise. Keep soaking him. Once he has stopped pooping regularly, decrease his heat and light down to 4 hours a day.

Week 4: Continue to not feed. Turn off the lights and heat. Keep your tortoise in a cool room, around 50 degrees. Towards the end of the week, give your tortoise a bath and dry him off. If he does not poop, then continue on with no heat, lights, or food in the 50 degree room. After a couple of days, put him in his hibernation box. It should be plastic or wood. Make sure there are air holes and that he has enough room to turn around. If you have multiple tortoises, use multiple boxes. Now he’s ready to go in the refrigerator. If he did poop during his last bath, then give him a few more days before putting him in his box.

During hibernation, open the refrigerator door a couple of times a day to get some fresh air in there. Take your tortoise out every week to check him. Make sure his eyes and nose look clear. Make sure he’s not losing too much weight (a tortoise should not lose more than 10% of their bodyweight during hibernation, and any loss should be gradual). Make sure there is no swelling or other unusual signs. Make sure he moves a bit when touched. And make sure he has not peed. Poop is ok, but pee puts him at risk of dehydration.

If all looks well, quickly put him back in the fridge. Continue to open the fridge door a couple of times a day, and let your tortoise stay in there for 12 to 18 weeks.

If all does not look well, wake him up.

When you’re ready to wake him up, take him out of the fridge, but keep him in his box. Do not put him near light or heat. Instead, let him warm up gradually. Juvenile tortoises usually warm up and are ready to come out of their box after about 10 minutes. Adults take about an hour.

If your tortoise hibernated all winter with no problem, then when you take your tortoise out of his box, place him near, but not directly under, his heat lamp. Let him walk directly under it if and when he is ready to. This will be less shocking to his body, and it will also let you know that is walking normally and will therefore be able to get away from the heat when he is ready to as well. Once he has warmed up, give him a warm 20 minute bath. Bathe him twice a day for the first few days after waking up.

If your tortoise was woken up early because he peed in his box, then soak him first and put him near his lamp second.

Food can then be offered. If your tortoise has not eaten within one week of waking him, take him to the vet.

If you will not be hibernating your tortoise, then feed him, bathe him, and keep his lights on as usual (12 hours) throughout the winter.